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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book

Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism (also known as the Big Book) describes how to recover from an alcohol addiction.

What Is the Big Book?

Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism is the basis of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) and is the origin of the 12-step method. It is commonly referred to as the Big Book because the first edition had thick pages. William G. “Bill W.” Wilson, a stockbroker from New York, and Robert “Dr. Bob” Holbrook Smith, a physician, came together after suffering from alcoholism.

Dr. Bob and Bill W. realized the importance of fellowship and set out to work with other alcoholics in 1935. In the next few years, several Alcoholics Anonymous groups started around the country, and Bill W. wrote the first edition of the Big Book, as a guide to Alcoholics Anonymous’ methods and philosophy. This method was the first 12 steps.

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The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are a guide for recovering alcoholics to follow. The presence of a higher power is woven throughout AA’s literature, but it is up to the individual to determine what that means to them. Bill W. and Dr. Bob were both part of a nonalcoholic fellowship group called the Oxford Group which focused on spiritual values in daily living, and this spiritual influence is what helped Bill W. get sober. The 12 steps AA provides are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Towards the end of the Big Book, the 12 concepts and 12 traditions are listed. The 12 traditions of AA aim to provide readers with the answers to questions like, “How can AA best function?” and “How can AA best stay whole and so survive?” Some examples of the traditions are:

  • Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
  • Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  • Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

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Bill’s Story

The Big Book is full of personal stories of alcoholics who tell their stories of suffering, how they came to find AA, and how it changed them. The stories start with Bill W.’s story. He tells of how he started drinking when he was a solider and how it followed him to law school where he almost failed because he was too drunk to write during one of his finals. As he became a stockbroker, the drinking only got worse until he lost his job and money. His wife worked in a department store while he drank all night and all day.

I began to waken very early in the morning shaking violently. A tumbler full of gin followed by half a dozen bottles of beer would be required if I were to eat any breakfast.

William G. Wilson
Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

He tried to get sober multiple times but always relapsed, until an old friend came to visit him. This old friend said he found religion and sobriety. Bill initially scoffed at the idea of God, but his friend suggested Bill choose his own conception of God. This moment led Bill to detox in a hospital, because he showed signs of delirium tremens. He offered himself up to his higher power and proceeded to write a list of people he had hurt or felt resentment towards. During his recovery he decided that others should have access to the same ideas as him and set out to eventually develop AA.

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Stories in the Big Book

The bulk of the Big Book is personal stories that appeal to people from all different walks of life. There are stories of doctors, teenagers, stay-at-home mothers, and businessmen and women who are all alcoholics. Each one tells their story of hitting rock bottom, how they found AA, and how it changed their life. Although much of AA’s method is centered around a higher power, chapter 4 titled “We Agnostics” speaks to atheists and agnostic alcoholics, urging them to place any prejudice against religion aside and to whole heartedly partake in the program.

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Is Alcoholics Anonymous for Me?

If you believe your drinking is negatively affecting your life and are considering seeking out treatment, AA lists 12 questions. If you answer yes to at least 4 of them, you most likely have a serious alcohol problem. Some of these questions include, “Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking– stop telling you what to do?” and “Do you ever try to get “extra” drinks at a party because you do not get enough?”

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Currently there is a debate in the scientific community on whether AA is truly effective because of the inability to track long term results, due to anonymity. It has certainly worked for thousands of people, but others might find success in other support groups or with treatment medications. If you want to find out about all of your options, contact a treatment expert who can help you decide on the best path towards your recovery.

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