Happy Birthday, AA! So, How Has Your Rep Changed over 79 Years?
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Happy Birthday, AA! So, How Has Your Rep Changed over 79 Years?


Hey, guess what? June 10 was AA’s birthday! The 12-step program has now been alive and kicking for 79 long years, after first being created by a physician named Robert Holbrook Smith and his good friend Bill Wilson. And for most of the program’s existence, it’s been marked by controversy; some folks say it saved their lives, some folks say it’s utter bullshit and medical professionals have fought it out over whether AA is actually a legit tool to treat addiction or…not.

A Juicy Past

As this WaPo blog post notes, “Other tensions emerged from turf issues: Medical professionals can be dismissive of—at times even hostile to—those they consider well-intentioned amateurs.”

Between the 1950s and the 1980s, a bunch of studies showed that AA participation was correlated with reduction in “problem drinking” and in improvements in mental health and quality of life. Good things, all. But because the studies featured people who had decided on their own volition to attend meetings, lots of folks felt that “the putatively positive findings were actually due to ‘selection bias;’”—i.e., “such individuals might well have recovered without the organization’s help.”

The controversy didn’t end there (does it ever?). In the ’90s, another big study called Project MATCH was conducted, which AA skeptics believed would be an obvious slam-dunk for their program-bashing beliefs. In essence, two well-validated types of professional psychotherapy were “evaluated head to head against ‘twelve-step facilitation counseling,'” which adapted AA concepts into a three-month “psychotherapist-delivered outpatient treatment protocol and also strongly encouraged involvement in community-based AA groups.”

Haters Gonna Hate

Nearly everyone (er, maybe save for the AA die-hards!) was shocked when the 12-step model was shown to be just as effective as psychotherapy. Studies like Project MATCH helped quiet the AA-bashing expert masses, and though the value of the program is still considered a very personal, subjective thing in general, the its overall stigma seems to be lightening as the years go by. (That being said, a doctor released an anti-AA book this past spring that managed to get a great deal of press, perhaps as a result of his extremism.)

As a lapsed AA-er who has gone through both program-loving phases and, well, the opposite of those, I’m pleased to read more “proof” of the ways that 12-step stuff can help people get clean and stay clean. Will this type of proof impact my own line of thinking around attending meetings or not? Probably no, but hey, that’s the beauty of the program—it’s an individual kinda thing. Happy birthday, AA.

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About Author

Laura Barcella is a documentary researcher, author, freelance writer and ghostwriter from Washington, DC. Her writing has also appeared in TIME, Marie Claire, Salon, Esquire, Elle, Refinery29, AlterNet, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out New York, BUST, ELLE Girl, NYLON and CNN.com. Her book credits include Know Your Rights: A Modern Kid's Guide to the American Constitution, Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World, Popular: The Ups and Downs of Online Dating from the Most Popular Girl in New York City, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About…Before It’s Too Late.