Last week my son, a high school senior, completed what might be the most important homework assignment of his life. Not his senior essay. Not his bridge made of newspaper made to withstand the weight of a brick. Not his AP Physics lab report on centripetal force.
He attended a one-hour Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting required for graduation.
Founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, AA is an international mutual aid fellowship whose primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. The 12-step program of spiritual and character development developed by AA’s founders is credited with helping many alcoholics achieve and maintain sobriety. In 2013, AA had 2,131,534 members worldwide.1 The AA model has been adapted by a wide range of substance abuse and dependency problems, including Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, and Workaholics Anonymous.
The original twelve steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous2 are:
10. We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. We 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.
The meeting my son attended included about a dozen women between the ages of 30 and 50. All were dressed in business casual attire. He said they could easily have been the mothers of his friends. The meeting began with a reading of Step 2. Then several of the women talked about their day. One, a newcomer to the group, said she’d thought about buying a bottle of alcohol just to know it was there, if she wanted it. Another woman said she’d lost her job because of her drinking problem. Still another feared she’d lose custody of her children if she did not stop drinking.
My son was unusually quiet that evening. I hope he was thinking about what those women had to say.
While many research studies have examined the extent to which participation in AA leads to increased abstinence, results have been inconsistent. A Cochrane Review of eight studies conducted between 1967 and 2005 found that the available experimental studies did not demonstrate the effectiveness of AA or other 12-step approaches in reducing alcohol use or achieving abstinence compared with other treatments.3
A recent special issue of the journal Substance Abuse (January 2013) 4 included articles finding that:
Research about AA programs is very difficult to do. It is virtually impossible to randomize people to AA programs and people are not randomly selected to the population of alcoholics. Furthermore, people choosing to participate in AA meetings may be motivated to stop drinking even before they participate and AA may attract people with the most severe problems.
Next year, my son will be a college student. Virtually all college students experience the effects of college drinking whether they drink or not. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, four out of five college students drink alcohol and about half of college students who drink engage in binge drinking.5 Each year, 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries. Another 599,000 college students sustain injuries while under the influence of alcohol.
I hope the opportunity my son had to witness an AA meeting gives him pause when alcohol becomes widely available to him next year. But I also hope that if he, or someone he cares about, develops an alcohol problem, he will know that help is available.
This homework assignment might just save someone’s life.