The world’s first museum display on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) opened last week in the community exhibition space at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.
What makes this unique is it brings into the public domain an organisation that so many of us know so little about, and who normally shy away from any kind of publicity.
First and foremost the clue is in the title - the anonymous part of the name is followed with fervent ardour by people who either owe the organisation a great deal in terms of helping them with their sobriety or are striving to reach that level of devotion.
Alcoholics Anonymous was started in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio with the stated “primary purpose” to help alcoholics “stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety”.
Together they developed a 12-step programme as a set of guiding principles outlining a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsive or other behavioral problems. This model has been adopted by other organisations like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Gamblers Anonymous (GA).
The first meeting held in Scotland was in 1948, with Sir Philip Dundas credited as the pioneer who brought the movement to these shores having first encountered it in America.
To date there are around two million people who consider themselves members of AA worldwide.
Okay, enough of the backstory. Here comes my point.
It is very easy for people to have a go at AA, given that it started in the 1930s and to this day has an over-reliance on the use of the word God in it’s steps (five mentions), traditions and basic principles. The seminal work attacking AA came from an article in The Atlantic magazine in 2015 titled ‘The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous’ in which the author lays out how scientific and medical researchers have “debunked” the central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of treatments more effective.
Clever stuff, well-written and hard to argue with when presented in terms of science versus faith.
However, although in agreement with a pressing need to move away from an over-reliance on AA in the treatment of specifically alcohol addiction, I believe there is still a place for it as part of a holistic approach to alcoholism. Anyone who is struggling with alcohol should at some point go to AA. They may not agree with the principal idea of never touching another drop - but at worst they will get an idea of a blueprint for living a better life, wrapped up in the sort of commonsense little slogans your granny might have said. Day at a time. Keep it simple. That kind of thing.
One issue to raise is the idea of anonymity. In the context of helping someone overcome addiction which is undeniably linked to mental health, this should not require in 2017 that the individual in question feels any need to remain anonymous. Surely, that’s part of their problem? The anonymity part of AA stems from the 30s, not exactly the most socially enlightening period in history. It was a time when religion did play a greater role in society and the thought of ‘bringing shame’ to one’s family was considered the ultimate sin. Hopefully we’ve moved on a great deal since then.
It’s time for AA stand up and join the debate over how addiction is crippling our country. The time for anonymity has gone.