People often start addiction treatment with a bias for or against the concept of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). As health care providers, it is our job to expose these biases and convince our patients of the utility of support groups. We must introduce our patients to tools like AA that they will need throughout the recovery process, both in the short term and long term to support growth and healing. AA provides two of the most important components of treatment—peer support and ritual—and without them, recovery becomes nearly impossible. In addition, research has shown that people who attend three or more AA meetings per week are more successful in their recovery than those who only attend one or two per week (Krentzman et al., 2010), so the more we can convince our patients to go to meetings, the better.
We have a responsibility to show our patients how to get the tools they need to recover and to explain why those particular tools are useful. In the case of AA, it is important to emphasize that it is a support group that evolves with each patient’s journey, providing different benefits at different points during recovery. In early recovery, AA normalizes the past experiences and creates an opportunity to identify with others, reducing isolation and despair. It also creates a sober peer group, and instills a sense of focus through simple slogans that engage the still “wet” brain. Patients find a group to identify with and improve their sense of self-identity as well. In mid-recovery, AA promotes learning and sharing with others, as well as deep contemplation and the development of new ideas. Patients find an individualized way of dealing with their problems, a way that involves active listening and the processing of others’ hopes, strengths, and experiences. Finally, in the late stages of recovery, AA describes a new, healthy way of living and thriving and provides a safe place in which to continue a life of sobriety, as well as mental peace, physical well-being, and personal productivity.
Many years ago, at a meeting of The National Black Alcoholism Council (NBAC), I met the daughter of Jim S., a physician and the founder of AA’s first black group. I was excited to hear about the old times from a person of color, and I think this article was born that day. As a tribute to AA and its success as a support group, I decided to speak with some of the amazing women who have gone through the program and achieved sobriety for over fifty years each. This article is a celebration of their success and the successes of all the other individuals who have gone through the program and found strength, hope, and the support of others like them. I hope you enjoy their stories.
It is so difficult for many of us to admit and accept that we have a problem with alcohol. If you too are of Black/African-American heritage, it may feel sometimes as if there are other problems more important than just your drinking. If you are having problems on the job, at home, with your family, or with your friends, it may be easier to look at society, at prejudice and racism, at little and big insults, at the attacks on your dignity, at experiences of rejection and exclusion, of feeling different, not good enough, not wanted, or not the right kind. Some of us feel like telling the rest of the world: “If you were like me, if you were in my situation, if you had my problems, you would drink too” (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001).
AA has been around for decades and millions of people have been through the program, but too often the stories and experiences of black and African American participants, especially those of the women, are ignored or invalidated. This is despite the fact that African Americans have been involved in AA since the early 1940s, about five years after the program’s formation (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001). According to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, cofounder Bill W. “invited two black alcoholics to attend meetings in the New York area. After hearing him speak at an institution, they asked him whether, on their release, they might join AA. Bill said yes, and a few weeks later, they appeared at a local meeting . . . By the mid-1940s, a number of black alcoholics had found sobriety in the program” (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001).
Since then, thousands of black individuals have gone through the program and achieved recovery through the fellowship. In this article, we aim to highlight the experiences of some of the amazing African American women who have grown in the program and lived over fifty years of sobriety, one day at a time. It is my hope that their stories will inspire other women of color to find the strength to seek recovery.
Dr. Gloria M.
Dr. Gloria M.’s story began in Detroit, Michigan:
When I first came, I knew nothing much about the disease of alcoholism because there was very little information available. I knew nothing about the program at all and actually it was through a spiritual experience that I found the fellowship. I was a nurse, but in nursing school they never taught us anything about the disease of alcoholism, because at that time they didn’t think of alcoholism as being a disease. So at this time they told us about people who lived on skid row, that they were drunks and they go to mental institutions, and that was the only “intellectual knowledge” I had about the disease. After I got ill, which started from my first drink at a wedding reception that triggered the disease, I spent two and a half years drinking periodically, but I thought I was having a mental breakdown because I didn’t know enough about alcoholism.
So I was living in this house alone and one night I was sitting on my couch and I heard this song that came over the radio and it was “The Love of God.” The person who was playing the song said, “There’s somebody out there tonight that needs to hear this, and I’m playing this especially for you,” and they played that song about three different times. I got up to find out what station was on and my radio wasn’t even on. So I knew then that I had sort of lost my mind.
At that point I picked up the telephone and called the operator, and this operator never said one word to me. I wasn’t asked if my house was on fire or what my need was. I just said I wanted some help and I was connected to the central office of Alcoholics Anonymous. Not knowing anything about Alcoholics Anonymous, I got very suspicious when the woman started asking me questions on the phone like, “What’s your name?” and “What’s your telephone number?” I thought maybe I had been connected to the mental institution and if I gave them too much information they were going to come and get me. I wouldn’t even give her my telephone number, but I gave my mother’s telephone number, even though I hadn’t been at my mother’s house in weeks. That particular night I went to sleep and forgot all about the telephone call and really didn’t know what I had even talked about. Then I decided at 3:30 am to go over to my mother’s house and have dinner with her. I thought she’d be glad to see me at 3:30 in the morning; this shows you how insane alcohol makes your mind. So I went over to my mother’s house at that time of morning and they thought something serious had happened to me so they opened the door, but I just went into her house, went directly into her room, went into her bed, and went to sleep.
Then the next morning my mother woke me up and told me I had a telephone call. Now, I was really shocked. I thought, Who could possibly be calling me here? I don’t know anybody; who could be calling me here? So my mother went to ask and she came back and she said “It’s a lady named Ida and she says she’s from Alcoholics Anonymous.” My mother told me to get up and answer the phone. So I got up and went to the phone and I still didn’t know what AA was, but the lady was so kind and she kept telling me about this meeting and that I should go. I thought she was probably selling some Avon product that she wanted me to buy at the meeting. The only way I got the woman off the phone was agreeing to go to this meeting, to buy this product, I thought. So she came that evening, picked me up, and took me to my first meeting of AA.
Dr. Gloria M. has been sober for fifty-nine years since that first meeting and has sworn by the program ever since.
Of course, the program does not work immediately for everyone like it did for Dr. Gloria M.; others take a while to warm up to the idea and form relationships with their peers in the program. That is how it was for Cathy W., who has now achieved fifty-one years of sobriety.
I was one of those morning drinkers. I started drinking in New York and the liquor stores were open there early on, but when I found out they were opening in Chicago at 9:00 am, that’s what convinced me to follow my husband there because his job transferred him. He had offered to leave me in New York (that’s how bad my drinking was), but when I found out the liquor stores were open earlier I was ready to move. It was just craziness.
I had heard about AA on the radio and when I phoned the number that they said to call, the woman in the Chicago central office asked me if I could stay sober one day and I told her “No,” and I hung up. But I phoned back the next day and she told me where the meeting was and I told my husband that I was going to a meeting and he took me there. I got there early and there was a man, I guess a secretary, sitting at the meeting and he said to my husband, “You can’t stay, this is a closed meeting.” So my husband just asked “When can I pick her up?” This was the first time that I’d ever known my husband to give me over to a total stranger, a man, and say, “What time should I pick her up?”
I was still drinking during my first meeting. In fact, I had been drinking that day and the meeting was that evening. There was coffee at the table and one of the older gentleman had to help me hold my coffee up to keep from spilling it. Of course I didn’t hear anything, but I sat through that meeting and I went to a meeting every night for thirty days, and I drank every day before I really heard what they were trying to say.
Everyone must face the fear that goes along with attending that first Twelve Step meeting, but no one more so than women of color. Not only is there the fear of the unknown, but there is also the fear of exclusion, judgment, and stigma along both gender and racial lines. Some individuals like Julia S., who now has fifty-one years of sobriety, choose to seek out a predominantly black home group in order to find a sense of solidarity and acceptance.
I don’t think there was any other predominantly black group that was meeting in Philadelphia at the time. I was accepted. Somebody asked me if I had a problem with alcohol and I was ready to tell him about that and all the other life problems I had. They gave time to me. One of them offered to give me a ride. They said to keep coming back. The founder of that group befriended me, and as a matter of fact he took me to my first anniversary meeting. They were very supportive of me. They talked about finding a new way in life. They were focused on getting AA introduced into the black community. They wanted to have meetings that would attract people with problems.
AA and People of Color
While Dr. Gloria M. grew up comfortable in integrated settings, many people of color start in communities that are homogeneous and wonder about the issue of acceptance at meetings where they are the minority. Alcoholism does not discriminate, as Dr. Gloria M. explains:
I grew up in a predominantly low-class neighborhood. The school that I attended was interracial, so I never personally had a serious racial problem that I was prompted by. The meetings I attended were predominantly white. Basically by me living in LA and in the valley, another black lady and I were basically the only black people that went to meetings out there for some reason. The black meetings single themselves off, and though I’d go to meetings anywhere . . . After you’ve been in the program fifty years you’re considered a founder, so I belong to the founder’s committee of Alcoholics Anonymous. I go all around the country. I’ve spoken at international world conferences. I’ve spoken at international women’s conferences. I’ve spoken at Akron at a founder’s conference. Everywhere it’s predominantly white. If you go to a place like Narcotics Anonymous you find a lot of black people.
When I first started going to meetings there were very few black people that I knew of that were actively involved in Alcoholics Anonymous; it just wasn’t a black thing. They didn’t think of alcoholism as being a disease. Everyone had a drunk uncle or aunt or something, but they never thought there was actually a disease that was involved. There were only three women at the first meeting that I went to and one of these women had relapsed, but she told me that she had hoped this program would work for her and she said, “Gloria, I hope that you’ll keep coming back and that it works for you too.”
Others, like Cathy W., went to both all-black and all-white meetings.
I didn’t realize how black I was until I came to Chicago. I initially went to an African American meeting. It just happened, but I haven’t felt discrimination in AA. Even at the times when I went to an all-white meeting I never felt it. My sponsor took me everywhere with him and it wasn’t just all black. At that time, though, there were women in the group, but I came in looking like a slut and no one offered to sponsor me. There was a limit to how much they interacted with me. Then once the person who took me to my first meeting said, “Okay, I’ll sponsor you,” they become a bit more accepting. I guess they could see the dishonesty in me at that time. There were women who had male sponsors, so it wasn’t a problem at the time, but later on my sponsor would tell me to go talk to women about certain issues.
AA and Women
Cathy W. elaborated on her experiences as a woman working her way through the man’s world of AA:
My husband didn’t have any resentment about me going to the meetings, really. Initially he picked me up, but then some of the other members said they would drop me off. So he dropped me off and I invited him in and he had a chance to meet them. I took him to a couple of open meetings and he met their wives, but he didn’t care as long as I was not drinking. But when I hadn’t stopped drinking in that first month, he said, “I thought this was going to work for you. It works for everybody else. Why isn’t it working for you?” So eventually I guess I heard what I needed to hear and stopped drinking, but he had never been jealous of me. Further down the line he asked if I really had to go to all those meetings and I had to remind him that it was all those meetings that kept me sober. So he understood it because I was better. I was not drinking and I was different.
AA and Spirituality
Though these women had difference experiences in adversity, they were all able to find comfort in their higher power and spirituality. Dr. Gloria M., for example, grew up the daughter of a pastor and continues her commitment to spirituality to this day.
I believe in the Twelve Steps of this program; this is one of the greatest spiritual programs that I’ve encountered. I had a chance to go to a meeting where Bill W. was present and he called AA his church, and in a way it’s my church too because I’ve been going regularly all of these years. I still go to at least two meetings a week. I’ll never stop going to meetings and working with people in the fellowship. It’s a spiritual way of life that works. I wouldn’t say it’s religious though, because actually I feel that religion has failed people to a great extent because religion deals with a lot of external things and it’s man-made. Spirituality is about developing a relationship with God and it’s a spiritual path. It was truly divine intervention that brought me to Alcoholics Anonymous, because I knew nothing of it when I first joined.
Cathy W. also grew up in the church and attributes her success in the program to her spirituality.
When I was in New York I would go to church drinking. I would leave church, go to the liquor store, and go home and drink. No one at church had confronted me and said they smelled it on my breath or anything, though they probably did. But you know what? Church didn’t get me drunk. Religion is man-made, but spirituality is anything. There are certain times when you’ll look out the window and know that man isn’t doing those things. I was told that if I woke up in the morning and asked God for sobriety, that he would give it to me.
In short, I wouldn’t be in touch with my own reality the way I am now without my spirituality. I don’t take life for granted anymore. I’m grateful when I wake up in the morning and don’t think, “Drink.” That means a lot to me. Before in the morning I’d always be thinking about drinking, but now I have some quiet time. So every morning I invite God in and say, “Okay, you control this. Work through me.”
Advice for Women of Color
All four women interviewed had profound advice to give to other women of color seeking acceptance and serenity through sobriety.
Julia S. advises the need to look away from alcohol to find true happiness. She said, “In getting sober, you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for in those bottles: friendship, a sense of your own values, and above all, understanding.”
Louise G. recommends AA wholeheartedly to every person trying to recover and says that in her fifty-eight years of sobriety she learned that growth is a natural part of the process.
When you first start out in AA, you’ll use the basic tools a lot. Some people are quicker, some are thicker, some are sicker; what helps is individual for individuals and that’s why we come together to share our experiences of hope. Now I’m always working for progress, not perfection. AA has taught me to take inventory and have direction and control. It’s given me a healthy outlook on life and it saved my life. What was I looking for in the program? Help. I still need help today. I learned that the program makes you the person that you were meant to be in the first place. I learned that I can’t put anything before my sobriety. I need a constant reminder that I’m an alcoholic and cannot drink. It’s a lifetime process, one day at a time.
Dr. Gloria M. advises rigorous study of the AA literature and other tools provided through regular meetings and education.
There’s a lot of good information out there, like The Twelve and Twelve. There are a lot of good books. I found two young men at my first meeting and we started studying together. We went to meetings in the morning, we went to evening meetings, we went to midnight meetings, and we did book studies among ourselves over and over again, learning what this program was all about. When I came into the program I was a registered nurse, but I was able to go on to school and got a PhD. I went to Rutgers University and that was one of the first universities that really talked about and gave information on the disease of alcoholism. I went to various schools to get as much education as possible and I had an opportunity to develop some treatment programs.
Cathy W. agrees that education and awareness are crucial elements of recovery.
I read everything that I could get my hands on about alcohol and AA. Once I knew I had an illness, it made sense to me that I had control over it, so I just used the tools that were given to me and those that I found on my own to understand what was going on. My sponsor gave me a book by Norman Vincent Peale called The Power of Positive Thinking, and he said, “You read this book and the AA book and that’s all you read, because right now you’re too confused to read anything else.” Those have been my bibles for years. There’s something in the Big Book that’s helpful and different for each one of us, so I’d tell everyone to read it. Read the stories in the back. What do you identify with? What comforts you?
Cathy W. emphasizes the power of daily ritual as well.
I have to have quiet time in the morning before I let the world in. God and I need to have a talk, because I’m just as sick now as I was then, so I need that direction and guidance and He will give it to me. Sometimes the quiet time can be while I’m driving to work, but I have to have it. There’s something missing from my day if I don’t. If I’m having an especially difficult day, I look inward and see what role I played in the situation to put me in the position I’m in and what I can change about it. I also still use the Serenity Prayer. There’s a chapter in the Big Book that I go to, but I use prayer more than anything. The more sober I am, the more gratitude I have. I say, “Okay God, you helped pull me out of the trenches before. Let’s do it again.”
Furthermore, Cathy W. recommends exploring different variations of service work.
I can only remember one person I sponsored who stayed sober. In my seventh year in AA I became office manager, so I had more service work than I have sponsorship in AA. So I got the opportunity to mentor others that way. I would invite people to go to meetings with me and get them into AA that way and tell them they could call me any time. My hand was always out. Even now when I go to meetings I try to look for that new person who’s struggling, because I can see myself in them. If I can do it, you can do it. There are more tools now for you than there were for me. I didn’t sugarcoat my character when I came into AA. I didn’t come in with integrity, but AA turned me into the woman that I am today.
Going forward, the women have varied responses to the rituals of AA and its contribution to their strength, hope, and experience.
Julia S. is not a fan of singling members out based on their years of sobriety; others do not count anniversaries and only focus on today one day at a time.
I don’t like the countdowns where everybody stands up and they count down how many years you have. When you get up to over fifty years, you’re the last person standing. That person is holding the Big Book and he or she gives it to the person with the least number of years of sobriety. I think they should change that.
Dr. Gloria M. believes that members of AA need to engage at the roots of the program in order to really reap the benefits that it offers.
People don’t always study the book like that; they go to meetings and they think that’s all they need and they don’t follow the Twelve Step program that’s given to us in the Big Book. One reason people fail is that they think they can get instant sobriety, so they go to detox or they go to some program looking for instant sobriety. I also think people don’t accept the spirituality of the program. They don’t really get involved in practicing the principles of the Twelve Steps, and I think that a lot of people in the fellowship meetings don’t drink or use no matter what, but they don’t have that peace of mind or that serenity that’s available to them through the principles of recovery.
People in early AA really accepted this program and followed the principles and worked to get others to join in, but today it’s a little different. Now sponsorship is run differently and actually our whole program was given to a spiritual experience that Bill W. had, so it’s a spiritual pathway. But today people do their own thing in recovery and they think that’s all they need to do and that it’s not necessary to follow all of the principles. So you’ll find a lot of people that don't find that serenity or promise that’s available.
Dr. Gloria M. also believes in the power of positive thinking and separating oneself from the disease.
I’ve been running a group recently on the power of the mind in recovery. In my talks I’ve been really trying to help people look at themselves as having a disease instead of being a disease, because thinking that you’re a disease doesn’t help the self-image at all.
Cathy W. recommends taking time to figure out what works for you and what you need to succeed mentally, physically, and emotionally for growth and well-being.
The program works. It worked for me and it’ll work for anyone who has an open mind and wants it to work. I have an illness, I’ve acknowledged the fact, and I treat it just like I’m going to the doctor. Meetings are my doctors. I also go to a therapist, though. I grew up in AA, but AA is not all that I need; I get a six-month boost of therapy every once in a while because AA doesn’t have all the answers for me. The answers are within me and I need to pull them out. When I go to a meeting, I’m talking to people who are in the same shape as I am so where do we go? It’s not like the blind leading the blind because we’re not blind anymore, but I need something different. I need someone to pull something out of me that I know is there and make me feel comfortable. I also used to work out every morning and I did that for years and years and years. I don’t do it as often now, only about two or three times a week, but for years I lived in the health club. I was there every day when the door opened in the morning before I went to work.
These successful women continue to live full, rich, productive lives as a result of their dedication to themselves and their sobriety through the program of AA. They are proof that AA can work for anyone and that no one’s potential should be stifled because of race, gender or any other arbitrary way that society has of describing someone. Everyone has a right to recovery, and in telling varied stories, someone may read or hear just what he or she needs to recover.
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (2001). AA for the black and African American alcoholic. Retrieved from http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-51_CanAAHelpMeToo.pdf
Krentzman, A. R., Robinson, E. A. R., Moore, B. C., Kelly, J. F., Laudet, A. B., White, W. L., . . . Strobbe, S. (2010). How Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) work: Cross-disciplinary perspectives. Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, 29(1), 75–84.