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Alcoholism - Know Your History

We’ve Come a Long Way

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Alcoholism is an illness that has been defined in different ways.

It was seen forever as a weakness of character and a failure of willpower.

During the mid-1800s, a group called the Washingtonians emerged, and they helped numerous alcoholics to get and to stay sober. Although extremely successful for a time, they ultimately failed as a group and movement because they became embroiled in controversy over many other subjects that they addressed in addition to alcoholism, including the abolition of slavery.

Later, a group emerged called the Oxford Group. Whereas the Washingtonians were completely secular, the Oxford Group was a Christian organization. Among other priorities, they, too, helped a number of alcoholics to get and stay sober. They also suffered from involvement in a number of causes, of which recovery from alcoholism was only one of them.

In 1935, alcoholics Bill Wilson and Bob Smith met and had a lengthy conversation. Bill Wilson, from New York City, had a failed business venture in Akron, OH. Feeling that it was inevitable that he would end up drunk, he searched for an alcoholic that he could try to help. He was led to Dr. Bob Smith, another severe alcoholic, and that day what came to be known as Alcoholics Anonymous was born. Bill and Bob had experience with the Oxford Group, and they synthesized and refined some of the Oxford Group’s work with other pieces they’d learned and discovered on their own, and that became the basis of A.A. They moved A.A. away from being a Christian group, although there is an emphasis on seeking a spiritual path of one’s own choosing.

Realizing that one of the major downfalls of the Washingtonians and the Oxford Groups was that they split their focus and therefore faltered, Bill and Bob discerned that A.A. could only have one purpose, that being to help alcoholics to gain and maintain sobriety.

This was a watershed in the history of how alcoholism was seen and treated.

It brought into the world a successful way for many alcoholics to get sober and has spread throughout much of the world.

A.A. celebrated its 88th year on June 10th of 2023.

Image from Wikemedia Commons. File modified by Technical 13

Seeing alcoholism (and now addiction) as an illness opened the door to new ways of thinking, and ever so slowly, in many quarters, the stigma of being an alcoholic or addict has lessened.

In 1956 alcoholism was defined by the American Medical Association as a disease.

Now it is more commonly known as Alcohol Use Disorder. From Medical News Today: “Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition in which a person continues to consume alcohol despite the adverse consequences. AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe.

Other names for AUD include alcohol misuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and alcoholism. Risk factors for developing AUD include a family history of alcohol misuse, mental health conditions, and starting alcohol use at a young age.”


There are many recovery groups and methods today. One can sample a few methods and choose the best path, or use a combination.

These are only a few of them:

The program called Smart Recovery, which started in 1994, is rooted in science and is secular in nature. It’s becoming widespread with over 1500 weekly group meetings worldwide.

Another secular program is Lifering Secular Recovery. This program offers help to alcoholics and addicts as well as their families, partners, and friends. It was started in 1997, is a non-profit organization, and focuses on the 3-S philosophy: Sobriety, Secularity, and Self-empowerment.

A program for women, called Women for Sobriety, began in 1976. Writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson form much of the philosophy of this group. There is a focus on self-empowerment and personal responsibility.

And Recovery Dharma utilizes Buddhist principles and practices to recover from addiction. Although started in 2019, it has grown quickly. Peer support is emphasized in addition to attending meetings and meditating.


One of the biggest changes over the past few decades has been the proliferation of rehabilitation centers.

We have former First Lady Betty Ford to thank for going public about her recovery from alcohol and drugs, and for creating the Betty Ford Center. This became a high-profile rehab, and although open to everyone, it had an emphasis on helping women to recover.

So, not only did she help to normalize the fact of having alcoholism/addiction, she made it known that treatment can work and that people can recover. Then, she established one of the first high-profile rehabilitation centers. And in doing so, she brought to the public’s attention the understanding that women with these issues need and deserve excellent treatment.

The Betty Ford Center became a model for many rehab treatment centers that followed.

And they’re ubiquitous. They can be found all over the U.S.

Betty Ford / Photo John Matthew Smith, Wikimedia Commons

Those of us who need recovery can be incredibly grateful to all of those who established methods to recover. We live in a time where help - positive, effective help - is readily available. It can be argued that before 1935, when Alcoholics Anonymous was established, there had never been a widespread and sustained program of recovery for alcoholics. Centuries of suffering preceded it, and countless alcoholics and their loved ones suffered.

If you’re starting on a journey of recovery, please keep an open mind. Don’t settle for what seems to be easy. Instead, go with a choice that you believe in your heart will help you to recover from a progressive and potentially fatal illness. You’ll need to hear some hard truths about yourself. To get and stay clean and sober, one needs to get vulnerable, so pick a safe place that you can trust.

Keep asking for help. It’s out there, and much of it does not cost anything.

If you need a doctor’s care to guide you safely through the detoxification process, by all means, seek that help.

Getting sober is different from staying sober.

I’ve seen too many alcoholics suffer by choosing to test the waters after a time of sobriety. Tonight, I spoke with a friend who had been clean and sober for years, and then chose to use again. That began a horrible odyssey that saw him spiral down for seventeen more years of drinking and drugging. He’s sober now, and doing well.

Choose a good path, and stick with it.

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