A.A. is a fellowship open to anyone with a desire to stop drinking. Because of this among the membership are people with every sort of problem. It was realized early on that A.A. could not solve all the problems people have and long ago chose to limit its primary purpose to helping people recover from alcoholism only. Drinking too much is just about the only thing we all have in common and many fear A.A. would loose its identity and effectiveness if it were to address problems other than alcoholism.
Other fellowships such as Narcotics Anonymous, and many people in A.A., see alcoholism and drug addiction as the same thing. At the same time A.A. tries to maintain its traditional focus on alcoholism only. At times this creates friction, particularly because many in A.A.do not think that alcoholism and drug addiction are the same thing. Some see this as an antiquated view, but it is the way A.A. has been set up since it began, with its sole focus on alcohol – not addiction. Among the membership are many people who have tried various drugs but find that alcohol is the only one they have problems with.
In A.A., Step One says that we admit we are powerless over alcohol which is a physical substance. In N.A., Step One replaces “alcohol” with being powerless over “our addiction” which is a concept, behavior or disease. This embodies a significant difference in approach. A.A. is focused on being powerless over one certain substance while N.A. is focused on addiction in general.
A.A. tries to limit its focus to alcoholism but all sorts of other problems can influence a person’s recovery. Some in A.A. talk of how money, health, mental and other problems influence their recovery. Often people talk about how their drug addiction influences their recovery or alcoholism.
“The problem” comes up when some feel that the primary focus of a group or meeting is getting away from alcoholism. If a meeting were to focus on a problem such as tax evasion or smoking, many would object that the meeting was straying from A.A.’s “primary purpose” and suggest the meeting be re-focused onto drinking problems. When the focus leans toward drug addiction some see this as OK, others think this too is getting away from the focus of alcoholism, it often simply depends on who happens to be in the room at the time.
If a person goes to a meeting and talks at length about trout fishing they might be asked to let someone else share or change the subject. While one person may see their fishing addiction and alcoholism as one in the same, they could be asked to limit their comments to the alcoholism to keep the focus on the one thing all in the meeting share in common – alcoholism. Likewise, many view their cocaine and alcohol addiction as the same problem but in an A.A. meeting they may be asked to limit their discussion of their crack smoking to keep the focus on alcoholism – the only problem common to everyone in the fellowship.
In many places introducing yourself as something other than “an alcoholic” at an A.A. meeting is often an occasion for controversy or tension. Many feel that introducing oneself as an “addict” or an “alcoholic/addict” moves the focus away from the primary purpose of an A.A. meeting. The sentiment behind this is that if we focus on our differences, rather than what we share in common, we will loose the common thread that holds us together as a fellowship.
A person may be an alcoholic/gambler or an alcoholic/tax cheat or an alcoholic/diabetic or an alcoholic/thief or, as is quite common, an alcoholic/addict, but the only thing we all have in common is the “alcoholic” part. As a practical matter then, introducing yourself as simply “an alcoholic” can be the easiest way to limit the tensions surrounding the issue and to help keep A.A. focused on alcoholism (even if addiction and alcoholism are the same thing – a subject which A.A. has no opinion on).
Going to an A.A. meeting and introducing yourself as “an addict” is seen by many to be like going to a square dance and doing the waltz; it is just not what the gathering is meant for. Even if your primary hobby is the waltz, there is a time and a place for everything and if you are at a square dance it is only polite to stick to square dancing. If many kinds of dances happened at a square dance it would no longer be a square dance. Likewise many fear A.A. would no longer be A.A. if the common focus on alcoholism were to be lost amid a multitude of addictions or bad behaviors.
Similarly, an A.A. member attending an N.A. meeting may want to consider showing respect for the intended purpose of that fellowship and introduce themselves as “an addict” instead of “an alcoholic.” There the commonality is found in addiction and introducing one’s self as an alcoholic could be seen as emphasizing an individual difference rather than the shared problem.
The fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous has stated this concept in this way:
The focus of AA is on the alcoholic, and we ought to respect that fellowship’s perfect right to adhere to its own traditions and protect its focus. If we cannot use language consistent with that, we ought not go to their meetings and undermine that atmosphere. In the same way, we NA members ought to respect our own primary purpose and identify ourselves at NA meetings simply as addicts, and share in a way that keeps our message clear.
Source: World Service Board Of Trustees Bulletin #13
NA World Service (1985, revised 1996).
AA’s co-founder, Bill W. writes about the issue in both Tradition Three and Tradition Five in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.