What is the Success Rate of Recovery in AA?

What is the Success Rate of Recovery in AA?


What is the success rate of recovery in AA? That depends entirely on who you ask, and on exactly what you are measuring.

For example, there is documentation that proves “early AA” had a success rate of about 75 percent.

On the other hand, there are some people who claim that AA actually has a negative rate of recovery, and that people actually relapse in AA who might have recovered “spontaneously” through spontaneous remission of the disease.

Finally, there are a large number of estimates out there that put the success rate of recovery at around 3 to 5 percent.

But it is indeed a tricky thing to measure. For one, what exactly are we measuring? Complete abstinence for life? Alcoholics who successfully make it to one year sober? What exactly determines “success” when we are talking about success rates? This is the first half of the measuring problem.

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The other half of the problem is that it is very difficult to obtain truly accurate results across a large sample. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the anonymity that the program is based on. Add that to the shame and guilt associated with relapse, and you have the potential to seriously overestimate the success rate based on an anonymous survey.

What does AA themselves have to say? Here is a piece of an actual memo from the Alcoholics Anonymous GSO (General Services Office), based on an analysis of a survey period that ran for 12 years:

“After just one month in the Fellowship, 81% of the new members have already dropped out. After three months, 90% have left, and 95% have discontinued attendance inside one year.” (Kolenda, 2003, Golden Text Publishing Company).

Of course, this doesn’t really tell the whole story, as many people will leave after AA after being first introduced to it, and then later return once they have truly been beaten by their alcoholism. Most people who are a success story in AA tell of how they struggled–sometimes for years–going in and out of AA before they finally “got it.”

On both sides of this issue, people are very passionate

If you follow the 2 links at the beginning of this article, you’ll see that one is definitely pro-AA, and the other is vehemently anti-AA. One is claiming up to a 95% success rate, while the other is claiming AA is actually detrimental and has a negative success rate (lower than spontaneous remission). And you’ll also notice that both people are very passionate and firm believers in the stance they are taking. Why such a discrepancy here?

I believe the reason is that AA is effective for some, but it is clearly not for everyone. It is not a one-size-fits-all program. There are plenty of people who have achieved success and meaningful sobriety in AA. There are also those who have honestly gave it there best shot, only to eventually relapse and die. This is unfortunate, and it begs the question: “What are the alternatives?”

Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot. Yes, there are a few out there, but they are spread few and far between, and there are many disadvantages with all of them. While many of the alternatives to AA claim to have superior success rates, their method of measurement suffers from the same flaws as AA, and their is very little widespread support in these programs.

If you are on the fence about going to AA, here is what I suggest you do: Ignore the success rates you hear about and give it a chance. Do this knowing that AA is the single biggest support system of recovery in the world. The program may not be perfect, but it’s the best our planet has. The alternatives might talk a big game, but they don’t have meetings in every city in the world. AA does. You can find support just about anywhere. And it’s technically free to boot.

Here’s another suggestion: find someone in AA who has multiple years of sobriety and ask them what the success rate is for AA. They will likely tell you that they don’t care. It works for them.

Action items – What does all this mean for you?

1) Give AA a chance, because the meetings are everywhere and therefore the level of support is mind-boggling.

2) Don’t get stuck in thinking there is only one path to recovery – that is NOT TRUE. There are many paths.

3) Stay open. Regardless of what you choose, implement the spiritual principles into your life. Practice gratitude.


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