An AA study conducted in 2007 showed that 33% of about 8,000 members surveyed had remained sober for 10 years or better. Another 12% had remained sober for 5-10 years, 24% sober from 1-5 years and 31% less than a year. The study failed to disclose how long the participants had been associated with AA and did not attempt to measure those who had attended AA previously and left the program. A report released in 1990 reported that 81% of alcoholics who attended the AA program stopped attending within 1 year and that only 5% of the AA attendees surveyed had attended meetings for more than a year.
I’ve come across other studies that show similar statistics.
In my experience, success rates don’t appear very good on the surface. Over the past six years, I’d estimate that I have met over well over a thousand new people attending AA for the very first time or returning to AA after a prolonged relapse. In the group that I attend currently, my guess is that there are approximately 100 people who attend consistently on a weekly basis.
On the surface, these statistics are very discouraging, but are not significantly different from results from other types of treatment programs. I don’t think these success statistics accurately tell the story.
First of all, many people attend AA meetings who are not yet ready to experience recovery. Those people are simply passersby who are curious about the program or have been nudged into attending a meeting by a colleague or loved one. They may or may not be alcoholics, but for whatever reason, they are either not willing or capable of giving the program a fair shot. These people quickly vanish from the program.
There are also those who clearly have a problem with alcohol who show up to an AA meeting looking for a quick fix to their problems. They seem to only want their unfortunate circumstances to disappear. They attend a meeting or two, fail to connect with other members and don’t find the easy solution they are looking for. These people are quickly discouraged and make the decision that AA is not for them.
There’s a third group of attendees who come in to the rooms of AA under duress from serious consequences from drinking. They may have legal issues, relationship problems or other difficult circumstances that have “forced” them into the program. They seem to have nowhere else to go. They hang on to the fellowship aspect of the program by attending meetings, but fail to do the work to progress through the 12 steps. After a brief period of sobriety, they feel much better and decide they can go it alone. They think they are cured, and go back to their lives of the past.
The last group of AAs are perhaps the most relevant group to view when considering program success rates. Those are the people who have experienced a significant “bottom” and are ready, willing and able to give the program an honest try. They are openminded enough to attend a good number of meetings, they avail themselves to the services of a sponsor and work thoroughly through all 12 steps of the program.
In my opinion, this last group of AAs are the ones to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of AA. In my experience, an overwhelming majority (perhaps 80% or more) are able to accomplish significant periods of sobriety. Their efforts allow them to gain a solid understanding of how the program works, understand its principles, clear away the wreckage of the past and move on to a better way of living.
Like everything important in life, you get out of it what you put into it.