Singleness of Purpose - A holdover from the 30's?

The Preamble of Alcoholics Anonymous closes with the sentence: "Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety."

Since its inception in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous has been steadfast to this principle, also expressed as "Singleness of Purpose". This principle is repeated in the Fifth Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous: "Each group has but one primary purpose -- to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers."

The founding members of AA had all been members of the Oxford Group and were aware of the pitfalls of trying to be all things to all men. The Oxford Group, founded in 1908 by Frank Buchman, reached its zenith in the mid-1930's and was forced to reorganize in 1939 under much reduced circumstances.

The AA Preamble, which grew out of the foreword of the first edition of the book, "Alcoholics Anonymous", published in April, 1939, is read hundreds of thousands of times every day at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous around the world. Today, "singleness of purpose" is being challenged. More and more newcomers to the AA Program are dual-addicted, admitting to addiction to both alcohol and another substance, generally prescription or street drugs.

While AA, the original 12-step program, willing accepts anyone with a desire to stop drinking, it does not encourage talk of other addictions at its tables and within its rooms. Most dual-addicted alcoholics readily accept this and speak only of their alcoholism. The challenge comes from outside the membership.

Mental health workers often have great difficulty with AA's Fifth Tradition. Admiring the success and availability of Alcoholics Anonymous, they naturally wish to broaden its membership to include other substance abusers. When there is no professional drug treatment center or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) group at hand, it is understandable that AA, with its tradition of Twelfth Step work, will be suggested for outpatient use. They worry that the Fifth Tradition is a holdover from AA's early days, when the membership was largely WASP, and that addicts who are young, poor, of minority races or with criminal records will be barred.

Today the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous is a spectrum of races, religious backgrounds, career and economic variances. AA meetings are held on Park Avenue and in economic ghettos, in correctional facilities and on university campuses. The only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire to stop drinking.

A much more compelling reason for "singleness of purpose" is to overcome denial. Denial associated with alcoholism is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It affects the alcoholic, the professional helper, and the community. The mental image of an "alcoholic" is quite different than that of a "drug user".

Nobody wants to talk about alcoholism. Drug addiction commands news articles, research funding, and government support. This is despite the fact that - with the exception of cigarettes - alcoholism in the United States is a bigger health and family problem than all other abuse substances. Alcohol abuse costs the nation more than all lung diseases and cancers combined. It claims 100,000 lives a year. In medical and surgical wards, the treatment costs for patients with coexistent alcoholism are two to six times the costs of treating other patients. Yet medical and surgical residencies consistently exclude in-depth study of alcoholism from their curricula. To combat such denial the principle of singleness of purpose remains a necessity.

The success of Alcoholics Anonymous is in part because AA groups are the only place in the world where the focus is on alcoholism and only alcoholism. There is no other way to overcome denial.

  • "About AA - A Newsletter for Professionals", 30M-11/02 (K)
  • "Pass It On", Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., ISBN# 0-916856-12-7
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