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My stability came out of trying to give, not out of demanding that I receive..
Bill Wilson was the inspiration for and the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Because of the ability of this 12 step program to rescue many alcoholics from certain despair or even death, it is believed by many, that this program was divinely inspired. In fact, in order for the program to succeed, the third step suggests that the alcoholic come to believe in a power greater than himself. And, to make it easier to accept this step, it makes it clear that it can be a God of your understanding.
Bill Wilson was born on November 26, 1895, in East Dorset, Vermont. When he was 10, he was virtually abandoned by his parents and left in the care of his maternal grandparents. His first drink came as a 22 year old soldier, continued as a businessman, and destroyed his health and his career, until 17 years later, with the help of another alcoholic, (Dr. Bob) he took his last drink.
In 1918, he and his young wife toured the country on a motorcyle, and appeared to be a prosperous and promising young couple. But by 1933, Bill Wilson was an unemployable drunk who at times panhandled for cash, and disdained religion. With the help of a friend who had stopped drinking, Wilson tried going to meetings at an evangelical society founded by Frank Buchman. He even tried the state-of-the-art alcoholic treatment of that day, which was called "purge and puke", and is exactly what it sounds like.
He had been sober for 5 months, when he stood in a hotel lobby and had to choose between sobriety and a bar, and chose the former, with an ephipany that convinced him , in order to save himself, he needed to help another alcoholic. Fate connected him with Dr. Robert Smith, soon to be known as Dr. Bob, and the rest is history. Dr. Bob's family persuaded him to give Bill wilson 15 minutes: their meeting lasted four hours. Dr. Bob, like Bill Wilson, had been a hopeless drunk, but a month after their meeting, on June 10, 1935, Dr. Bob had his last drink. And that is the official birthday of A.A., which is based on the premise that only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic.
Wilson opened his house the next day and it became a haven for drunks. He began his meetings with, "My name is Bill Wilson , and I'm an Alcoholic", a tradition that continues on today. To spread the word he began writing down his principles for sobriety, which eventually made their way into book form as simply "Alcoholics Anonymous." It is the program's "Bible." Troubled financial times followed them through foreclosure and homelessness, until March 1941, when The Saturday Evening Post published an article on A.A. That was the turning point; Bill Wilson had reached his audience. He published another book of bylaws, entitled "Twelve Traditions", in which he created an enduring blueprint for the organization which remains basically unchanged to this day.
As A.A. grew, Wilson became its principal symbol. He created a governing structure and turned his power over to them. He traveled throughout the country attending meetings, most of the time anonymously. Bill Wilson died on January 24, 1971, of pneumonia, but obviously his program lives on. Today more than two million members carry on; one alcoholic helping another. It works, I know.
Bill W.'s life makes for an interesting story irrespective of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Step program. The simple association of an AA member as a chain smoker is a common one, and so it should be no surprise that one of its founders was a chain smoker until the day he died, sequestering cigarettes away in his car for a quick drive-and-a-buzz. He alternated hits of oxygen with smoke even after he developed emphysema. But even more than that, Bill walked down many other avenues in pursuit of a replacement for alcohol.
Bill Wilson Turns on, Tunes In, and Drops Out
In addition to AA meetings Bill regularly saw a therapist, which scandalized the AA enclave. Though sober, he was given to frequent tantrums and bouts of depression. The 12 Steps were inadequate to help him, though they were largely his creation, and it is because of this that he found himself in California in the summer of 1956. Even before the psychedelic sixties Bill had his own mystical run in with Lucy.
Bill first took LSD in California, under the guidance of Gerald Heard. Also present was Sidney Cohen, psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration Hospital. The date was August 29, 1956. Tom P. was there, and he and Gerald Heard took notes about the events of the afternoon.1
Bill was quite enthusiastic about LSD, extolling its ability to quell the ego and provide one with a spiritual, indeed God-encountering, experience. He claimed that his wife also benefited from tripping the light fantastic when he shared acid with her. Bill only stopped dropping acid and supporting its ability to help the drunk when high-ranking members on the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Board disapproved.
On a side note, AA's founder was not the only one to ever explore lysergic acid diethylamide's ability to help keep a drunk sober. Before the drug was outlawed, it was sometimes used in tests to do just that. Tests conducted by psychiatrists Humphrey Osmond and John Smythies record that two-thirds of alcoholics in the group stopped drinking for 18 months after only one dose of acid.2 However, while these studies are interesting to read about and impressive because of the numbers claimed, something as subjective as a drug-experience cannot be considered concrete fact.
Bill Joins a Cult
Not exactly. Bill did have a preoccupation with the occult in his journeys after the founding of AA. A self-proclaimed agnostic, Bill was reticent to claim his first spiritual experience as having anything to do with God. In the AA tradition it is this first spiritual experience that causes you to acknowledge a higher power and admit that you are powerless; The First Step.
"Oh, God," he cried, and it was the sound not of a man, but of a trapped and crippled animal. "If there is a God, show me. Show me. Give me some sign." As he formed the words, in that very instant he was aware first of a light, a great white light that filled the room, then he suddenly seemed caught up in a kind of joy, an ecstasy such as he would never find words to describe. It was as though he were standing high on a mountaintop and a strong clear wind blew against him, around him, through him -- but it seemed a wind not of air, but of spirit -- and as this happened he had the feeling that he was stepping into another world, a new world of consciousness, and everywhere now there was a wondrous feeling of Presence which all his life he had been seeking.3
"Oh, God," he cried, and it was the sound not of a man, but of a trapped and crippled animal. "If there is a God, show me. Show me. Give me some sign."
As he formed the words, in that very instant he was aware first of a light, a great white light that filled the room, then he suddenly seemed caught up in a kind of joy, an ecstasy such as he would never find words to describe. It was as though he were standing high on a mountaintop and a strong clear wind blew against him, around him, through him -- but it seemed a wind not of air, but of spirit -- and as this happened he had the feeling that he was stepping into another world, a new world of consciousness, and everywhere now there was a wondrous feeling of Presence which all his life he had been seeking.3
It is interesting to note that Bill's account of the experience is a near mirrored-story of his grandfather's awakening to spirituality and sobriety.
Then, in a desperate state one Sunday morning, he (Bill Wilson's grandfather) climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus. There, after beseeching God to help him, he saw a blinding light and felt the wind of the Spirit. It was a conversion experience that left him feeling so transformed that he practically ran down the mountain and into town.4
The conclusions to be drawn from the similarity of the two accounts are the reader's own. The fact remains that Bill continued to seek answers from spirituality, and/or religion depending on one's definition. According to one source,5 Bill and his wife Lois even set aside a special room (called Stepping Stones) for séances and attempts at levitation.
The Alcoholics Anonymous method has had harsh critics and devoted proponents since its inception. It is important to make a distinction between Bill Wilson and the group itself. It is generally accepted that Bill was a bit of an ego-maniac, clashing with the group on several occasions. Fortunately the group was founded on principles of anonymity and a form of democratic leadership more egalitarian than most countries can claim.
And... A Footnote
If you haven't read enough about Bill and the psychedelic experience, you can read more excerpts from Pass It On1 recording this unique episode in history here.
and they say that alcoholics are always alcoholics,even when they're dry as my lips for yearseven when they're stranded on a small desert islandwith no place in two thousand miles to buy beerAni Difranco, Fuel
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