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Jeff Witzeman

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AA: The Magic Of Bill Wilson

Posted: 11/16/09 03:19 PM ET

Many know Bill Wilson as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, but few realize his brilliance as it relates to healing the human condition, alcoholic or not. Aldous Huxley called him the greatest social architect of our time, and he was in the top 20 of Time's 100 heroes and icons of the 20th Century. But to make it out of his stupor Bill Wilson would have to forge a path where no one had gone before.

Bill had a dilemma once he got sober: the only place his alcoholic friends were recovering was the Oxford Group, an evangelical sect that had as their express goal to "Christianize" people. The group also believed that alcoholism was due to moral failure and that drinking was a sin. But Bill was learning from his doctor (Dr. Silkworth) that alcoholism was an illness. The news was liberating for him especially since he didn't believe that alcoholics were "sinners," per se. Bill had no problem with the concept of God. He himself had a spiritual experience that he felt struck him sober, but as he began talking with other alcoholics about getting sober, he could see that the Oxford's group's beliefs were hindering the recovery process.

Bill found himself tempted in his newfound sobriety as he walked by a bar one night so he started making phone calls to Oxford Group members to try to find alcoholics he could talk to. He found the conversations served to help his own sobriety and realized that only by "giving it away" could he keep it. One of those conversations led him to a "Dr. Bob", who would become the cofounder of AA. When talking to Bob, Bill's approach was to help him make a total surrender or as he called it, "ego deflation at depth," seeing that the end result of his alcoholism would be death or institutionalization. Eventually Bill and Bob broke away from the Oxford Group, but kept the "steps" which would later become "The Twelve Steps," of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Oxford Group would die away whereas AA and its affiliate programs dealing with gambling, sex and drugs would flourish with members into the millions worldwide. Why?

History, especially with regards to Bill Wilson shows us that it is neither helpful nor useful to look at people's compulsive behavior or depression as a moral failure or lack of willpower. It is as Dr Silkworth put it, "A physical allergy combined with mental obsession." Shining a light on the obsession in a forum without judgment is the key to recovery. It's a formula that has transformed everything from hoarders to debting.

Extrapolating this wisdom, we can see that "challenging" someone to give up smoking is like challenging someone to quit having diabetes. "C'mon" someone may say, "go on a diet, I challenge you to take off 50 pounds," which may work for a couple months only to see the weight put right back on again. Why? Because there is an illness at work here, not a matter of flipping on a switch and changing behavior. But the illness, once a light shines on the underlying reasons can be arrested.

Or how about depression? Now there's a misunderstood disease. How many articles do we read about depression being something where you can think your way into a positive outlook? For Wilson, he suffered deeply from depression after AA got on its feet and people accused him of "not working the program." But depression functions very much like addiction, as many of us in recovery can attest, in that it too is an illness, that has it's own unique recovery process.

Bill didn't just stop with AA. He would eventually get into therapy with a Jungian therapist and correspond briefly with Carl Jung. Bill wrote Jung to thank him for steering a friend of his toward a spiritual solution for his drinking problem. That in fact led Bill to his own spiritual experience. Jung wrote back confirming his belief that addiction is a "spiritual thirst for wholeness."

I was playing golf this summer and was paired up with a pastor. He lamented that he was unable to help one of his members who was an active alcoholic. I asked him if he had recommended AA to his friend. He said, "Well you know, it doesn't specifically mention who the Higher Power is, so I'm not comfortable with that." That was a real head scratcher. In contrast, Bill Wilson's attitude about spirituality is as refreshing today as it was back in the 30's. He called AA spiritual kindergarten and thought of his book, "The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," as outlining a process to experience the essentially spiritual nature of life. In his mind it should be available to everyone.

The one thing Bill didn't do was become a megalomaniac. His letting go of leadership set AA apart from all other movements to help alcoholics. He made it a representative democracy and refused to dominate it. He also wrote into the traditions of the program that they would not proselytize but rather the public relations policy would be "attraction rather than promotion." That says a lot that a membership of millions would come solely through attraction.

I still haven't figured out how to get my local politician to understand representative democracy, but I'm working on it. I'll get back to you when I do . . .


Reference: Hartigan, Francis. Bill W. A biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. Print.