I often have people coming into my store talking about the recovery groups that they are involved in such as AA. Just as the author is not busting on I AA, neither am I. It works for some people. What it neglects to do is lift people up. For 70 years we have been teaching society that we have to punish ourselves to get past addiction. What really need to happen is that we need to treat the immediate effects of the withdrawal from addiction rather than the mind for the future. The mind cannot be treated until the body achieves homeostasis. Bill Wilson almost died with a drink in his hand.
Little Known Facts About Bill W.
It’s crucial that we take a look at the life of Bill Wilson, aka Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, because he is responsible for creating a phenomenon that has been adopted by our society as the main treatment method for not only alcoholism, but addiction in general.
A program that is falsely believed to be successful and based on sound principles, when what we really have is an entire medical society and justice system demanding attendance in a program that emerged from the mind of a man that was consumed with sexual obsession and crippling depression and heavily influenced by the brainwashing of a religious cult.
I point this out not to discredit Bill Wilson, he was doing the best he could with what he had to work with at the time. Unfortunately he didn’t have at his disposal the knowledge we have today about genetics and addictive biochemistry. I believe he had a true desire to help people and was a man in search of the truth, however he did not have all the pieces of the puzzle.
Bill Wilson’s Background
Before getting sober, Bill Wilson was repeatedly admitted to a hospital that was famous for treating alcoholics, called Town’s Hospital, where he met a wise doctor named Dr. Silkworth. Dr. Silkworth believed that alcoholism was caused by an allergy to alcohol, not a lack of willpower, and it was the allergy that created the cravings for alcohol. He shared this belief with Bill W. and told him that once you have the allergy, you can never drink again because it results in the inability to control your drinking. This theory made great sense to Bill Wilson. and he embraced it thoroughly; and this is where the whole “alcoholism is a disease” concept originated.
Bill W. tried over and over and over again not to drink, but couldn’t succeed. Unfortunately, during this time he had another alcoholic friend who had joined the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian cult, and he tried to convince Bill that this was the path to sobriety. Initially Bill was resistant, but as his drinking grew more and more out of control and he was facing the possibility of being committed to an insane asylum, he grew increasingly desperate and started to be influenced by the teachings of the Oxford Group, which included admitting defeat, taking personal inventory of sins, confession, making restitution, helping others, prayer and passing the message on.
During one of his many hospitalizations for alcoholism, after a visit from his friend from the Oxford Group, while he was experiencing severe delirium tremors and highly sedated with a mixture of morphine, psychoactive drugs and belladonna (a hallucinogen), Bill experienced what he described as an intense religious experience where he came to believe that God was now his higher power as he had been taught by the Oxford Group. When in reality, what Bill was probably experiencing were hallucinations.
The primary concept of the Oxford Group was called “God Control.” They believed that human beings were powerless and that the only way to solve our problems was to submit our will completely to God. They also believed that all human problems were a result of sin, so Bill Wilson had adopted this concept as well. Frank Buchman, the leader of the group, had an obsession with sexual matters — he liked to focus on and pry sexual information out of his followers. He had a particular fondness for spending time with young men and talking about sexual matters. Buchman was asked to leave and even banned from more than one institution for inappropriate behaviors of a sexual nature with young students that sounded an awful lot like sexual abuse; and if we really had all the facts, we would probably learn it actually was.
Buchman was a very unreliable person who didn’t show up for appointments and would simply state that God had guided him to miss the appointment. He encouraged others to engage in irresponsible behavior and just trust that God would provide. At one point, he actually “publicly thanked God for the existence of Adolph Hitler and said he thought Hitler would make a great key person for the Oxford Group.” So this tells you just a little bit about where their head was at.
Bill Wilson introduced Dr. Bob (co-founder of AA) to the Oxford Group and convinced him that this was the path to sobriety, and the two of them began to carry the message to other alcoholics. The Oxford Group held meetings around town in hotels or members homes and targeted the educated and elite. It used elder members of the group to teach the newer members. The very first AA meeting was a group of alcoholics who were members of the Oxford Group that Bill pulled together. Eventually, the Oxford Group grew intolerant of the untidy drunks because they didn’t fit in with the wealthy bunch they catered to, so they stopped allowing them to attend their meetings. Bill W. and Dr. Bob left and formed their own Oxford Group, called Alcoholics Anonymous, where they brought all their teachings with them. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are taken directly from the teachings of the Oxford Group. In the Oxford Group, the steps were used to cure sin; but in AA, they are used to cure alcoholism. Bill Wilson tells us this directly on page 39 in his book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.
“Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and nowhere else.”
The tragedy in this story is that Dr. Silkworth was absolutely right. We now know that allergy is one of the most powerful roots in the cause of alcoholism and that alcoholism is most definitely a physical disease. However, although Dr. Silkworth knew the cause, he didn’t yet know what to do about it other than tell Bill not to drink ever again. Dr. Silkworth and Bill Wilson were on the right track, but because they didn’t yet have enough knowledge about what they had discovered, they weren’t able to find a solution and stop the cravings.
It is unfortunate that out of his desperation Bill Wilson. turned to the Oxford Group and ended up combining the whole “alcoholism is a disease” concept with the “religious sin” concept; thus, in the process, we really ended up losing the truth about alcoholism in the 12 Step Program. It is apparent when we look at the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that although Bill believed in his mind that alcoholism is a physical disease, in his heart he felt it was a spiritual disease that emerged from sin, and he was not able to break free from the hold that the Oxford Group had instilled in him.
Bill W.’s Disturbing Behavior
Additionally, Bill Wilson struggled with depression throughout all his recovery that was so severe at times that he would hold his head in his hands and weep, he wasn’t able to respond to questions and he couldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes it was accompanied by heart palpitations, a stomachache and feeling sick all over. His wife, Lois, often referred to him as “almost a hypochondriac” and he sometimes experienced hysteria and breathing problems that he felt he couldn’t control.
Bill’s behavior indicated that he also had a very active sex addiction that completely ruled his life and often threatened to destroy everything he had worked for. Bill Wilson’s sex life is not well known or talked about because people of AA “shrouded it in secrecy.” It was intentionally kept out of official AA literature and archives because it would have a negative impact on the AA movement.
Bill Wilson was the original 13 stepper. It is where the term was coined. If you’re unfamiliar with what a 13 stepper is, it is an elder member in AA who takes advantage of the newer and vulnerable members by using them for sex. Although Bill was married, he engaged in numerous affairs over the years with AA members, particularly the newcomers, and is said to have had an eye for the younger ladies. The older he got, the younger he liked them. The sad truth of the matter is that Bill W. used his position as a leader in the AA community to use and sexually exploit young women who were new to the program.
His behavior was so out of control that it is rumored that certain members of AA were actually delegated the responsibility of following Bill Wilson and working as “watch dogs” to keep vulnerable young women out of his grip. Whenever they saw him zeroing in on his prey, one person would distract Bill while another person took the young woman under their wing for protection.
Later on he maintained a long-term mistress with a woman who was 22 years younger than he was, Helen Wynn, and even left her 10 percent of earnings from the Big Book in his will. He had wanted to leave her a much heftier amount, but the AA trustees wouldn’t allow it. At more than one point Bill contemplated leaving his wife for Helen, but never went through with it out of fear for the controversy it would cause in AA.
Bill Wilson’s sexual behavior with the women caused a great deal of controversy and concern throughout the AA community and even caused him loss of friendships. Tom Powers, a long time close friend, colleague and editor, actually left the fellowship and developed his own offshoot group as a result of his disappointment and disgust with Bill’s inability to control his sexual urges. He didn’t want to be publicly associated with Bill and is quoted as saying, “this sex thing ran through the whole business” and “Bill had to get this sex thing straightened out in program terms so he wasn’t lying about it all the time.”
A lot of people, including trustees, worked very hard to keep Bill Wilson’s big sexual secret hidden and actually devoted their life to protecting the image of Bill W. in order to prevent public embarrassment of AA. Even his wife, Lois, accepted his infidelities, kept quiet and participated in the cover up.
Friends who were close to Bill Wilson. would try and talk to him about the sex issue and he would acknowledge that they were right and try to mend his ways, but he just couldn’t do it. They report that it was a source of great inner conflict and agony for him. In Bill’s writings he often referred to the sex drive as a natural human trait that could at times rage out of control. His friends tell us he was tortured by his behavior that violated his own values and morals; however, he vacillated back and forth between attempting to change and then rationalizing and justifying his behavior when he fell backwards.
In a program that Bill Wilson himself designed to demand rigorous honesty and unselfishness, Bill was living a lie and a very poor example of a man who was supposed to be living an unselfish, spiritual life. He was constantly cheating, lying and sneaking around on his wife and exploiting vulnerable women in the program with no regard for the impact it had on their life. His friends say he was consumed with remorse, self-loathing, guilt, despair and shame as a result of his inability to live up to his own expectations as well as others, and often felt he wasn’t worthy of leading AA.
Sex was not the only addiction Bill Wilson was still struggling with. He was also a heavy chain smoker and caffeine consumer. It is reported that his wife, Lois, often complained of these behaviors and accused him of being addicted to them, but Bill brushed it off by referring to her as an overreacting nag.
Bill repeatedly struggled with a battle to give up cigarettes. He would give them up for a while and then drive other people crazy by begging for theirs. He was rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand. Papers on his desk were consistently covered with ashes and little burn holes, and the edges of tables and desks were scarred with long cigarette burns.
Bill Wilson was so addicted to nicotine that he continued to smoke even though he developed emphysema and became dependent upon an oxygen tank to get through the days. It was clear to Bill that smoking was the cause of his emphysema, but he couldn’t quit. Those close to him report that he often struggled with making a decision about what he needed or wanted more — cigarette or oxygen. More often than not the cigarette won out.
In 1969, as he got sicker and sicker, he pretended to quit smoking, but he kept cigarettes hidden in his car and would sneak out for a drive to have a secret smoke. Bill Wilson literally smoked himself to death. He died from emphysema and pneumonia.
Bill also continued to fight intense cravings for alcohol until the moment he died. As he lay on his deathbed, he wanted a drink so badly that he asked his assistants to bring him one on at least five different occasions; but knowing the disastrous impact it would have on AA, they refused. His cravings were so intense that on one of these occasions he became belligerent and threatened to punch a nurse.
A Legacy of Lies
These facts about Bill Wilson, although disturbing, are important, because all concepts, beliefs, values and methods in AA and the 12 Step Program are a reflection of what was going on in Bill’s mind and life. Bill Wilson did not discover a
“cure” or “great secret” for alcoholism or any other addiction. He was very clearly still a full blown addict and just switched his substance of choice and replaced his cravings for alcohol with women, sex, cigarettes, caffeine and cult-like religious fanaticism.
Bill Wilson was projecting his struggles, feelings of powerlessness, depression, inadequacy and shame over his inability to control his sexual compulsions and nicotine addiction and his religious beliefs into the principles and methods, which became the 12 Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous. One only needs to look at the words in the 12 Steps, the Big Book and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions to see that this is true.
In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, many of the discussions revolve around sex and sexual needs. These are not the words of a man who was divinely guided by God, as he so often claimed, and people still believe to this day. These are the words of a man struggling with shame, self-loathing, guilt and remorse and trying to find a way to deal with them and explain his behaviors. Unfortunately, all he had to turn to at the time was the teachings he had learned from the religious cult, the Oxford Group. Like all religions, they attempted to control behavior through shame and guilt and this is the method that Bill W. adopted and passed along.
I do not sit in judgment of Bill Wilson. I have compassion and complete understanding for his plight. Like most addicts, I too have struggled with most of the same or similar issues. Unlike me, he did not have the good fortune available to him that we now know about the biochemistry of addiction. Bill was not aware that his addiction to cigarettes, caffeine and sex were all interconnected to his alcoholism or have the means to learn about it. He didn’t understand that when his mother and father abandoned him as a child, it too had a profound impact on his addictive biochemistry. If Bill W. were alive today and could take advantage of the knowledge we’ve gained, we would probably be telling a very different story.
However, the problem is that Bill Wilson had not yet conquered these problems and his mind was not physically, emotionally or spiritually healthy. Although he had good intentions, the message he was carrying was tainted with dysfunction and half-truths. Thus, we ended up with a treatment program for alcoholism and addictions that is based on Christian evangelical cult beliefs and uses shame and guilt to try and encourage sobriety instead of an effective medical treatment that addresses the true roots of addiction. This results in the high rate of failure to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety that we see in AA in mainstream treatment.
The even bigger tragedy in this story is the fact that the medical community embraced this irrational way of thinking. Unfortunately, that is probably due to the fact that Bill had buddied up with Dr. Bob, a medical doctor, which gave him a foot in the door to the medical society and added credibility to his approach. However, you would think that somewhere along the line someone would have questioned the methods or suggested we grow with the times instead of engaging in mass delusion for over 70 years.
It’s been almost 75 years since Alcoholics Anonymous was developed. The principles that Bill Wilson developed for this program were a sign of the times when very little was known about alcoholism and they didn’t have much to work with. We now have a much better and accurate understanding of the roots of alcoholism and addiction. Scientific research now tells us that the roots of alcoholism reside in neurotransmitters in the brain and balancing these neurotransmitters will lead to successful recovery. It is not the result of character flaws, personality disorders, lack of will power or a spiritual disease.
You can learn more about balancing your neurotransmitters and achieving permanent, craving free sobriety, by taking a look at Get Sober Stay Sober: The Truth About Alcoholism or if you’d like a more personal one-on-one approach you may want to take a look at sobriety coaching.
Alternatively, you can get both the book and sobriety coaching together in my, Clean and Sober for Life Jump-Start Program.
As a mental health professional and a fellow alcoholic with more than 25 years of uninterrupted craving-free sobriety, I can share with you that this is a recovery program that works. When you balance your neurotransmitters, then cravings for alcohol and drugs simply disappear and staying sober is no longer a struggle.
Cheever, Susan. My Name is Bill: Bill Wilson – His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Simon & Schuster 2004
Hartigan, Francis. Bill W: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-Founder Bill Wilson. St. Martins Griffin, 2001.
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of AA. Alcoholics Anonymous, World Services. 1957