Bill Wilson stood in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel B in Akron, Ohio, listening to the laughter and glasses clinking in the hotel bar. His mind raced and his heart pounded as he fought to resist the lure. Then he remembered that helping others was one way to help himself, and he resolved to find another alcoholic whom he could help. He left the hotel. After a series of frantic phone calls, he found another alcoholic, named Dr. Robert Smith, who agreed to meet with him. A month later, Smith took his last drink. Bill W. and Bob S. became the founders of what would later become known as Alcoholics Anonymous.
DROWNING IN BOOZE
Bill Wilson had his first drink while in the army during World War I. “I had found the elixir of life,” he recalled. After the war, he married Lois Bumham and went to work on Wall Street. He lost all of his money in the stock market crash of 1929, but he continued to trade stocks and managed to earn a modest living. His heavy drinking, however, was slowly taking its toll. Eventually, alcohol completely took over his life, and by 1933, he hit bottom. Bill and Lois were living in her parents’ home in Brooklyn; she was working in a department store, while he spent his days and nights in a near-constant alcoholic stupor.
THE SECRET TO BILL’S SUCCESS
In 1934, an old drinking buddy who’d managed to give up his boozing ways and stay sober visited Bill. His secret? A belief that God would help him overcome his addiction to alcohol. When Bill said he wasn’t a member of any organized religion, his buddy said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” That made it almost easy: Bill understood that “it was only a matter of being willing to believe in a power greater than myself.”
Bill had a spiritual awakening. As he later recounted, “God had done for me what I could not do for myself.” Determined to get better, he checked into a hospital and underwent the state-of-the-art treatment at that time for alcoholics: the barbiturate and belladonna cure, also known as “purge and puke.”
“While I lay in the hospital, the thought came that there were thousands of hopeless alcoholics who might be glad to have what had been so freely given me. Perhaps I could help some of them. They, in turn, might work with others.” Bill then came to understand how helping others would be essential to his recovery.
CLEAN AND SOBER
After his release, Bill managed to stay sober, but he returned to the hospital frequently to help other alcoholics undergoing detox. It was during this time that he faced his moment of truth at the Mayflower Hotel and began his association with Dr. Smith. Soon they were holding meetings for recovering alcoholics so that they could support their group and welcome others who were looking for help.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
By the time the group had about 100 members, Bill began to write down his philosophy as a series of principles for remaining sober. He eventually published them in a book called Alcoholics Anonymous, which also became the name of the organization that he and Dr. Smith founded. That book is now known as The Big Book.
In it, Bill wrote that the key to sobriety was a change of heart. He defined 12 steps to recovery that included an admission that one is powerless over the addiction, a belief in a higher power, restitution for the wrongs one has committed, and service to others.
Bill didn’t want anyone to profit from his or her association with A.A., and he believed that one way to avoid that was for members to keep their identities a secret. Also, A.A. members are not required to donate money, and no contribution over $1,000 is accepted. Bill himself never took a salary for his work or accepted financial gifts. As the membership of A.A. grew, he acted as the public spokesman, but he never revealed his identity. Bill testified before the U.S. Senate in 1969, but he would only allow himself to be photographed from behind. He wouldn’t allow himself to be photographed at all—even from behind—for a lime magazine cover.
BILL’S OTHER VICES
Though Bill Wilson’s contributions to the understanding of alcoholism and recovery are legendary, he was not a saint. He was an unrepentant womanizer after A.A. became famous; many women were attracted to him because of his celebrity within the organization. He would troll A.A. meetings for young women and offer them private “counseling.” His wife, Lois, mostly ignored his infidelities.
He was also blind to the ill effects that smoking had on his health—until it was too late. Near the end of his life, he was suffering from advanced emphysema. But he was so addicted to tobacco that he’d turn off the oxygen he needed to help him breathe so that he could have a cigarette. He died in Miami in 1971.
STEP UP AND HELP YOURSELF
Alcoholics Anonymous has more than two million members in over 150 countries today. Because of its success, the American Medical Association officially recognized alcoholism as a disease (instead of a failure of willpower) in 1956. After Wilson died, Lois founded Al-Anon and Alateen as support groups for spouses and children of alcoholics. Bill Wilson’s 12-step program spawned other recovery organizations like Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous, and Workaholics Anonymous. But so far, no Bathroom Readers Anonymous.