"…and I am an alcoholic."
Bill Wilson co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous and developed the 12-step
program that has helped millions around the world to overcome their
Bill Wilson stood in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, Ohio. He
could hear the laughter and glasses clinking from the hotel bar and felt
that irresistible urge that he had felt so many times before. 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 that he could help. He left the hotel
and after a series of frantic phone calls 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.
Bill Wilson had his first drink while in the Army during World War I.
"I had found the elixir of life" he recalled, and he soon
began to drink heavily. After the war, he married Lois Burnham in 1918,
and enjoyed great success trading stocks 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. However, his heavy drinking
continued to get worse, and it slowly took its toll.
Eventually alcohol completely took over his life and by 1933, he had
hit bottom. Bill and Lois were living in her parent’s home in
Brooklyn. Lois was working in a department store, while Bill spent his
days and nights in a near-constant alcoholic stupor.
In 1934, he was visited by an old drinking buddy who had managed to stop
drinking and stay sober. He shared his secret with Bill; a belief that
God would help him overcome his addiction to alcohol. When Bill said he
was not a member of any organized religion his buddy said, "Why
don’t you choose your own conception of God?" Bill understood
that "it was only a matter of being willing to believe in a power
greater than myself."
As Bill later recounted, "God had done for him what he could not do
for himself." Bill Wilson had a spiritual awakening and his belief
in a higher power and the realization that he couldn’t do it alone
would help him to conquer his addiction. 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." He then came to understand how helping
others would be essential to his recovery.
After his release, he managed to stay sober but 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. Bob Smith. Wilson and Smith helped each other and
then reached out to other alcoholics. Soon they began to hold meetings
for recovering alcoholics so that they could support their group and
welcome others who were looking for help.
A.A. Founders Bob Smith and Bill Wilson
By the time that the group had about 100 members, Bill began to write
down his philosophy as a series of principals 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, making
restitution for the wrongs one has committed, and service to others.
Bill did not want anyone to profit from their 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 contribute
and no contribution over $1,000 is accepted. He never took a salary for
his work or accepted any financial gifts.
As the membership of A.A. grew, he acted as their 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 Time magazine cover.
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, because so many women were attracted
to him due to his celebrity within the organization. He often trolled
A.A. meetings for young women and offered 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. He continued to smoke even though near the end of
his life he was suffering from advanced emphysema. He was so addicted to
tobacco that he would turn off the oxygen he needed to assist his
breathing so that he could have a cigarette. He died in Miami in 1971.
Lois and Bill Wilson
Alcoholics Anonymous has more than 2 million members in over 150
countries today. A.A.’s success in helping alcoholics caused the
American Medical Association to officially recognize alcoholism as a
disease instead of a failure of will power in 1956. After Bill Wilson
died, his wife Lois founded Al-Anon and Alateen as support groups for
spouses and children of alcoholics.
The 12-step program that Bill Wilson developed has been successfully
adapted to assist those suffering from many other types of addictive and
self-destructive behaviors, and spawned many other recovery
organizations, including; Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous,
Sexaholics Anonymous, Gambler's Anonymous, Debtor's Anonymous, Smoker's
Anonymous and Workaholics Anonymous.