Bill Wilson was one of the most influential people of the twentieth century. He was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and helped to develop the 12 Steps, a program that is now used to treat many kinds of human suffering. Bill Wilson borrowed heavily from other spiritual groups, but there is no doubt that what he helped to create offered something unique for its time.
It is difficult to estimate just how many people have been helped by groups like AA over the years. 12 Step programs have touched the lives of millions of people. Bill Wilson helped create the most successful community based self-help group of all time. In 1999, Time Magazine mentioned Bill in the top 100 heroes of the 20th century.
In 1885 the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous was born in a room behind a bar. His parents split up when he was very young, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents. Bill’s paternal grandfather had been an alcoholic but managed to quit after some type of spiritual experience.
Bill didn’t try alcohol until he was 21 years old and serving in the military. He had always felt a bit shy so he was impressed with how much alcohol gave him confidence. He wrote about the experience of first drinking alcohol with the words, I have found the elixir of life. He took to alcohol like a fish to water. His friends at the time were all heavy drinkers so in the beginning he was able to hide his excesses. Within a few years his drinking was out of control.
Bill married in 1918 and found his way into the world of stock speculation. He hit upon the idea of travelling around the US to evaluate different businesses. He could then provide investors with reliable appraisals of what each company was actually worth. This strategy worked in the beginning but Bill’s drunken escapades began to damage his reputation. Things had deteriorated so much by 1933 that he had to be committed to a sanatorium. He then fell into a pattern of getting committed to hospital, getting sober, and then relapsing back to drinking. It was beginning to look like Bill was a hopeless case who would not have long to live.
Bill Wilson had his last drink on December 11, 1934. A former drinking buddy introduced him to an evangelical Christian fellowship known as the Oxford Group. This friend had previously been an uncontrollable drinker but now claimed to be cured. Although Bill felt highly skeptical in the beginning, he agreed to give this spiritual cure a try. It worked, and for six months it looked like Bill had found the answer to his problems.
It was while he was working away from home in a strange city that the urge to drink hit Bill hard again. He knew that he would relapse unless he did something. It is then that the idea of trying to help another alcoholic arose in his thinking. He rang around the local hospitals until he found a likely candidate. Dr. Bob had recently been admitted to hospital because of his alcohol abuse. Like Bill Wilson, he was considered a hopeless case. Dr. Bob was receptive to Bill’s message and was able to give up alcohol, and Bill managed to avoid a relapse. The meeting between these two is considered to be the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Bill Wilson Author of the Big Book
The early members of AA were still closely connected to the Oxford Group. Bill continued to have misgivings about their evangelical leanings. He felt that this would prevent too many alcoholics from accepting the help that such a program could offer. Bill had been influenced by a physician called Dr. Silkwood who promoted the idea that alcoholism was a disease and not moral failing. The early members of AA became convinced that it was a disease that could be cured with a spiritual program. In order to make this cure available to more people it was necessary for Alcoholics Anonymous split completely away from the Oxford Group.
In 1939, the group released a book called Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than 100 Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism. This later became known as the Big Book. It has become the most successful self-help publication of all time, with over 20 million copies sold. Most of the content was written by Bill, but he did get a great deal of help from the early members of the group.
The Big Book describes in detail the program of recovery offered by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is the most important text for this fellowship, and most meetings include a reading from this book. Long-term members of AA will be able to quote chunks of the book from memory. The influence of the Oxford Group on the Twelve Steps is noticeable, but Bill W. did manage to create something that was more appropriate to recovering alcoholics.
Bill managed to stay sober for the final 37 years of his life. During this time he was more commonly known as Bill W. His sober years were not always idyllic, and he went through a couple of bad periods of depression. Despite writing one of the most popular books of all time, he never became rich because of it. Even though he had been so important in the creation of AA he did not always feel comfortable spending time at the meetings. His attendance would always create a fuss, and he would be expected to give a talk. This meant that he was not able to enjoy the same benefits of the group as other members. On his deathbed Bill asked for whisky, but it was not given to him. Bill Wilson died of emphysema and pneumonia in 1971. He had continued to be a heavy smoker throughout his years of sobriety.
Bill Wilson had an impact on the addiction recovery community. Alcoholics Anonymous continues to attract new members every day. There have also been many other behavioral problems that have been successfully treated with the 12 Step approach. It was once hoped that AA would prove to be the answer for all alcoholics, but this has not proved to be the case. However, there is no doubt though that it has turned out to be a powerful tool that can help some people escape addiction. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the influence of Bill Wilson will disappear any time soon.