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In 1934, Bill W., cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, got a call from a former drinking buddy, Ebby T. “Rumor had it that he’d been committed for alcoholic insanity,” Bill recalled. “I wondered how he had escaped.”
In reality, Ebby was two months sober. This disappointed Bill, who wanted to recapture the spirit of their earlier drinking escapades. When Ebby came to visit, Bill pushed a drink across the table. Ebby refused it.
“The door opened, and he stood there, fresh-skinned and glowing,” Bill recalled. “He was inexplicably different. What had happened?” The answer to that question eventually brought Bill to sobriety, and to the Twelve Steps of AA.
Before Bill could formulate the Twelve Steps of AA, he had to make two discoveries. He had already gained the first one from Dr. William Silkworth, the attending physician during Bills first “detox.” Silkworth said that Bill had a disease with both physical and mental dimensions. The physical part was an abnormal craving for alcohol, and the mental dimension was a delusion. It was Bills belief that, someday, he’d be able to control his drinking like nonalcoholics. Bill desperately clung to that belief, despite the contrary evidence: No matter how often he vowed never to drink again, every time he touched a drink, he ended up drunk.
Now Bill had a grasp of the problem. Like other alcoholics, he got drunk not because he was weak-willed or sinful. Instead, Bills body and mind worked differently from other peoples.
This idea suggested the next question: How could they give up their delusion of controlled drinking? And how could they avoid taking that first drink?
Ebby had an answer. One of Ebby’s friends, also an alcoholic, had seen Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist. Jung pointed out that since early times, some alcoholics had recovered through what he called a “vital spiritual experience”, a complete change in thought and action. Short of such an experience, said Jung, the prognosis for alcoholics like Bill was death or insanity.
This “God talk” was tough for Bill to swallow. After his experiences as a soldier in World War I, Bill said that he “doubted whether the religions of mankind had done any good. Judging from what Id seen in Europe and since, the power of God in human affairs was negligible, the Brotherhood of Man a grim jest.”
Again, Ebby had a reply: Just choose your own concept of a higher power. That power can be anything that prompts a fundamental change in your thinking and action. For some, that might be a traditional concept of God. But for others, it could be a friend, a book, or even a breathtaking sunset.
This second discovery shook Bill to the core. “It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a power greater than myself,” he wrote later in “Alcoholics Anonymous” (AA General Services, $6). “Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning.” In short, the next step was a simple desire to change, a willingness to accept help from someone or something else. After Bill accepted these ideas, he never took another drink.
Silkworth, who’d diagnosed Bill as an incurable alcoholic, was dumbfounded by Bills transformation. “Something has happened to you that I don’t understand,” Silkworth told Bill. “But you had better hang on to it.”
In effect, Bill had discovered two core principles of recovery. First, admit the problem, powerlessness over alcohol (or other drugs). Second, open up to a solution, a “Higher Power,” any source of help outside yourself. These principles are, in essence, the first three steps of AA: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Bill longed to carry this message to other alcoholics. But that presented another problem: Spiritual experiences can hardly be produced at will. How could he help other alcoholics clear a space in their minds and hearts for such change?
Steps four through nine of AA, addressed in our next column, help provide an answer.
From; Alive & Free is a health column that provides information to help prevent substance abuse problems and address such problems. It is created by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency based in Center City, Minn., that offers a wide range of information and services on addiction.