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Who is Bill W.?

Posted in Alcoholism Treatment

If we spend any time at all researching Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the phrase “friend of Bill W.” will undoubtedly come up. But who is this individual, and how exactly did his name become synonymous with the AA program?

One of the co-founders of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, William Griffith Wilson took his first drink at the age of 22. He became drunk that very first night, later commenting that he had found the elixir of life. During that time, he was serving in the Army during World War I. He continued drinking heavily from that point on, never feeling he was any different from any of the other guys. When the war was over, he returned to New York and joined his wife, Lois Burnham. Due to his constant drinking, he failed to receive his diploma from law school. He soon began to trade stocks on Wall Street and managed to earn a modest living, even after the collapse of Wall Street in 1929. Over time though, his drinking worsened and began to take its toll.

By 1933, Bill hit rock bottom with his drinking. Lois, his wife, was working in a nearby department store and they were living with her parents. Bill’s persistent drinking ruined his business and personal reputation. He spent the majority of his life in an almost constant drunken state. Later that year, he was admitted to the Towns Hospital from Drug and Alcohol Addictions located in New York a total of four times. He committed to the process of trying to stay sober; subscribing to the belief that alcoholism was a combination of a mental obsession with the drink and a physical inability to stop drinking. However, even this newfound belief did not help and he continued his battle with alcohol.

Bill’s Epiphany and Call to Help Others

Between his third and fourth stay in the hospital, in 1934, Bill was visited by an old drinking buddy. This buddy admitted he was able to beat the battle of alcohol with God’s help and his participation in an evangelical group. Wilson struggled with the idea because he was not affiliated with any particular religion. Shortly after, he was admitted to the hospital for the last time with the determination to beat the disease once and for all. In complete despair and desperation he called out to God later claiming he felt complete serenity in the presence of a bright light. From that moment on, he never took another drink.

Once he was released from the hospital, Wilson struggled with his return to his life. He joined the evangelical Oxford Group and offered assistance to other individuals who were dealing with alcoholism. Over time he realized one of the primary reasons he was able to avoid having a drink was through immersing himself in helping others. He joined forces with Dr. Bob Smith and together they worked to stay sober by reaching out to other alcoholics. They began hosting meetings for the others they were helping.

By 1938, Bill and Bob were working with a little over 100 sober individuals. Wilson had been writing his experiences and philosophy of their organization compiling them into a book called Alcoholics Anonymous, which included what is now known as the Twelve Steps. He focused on the necessary change of heart an individual had to have if they were going to make it sober. He was insistent that the Alcoholics Anonymous program be free from political involvement, nor did he want anyone to make a profit from the organization. In fact, he never drew a salary while creating the program, working in it, or acting as a public spokesman.

Bill W.: Revered, Respected and Yet Just Another Human Struggling

Although Bill Wilson championed and led the remarkable program, he was still just a man. He was an avid womanizer, often offering private counseling to young women in meetings. He also continued down a perilous path of smoking, even going as far as turning off his oxygen machine in later years just so he could have a smoke.

Bill Wilson died of complications from pneumonia and emphysema on January 24, 1971. His legacy lives on though through the membership of over 2 million members in more than 150 countries. His initial works have been adapted to meet the needs of a variety of other anonymous organizations including Narcotics Anonymous. Because of his addition and involvement in the program, his wife also worked to establish the Al-Anon and Alateen programs after his death.