It's so rare to see someone who doesn’t drink alcohol at a social event or dinner that when I do I am immediately curious about why they don't drink. Why are they NOT actively tranquilizing themselves? Are they, like me, in recovery? Are they a friend of Bill's? More often than not they are. So, who is this Bill guy anyway?
William Griffith Wilson (November 26, 1895 – January 24, 1971), also known as Bill Wilson or Bill W. was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. A.A. is an international fellowship with about 2 million members worldwide. Following A.A.’s 12th tradition of anonymity, Wilson is commonly known as "Bill W." or "Bill." In order to identify each other, members of A.A. will sometimes ask others if they are "friends of Bill". Although this question can be confusing, because "Bill" is a common name, it does provide a means of establishing the common experience of A.A. membership. After Wilson's death in 1971, and amidst much controversy within the fellowship, his full name was included in obituaries by journalists who were unaware of the significance of maintaining anonymity within the organization. Wilson's sobriety from alcohol, which he maintained until his death, began December 11, 1934. Wilson died of emphysema complicated by pneumonia from smoking tobacco in 1971. In 1999 Time listed him as "Bill W.: The Healer" in the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.
“Bill Wilson’s popularity in A.A. circles was enormous. People would wait in line at large A.A. gatherings just to touch his sleeve. Many treated him like the Messiah or, in today’s world, a rock star. Wilson also had his enemies, many of them people who were previously among his staunchest allies. They accused him of betrayal, of power mongering, of lacking principal, of personal immorality and even of insanity. With the exception of the womanizing, none of those charges were true.”*
So addicts everywhere in 12-step recovery programs are all friends of Bill, the world's most famous anonymous man. As I spent more time in A.A. meetings around the world I wanted to know more about Bill Wilson, this regular guy who has achieved near-mythical status. There are some fabulous books written about Bill Wilson and the internet is more than happy to fill in the blanks regarding every aspect of his life. All of the sources come to similar conclusions...Bill Wilson may be a saint but he was also a flawed man. He was a very human human being.
I'm hesitant to write about Bill Wilson. Afraid of some imaginary backlash from the grave. "How dare you!!!" he admonishes me, all depression-era style and patrician New England bone structure. "Who do you think you are?" His long pale finger wags in my face like the ghost of Jacob Marley haunting Scrooge. "I’m sorry sir, I'm an addict who writes a blog about sobriety and recovery in AA and I'm writing about you this week." "Well listen here, Sweetie…just make me look good...or else!" And then poof - he vanishes.
But back to reality. It is daunting to tackle this subject. Others before me have done much better and more extensive research than I ever could. But I can tell you this. I love Bill Wilson. In all his humanness. With all his defects. His over-sized ego, his addiction to cigarettes, even his infidelity to his loyal and long-suffering wife. Here was a conflicted man. A man whose natural tendency was to raise hell, rage against societal norms and self-destruct. I can relate to that. But he was also a visionary. A man who had a fiery passion and a mission to help people find their way out of the misery of active addiction. A man who believed, as I have come to believe, that a life lived with the support of a higher power is an infinitely richer, more enjoyable life.
And yet...Bill W. was a man who advised honesty in all our affairs but was occasionally dishonest, a man who suggested humility yet struggled with his own powerful ego, a man who desperately wanted to be free from all addictions but could not stop smoking - even while connected to an oxygen tank for the emphysema that would eventually take his life. That's a twisted picture for me and also a perfect visual for addicts: a man hooked up to an oxygen tank while smoking a cigarette. The internal fight of all addicts everywhere. The angel fighting the devil. The white dog fighting the black dog. The desire to live and thrive clashing up against the desire to just check out and waste away. For an addict he is the perfect hero. Bill Wilson had some natural strengths that made him seem powerful, charismatic, heroic even. But like every flawed hero since the beginning of time Bill Wilson also had some sort of tragic defect as part of his makeup. A flaw that made him at least partially responsible for his own destruction. Just like all addicts everywhere.
Bill Wilson gave us the 12 steps But even with that insight he struggled mightily. He wrote the 7th step prayer which states: My creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength as I go from here to do your bidding. Amen. But he was unable to give up some of his defects and his inability to let those defects go robbed him of the lasting peace and joy that he was searching for. We now know much more about cross-addiction than we did in Bill Wilson's day. Yes, we have given up drinking and drugging, the most detrimental of our defects, but...there are always more. Like Hydra, the multi-headed monster who grows a new head the minute one is cut off, addiction is a serious foe. I have seen people early in sobriety who no longer drink or drug but they gain 25 pounds in their first year of sobriety. Or they start smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Or they credit-card their way into staggering debt, or start totally inappropriate relationships. We are human. We are flawed. Our nature is to want to find an escape from ourselves through external means. It never works. And Bill Wilson is the perfect example of this. We stumble and fall and get right back up. He kept going. And if he was not able to practice his principles in all of his affairs he paid a hefty price for it, a crippling depression that caused a real crisis of faith and almost tore AA apart.
Tom Powers, Bill’s writing partner on the “Twelve & Twelve” stated that “Bill was frequently overwhelmed by the guilt and remorse he felt as a consequence of his infidelities and the turmoil his affairs were causing within the fellowship.” Powers insisted that Wilson’s guilt over his infidelities was responsible for his depression. No argument was returned. “You’re right” Bill said ”but I can’t give it up.”
Biographer Susan Cheever wrote in My Name Is Bill:
“Bill…was never able to be the man his followers wanted him to be, or that his wife wanted him to be – or even, on most days, the man HE wanted to be. He tried to discourage the idea that he was a leader, or any kind of model for human behavior. He fought the idea of himself as a hero; he knew better. He never held himself up as a model; he only hoped to help others by sharing his experience, strength and hope…he insisted again and again that he was just an ordinary man."
Yes, an ordinary man who created something miraculous. A program that has stood the test of time. A program that has gained members and traction every single year since its founding. A program that can restore us to sanity. A program that can help us recover everything we have lost through addiction - our dignity, our self esteem, our happiness.
I have slipped out of recovery. A lot of us slip before gaining long term sobriety. But if we make it back we are always welcomed with open arms, and with compassion. I like to imagine that part of this is because of Bill's example and his chronic struggle with his powerful internal demons. According to everything I've read, Bill was often admonished for his philandering and his smoking by the other founding members of A.A. but he was never shunned. His support group knew that he was at least trying to do the right thing. That his defects were a powerful and slippery foe. And when I slipped, I thought of Bill Wilson and I felt comforted by his humanness. Bill Wilson was not some shining example of sober perfection. He gave up alcohol, which, trust me, is a Herculean task but he was still an addict. And in his continued attempts to fight his lower urges he became a powerful example.
Bill Wilson was an ordinary man who has saved tens of millions of lives (my own included) which, in my opinion, makes him extra-ordinary. And for that if nothing else, Bill Wilson will always be my hero, cigarettes, oxygen tank and all.