Bill's Story is the first chapter in the Big Book for a reason. It is the story of one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, some would say the founder, and it tells of his descent into the depths of alcoholism and his discovery of a way out.
As such, it is the first of many, many examples of an alcoholic using his or her own true story to help a newcomer identify as an alcoholic. At its heart, this is the key to AA's success. Where a world- renowned physician or psychiatrist might well be met by an active alcoholic with distrust and stony silence, that same drunk man or woman will probably listen to a recovering alcoholic, one who has been there and back.
This is a uniquely powerful weapon, one upon which any recovering alcoholic, myself included, will rely as he or she tries to "spread the message" to other alcoholics.
The following is the first chapter of the Big Book in its entirety, produced here by permission of The Anonymous Press.
War fever ran high in the New England
town to which we new, young officers from Plattsburg were assigned, and we were
flattered when the first citizens took us to their homes, making us feel
heroic. Here was love, applause, war; moments sublime with intervals hilarious.
I was part of life at last, and in the midst of the excitement I discovered
liquor. I forgot the strong warnings and the prejudices of my people concerning
drink. In time we sailed for "Over There." I was very lonely and
again turned to alcohol.
We landed in England. I visited Winchester
Cathedral. Much moved, I wandered outside. My attention was caught by a
doggerel on an old tombstone:
"Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death
Drinking cold small beer.
A good soldier is ne'er forgot
Whether he dieth by musket
Or by pot."
Ominous warning -
which I failed to heed.
Twenty-two, and a veteran of foreign wars, I went home
at last. I fancied myself a leader, for had not the men of my battery given me
a special token of appreciation? My talent for leadership, I imagined, would
place me at the head of vast enterprises which I would manage with the utmost
assurance. I took a night law course, and obtained employment as investigator
for a surety company. The drive for success was on. I'd prove to the world I
was important. My work took me about Wall Street and little by little I became
interested in the market. Many people lost money - but some became very rich.
Why not I? I studied economics and business as well as law. Potential alcoholic
that I was, I nearly failed my law course. At one of the finals I was too drunk
to think or write. Though my drinking was not yet continuous, it disturbed my
wife. We had long talks when I would still her forebodings by telling her that
men of genius conceived their best projects when drunk; that the most majestic
constructions of philosophic thought were so derived.
By the time I had completed the course, I knew the law
was not for me. The inviting maelstrom of Wall Street had me in its grip.
Business and financial leaders were my heroes. Out of this alloy of drink and
speculation, I commenced to forge the weapon that one day would turn in its
flight like a boomerang and all but cut me to ribbons. Living modestly, my wife
and I saved $1,000. It went into certain securities, then cheap and rather
unpopular. I rightly imagined that they would some day have a great rise. I
failed to persuade my broker friends to send me out looking over factories and
managements, but my wife and I decided to go anyway. I had developed a theory
that most people lost money in stocks through ignorance of markets. I
discovered many more reasons later on.
We gave up our positions and off we roared on a
motorcycle, the sidecar stuffed with tent, blankets, a change of clothes, and
three huge volumes of a financial reference service. Our friends thought a
lunacy commission should be appointed. Perhaps they were right. I had had some
success at speculation, so we had a little money, but we once worked on a farm
for a month to avoid drawing on our small capital. That was the last honest
manual labor on my part for many a day. We covered the whole eastern United States
in a year. At the end of it, my reports to Wall Street procured me a position
there and the use of a large expense account. The exercise of an option brought
in more money, leaving us with a profit of several thousand dollars for that
For the next few years fortune threw money and applause
my way. I had arrived. My judgment and ideas were followed by many to the tune
of paper millions. The great boom of the late twenties was seething and
swelling. Drink was taking an important and exhilarating part in my life. There
was loud talk in the jazz places uptown. Everyone spent in thousands and
chattered in millions. Scoffers could scoff and be damned. I made a host of
My drinking assumed more serious proportions,
continuing all day and almost every night. The remonstrances of my friends
terminated in a row and I became a lone wolf. There were many unhappy scenes in
our sumptuous apartment. There had been no real infidelity, for loyalty to my
wife, helped at times by extreme drunkenness, kept me out of those scrapes.
In 1929 I contracted golf fever. We went at once to the
country, my wife to applaud while I started out to overtake Walter Hagen.
Liquor caught up with me much faster than I came up behind Walter. I began to
be jittery in the morning. Golf permitted drinking every day and every night.
It was fun to carom around the exclusive course which had inspired such awe in
me as a lad. I acquired the impeccable coat of tan one sees upon the
well-to-do. The local banker watched me whirl fat checks in and out of his till
with amused skepticism.
Abruptly in October 1929 hell broke loose on the New York stock exchange.
After one of those days of inferno, I wobbled from a hotel bar to a brokerage
office. It was eight o'clock - five hours after the market closed. The ticker
still clattered. I was staring at an inch of the tape which bore the
inscription XYZ-32. It had been 52 that morning. I was finished and so were
many friends. The papers reported men jumping to death from the towers of High
Finance. That disgusted me. I would not jump. I went back to the bar. My
friends had dropped several million since ten o'clock - so what? Tomorrow was
another day. As I drank, the old fierce determination to win came back.
Next morning I telephoned a friend in Montreal. He had plenty of money left and
thought I had better go to Canada.
By the following spring we were living in our accustomed style. I felt like
Napoleon returning from Elba. No St. Helena
for me! But drinking caught up with me again and my generous friend had to let
me go. This time we stayed broke.
We went to live with my wife's parents. I found a job;
then lost it as the result of a brawl with a taxi driver. Mercifully, no one
could guess that I was to have no real employment for five years, or hardly
draw a sober breath. My wife began to work in a department store, coming home
exhausted to find me drunk. I became an unwelcome hanger-on at brokerage
Liquor ceased to be a luxury; it became a necessity.
"Bathtub" gin, two bottles a day, and often three, got to be routine.
Sometimes a small deal would net a few hundred dollars, and I would pay my
bills at the bars and delicatessens. This went on endlessly, and I began to
waken very early in the morning shaking violently. A tumbler full of gin
followed by half a dozen bottles of beer would be required if I were to eat any
breakfast. Nevertheless, I still thought I could control the situation, and there
were periods of sobriety which renewed my wife's hope.
Gradually things got worse. The house was taken over by
the mortgage holder, my mother-in-law died, my wife and father-in-law became
Then I got a promising business opportunity. Stocks were
at the low point of 1932, and I had somehow formed a group to buy. I was to
share generously in the profits. Then I went on a prodigious bender, and that
I woke up. This had to be stopped. I saw I could not
take so much as one drink. I was through forever. Before then, I had written
lots of sweet promises, but my wife happily observed that this time I meant
business. And so I did.
Shortly afterward I came home drunk. There had been no
fight. Where had been my high resolve? I simply didn't know. It hadn't even
come to mind. Someone had pushed a drink my way, and I had taken it. Was I
crazy? I began to wonder, for such an appalling lack of perspective seemed near
being just that.
Renewing my resolve, I tried again. Some time passed,
and confidence began to be replaced by cock-sureness. I could laugh at the gin
mills. Now I had what it takes! One day I walked into a cafe to telephone. In
no time I was beating on the bar asking myself how it happened. As the whisky
rose to my head I told myself I would manage better next time, but I might as
well get good and drunk then. And I did.
The remorse, horror and hopelessness of the next morning
are unforgettable. The courage to do battle was not there. My brain raced
uncontrollably and there was a terrible sense of impending calamity. I hardly
dared cross the street, lest I collapse and be run down by an early morning
truck, for it was scarcely daylight. An all night place supplied me with a
dozen glasses of ale. My writhing nerves were stilled at last. A morning paper
told me the market had gone to hell again. Well, so had I. The market would
recover, but I wouldn't. That was a hard thought. Should I kill myself? No -
not now. Then a mental fog settled down. Gin would fix that. So two bottles,
and - oblivion.
The mind and body are marvelous mechanisms, for mine
endured this agony two more years. Sometimes I stole from my wife's slender purse
when the morning terror and madness were on me. Again I swayed dizzily before
an open window, or the medicine cabinet where there was poison, cursing myself
for a weakling. There were flights from city to country and back, as my wife
and I sought escape. Then came the night when the physical and mental torture
was so hellish I feared I would burst through my window, sash and all. Somehow
I managed to drag my mattress to a lower floor, lest I suddenly leap. A doctor
came with a heavy sedative. Next day found me drinking both gin and sedative.
This combination soon landed me on the rocks. People feared for my sanity. So
did I. I could eat little or nothing when drinking, and I was forty pounds
My brother-in-law is a physician, and through his
kindness and that of my mother I was placed in a nationally-known hospital for
the mental and physical rehabilitation of alcoholics. Under the so-called
belladonna treatment my brain cleared. Hydrotherapy and mild exercise helped
much. Best of all, I met a kind doctor who explained that though certainly
selfish and foolish, I had been seriously ill, bodily and mentally.
It relieved me somewhat to learn that in alcoholics the
will is amazingly weakened when it comes to combating liquor, though it often
remains strong in other respects. My incredible behavior in the face of a
desperate desire to stop was explained. Understanding myself now, I fared forth
in high hope. For three for four months the goose hung high. I went to town
regularly and even made a little money. Surely this was the answer -
But it was not, for the frightful day came when I drank
once more. The curve of my declining moral and bodily health fell off like a
ski-jump. After a time I returned to the hospital. This was the finish, the
curtain, it seemed to me. My weary and despairing wife was informed that it
would all end with heart failure during delirium tremens, or I would develop a
wet brain, perhaps within a year. She would soon have to give me over to the
undertaker or the asylum.
They did not need to tell me. I knew, and almost
welcomed the idea. It was a devastating blow to my pride. I, who had thought so
well of myself and my abilities, of my capacity to surmount obstacles, was
cornered at last. Now I was to plunge into the dark, joining that endless
procession of sots who had gone on before. I thought of my poor wife. There had
been much happiness after all. What would I not give to make amends. But that
was over now.
No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found
in that bitter morass of self-pity. Quicksand stretched around me in all
directions. I had met my match. I had been overwhelmed. Alcohol was my master.
Trembling, I stepped from the hospital a broken man.
Fear sobered me for a bit. Then came the insidious insanity of that first
drink, and on Armistice Day 1934, I was off again. Everyone became resigned to
the certainty that I would have to be shut up somewhere, or would stumble along
to a miserable end. How dark it is before the dawn! In reality that was the
beginning of my last debauch. I was soon to be catapulted into what I like to
call the fourth dimension of existence. I was to know happiness, peace, and
usefulness, in a way of life that is incredibly more wonderful as time passes.
Near the end of that bleak November, I sat drinking in
my kitchen. With a certain satisfaction I reflected there was enough gin
concealed about the house to carry me through that night and the next day. My
wife was at work. I wondered whether I dared hide a full bottle of gin near the
head of our bed. I would need it before daylight.
My musing was interrupted by the telephone. The cheery
voice of an old school friend asked if he might come over. He was sober.
It was years since I could remember his coming to New York in that condition. I was amazed.
Rumor had it that he had been committed for alcoholic insanity. I wondered how
he had escaped. Of course he would have dinner, and then I could drink openly
with him. Unmindful of his welfare, I thought only of recapturing the spirit of
other days. There was that time we had chartered an airplane to complete a jag!
His coming was an oasis in this dreary desert of futility. The very thing - an
oasis! Drinkers are like that.
The door opened and he stood there, fresh-skinned and
glowing. There was something about his eyes. He was inexplicably different.
What had happened?
I pushed a drink across the table. He refused it.
Disappointed but curious, I wondered what had got into the fellow. He wasn't
"Come, what's this all about?" I queried.
He looked straight at me. Simply, but smilingly, he
said, "I've got religion."
I was aghast. So that was it - last summer an alcoholic
crackpot; now, I suspected, a little cracked about religion. He had that
starry-eyed look. Yes, the old boy was on fire all right. But bless his heart,
let him rant! Besides, my gin would last longer than his preaching.
But he did no ranting. In a matter of fact way he told
how two men had appeared in court, persuading the judge to suspend his
commitment. They had told of a simple religious idea and a practical program of
action. That was two months ago and the result was self-evident. It worked!
He had come to pass his experience along to me – if I
cared to have it. I was shocked, but interested. Certainly I was interested. I
had to be, for I was hopeless.
He talked for hours. Childhood memories rose before me.
I could almost hear the sound of the preacher's voice as I sat, on still Sundays,
way over there on the hillside; there was that proffered temperance pledge I
never signed; my grandfather's good natured contempt of some church folk and
their doings; his insistence that the spheres really had their music; but his
denial of the preacher's right to tell him how he must listen; his fearlessness
as he spoke of these things just before he died; these recollections welled up
from the past. They made me swallow hard.
That war-time day in old Winchester Cathedral came back
I had always believed in a Power greater than myself. I
had often pondered these things. I was not an atheist. Few people really are,
for that means blind faith in the strange proposition that this universe
originated in a cipher and aimlessly rushes nowhere. My intellectual heroes,
the chemists, the astronomers, even the evolutionists, suggested vast laws and
forces at work. Despite contrary indications, I had little doubt that a mighty
purpose and rhythm underlay all. How could there be so much of precise and
immutable law, and no intelligence? I simply had to believe in a Spirit of the
Universe, who knew neither time nor limitation. But that was as far as I had
With ministers, and the world's religions, I parted
right there. When they talked of a God personal to me, who was love, superhuman
strength and direction, I became irritated and my mind snapped shut against
such a theory.
To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great
man, not too closely followed by those who claimed Him. His moral teaching -
most excellent. For myself, I had adopted those parts which seemed convenient
and not too difficult; the rest I disregarded.
The wars which had been fought, the burnings and
chicanery that religious dispute had facilitated, made me sick. I honestly
doubted whether, on balance, the religions of mankind had done any good.
Judging from what I had seen in Europe and
since, the power of God in human affairs was negligible, the Brotherhood of Man
a grim jest. If there was a Devil, he seemed the Boss Universal, and he
certainly had me.
But my friend sat before me, and he made the
point-blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for
himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable.
Society was about to lock him up. Like myself, he had admitted complete defeat.
Then he had, in effect, been raised from the dead, suddenly taken from the
scrap heap to a level of life better than the best he had ever known!
Had this power originated in him? Obviously it had not.
There had been no more power in him than there was in me at the minute; and
this was none at all.
That floored me. It began to look as though religious
people were right after all. Here was something at work in a human heart which
had done the impossible. My ideas about miracles were drastically revised right
then. Never mind the musty past; here sat a miracle directly across the kitchen
table. He shouted great tidings.
I saw that my friend was much more than inwardly reorganized.
He was on a different footing. His roots grasped a new soil.
Despite the living example of my friend there remained
in me the vestiges of my old prejudice. The word God still aroused a certain
antipathy. When the thought was expressed that there might be a God personal to
me this feeling was intensified. I didn't like the idea. I could go for such
conceptions as Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind or Spirit of Nature but I
resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving His sway might
be. I have since talked with scores of men who felt the same way.
My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He
said, "Why don't you choose your own conception of God?"
That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy
intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I
stood in the sunlight at last.
It was only a matter of being willing to believe in
a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my
beginning. I saw that growth could start from that point. Upon a foundation
of complete willingness I might build what I saw in my friend. Would I have it?
Of course I would!
Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us
humans when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales
of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view.
The real significance of my experience in the Cathedral
burst upon me. For a brief moment, I had needed and wanted God. There had been
a humble willingness to have Him with me - and He came. But soon the sense of
His presence had been blotted out by worldly clamors, mostly those within
myself. And so it had been ever since. How blind I had been.
At the hospital I was separated from alcohol for the
last time. Treatment seemed wise, for I showed signs of delirium tremens.
There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then
understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under
His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was
nothing; that without Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became
willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch. I have not
had a drink since.
My schoolmate visited me, and I fully acquainted him
with my problems and deficiencies. We made a list of people I had hurt or
toward whom I felt resentment. I expressed my entire willingness to approach
these individuals, admitting my wrong. Never was I to be critical of them. I
was to right all such matters to the utmost of my ability.
I was to test my thinking by the new God-consciousness
within. Common sense would thus become uncommon sense. I was to sit quietly
when in doubt, asking only for direction and strength to meet my problems as He
would have me. Never was I to pray for myself, except as my requests bore on my
usefulness to others. Then only might I expect to receive. But that would be in
My friend promised when these things were done I would
enter upon a new relationship with my Creator; that I would have the elements
of a way of living which answered all my problems. Belief in the power of God,
plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new
order of things, were the essential requirements.
Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant
destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of
Light who presides over us all.
These were revolutionary and drastic proposals, but the
moment I fully accepted them, the effect was electric. There was a sense of
victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had never known. There was
utter confidence. I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a
mountain top blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually, but His
impact on me was sudden and profound.
For a moment I was alarmed, and called my friend, the
doctor, to ask if I were still sane. He listened in wonder as I talked.
Finally he shook his head saying, "Something has
happened to you I don't understand. But you had better hang on to it. Anything
is better than the way you were." The good doctor now sees many men who
have such experiences. He knows that they are real.
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
My friend had emphasized the absolute necessity of
demonstrating these principles in all my affairs. Particularly was it
imperative to work with others as he had worked with me. Faith without works
was dead, he said. And how appallingly true for the alcoholic! For if an
alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and
self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low
spots ahead. If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank,
he would surely die. Then faith would be dead indeed. With us it is just like
My wife and I abandoned ourselves with enthusiasm to
the idea of helping other alcoholics to a solution of their problems. It was
fortunate, for my old business associates remained skeptical for a year and a
half, during which I found little work. I was not too well at the time, and was
plagued by waves of self-pity and resentment. This sometimes nearly drove me
back to drink, but I soon found that when all other measures failed, work with
another alcoholic would save the day. Many times I have gone to my old hospital
in despair. On talking to a man there, I would be amazingly lifted up and set
on my feet. It is a design for living that works in rough going.
We commenced to make many fast friends and a fellowship
has grown up among us of which it is a wonderful thing to feel a part. The joy
of living we really have, even under pressure and difficulty. I have seen
hundreds of families set their feet in the path that really goes somewhere;
have seen the most impossible domestic situations righted; feuds and bitterness
of all sorts wiped out. I have seen men come out of asylums and resume a vital
place in the lives of their families and communities. Business and professional
men have regained their standing. There is scarcely any form of trouble and
misery which has not been overcome among us. In one western city and its
environs there are one thousand of us and our families. We meet frequently so
that newcomers may find the fellowship they seek. At these informal gatherings
one may often see from 50 to 200 persons . We are growing in numbers and power.
An alcoholic in his cups is an unlovely creature. Our
struggles with them are variously strenuous, comic, and tragic. One poor chap
committed suicide in my home. He could not, or would not, see our way of life.
There is, however a vast amount of fun about it all. I
suppose some would be shocked at our seeming worldliness and levity. But just
underneath there is deadly earnestness. Faith has to work twenty-four hours a
day in and through us, or we perish.
Most of us feel we need look no further for Utopia. We
have it with us right here and now. Each day my friend's simple talk in our
kitchen multiplies itself in a widening circle of peace on earth and good will