Bill W.'s life makes for an interesting story irrespective of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Step program. The simple association of the AA member as a chain smoker is a common one, and so it should be no surprise that one of its founders was a chain smoker until the day he died, sequestering cigarettes away in his car for a quick drive-and-a-buzz. He alternated hits of oxygen with smoke even after he developed emphysema. But even more than that, Bill walked down many other avenues in pursuit of a replacement for alcohol.
Bill Wilson Turns on, Tunes In, and Drops Out
In addition to AA meetings Bill regularly saw a therapist, which scandalized the AA enclave. Although sober, he was given to frequent tantrums and bouts of depression. The 12 Steps were inadequate to help him, though they were largely his creation, and it is because of this that he found himself in California in the summer of 1956. Even before the psychedelic sixties Bill had his own mystical run in with Lucy.
Bill first took LSD in California, under the guidance of Gerald Heard. Also present was Sidney Cohen, psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration Hospital. The date was August 29, 1956. Tom P. was there, and he and Gerald Heard took notes about the events of the afternoon.1
Bill was quite enthusiastic about LSD, extolling its ability to quell the ego and provide one with a spiritual, indeed God-encountering, experience. He claimed that his wife also benefited from tripping the light fantastic when he shared acid with her. Bill only stopped dropping acid and supporting its ability to help the drunk when high-ranking members on the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Board disapproved.
On a side note, AA's founder was not the only one to ever explore lysergic acid diethylamide's ability to help keep a drunk sober. Before the drug was outlawed, it was sometimes used in tests to do just that. Tests conducted by psychiatrists Humphrey Osmond and John Smythies record that two-thirds of alcoholics in the group stopped drinking for 18 months after only one dose of acid.2 However, while these studies are interesting to read about and impressive because of the numbers claimed, something as subjective as a drug-experience cannot be considered concrete fact.
Bill Joins a Cult
Not exactly. Bill did have a preoccupation with the occult in his journeys after the founding of AA. A self-proclaimed agnostic, Bill was reticent to claim his first spiritual experience as having anything to do with God. In the AA tradition it is this first spiritual experience that causes you to acknowledge a higher power and admit that you are powerless; The First Step.
"Oh, God," he cried, and it was the sound not of a man, but of a trapped and crippled animal. "If there is a God, show me. Show me. Give me some sign."
As he formed the words, in that very instant he was aware first of a light, a great white light that filled the room, then he suddenly seemed caught up in a kind of joy, an ecstasy such as he would never find words to describe. It was as though he were standing high on a mountaintop and a strong clear wind blew against him, around him, through him -- but it seemed a wind not of air, but of spirit -- and as this happened he had the feeling that he was stepping into another world, a new world of consciousness, and everywhere now there was a wondrous feeling of Presence which all his life he had been seeking.3
It is interesting to note that Bill's account of the experience is a near mirrored-story of his grandfather's awakening to spirituality and sobriety.
Then, in a desperate state one Sunday morning, he (Bill Wilson's grandfather) climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus. There, after beseeching God to help him, he saw a blinding light and felt the wind of the Spirit. It was a conversion experience that left him feeling so transformed that he practically ran down the mountain and into town.4
The conclusions to be drawn from the similarity of the two accounts are the reader's own. The fact remains that Bill continued to seek answers from spirituality, and/or religion depending on one's definition. According to one source,5 Bill and his wife Lois even set aside a special room (called Stepping Stones) for séances and attempts at levitation.
The Alcoholics Anonymous method has had harsh critics and devoted proponents since its inception. It is important to make a distinction between Bill Wilson and the group itself. It is generally accepted that Bill was a bit of an ego-maniac, clashing with the group on several occasions. Fortunately the group was founded on principles of anonymity and a form of democratic leadership more egalitarian than most countries can claim.
And... A Footnote
If you haven't read enough about Bill and the psychedelic experience, you can read more excerpts from Pass It On1 recording this unique episode in history here.
1 Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World
3 Bill W.; A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson
4 Bill W.
and they say that alcoholics are always alcoholics,
even when they're dry as my lips for years
even when they're stranded on a small desert island
with no place in two thousand miles to buy beer
Ani Difranco, Fuel