U.S. CATHOLIC, Vol. 54: 10-12, 1989
THE DRUNK WHO HELPED MILLIONS GET SOBER
by Michael O’Connell-Cahill
What could a contemporary Catholic learn about spirituality from a man who once let his wife sit in the sidecar of a motorcycle for hours on end in a foreign town while he snuck off to a tavern to to get drunk?
Prodigious drinkers might call the tales of the drinking life of one Bill Wilson legendary. But Lois Wilson, his wife, knew him too well. She knew the utter destruction and hopelessness of living life with a gifted, intelligent alcoholic who had lost everything to the riddling disease of alcoholism. Bill’s doctor had informed her that, at the end, his life would “end with heart failure during delirium tremens, or…a wet brain, perhaps within a year.”
Remarkably, within that same year, Bill Wilson had begun, without really knowing it, a spiritual program that today has helped more than 1.5 million alcoholics get sober. The program is known as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.).
In his history of A.A., Ernest Kurtz notes that “a fellowship whose claim to be ‘spiritual rather than religious’ finds resonance among Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Moslems, adherents of native North American faiths, and others just might have something to teach both those who believe and those who do not.”
Author Kurt Vonnegut called A.A. the United States of America’s greatest gift to the world. And it was Bill Wilson’s spiritual conversion that led to the success of this spiritual program.
What happened to Bill was simple but profound. An old friend stopped by. Bill offered him a drink.
“No thanks. I don’t want any. I’m not drinking.”
“No drink? Why not? Are you on the water wagon?”
“No, I don’t mean that. I’m just not drinking today.”
“Not drinking today! What’s gotten into you?”
“Well, I don’t need it anymore. I’ve got religion.”
Bill reacted with one thought: “My gin will last longer than his preaching.” But he found his friend was not preaching but simply sharing his experience and inviting Bill along. Bill listened as his friend told him how he had admitted complete defeat, total powerlessness. And how God now provided the power he needed. Bill felt flickers of hope, but he disliked the notion of a personal God. He thought he had his out until his friend told him, “Choose your own conception of God.” Bill melted. “It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a power greater than myself.”
From that moment on, Bill had a spiritual awakening. He went into the hospital and dried out for the last time. He admitted his own defeat and said a prayer offering himself to God. He listed his wrongs and sins due to his drinking and set out to amend hurt relationships. He set out to abandon a lifelong attitude of self-centeredness. He later said of this experience, “God comes to most men gradually, but his impact on me was sudden and profound.”
What sustained Bill’s change is perhaps what made his conversion different from the overeater who. loses weight only to gain it back again, ad infinitum. Bill discovered that to keeps his gifts of sobriety and spiritual awakening, a relationship with God would not be enough. He needed others. But there were no other sober alcoholics. So he set out to find them. For two years he did little work for pay. Instead, he visited hospitals, asylums, and other places to carry to other drunks his message of sobriety through surrender of the will to God. After months, very few others had gotten sober. But for the first time in his life, Bill had stayed that way. This was 1935. By 1939 there were 100 sober A.A.’s in the country. The rest is history.
Today, compulsive drug addicts, gamblers, sex addicts, overeaters, and countless others have modeled programs after A.A. to stop their addictive patterns, turn their lives over to a higher power, and help others with the same malady.
What was special about Bill’s spirituality that can help Catholic Christians of today? First, especially in the United States where independence and self-will are honored character traits, Bill’s story offers an amazing contradiction. He finally quit drinking and found God by admitting total defeat, by acknowledging he was not God, that he could not go it alone.
Secondly, by choosing his own conception of a higher power or God, he opened the door to a spiritual program that believes in “God as you understand Him.” This revolution in thinking freed thousands of drunks of various religions, as well as atheists and agnostics, from having to believe in any particular God to get sober.
Third, in an age in which Catholics speak so much of community, Bill Wilson was ahead of his time. His realization that he needed to help others to keep his own sobriety alive predated much of the “God is in people; the church is the people” theology of today. For Bill, the principle of “you’ve got to give it away to keep it” was a life or death matter.
In contemporary society, anyone can benefit from the simple steps of Bill’s spiritual awakening when dealing with the stresses of everyday life. To acknowledge that I can’t do it alone, to seek the help of God through others, and to pass the help I’ve gotten on to those others certainly is a humbling task. But contrary to the voice of American “I can do” values, it is not humiliating. As Bill Wilson and millions of others can attest, this way of life snatches life from the jaws of death.