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By overcoming his own addiction, then teaching others how to do so as well, this man helped not only to save himself, but also renew the lives of millions of others. In addition, he changed social perceptions on the both the roots and treatment of addiction.
In the 1930s United States, alcoholism was not viewed as a disease, but a moral failing. People who drank heavily were seen as weaklings and troublemakers. Serious alcoholics were labeled insane and admitted into asylums where they were often subjected to electric shock treatments and lobotomies that rendered them catatonic.
Born in 1895, Bill W. was a traveling stock speculator. He’d started to drink as a young soldier as a means to escape the horrors of the First World War. Although the US banned alcohol in 1919 in the Prohibition Amendment, Bill never had any trouble finding a hotel with a secret bar – a “speakeasy” – or a still. As a result, his drinking grew so heavy in the 1920s that he lost his chance to cash in his car for a career on Wall Street. He then went to law school, and managed to stay in despite his inability to refrain from a daily drink. However, he showed up drunk to his final exam and failed.
In 1933, Bill's wife had him committed to the Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York City in the hopes that this would cure him of drinking. During his stay, Bill was warned that there was no cure for his condition; that his drinking would either kill him, or render him an invalid who would spend the rest of his life in a mental asylum.
While at the Towns hospital, Bill befriended a doctor named William Silkworth, who held a maverick view for the time: he believed that alcoholism was a mental disease and that it could be cured with self-awareness and ongoing support. In 1935, Bill began to attend meetings with the Oxford Group, a Christian fellowship then leading meetings to help alcoholics overcome their addiction. Thanks to the meetings, Bill stayed sober for several months. Then, during a work trip to Akron, Ohio, Bill felt overwhelmed by the temptation to drink again. He telephoned every fellow Oxford member whose number he knew until he found Bob. Together the two men helped each other stay sober. Bill never drank again.
Back in New York, Bill began to facilitate meetings himself, guided by a new vision of how to support recovering alcoholics. Attendees at Bill's meetings only used their first names, providing them a measure of anonymity that allowed them to open up about the ugly realities of living under the thumb of addiction. Everyone present at each and every meeting was encouraged to state their name and admit they suffered from a disease and needed help outside themselves to get healthy. Members were instructed to make amends for those they had hurt by drinking, helping to let go of the guilt that hampered them from seeking help. Bill gradually formulated his ideas into "twelve traditions," which is now known as the 12-step program.
In 1939, the Oxford Group asked Bill to write down and publish his methods. The result was a book entitled Alcoholics Anonymous. It soon became the name of a new independent organization, guided by Bill. Bill's humble persona and frank manner of speaking made him famous among members, helping thousands of alcoholics to come out of hiding and seek help. Alcoholics looking for support began to ask one another if they were "friends of Bill" as a code to find fellow members and retain their precious anonymity in the face of a still very judgmental wider culture.
By the 1950s, Bill had helped convince many doctors – and sufferers – that alcoholism was a disease, not a moral failing. Little by little, AA meetings replaced shock therapy and lobotomies in many hospitals, and committals to asylums fell dramatically. By 1955, when Bill retired from leadership and stepped back from the organization, AA had become the largest organization in the world dedicated to fighting addiction. We are grateful to Bill W. for saving the lives of several of our close relatives and friends. That’s why he’s a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Waves to Betty A. for nominating him!
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