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