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How Alcoholics Anonymous Got Started

How Alcoholics Anonymous Got Started

In 1931 an American business executive, Rowland Hazard, after trying all the possibilities of medicine and psychiatry in the United States, sought treatment for alcoholism with the famous psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung in Switzerland.

After a year of treatment, Rowland H. the alcoholic felt confident that his compulsion to drink had been removed. However, he found himself drunk shortly after leaving the care of Dr. Jung.

Back again in Switzerland Rowland H, dejected and depressed, was told by Dr Jung, that his case was nearly hopeless (as with other alcoholics he had treated) and that his only hope (might be) a spiritual conversion with a religious group of his choice.

On his return to the United States , Rowland got in contact with the Oxford Group and soon sobered up.

The Oxford Group was an Evangelical Christian Fellowship founded by American Christian missionary Dr. Franklin Buchman. Buchman was a Lutheran minister who had a conversion experience in 1908 in a Chapel in Keswick , England. As a result of that experience, he founded a movement called A First Century Christian Fellowship in 1921, which had become known as the Oxford Group by 1931. The Oxford Group’s concepts were, total surrender of un-manageability of the problem, self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects (public confession), restitution for harm done, and working with others.

The Oxford Group was not confined to members of alcoholics only; a mixed bag of ‘troubled souls’ were also welcomed.

A chance meeting with Ebby Thacher, another chronic alcoholic who was about to be admitted to a Lunatic Asylum; Rowland H passed on the message Dr. Jung gave him: that most alcoholics were non-receptive to psychiatry and medicine; that their only possible hope was a spiritual conversion with a religious group of their choice. So now we have one alcoholic trying to help another alcoholic stay sober. Rowland H introduced Ebby T to the Oxford Group at Calvary Rescue Mission.

In keeping with Oxford Group teaching that a new convert must pass on the message to other suffering and troubled souls to preserve his own conversion experience, Ebby contacted his old friend Bill Wilson, who he knew had a drinking problem.

When Ebby visited Bill Wilson at his New York apartment, it was sometime in November 1934. Sitting at his kitchen table, Bill offered him a drink. ‘No thanks’ said Ebby , ‘I stopped drinking’. ‘I stopped drinking’ coming from Ebby seemed the strangest thing Bill had heard. Glancing over at Ebby, Bill knew that this was no “on the water-wagon stop.” Ebby was clear-eyed, focused and serene. “What’s got into you”? Bill asked. Ebby told him “he had got religion,” Bill’s heart sank. Until then, Bill had struggled with the existence of God. Much later of his meeting with Ebby, he wrote: “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.”

Ebby then went on to share about his meeting with Rowland H, how hopeless in most cases psychiatry and medicine was in the opinion of Dr. Jung. Next Ebby enumerated the principles he had learned from the Oxford Group. Though he thought that the good people of the Group were sometimes too aggressive, he couldn’t find fault with most of their basic teachings. In substance, the basic principles an alcoholic desiring to stop drinking should follow are:

1. He admitted that he is powerless to manage his own life.
2. He became honest with himself as never before; made an “examination of conscience.”
3. He made a rigorous confession of his personal defects and thus quit living alone with his problems.
4. He surveyed his distorted relations with other people, visiting them to make what amends he could.
5. He resolved to devote himself to helping others in need, without the usual demand for personal prestige or material gain.
6. By meditation, he sought God’s direction for his life and the help to practice these principals of conduct at all times.

Ebby explained how, practicing these simple precepts, his drinking had unaccountably stopped. Fear and isolation had left him, and he received a considerable peace of mind. Once again, one alcoholic confiding in another alcoholic; the spark that was to become Alcoholics Anonymous had been struck. When Ebby left, Bill continued to drink.

The next morning Bill Wilson arrived at Calvary Rescue Mission in a drunken state looking for Ebby. Once there, he attended his first Oxford Group meeting, where he answered the call to come to the altar and, along with other penitents, gave his life to Christ. Bill excitedly told his wife Lois about his spiritual progress, yet the next day he drank again and a few days later readmitted himself to Towns Hospital for the fourth and last time.

Bill Wilson was an alcoholic who had seen a promising career on Wall Street ruined by his drinking. He also failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma. His drinking damaged his marriage, and he was hospitalized for alcoholism at Towns Hospital four times in 1933-1934 under the care of Dr. William Silkworth.

On Bill Wilson’s first stay at Towns Hospital , Dr. Silkworth explained to him his theory that alcoholism is an illness rather than a moral failure or failure of willpower. Silkworth believed that alcoholics were suffering from a mental obsession, combined with an allergy that made compulsive drinking inevitable, and to break the cycle one had to completely abstain from alcohol use. Wilson was elated to find that he suffered from an illness, and he managed to stay off alcohol for a month before he resumed drinking again.

While at Towns Hospital for the forth and last time after his friend Ebby had visited him, Bill experienced his “Hot Flash” spiritual conversion. While lying in bed depressed and despairing, Bill cried out: “I’ll do anything! Anything at all to receive what my friend Ebby has! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!” He then had the sensation of a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity. Bill described his experience to Dr. Silkworth, who told him that this could be a transformation, an emotional upheaval or a spiritual experience.

Upon his release from the hospital on December 18, 1934, Bill Wilson moved from the Calvary Rescue Mission to the Oxford meetings at Calvary House. There Wilson socialized after the meetings with other ex-drinking Oxford Group members and became interested in learning how to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. It was during this time that Bill Wilson went on a crusade to save alcoholics. Sources for his prospects were the Calvary Rescue Mission and Towns Hospital . Something like a religious crank he was obsessed with the idea that everybody must have a “spiritual experience” like he had. Of all the alcoholics Bill Wilson tried to help, not one stayed sober.

It was Dr. Silkworth who pointed out to Bill, he said: “Stop preaching to them. Just tell them what happened to you. Give them the medical facts, the mental obsession, combined with an allergy that made compulsive drinking inevitable. Five months after his spiritual experience, Bill W went on a business trip to Akron — away from home. The business venture failed. He found himself dejected and depressed standing in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. At one end of the lobby the hotel bar was opened. At the other end there was a telephone booth. 

Suddenly the urge for a drink came upon him. He panicked! The feeling of panic assured him he still had some sanity left. He remembered that while trying to help other alcoholics ‘he’ remained sober. So he took action. He phoned a number of church ministries in that area asking to meet and speak with another drunk. As puzzling as this must have seemed to the ones answering his calls, Bill W finally struck gold. A call to Episcopal minister Rev. Walter Tunks, got him in contact with an Oxford Group member Henrietta Seiberling, a non-alcoholic, whose group had been trying for two years to help a desperate alcoholic named Dr. Bob Smith.

Dr. Bob started drinking early in life. While he was a student, Dr. Bob started drinking heavily and almost failed to graduate from medical school because of it. He opened a medical practice and married, but his drinking put his business and family life in jeopardy. For seventeen years Dr. Bob’s daily routine was to stay sober until the afternoon, get drunk, sleep, then take sedatives to calm his morning jitters. During the prohibition period, 1920—1933 Doctors were permitted to prescribe liquor for their patients. Dr Bob would pick a name from the phone book, fill out a prescription, which would get him a pint of whisky. When this was not feasible, there was always that new member of American society –the bootlegger! It seems Dr. Bob had two phobias, one was the fear of not sleeping and the other of running out of liquor. His life was a squirrel-cage existence; staying sober to earn enough money to get drunk, getting drunk to go to sleep, using sedatives to quiet the jitters, staying sober, earning money, smuggling home a bottle, hiding the bottle form his wife, who became an expert at detecting hiding places.

So Henrietta Seiberling convinced Dr. Bob to come over to her place and meet Bill. And Dr. Bob insisted the meeting be limited to fifteen minutes. At five o’clock Sunday evening Dr. Bob and his wife were at Heneritta’s house. Dr. Bob came face to face with Bill who said “ You must be awfully thirsty — this won’t take us long.” Dr. Bob was so impressed with Bill’s knowledge of alcoholism and ability to share from his own experience, that their discussion lasted six hours. That was on Mothers Day, May 12th 1935. Dr. Bob did lapse into drinking again. He went on a binge, but quickly recovered. The day widely known as the date of Dr. Bob’s last drink, June 10, 1935, is celebrated as the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous.

A few days later, Dr. Bob had said to Bill: “If you and I are going to stay sober, we had better get busy.” Dr. Bob called Akron ‘s City Hospital and told the nurse, a “Mrs. Hall,” that he and a man from New York had a cure for alcoholism. Did she have an alcoholic customer on whom they could try it out? She replied, “Well, Doctor, I suppose you’ve already tried it yourself?” Then she told him of a man who had just come in with DT’s, had blacked the eyes of two nurses, and was now strapped down tight. “He’s a grand chap when he’s sober,” she added. The nurse told Dr. Bob and Bill that Bill Dotson, the patient, had been a well-known attorney in Akron and a city councilman. But he had been hospitalized eight times in the last six months. Following each release, he got drunk even before he got home.

So Dr. Bob and Bill talked to what is now known as their first “man on the bed.” They told him of the serious nature of his disease, but also offered hope for a recovery. “We told him what we had done,” wrote Bill, “how we got honest with ourselves as never before, how we had talked our problems out with each other in confidence, how we tried to make amends for harm done others, how we had then been miraculously released from the desire to drink as soon as we had humbly asked God, as we understood him, for guidance and protection. Bill Dotson, the “Man on the Bed, eventually sobered up, his date of sobriety was the date he entered Akron ’s City Hospital for his last detox on June 26th, 1935.

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