Cofounder of AA, Bill Wilson's story has been in
every edition of the book
War fever ran high in the New England town to
which we new, young officers from Plattsburg were
assigned, and we were flattered when the first citizens took
us to their homes, making us feel heroic. Here was love,
applause, war; moments sublime with intervals hilarious.
I was part of life at last, and in the midst of the excitement
I discovered liquor. I forgot the strong warnings and the prejudices of my people concerning drink. In time we sailed
for "Over There." I was very lonely and again turned to
We landed in England. I visited Winchester
Much moved, I wandered outside. My attention was caught
by a doggerel on an old tombstone:
"Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death
Drinking cold small beer.
A good soldier is ne'er forgot
Whether he dieth by musket
Or by pot."
Ominous warning -- which I failed to heed.
Twenty-two, and a veteran of foreign wars, I went
at last. I fancied myself a leader, for had not the men of my
battery given me a special token of appreciation? My talent
for leadership, I imagined, could place me at the head
of vast enterprises which I would manage with the utmost
I took a night law course, and obtained employment as
investigator for a surety company. The drive for success
was on. I'd prove to the world I was important. My work
took me about Wall Street and little by little I became interested
in the market. Many people lost money -- but some
became very rich. Why not I? I studied economics and
business as well as law. Potential alcoholic that I was, I
nearly failed my law course. At one of the finals I was too
drunk to think or write. Though my drinking was not yet
continuous, it disturbed my wife. We had long talks when
I would still her forebodings by telling her that men of genius
conceived their best projects when drunk; that the most
majestic constructions philosophic thought were so derived
By the time I had completed the course, I knew the
was not for me. The inviting maelstrom of Wall Street had
me in its grip. Business and financial leaders were my
heroes. Out of this ally of drink and speculation, I commenced
to forge the weapon that one day would turn in its
flight like a boomerang and all but cut me to ribbons. Living
modestly, my wife and I saved $1,000. It went into
certain securities, then cheap and rather unpopular. I rightly
imagined that they would some day have a great rise. I
failed to persuade my broker friends to send me out looking
over factories and managements, but my wife and I
decided to go anyway. I had developed a theory that most
people lost money in stocks through ignorance of markets.
I discovered many more reasons later on.
We gave up our positions and off we roared on a
motorcycle, the sidecar stuffed with tent, blankets, a
change of clothes, and three huge volumes of a financial
reference service. Our friends thought a lunacy commission
should be appointed. Perhaps they were right. I had had
some success at speculation, so we had a little money, but we
once worked on a farm for a month to avoid drawing on our
small capital. That was the last honest manual labor on my
part for many a day. We covered the whole eastern United
States in a year. At the end of it, my reports to Wall Street
procured me a position there and the use of a large expense
account. The exercise of an option brought in more money,
leaving us with a profit of several thousand dollars for that
For the next few years fortune threw money and
my way. I had arrived. My judgment and ideas were followed
by many to the tune of paper millions. The great boom
of the late twenties was seething and swelling. Drink was
taking an important and exhilarating part in my life. There
was loud talk in the jazz places uptown. Everyone spent in
thousands and chattered in millions. Scoffers could scoff and
be damned. I made a host of fair-weather friends.
My drinking assumed more serious proportions,
all day and almost every night. The remonstrance's of my
friends terminated in a row and I became a lone wolf. There
were many unhappy scenes in our sumptuous apartment. There
had been no real infidelity, for loyalty to my wife, helped at
times by extreme drunkenness, kept me out of those scrapes.
In 1929 I contracted golf fever. We went at once to the country, my wife to applaud while I started out
to overtake Walter Hagen. Liquor caught up with me
much faster than I came up behind Walter. I began
to be jittery in the morning. Golf permitted drinking
every day and every night. It was fun to carom around
the exclusive course which had inspired such awe in me
as a lad. I acquired the impeccable coat of tan one sees
upon the well-to-do. The local banker watched me whirl
fat checks in and out of his till with amused skepticism.
Abruptly in October 1929 hell broke loose on the New
York stock exchange. After one of those days of inferno,
I wobbled from a hotel bar to a brokerage office. It was
eight o'clock five hours after the market closed. The
ticker still clattered. I was staring at an inch of the tape
which bore the inscription XYZ-32. It had been 52 that
morning. I was finished and so were many friends. The
papers reported men jumping to death from the towers
of High Finance. That disgusted me. I would not jump.
I went back to the bar. My friends had dropped several
million since ten o'clock so what? Tomorrow was
another day. As I drank, the old fierce determination to
win came back.
Next morning I telephoned a friend in Montreal. He
had plenty of money left and thought I had better go to
Canada. By the following spring we were living in our
accustomed style. I felt like Napoleon returning from
Elba. No St. Helena for me! But drinking caught up
with me again and my generous friend had to let me go.
This time we stayed broke.
We went to live with my wife's parents. I found a
job; then lost it as the result of a brawl with a taxi driver.
Mercifully, no one could guess that I was to have no real
employment for five years, or hardly draw a sober breath.
My wife began to work in a department store, coming
home exhausted to find me drunk.
I became an unwelcome hanger-on at brokerage places.
Liquor ceased to be a luxury; it became a necessity.
"Bathtub" gin, two bottles a day, and often three, got to be
routine. Sometimes a small deal would net a few hundred
dollars, and I would pay my bills at the bars and delicatessens.
This went on endlessly, and I began to waken very
early in the morning shaking violently. A tumbler full of
gin followed by half a dozen bottles of beer would be required
if I were to eat any breakfast. Nevertheless, I still
thought I could control the situation, and there were periods
of sobriety which renewed my wife's hope.
Gradually things got worse. The house was taken over
by the mortgage holder, my mother-in-law died, my wife
and father-in-law became ill.
Then I got a promising business opportunity. Stocks
at the low point of 1932, and I had somehow formed a
group to buy. I was to share generously in the profits. Then
I went on a prodigious bender, and that chance vanished.
I woke up. This had to be stopped. I saw I could not
take so much as one drink. I was through forever. Before
then, I had written lots of sweet promises , but my wife happily
observed that this time I meant business. And so I did.
Shortly afterward I came home drunk. There had been
no fight. Where had been my high resolve? I simply didn't
know. It hadn't even come to mind. Someone had pushed
a drink my way, and I had taken it. Was I crazy? I began to
wonder, for such an appalling lack of perspective seemed near being just that.
Renewing my resolve, I tried again. Some time
passed, and confidence began to be replaced by cocksureness.
I could laugh at the gin mills. Now I had what it
takes! One day I walked into a cafe to telephone. In no
time I was beating on the bar asking myself how it happened.
As the whisky rose to my head I told myself I would
manage better next time, but I might as well get good and
drunk then. And I did.
The remorse, horror and hopelessness of the next
are unforgettable. The courage to do battle was not
there. My brain raced uncontrollably and there was a terrible
sense of impending calamity. I hardly dared cross the
street, lest I collapse and be run down by an early morning
truck, for it was scarcely daylight. An all night place supplied
me with a dozen glasses of ale. My writhing nerves
were stilled at last. A morning paper told me the market
had gone to hell again. Well, so had I . The market would
recover, but I wouldn't. That was a hard thought. Should
I kill myself? No not now. Then a mental fog settled
down. Gin would fix that. So two bottles, and -- oblivion.
The mind and body are marvelous mechanisms, for mine
endured this agony two more years. Sometimes I stole from
my wife's slender purse when the morning terror and madness
were on me. Again I swayed dizzily before an open
window, or the medicine cabinet where there was poison,
cursing myself for a weakling. There were flights from
city to country and back, as my wife and I sought escape.
Then came the night when the physical and mental torture
was so hellish I feared I would burst through my window,
sash and all. Somehow I managed to drag my mattress to a
lower floor, lest I suddenly leap. A doctor came with a heavy
sedative. Next day found me drinking both gin
and sedative. This combination soon landed me on the
rocks. People feared for my sanity. So did I. I could eat
little or nothing when drinking, and I was forty pounds
My brother-in-law is a physician, and through his
and that of my mother I was placed in a nationally-known
hospital for the mental and physical rehabilitation
of alcoholics. Under the so-called belladonna treatment
my brain cleared. Hydrotherapy and mild exercise helped
much. Best of all, I met a kind doctor who explained that
though certainly selfish and foolish, I had been seriously
ill, bodily and mentally.
It relieved me somewhat to learn that in alcoholics
will is amazingly weakened when it comes to combating
liquor, though if often remains strong in other respects. My
incredible behavior in the face of a desperate desire to stop
was explained. Understanding myself now, I fared forth in
high hope. For three or four months the goose hung high.
I went to town regularly and even made a little money.
Surely this was the answer -- self-knowledge.
But it was not, for the frightful day came when I
once more. The curve of my declining moral and bodily
health fell off like a ski-jump. After a time I returned to the
hospital. This was the finish, the curtain, it seemed to me.
My weary and despairing wife was informed that it would
all end with heart failure during delirium tremens, or I would
develop a wet brain, perhaps within a year. She would
soon have to give me over to the undertaker of the asylum.
They did not need to tell me. I knew, and almost
welcomed the idea. It was a devastating blow to my
pride. I, who had thought so well of myself and my
abilities, of my capacity to surmount obstacles, was cornered
at last. Now I was to plunge into the dark, joining
that endless procession of sots who had gone on before.
I thought of my poor wife. There had been much happiness
after all. What would I not give to make amends.But that was over now.
No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I
in that bitter morass of self-pity. Quicksand stretched
around me in all directions. I had met my match. I had
been overwhelmed. Alcohol was my master.
Trembling, I stepped from the hospital a broken man.
Fear sobered me for a bit. Then came the insidious insanity
of that first drink, and on Armistice Day 1934, I
was off again. Everyone became resigned to the certainty
that I would have to be shut up somewhere, or
would stumble along to a miserable end. How dark it is
before the dawn! In reality that was the beginning of
my last debauch. I was soon to be catapulted into what
I like to call the fourth dimension of existence. I was to
know happiness, peace, and usefulness, in a way of life
that is incredibly more wonderful as time passes.
Near the end of that bleak November, I sat drinking
my kitchen. With a certain satisfaction I reflected there
was enough gin concealed about the house to carry me
through that night and the next day. My wife was at
work. I wondered whether I dared hide a full bottle of
gin near the head of our bed. I would need it before
My musing was interrupted by the telephone. The
cheery voice of an old school friend asked if he might
come over. He was sober. It was years since I could remember
his coming to New York in that condition. I was
amazed. Rumor had it that he had been committed for
alcoholic insanity. I wondered how he had escaped. Of course he would have dinner, and then I could drink openly
with him. Unmindful of his welfare, I thought only of
recapturing the spirit of other days. There was that time
we had chartered an airplane to complete a jag! His coming was an oasis in this dreary desert of futility. The very
thing -- an oasis! Drinkers are like that.
The door opened and he stood there, fresh-skinned
glowing. There was something about his eyes. He was
inexplicably different. What had happened?
I pushed a drink across the table. He refused it.
but curious, I wondered what had got into the fellow.
He wasn't himself.
"Come, what's all this about?" I queried.
He looked straight at me. Simply, but smilingly, he
"I've got religion."
I was aghast. So that was it -- last summer an
crackpot; now, I suspected, a little cracked about religion.
He had that starry-eyed look. Yes, the old boy was on fire
all right. But bless his heart, let him rant! Besides, my gin
would last longer than his preaching.
But he did no ranting. In a matter of fact way he
how two men had appeared in court, persuading the judge
to suspend his commitment. They had told of a simple
religious idea and a practical program of action. That was
two months ago and the result was self-evident. It worked!
He had come to pass his experience along to me -- if
I cared to have it. I was shocked, but interested. Certainly
I was interested. I had to be, for I was hopeless.
He talked for hours. Childhood memories rose before
me. I could almost hear the sound of the preacher's voice
as I sat, on still Sundays, way over there on the hillside;
there was that proffered temperance pledge I never signed;
my grandfather's good natured contempt of some church
fold and their doings; his insistence that the spheres really
had their music; but his denial of the preacher's right to
tell him how he must listen; his fearlessness as he spoke
of these things just before he died; these recollections
welled up from the past. They made me swallow hard.
That war-time day in old Winchester Cathedral came
I had always believed in a Power greater that
had often pondered these things. I was not an atheist. Few
people really are, for that means blind faith in the strange
proposition that this universe originated in a cipher and
aimlessly rushes no where. My intellectual heroes, the
chemists, the astronomers, even the evolutionist, suggested
vast laws and forces at work. Despite contrary
indications, I had little doubt that a might purpose and
rhythm underlay all. How could there be so much of
precise and immutable law, and no intelligence? I simply
had to believe in a Spirit of the Universe, who knew neither
time nor limitation. But that was as far as I had gone.
With ministers, and the world's religions, I parted
there. When they talked of a God personal to me, who
was love, superhuman strength and direction, I became
irritated and my mind snapped shut against such a theory.
To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great man, not
too closely followed by those who claimed Him. His moral
teaching -- most excellent. For myself, I had adopted those
parts which seemed convenient and not too difficult; the
rest I disregarded.
The wars which had been fought, the burnings and
that religious dispute had facilitated, made me sick
I honestly doubted whether, on balance, the religions of
mankind had done any good. Judging from what I had
seen in Europe and since, the power of God in human affairs was negligible, the Brotherhood of Man a grim jest.
If there was a Devil, he seemed the Boss Universal, and he
certainly had me.
But my friend sat before me, and he made the
declaration that God had done for him what he could
not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors
had pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock
him up. Like myself, he had admitted complete defeat.
Then he had, in effect, been raised from the dead, suddenly
taken from the scrap heap to a level of life better than the
best he had ever known!
Had this power originated in him? Obviously it had
There had been no more power in him than there was in me
at that minute; and this was none at all.
That floored me. It began to look as though
people were right after all. Here was something at work in
a human heart which had done the impossible. My ideas
about miracles were drastically revised right then. Never
mind the musty past; here sat a miracle directly across the
kitchen table. He shouted great tidings.
I saw that my friend was much more than inwardly
reorganized. He was on different footing. His roots
grasped a new soil.
Despite the living example of my friend there
in me the vestiges of my old prejudice. The word God still
aroused a certain antipathy. When the thought was expressed
that there might be a God personal to me this feeling
was intensified. I didn't like the idea. I could go for
such conceptions as Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind
or Spirit of Nature but I resisted the thought of a Czar of
the Heavens, however loving His sway might be. I have
since talked with scores of men who felt the same way.
My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea.
said, "Why don't you choose your own conception of God?"
That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy
mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many
years. I stood in the sunlight at last.
It was only a matter of being willing to believe
in a Power
greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to
make my beginning. I saw that growth could start from
that point. Upon a foundation of complete willingness I
might build what I saw in my friend. Would I have it? Of
course I would!
Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us
humans when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my
eyes. A new world came into view.
The real significance of my experience in the
burst upon me. For a brief moment, I had
needed and wanted God. There had been a humble
willingness to have Him with me -- and He came. But
soon the sense of His presence had been blotted out by
worldly clamors, mostly those within myself. And so it
had been ever since. How blind I had been.
At the hospital I was separated from alcohol for the
time. Treatment seemed wise, for I showed signs of delirium
There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then I
Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for
the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without
Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became
willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root
and branch. I have not had a drink since.
My schoolmate visited me, and I fully acquainted him
with my problems and deficiencies. We made a list of
people I had hurt or toward whom I felt resentment. I expressed
my entire willingness to approach these individuals,
admitting my wrong. Never was I to be critical of them.
I was to right all such matters to the utmost of my ability.
I was to test my thinking by the new
within. Common sense would thus become uncommon
sense. I was to sit quietly when in doubt, asking only for
direction and strength to meet my problems as He would
have me. Never was I to pray for myself, except as my
requests bore on my usefulness to others. Then only might
I expect to receive. But that would be in great measure.
My friend promised when these things were done I
would enter upon a new relationship with my Creator;
that I would have the elements of a way of living which
answered all my problems. Belief in the power of
God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility
to establish and maintain the new order of things, were
the essential requirements.
Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It
destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things
to the Father of Light who presides over us all.
These were revolutionary and drastic proposals, but
moment I fully accepted them, the effect was electric.
There was a sense of victory, followed by such a peace
and serenity as I had never know. There was utter confidence.
I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a
mountain top blew through and through. God comes to
most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden
For a moment I was alarmed, and called my friend,
doctor, to ask if I were still sane. He listened in wonder as
Finally he shook his head saying, "Something
to you I don't understand. But you had better hang
on to it. Anything is better than the way you were." The
good doctor now sees many men who have such experiences.
He knows that they are real.
While I lay in the hospital the thought came that
were thousands of hopeless alcoholics who might be glad
to have what had been so freely given me. Perhaps I could
help some of them. They in turn might work with others.
My friend had emphasized the absolute necessity of
demonstrating these principles in all my affairs. Particularly
was it imperative to work with others as he
had worked with me. Faith without works was dead,
he said. And how appallingly true for the alcoholic!
For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his
spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he
could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead. If
he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he
drank, he would surely die. Then faith would be dead indeed.
With us it is just like that.
My wife and I abandoned ourselves with enthusiasm to
the idea of helping other alcoholics to a solution of their
problems. It was fortunate, for my old business associates
remained skeptical for a year and a half, during which I
found little work. I was not too well at the time, and was
plagued by waves of self-pity and resentment. This sometimes
nearly drove me back to drink, but I soon found
that when all other measure failed, work with another
alcoholic would save the day. Many times I have gone to
my old hospital in despair. On talking to a man there, I
would be amazingly lifted up and set on my feet. It is a
design for living that works in rough going.
We commenced to make many fast friends and a
has grown up among us of which it is a wonderful
thing to feel a part. The joy of living we really have, even
under pressure and difficulty. I have seen hundreds of families
set their feet in the path that really goes somewhere;
have seen the most impossible domestic situations righted;
feuds and bitterness of all sorts wiped out. I have seen men
come out of asylums and resume a vital place in the lives
of their families and communities. Business and professional
men have regained their standing. There is scarcely
any form of trouble and misery which has not been overcome
among us. In one western city and its environs
there are one thousand of us and our families. We meet
frequently so that newcomers may find the fellowship
they seek. At these informal gatherings one may often see
from 50 to 200 persons. We are growing in numbers and
An alcoholic in his cups is an unlovely creature.
struggles with them are variously strenuous, comic, and
tragic. One poor chap committed suicide in my home. He
could not, or would not see our way of life.
There is, however, a vast amount of fun about it
suppose some would be shocked at our seeming worldliness
and levity. But just underneath there is deadly
earnestness. Faith has to work twenty-four hours a day in
and through us, or we perish.
Most of us feel we need look no further for Utopia.
have it with us right here and now. Each day my friend's
simple talk in our kitchen multiplies itself in a widening
circle of peace on earth and good will to men.
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