Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bill W’s story

A friend of mine in AA gave me a birthday present for my 25th sobriety birthday. “What do you give someone who already has everything he needs in life?” he asked himself. His answer was a CD with an audio copy of a speech Bill W gave one night in about 1953. The talk was scheduled, and it just so happened that on that day Bob S (Dr Bob) had passed away in Akron, Ohio. So, Bill was pretty effected by the loss of his dear friend and the cofounder of AA. He was planning on cancelling the talk but his wife and others convinced Bill that it wasn’t about him, it was about the incredible miracles that led up to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. He should give the talk and focus on the formation of AA and on Dr Bob’s part in all of that.

I just finished listening to the CD on a delightful drive home from Charlottesville. It was amazing. I had never heard Bill’s voice before, and many parts of his story were quite new to me. A couple of things in Bill’s talk struck me. One was just how hopeless the situation for us alcoholics was before AA started. The most experienced doctors in the country actually recommended that Bill and others like him be locked up, permanently, in mental hospitals. There was just no hope for them at the time. No other choice. Alcoholics would go in the hospital, dry out, and then get drunk again. When they drank they would run the risk of hurting other people and so it was felt that the safest thing was to keep them locked away the rest of their lives. What an amazing waste of talent and creativity that was.

The second thing that struck me was the importance of the spiritual part of recovery, and the way this developed. Bill knew early on the importance of being connected with a power greater than himself, being a small part of the energy and flow of the universe. He found out early on though, that if he talked to alcoholics about God, he universally turned them away. And yet, through their experiences, the early members of AA knew just how important this spiritual aspect was. It was important to keep their egos in check. Important to be a part of the solution, to help others, to be humble and not so self absorbed. And so early on, one of the members came up with the idea of “God as you understand him” – a perfect solution to maintaining the importance of spiritual growth, and yet giving every member the opportunity to develop their own beliefs and their own relationship with their “higher power.” For me this has been one of the most important innovations that the 12 step programs have brought to us.

The third thing that struck me was the importance of helping others. Bill was all alone in a hotel in Akron, and almost about to take a drink - after 6 months of sobriety. He realized that he needed to find someone else to help. Back in New York he had been trying to help others for 6 months. None of them had actually stayed sober, but Bill had stayed sober. It suddenly dawned on Bill that in actual fact Bill needed the other alcoholic more than the alcoholic needed him. The active alcoholic may not get sober, but by reaching out and genuinely trying to help him, Bill would stay sober. He just knew it. Of course what happened is that he met Dr Bob and Dr Bob did stay sober (after one slip). Together they started this organization that now measures its members in the millions.

That truly is a miracle and it sure beats living in a nut house!

Dr C


  1. This sounds like the presentation given by Bill McNiff called: "The day Dr. Bob Died." You can search for the explanation on the web. This was not Bill W.
    You'll find Bill M.'s explanation dated Dec 21, 2002 posted on "AAHISTORYLOVERS" site. You can verify this by sending an email to him at the address listed on his post.

  2. I too have that CD of Bill W...the way he explains his new found friend he met on the bus looking at him after he took that drink on Armistice Day and saying to Bill something like…”Mr. you must be completely insane to take that drink after all alcohol has done to you” The way Bill explained that on the CD, the insanity of the first drink has made a big impression on me to think before I drink. Get the CD...It's Great Stuff!!!

    Sober & Clean

  3. I am curious about the AAHistorylovers site. I was unable to find it or a link to Bill M. I am sure the CD I listened to was Bill W because he told his whole story and I can't imagine any one else would tell it quite like that.

  4. Hi Doctor C,
    I'm not sure if an earlier posting got through to you. My name is Bill McNiff, a.k.a., Bill W, on stage only. I wrote and made the cd you heard in 1995 and it was later copied and went out as Bill W. without my permission. If you go to my website you will see more on the performance and my other efforts on Lois, Dr. Bob and my latest, Genesis, the first meeting between Bill and the Doctor.