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12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery

 
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04/28/2008 09:54 PM
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12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
Many AA members still believe that Bill Wilson's famous "spiritual experience" was indeed a revelation of the Creator. In AA lore the event is told as the beginning of it all. From that moment Wilson is said to have been freed from his obsession with alcohol. So it must have been God, a divine intervention, right? Not necessarily. Wilson was in a state of delerium tremens and was under the influence of the powerful hallucinogen belladonna and other drugs. This complex situation is worth taking a close look at because it is central to so much AA myth and his later dabblings with LSD challenge the idea that Wilson stayed sober from 1934 to his death in 1971.


On 11 December 1934 Bill Wilson checked himself into Charles B. Towns hospital to detoxify for the last time. His status on admission was as follows: He had been drinking several bottles of moonshine daily, his doctor had diagnosed him as "hopeless alcoholic" with brain damage, and he was now showing signs of delirium tremens. He was malnourished, underweight, and dehydrated. His old friend Ebby had brought him the Oxford Group message that he must find God. Following Ebby's lead, he attended one Oxford Group gathering at Sam Shoemaker's Calvary Mission where he "made a decision for Christ." He had waxed enthusiastic for the Oxford Group message, and checked into Charles B. Towns Hospital raving to his doctor about his new discovery.

Wilson had a copy of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience with him. The book contained a story that had been paid special attention by Oxford Group members for years. It was the story of a man named Hadley who had a vision of God, and thereafter worked to rehabilitate alcoholics in New York City. An essential Oxford Group text titled Soul Surgery quotes the entire story. Wilson is certain to have read these passages in Varieties of Religious Experience before this last stay at Towns hospital:

"One Tuesday evening I sat in a saloon in Harlem, a homeless, friendless, dying drunkard...for four nights preceding I had suffered with delirium tremens...I went to the nearest station-house and had myself locked up...it came into my head to go to Jerry M'Auley's Mission. I went. The house was packed, and with great difficulty I made my way to the space near the platform. There I saw the apostle to the drunkard and the outcast - that man of God, Jerry M'Auley. He rose, and amid deep silence told his experience. There was a sincerity about this man that carried conviction with it, and I found myself saying, 'I wonder if God can save me?' I listened to the testimony of twenty-five or thirty persons, every one of whom had been saved from rum, and I made up my mind that I would be saved or die right there. When the invitation was made I knelt down with a crowd of drunkards...then, with a breaking heart, I said, 'Dear Jesus, can you help me?' Never with mortal tongue can I describe that moment. Although up to that moment my soul had been filled with indescribable gloom, I felt the glorious brightness of the noonday sun shine into my heart. I felt I was a free man...


"From that moment till now I have never wanted a drink of whiskey...I promised God that night that if he would take away my appetite for strong drink, I would work for him all my life. He has done his part and I am trying to do mine."


The testimony Wilson was hearing from Oxford Groupers and the accounts of mystical experiences like Hadley's in Varieties must have reminded Wilson of the story his grandfather used to tell. Wilson grew up in East Dorset, Vermont. Mount Aeolus had symbolic value for many locals. Here is the story of Grandpa Wilson's spiritual experience as told by Francis Hartigan in Bill W.:

"Bill's grandfather Wilson also linked Mount Aeolus to a profound spiritual experience. William Wilson may have preferred inn keeping to quarrying, but inn keeping is seldom the right occupation for a hard-drinking man. His attempts to control his drinking led him to try Temperance pledges and the services of revival-tent preachers. Then, in a desperate state one Sunday morning, he climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus. There, after beseeching God to help him, he saw a blinding light and felt the wind of the Spirit. It was a conversion experience that left him feeling so transformed that he practically ran down the mountain and into town.

"When he reached the East Dorset Congregational Church, which is across the street from the Wilson House, the Sunday service was in progress. Bill's grandfather stormed into the church, and demanded that the minister get down from the pulpit. Then, taking his place, he proceeded to relate his experience to the shocked congregation. Wilson's grandfather never drank again. He was to live another eight years, sober."

Wilson's doctor, William D. Silkworth, administered the Towns-Lambert treatment as alcohol withdrawal set in. The treatment which was intended to detoxify and induce a cessation of craving included: large doses of belladonna and henbane (both dangerous hallucinogenic drugs), morphine (used to detoxify opium addicts and cautiously with alcoholics because of its tendency to induce delirium), barbiturates, blue-mass (which may have contained poisonous levels of mercury), and a potent laxative regimen.

Ebby visited him at the hospital on the second night of treatment. Wilson asked his friend to tell him about the Oxford Group plan again. The conversation turned to the way Wilson had treated his wife, Lois. Ebby was a member of the Evangelical movement, the Oxford Group. As per Oxford Group procedures for gaining new converts it is likely Ebby was trying to help Wilson to a "realization of the hideousness of his personal guilt." The production of an urgent need for emotional resolution was the goal of this step in the Oxford Group conversion process. The next step would involve Wilson relying on Ebby to instruct him further. Upon Ebby's departure Wilson sunk to a low he described as "deflation at depth" - a notion that Wilson would later name a requisite for recovery. Wilson was feeling a desperate urgency. It was then that he called out, "If there be a God, let him show himself!" God obeyed, and this is when Wilson had his own mystical experience which he describes in Pass It On:


"Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy - I was conscious of nothing else for some time.


"Then, seen in the mind's eye, there was a mountain. I stood upon its summit, where a great wind blew. A wind, not of air, but of spirit. In great, clean strength, it blew right through me. Then came the blazing thought 'You are a free man.' I know not at all how long I remained in this state, but finally the light and the ecstasy subsided. I again saw the wall of my room. As I became more quiet, a great peace stole over me, and this was accompanied by a sensation difficult to describe. I became acutely conscious of a Presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit. I lay on the shores of a new world. 'This', I thought, 'must be the great reality. The God of the preachers.'" [emphasis added]


Wilson was primed for this experience by the hope that it would happen to him just as it happend to his grandfather and Hadley. The imagery and language had been cultured into him. He was primed by a desperate need for emotional release. A breakdown in his physiology, delerium, and hallucinogenic drugs helped him find the release he needed.


Wilson's experiences, though by no means the rule nor a realistic model for recovery, were not so unusual at all. Perhaps it would be too simplistic to attribute Wilson's spiritual experience solely to belladonna, but other alcoholics on the medical record had had very frightening or profound delirium tremens (DT) experiences followed by "spontaneous recoveries". These recoveries are likely a natural biological impulse to sufficient stress. The organism just says, "No more of that." Or, "You are a free man."


In 1954 Wilson met two psychiatrists, Humphrey Osmond and Abram Hoffer, who were trying to use the hallucinogen LSD to induce a synthetic state of DT in alcoholics. Their hope was that an artificial DT attack might prompt spontaneous recoveries. But according to Osmond, "We found, in fact, that this wasn't quite how it worked. [It was] really not unlike Bill's [spiritual] experience, which I later heard about - it gave us pause for thought, not on the grounds of how terrifying it was, but how illuminating it was. Rather different!" Osmond and Hoffer nonetheless had some success with their approach.

Wilson took LSD from 1956 to 1959 and raved about it. The quotation that heads this essay says that Wilson only took LSD "five or six times," but it likely that his use was more frequent. He and others commented on how very similar his LSD experiences were to his spiritual experience in Towns Hospital in 1934. Wilson felt he was onto something big. Most people who are acquainted with hallucinogenic experiences commonly report feelings of being on to something, the closeness of God, universal love, mystical ecstasy, a profound sense of wellness and rightness, vivid hallucinations, transformative insight, and a deep understanding of the inner workings of things.


Wilson's LSD use can not be construed as serious clinical research. At best it was recreational use - a mystical adventure, and at worst it was drug abuse. I say this for the following reasons:

1. Most pharmaceutical research does not involve subjects for three whole years, especially the sort of research Osmond and Hoffer were doing. Meaningful data could have been collected from an individual subject in a few LSD sessions over a period of days or weeks.

2. Wilson would not have been a good subject for Osmond and Hoffer's experiment. They were trying to see how LSD would help practicing alcoholics. Wilson had been dry for nearly 22 years. Even though the similarity of his LSD experience and his experience in Towns Hospital was a curiosity to all involved, he was not a good subject for a study of the usefulness of LSD in treating sick alcoholics.

3. By 1956 Wilson was a celebrity in the world of alcoholism research. It was his celebrity status as founder of AA that gained him continued access to LSD under Osmond and Hoffer's supervision. He met the doctors through his friendship with Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard who were also taking LSD and meditating as dabblers in altered states of consciousness. There was a lot more schmoozing in these LSD trials than there was any need for Wilson's personal participation as a clinical subject.

4. Participants in clinical research are not usually allowed to invite their spouses and close friends along to experience the curious effects of new drugs, but Wilson was allowed to give LSD to his wife Lois, his friend Father Edward Dowling, and others.

5. Doctors usually decide on an ending date for clinical research, but Wilson only quit taking LSD after much pressure from AA friends who recognized the incongruency of an acid-tripping founder of an abstinence movement. It would seem his dabbling with LSD would have otherwise gone on indefinitely.

Every once in a while a guru wanders down out of the crags of the Himalayas with an illuminating message for the common man. The message Wilson got on his mountain top was the blazing thought, "You are a free man." Wilson never drank again after having that thought. But what if in his delirium Wilson missed the meaning of the "blazing thought"? What if the message he reported to the rest of us was garbled and distorted by Oxford Group dogma?

Wilson reports his "blazing thought" as if it was God mercifully reaching into his soul and saying, "Your obsession is now lifted, my child." But what if the blazing thought was not such an intervention, but just a powerful thought welling up from the depths of his consciousness, a thought so compelling that it scorched an indelible mark on his mind - a thought that contradicted and superseded everything he believed he knew about his situation: his doctor's diagnosis, hopelessness, powerlessness, helplessness, despair. A thought which meant, "You are a free man, and by virtue of your freedom, and in spite of what you believe about your situation, you have the power to abstain from drinking if you so choose!"
psychotherapeutic
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04/28/2008 11:56 PM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
In Israel they use pot to treat alcoholism. If it was South American shaman tea would it do? Biggest boomerang, fastest boomerang, don't bring your dog. Two people and a pot of coffee, prospectors in the Yukon. It was the fellowship of the spirit, the one his face saw. Sitting Bull's "disease" is contagious and more than fire water. Attraction rather than promotion is low key for a drunken bore. Steep narrow irresistible, carpet crawl.
Anonymous Coward
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04/10/2009 02:13 PM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
bump
Anonymous Coward
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04/27/2010 06:44 PM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
bump
PolarBearAtEase
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11/17/2011 12:08 PM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
A mile in my shoes.
clown
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02/07/2012 11:01 PM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
your a clown
Anonymous Coward
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02/07/2012 11:10 PM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
I'm an alchie and I'm glad my name isn't Bill Wilson...or BRIEF..OR EAT
rb
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02/07/2012 11:34 PM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
bill w was like john lennon always looking for the next big thing!!

larger than life personalities often have flawed characters ;)

love rb
Anonymous Coward
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02/07/2012 11:47 PM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
bumpfor later
Anonymous Coward
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07/04/2014 07:51 AM
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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
I don't get your point. So what if his spiritual experience was fueled (or maybe enhanced!) by bella donna? So what if he'd been exposed to James' Writings or the beliefs of the oxford group. None of us operates in a vacuum. What matters is how we settle in our own minds what life is showing us. The truth remains that Wilson helped thousands despite his personal gifts and flaws. At least that is my take.
Ms. Superduper
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07/04/2014 07:58 AM

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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
Thousands upon thousands of people have been relieved of the disease of alcoholism since the 1930s. It has a high success rate.

1. What does this have to do with drinking or not drinking,

2 Why did you put this here?

3. How would you know anything about someone else's spiritual experience, unless they told YOU personally?

4. Are you a person who went to AA but chose to continue drinking?

Last Edited by Ms. Superduper on 07/04/2014 08:00 AM
Dirtyboy

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07/04/2014 09:59 AM

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Re: 12 Step AA Guru Wilson Does LSD; after 22 years of Recovery
AA helps a lot of people. Wilson had some problems and looked for drugs a way out, which didn't work. He experimented with cocaine too. Some of this is in part why AA says "total abstinence." Dr Bob had a problem with self medication. For most in recovery total abstinence is part of recovery. Total abstinence doesn't mean however some with other mental and physical problems do without drugs for medical problems.

No one is perfect and if you read AA material they admit that. A lot of mistakes happened in AA's beginnings. AA came about from people who were an absolute mess with no hope and found a way for some people to straighten out. AA works for most who genuinely try it. As with anything in life what you practice you become good at.
Dirtyboy
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