Those who have read Alcoholics Anonymous are already aware that the second chapter (or first, if you don’t count “The Doctor’s Opinion”) is all about AA founder Bill W. In order to help other alcoholics understand how they might recover, he tells the story of his addiction and how he finally learned to stay sober.
Parts of his story are quite harrowing, but many of us have certainly had similar experiences. It is through “Bill’s Story” that we are able to learn that the man who started a program that has helped hundreds of thousands of struggling alcoholics began as a man who was just like the rest of us—scared, vulnerable, and uncertain as to how long he might live to see another day.
The Importance Of Bill’s Story
This makes “Bill’s Story” one of the most important chapters in the Big Book. While it may not focus on direct lessons pertaining to our sobriety, it helps us to realize that we are not alone. Through this chapter, we come to realize that people have been living our stories since the 1930s.
Not that Bill Wilson was by any means the world’s first alcoholic. But he just may be the first to have shared his tale of alcoholism in a book designed to help people just like him. And for that, we should be eternally grateful.
For the purposes of breaking down the most important point, we should break down “Bill’s Story” into three major sections. By no sheer coincidence, we have chosen to break it down into the same categories that should be used by anyone telling their story of addiction and recovery.
We hope this reading guide serves you well, without deterring you from reading the actual chapter (not to mention the Big Book) in its entirety.
What It Was Like
“Bill’s Story” wastes no time, beginning with its author’s introduction to liquor upon his return from the First World War. He had been warned before that alcohol could be a dangerous mistress, but he had always failed to heed the warning. The same was true when he later visited Winchester Cathedral in England and discovered a tombstone which read:
“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.”
The Early Years
In his early 20s, Bill studied law and performed work for a surety company that introduced him to Wall Street. He also studied business and economics, hoping to work the market himself. At this point, he states in “Bill’s Story” that he was not yet a full-blown alcoholic.
But he often drank before exams and nearly failed his courses because of it. Nonetheless, he felt that he would be okay. Many successful men drank, and he was certain that he could be one of them. He and his wife went on a trip to investigate some markets, and Bill landed himself a job on Wall Street.
This is where things began to turn. He made a vast fortune and was successful for a time, but by the late 1920s, he was a perpetual drunk. In an age where it was not uncommon for people to empty out their bottles in the jazz clubs of New York, his friends began to express concern for his drinking habits.
Naturally, he replaced them with other fair-weather friends and began living his life in isolation when he ran out of those. He had his wife, his fortune, and a growing appreciation for golf. But aside from these, he found himself with little else.
The Great Depression
Then, everyone in his profession found themselves with little else. It was 1929, and the Great Depression was putting an end to Bill’s good run. It is at this point in “Bill’s Story” that we experience a possible resurgence, as Bill states he would not go down without a fight.
He and his wife moved to Canada, and Bill became successful again. But it was short-lived. While he was now working for a friend, that friend could not keep an alcoholic under his employ. Bill was out of money again and seemed to be out of options as well.
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We often say that addiction is a family disease, and that is true in “Bill’s Story” as well. With few options, he went to live with his wife’s parents. His wife became the breadwinner, as Bill could not hold down a steady job for the next five years. He did have periods of sobriety, but things steadily became worse as he found that he needed beer and bathtub gin just to eat. He was at that stage that every alcoholic reaches before they reach their tipping point—the stage at which we have to drink just so that we can get to “normal.”
In 1932, “Bill’s Story” notes further losses. With his new home at risk due to mortgage holders and his in-laws’ failing health, he had to devise a plan. The Depression was almost over, but stocks were at a low point. Bill somehow managed to find some buyers, but a bender put that opportunity to rest. This was the point at which he finally hit rock bottom. He was able to see that he was living in a continuous state of loss due to his own actions. But despite his resolve, “Bill’s Story” notes multiple relapses after this decision.
A Fault Sense Of Assurance
As was the case for many of us before we entered AA, of course. We knew that we needed to quit, but figured we could do it our own way. Bill was at a particular disadvantage since there was no AA for him to join. And while he had accepted his unmanageability, he had not accepted his powerlessness. But he did not see it yet, because no one had penned Step One. The cycle continued a few more years, with occasional belladonna treatment or hydrotherapy. He tried to seek a geographical cure, and he contemplated suicide multiple times. He even stole from his wife to fund his habit. Bill notes in this point of “Bill’s Story” that he was beginning to fear for his own sanity.
“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 or the asylum.”
Things took a turn for the better when Bill was visited by a childhood friend who had found sobriety through spirituality. While he makes no effort in “Bill’s Story” to lie about the fact that he was at first skeptical of this person, he eventually listened to what the man had to say. He realized that spirituality and organized religion were not the same things, that all he needed was the willingness to acknowledge a greater force than his own in the world. This formed the basis of Step Two and Three. More importantly, it marked Bill’s sobriety date. From that point forward, he would drink no more.
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What Things Are Like Now
Bill Wilson is no longer among us, but his journey forward from his sobriety date was similar to the journey embarked upon by all who enter recovery. The Twelve Steps may not have existed, but Bill essentially performed them in pursuit of a better life.
He made amends, he learned to overcome his resentments, and he embraced the concept of service work. And because of his service, things now are better for all of his who enter recovery, for we are able to read “Bill’s Story” in addition to the rest of the Big Book. We are able to follow the example that he has set.
Not only did Bill eventually craft the Twelve Steps by which AA has been so heavily characterized, but also the Twelve Traditions by which AA is almost literally defined. Tradition One pays attention to the importance of group recovery, which is quite fitting as we learn in “Bill’s Story” that he did not recover alone.
Tradition Number Two
Tradition Two focuses on a lack of complete control, which we learn in “Bill’s Story” was something he had to give up in order to become sober. The rest largely define how the group operates, something which other group members at the time had helped define (as per the first two traditions). Now, countless alcoholics have recovered as a result of Bill’s work.
Bill’s life became something greater, but he notes in “Bill’s Story” that it came as something of a price—he had to let go of his selfishness completely. He had to let go of the pride that allowed him to believe he was in complete control. If he had attempted to hold onto these things, he might never have recovered. More importantly, he might never have realized the importance of spreading the message of recovery so that we might spread it to others.
Hopefully, you can see something of yourself in “Bill’s Story” while taking solace in the fact that AA already exists. You do not need to change the world, but simply help the addicts and alcoholics that you are able to reach by sharing your own experiences in addiction and recovery. But also remember that Bill did not recover on his own.
He had help. In addition to helping others, you should also lean on others within your fellowship. Talk to your sponsor, and expand your support network whenever possible. In this way, you will do much to live up to the legacy of “Bill’s Story” by becoming the best possible version of yourself, just as he did. Embrace the concept of fellowship, and you will be well on your way.
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