The Alcoholic Stockbroker and the Forgotten Alcoholic Doctor

In addition to finding a way to recover, the two men made other discoveries that changed how medicine is practiced today. By finding that a patient suffering from a particular disease is helped by meeting with other, similar sufferers, they started what we now take for granted: same-disease support groups (breast cancer, child abuse, war-trauma, etcetera). By realizing that alcoholism is a disease with three elements—physical, psychological, and spiritual, and had to be treated in all three arenas—they discovered the holistic movement, currently labeled the biopsychosocial model, that is now at the heart of modern medicine. All in 1935, eight decades ago.

And what about God? At the time that the two of them met, neither one had much faith in a traditional, religious God. As Smith said, "I was forced to attend church four times a week. I vowed when I was free I would never darken the door of a church again—a vow I've kept, religiously, for forty-odd years." Wilson, too, had more or less given up on God. Both men had pragmatic reasons: they had tried prayer to God, and it didn't work to keep them sober. The key to their vision about "God" came from a man named Ebby Thatcher, an old friend of Wilson's who said, "You don't have to believe in God, you just have to admit that you're not God. Use what you do believe in, whatever it is."

The essence of this is twofold. First, an alcoholic cannot will himself to stay sober. Asking for help from someone or something outside that "self" is, pragmatically, necessary. One term that is used is "a Higher Power," or "a Power greater than myself"—whatever form that takes for each person. Second, there is often confusion in the difference between a "religious" program and a "spiritual" program.

It is clear from both of these men’s lives that AA is not "religious," but "spiritual." Wilson's transformation in Towne's Hospital three months before he chanced to meet Smith has been described by many writers as a "conversion experience," a spiritual experience described by William James, a philosopher that both Wilson and Smith read.

The 12 Steps of AA are heavily influenced by a non-theistic spirituality, Buddhism—in tune with "non-self", "non-attachment", "letting go", which both men, to different extents, embraced. The phrase written into the 12 Steps by Wilson and Smith is, "God, as we understood him." (Italics from the 12 Steps.) Including the word "God" was a way of compromising with various factions at the time, the late 1930s, a very different era from ours.

Our pundits and columnists will continue to tout the lone hero who prescribes—and sometimes proscribes—to millions. But the healing, not just of the millions of recovering alcoholics and addicts in 12-step programs, but the hope for healing of the world, lies beyond the hero. The adversarial stance of I/you, either/or, dominates American culture, from what we drink or drug or eat, to whom we see as enemies. The promise is in shifting from the individual to the quality of the relationship, to that and, to a fellowship of mutual healing.

The suffering in AA is centered on "alcohol," but that particular story is relevant to any human suffering. If we isolate ourselves and try to walk through our suffering alone, we will suffer more, and we will spread more suffering around. If we try to walk through suffering with others—at best, others with similar sufferings—we will suffer less, spread less suffering around, and walk out of it, perhaps, with a bit more compassion, the spirit of service to others, and even gratitude.

Presented by

​Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey

Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey are the authors of the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob. Shem is also the author of The House of God.

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