Smith's story of alcoholism was every bit as horrific as Wilson's. In his words, "I used pills and booze every day. I woke up in the morning with the jitters, took a sedative to steady my hands for surgery, started drinking again in the afternoon, needing to get drunk to sleep. Sometimes, in the operating room, I'd be high as a kite. Lucky I haven't killed somebody." And his eventual recovery was focused on humble "service"; without pay he treated over 5,000 alcoholics at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron.
As he put it his one of his last talks: "Even now I still think I could probably knock off a couple of scotches, but then I say to myself, 'Better get back on the job, big boy, better go see some of the drunks on the ward.' Giving of ourselves, our own effort, strength, and time—it takes practice, you know, to learn that spirit of service."
Yet AA is not about one man or the other. The essence of AA is that it is an and program—the fellowship and healing power arises in the meeting of the two. In Wilson's words, "I realized that no amount of willpower could keep me away from a drink. The only thing that could keep a drunk sober was telling his story to another drunk."
When Wilson and Smith met that night, each was facing death, trying to find a way to stay alive. We have come to think that the "other drunk" Wilson met that night in Akron had to be a doctor. When Smith hears Wilson say that his own physician in New York, William Silkworth, thought "alcoholic allergy" was "a disease," Smith lit up. A disease? With signs, symptoms, a course, and a progression? Implying what? A treatment? And so Smith recast their shared search for how to stay alive as finding a treatment, and AA was born.
They discovered that, just as in medical illness itself, in addiction there is a danger in isolation, and there is a healing in mutual connection. In fact, current medical research suggests that isolation has detrimental effects on the immune system, and connection may stimulate it—and this has relevance for treatments, such as for melanoma and other cancers.
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."