Five Innovations in 20th Century Treatment: A History Lesson from Bill W.

Friday, May 25th, 2012

This week, we saw the new documentary film Bill W., which chronicles the life of Bill Wilson, the influential founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Though long-winded at times, the film is successful in portraying the iconic Bill as a man with a unique yet universal story—his experiences are entirely his own, and yet they mirror the experiences of so many individuals who have struggled with addiction and have found their own path to recovery.

By far the most fascinating aspect of the film is the larger story of the evolution of alcoholism throughout the 20th century—a history that runs parallel to Bill’s own. It’s amazing how far we have come as a society in the ways we address this disease. Of course, there is still much debate about what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” when it comes to addiction, treatment, and recovery—but the Bill W. film pinpoints five key innovations that we can all agree upon:

1.    No more lobotomies. Phew! In the 1930s, no one treated alcoholism as a primary disorder. Instead, it was considered an “obsession of the mind”—a symptom of some other underlying psychiatric condition. For this reason, common therapies for alcoholism included lobotomies, shock therapy, and sterilization. We’re all glad that era is over.

2.    Everyone deserves recovery.  AA was once a boy’s club—and a white boy’s club to boot. Men of different races were once excluded; when Bill Wilson first brought two black men to a meeting, the rest of the group members voted against their participation in the group. Women were also excluded; a common joke about women and relapse was “under every skirt, there’s a slip.” Luckily, group meetings today include people of all races, genders, ages, religions, and sexual orientations—the world has finally realized that everyone deserves recovery.

 3.    LSD isn’t a miracle cure. In the 1950s and 1960s, LSD was considered a breakthrough in alcoholism treatment; Bill W. used it for several years starting in the mid-50s, saying that it brought back the epiphany that had allowed him to get sober in the first place. But today’s treatment professionals understand the risks of simply replacing one drug with another, and while LSD is still being researched as a valid possibility for alcoholism treatment, it’s no longer seen as a “magic bullet.”

4.    Treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all, and neither is recovery. Although the original 12 steps of AA (and the tenets of its precursor, the Oxford Group) were heavy on faith-based language and methods, we know today that religion is absolutely not a requirement for recovery—nor are the 12 steps! Everyone has their own unique path to recovery, and what works for one person may not work for another.

5.    “I need that drunk as much as he needs me.” So said Bill Wilson in the early days of his recovery. What Bill realized was that although he himself had stopped drinking, he needed a support system in place that would help prevent him from starting again. He discovered that by talking to other addicts about their experiences, and by sharing true stories of addiction and recovery, everyone began to feel less alone in their struggles. By banding together, they were able to help each other stay sober. Sounds a lot like the inception of another treatment program we know…

Emma Edelman and Kate Schmier
Blog Editors
Phoenix House

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  • Bill Wilson first took LSD on August 29, 1956. He stopped taking LSD in 1959. He died in 1971. “used it regularly toward the end of his life” is misleading and bad journalism to boot!

  • kschmier

    Thank you for pointing this out, Mike! We have revised the wording above.