The Tenacity of Error in the Treatment of Addiction

By Lemanski, Michael J. | The Humanist, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Tenacity of Error in the Treatment of Addiction


Lemanski, Michael J., The Humanist


It was a hot, humid July evening and I knew that the room wouldn't be air conditioned. I also knew that the atmosphere would be stuffy and repressive. It had been more than a decade since I'd been to an Al-Anon meeting but, strangely drawn to return, I walked in and was banded an information packet for newcomers. Then, as the group members went through the ritual of their readings, I went through the printed materials. And there it was: the very same pamphlet I'd found so offensive my first visit. I'd come back for one last look to see if anything had changed, but it was just as I'd remembered. The message was clear end essentially as before. The same, it turns out, can be said of the larger twelve-step movement and the addictions field in general: the message has developed riffle in the last six decades.

William Griffith Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was born November 26, 1895, in East Dorset, Vermont. When he was nine, his parents divorced, apparently because of his father's drinking, and he was left in the care of his grandparents. In 1918, Wilson married Lois Burnham and began a career as a stockbroker; he also continued his father's career of drinking.

Later, after years of alcohol abuse and its associated miseries, Wilson began admitting himself to the Charles B. Towns Hospital in Manhattan. On December 11, 1934, he admitted himself for the fourth time and was treated by a neurologist named William Duncan Silkworth. Dr. Silkworth sedated Wilson and began administering treatment with belladonna. What happened next can best be described in Wilson's own words from his book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age:

My depression deepened unbearably and finally it

seemed to me as though I were at the very bottom of

the pit. I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power

greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the

last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at

once I found myself crying out, "If there is a God, let

Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything"

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light.

I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words

to describe. It seemed to me, in a mind's eye, that I was

on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit

was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a

free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed,

but for a time I was in another world, a new world of

consciousness. All about me and through me was a

wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself,

"So this is the God of the preachers!"

Wilson's psychic conversion was accomplished. On the surface, at least, he was a changed man.

This experience kept him sober for five months. Then, while on a business trip in Akron, Ohio, he was overcome by the fear of relapse and panicked. It was here that he came into contact with a doctor named Robert Smith, who was also a drinker, and the two men had what has been regarded as the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Nan Robertson, in her book Getting Better Inside Alcoholics Anonymous, suggests that Wilson's deep religious experience at Towns Hospital may have been the result of hallucinations during his withdrawal, induced or precipitated by his medication. Belladonna is an atropine powder derived from the leaves and roots of Atropa belladonna, a poisonous Eurasian plant popularly known as "deadly nightshade." In any event, Wilson was apparently never able to recapture his original high (which he in his later years would call his "hot flash") and continued to seek some form of spiritual bans formation. His pursuit of spirituality through seances and experiments with LSD, as well as megavitamin therapy, ultimately scandalized AA.

But AA was the result of more than just a hot flash and a chance meeting. …

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