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Bill W. and LSD: Taking a Trip, Not Taking a Trip


If you see the 12-steps as simply means to get sober, or find happiness, you’re going to be disappointed.  Sobriety, obviously, is a vital factor, and happiness is a byproduct, but the purpose of the 12-steps is to bring about a spiritual experience, or awakening, inducing a psychic change pervasive enough that it ultimately works to diminish one’s obsession with self – the ego.  Ego, as I am using it, is to represent that self-centered, selfish, self-worshipping, infantile part of each alcoholic, of each human, that turns his self-importance into spiritually-isolating self-destruction.  In his paper The Ego Factors in Surrender in Alcoholism, Harry Tiebout, M.D. writes, “it is the ego which is the arch-enemy of sobriety, and it is the ego which must be disposed of if the individual is to attain a new way of life.” The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous writes, “selfishness, self-centeredness!  That, we think, is the root of our troubles!”  (62). Yet perhaps it’s a bit too close-minded to suggest that the 12-steps are the only path alcoholics ought to take to attain a spiritually enlightened state, or that the 12-steps will work equally for everyone in the same way.  Some people, no matter how hard they try through the 12-steps, just cannot reach spiritual awakening or complete psychic change.  Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), Bill Wilson, understanding this, turned to clinical experimentations with LSD in 1956, 24 years after getting sober, in an attempt to broaden the possible methods for alcoholics to attain the spiritual and bring about such change.

Don’t mistake this truth as A.A. blasphemy by somehow thinking I am labeling Bill W. as a fraud or suggesting that his LSD experimentation negated his sobriety, because I am not.  It’s imperative to realize Wilson’s usage of LSD was in a clinical setting, under the care of Dr. Sidney Cohen and psychologist Betty Eisner and took place while LSD was still legal, long before the hippie counter-culture embraced and abused the drug in the 60s and 70s, so we must look at his experimentations without our modern lens, because the modern stigma of LSD simply was nonexistent during Wilson’s usage.

In his book Drugs and the Spiritual: Bill W. Takes LSD, Ernest Kurtz explains, “one clear reason why Bill Wilson experimented with LSD [is that] he was seeking still further ways of helping alcoholics, of helping specifically those alcoholics who could not seem to attain sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous because, apparently, they could not ‘get the spiritual’.” Bill was thinking outside the box, the box of Alcoholics Anonymous as it existed, as he had originally created it.  He was not entirely satisfied with the success, or lack of success, of the society.  Modern A.A. purists may often discourage looking to alternate methods to provide what they say A.A. already provides.  I think that’s ridiculous.  As a Christian, I hear many stories of people breaking out of addiction after being “born again” or “converted.”  It’s much the same as what many recovered alcoholics experience through successful application of the steps.  “A.A. spirituality is founded in an experience of release, a free-ing – in the sense that one has been saved” (Kurtz).  A born-again religious experience, going through the 12-steps, even taking LSD (as Bill saw it): all are methods that have potential to provide the same result – a changed person from the inside out.

In alcohol, we alcoholics found a parody of such a spiritual experience.  Alcohol and spirituality are grimly closely related.  In Carl Jung’s letter to Bill Wilson, dated January 30, 1961, he writes, “[you] see, Alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.  The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”  That is, the highest form of religious experience counters the most depraving poison.  “The word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means ‘to bind’ or ‘to tie’… the original intention of religion… is to reconnect the part to the whole” (Holmquist).  Bill Wilson saw LSD as yet another alternative method to reconnect the part to the whole, a type of chemical conversion rebinding man to the universe. Man to God.

It’s additionally important to know that Bill did not keep his LSD experimentations a secret.  He had no shame or guilt in what he was doing.  He saw it as helpful, not harmful.  In fact, very hopeful with the results, he eagerly invited others to see for themselves what LSD could do, even inviting his favorite Jesuit priest, Father Edward Dowling, to do so.  He truly regarded his experimentations and discoveries as “service to the A.A. fellowship” (Kurtz).  The official A.A. biography of Bill Wilson, Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World, states, “Bill was enthusiastic about his [LSD] experience; he felt it helped him eliminate many barriers erected by the self, or ego, that stand in the way of one’s direct experience with the cosmos and of God” (371).

I’m in no way saying that LSD is a good idea for alcoholics in search for a spiritual experience, especially in our modern era.  Yet I am also not saying it’s entirely wrong, at least not the concept.  I’m making no judgment at all, in fact.  What it comes down to is that recovery, spirituality, and life in general are not so black and white.  Learning this about Bill Wilson has only has increased my respect for him.  He is so multi-dimensional.  He’s not the mythical one-layered man that folklore has him be.  He’s much too real.  Even years into sobriety, he was still searching.  He was still flawed.  He sought answers.  He was sometimes wrong.  He was entirely, beautifully human.  Alcoholics Anonymous does not offer perfection.  Nowhere, not even in its founders, can that be found.


Works Cited:

ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001. 62. Print.

Harry Tiebout, M.D. “The Ego Factors in Surrender in Alcoholism.” 2001. Web. 2 May 2013.

Holmquist, Fred. “The Roots of Spirituality.” April 2012. Hazelden. Web. 2 May 2013.

Jung, Dr. Carl. “Dr. Carl Jung’s Letter To Bill Wilson, Jan 30, 1961.” 2001. Web. 2 May 2013.

Kurtz, Ernest. “Drugs and the Spiritual: Bill W. Takes LSD.” 2008. Web. 2 May 2013.

Pass it On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World. New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc., 1984. 371. Print.

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Melanie is a 27-year old Southern California native who studied at Pepperdine University. Loving to travel and experience new places and cultures, she spent two years living in the Southern states of Texas and Tennessee before returning to Los Angeles where she began working in the legal industry writing content and managing communication to class members of class action lawsuits. She now is focused on her continued sobriety, and her motto in life is to never take herself too seriously. She is often described by others as an "old soul." She loves music, photography, and makeup artistry and likes to entertain herself with astrology and numerology. She is a Sagittarius and a number 9, and shares her birthday with her beloved late grandmother and her favorite author, C.S. Lewis.

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