The Psychedelic Story of Bill W; Founder of Alcoholic Anonymous

Anyone who has gone through recovery or at least knows someone who has gone through recovery has likely heard the name “Bill W.” Telling someone, “I’m a friend of Bill W.” is meant to be a signal of recovery—which only makes his use of psychedelics seem even more off the wall.

The co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, spent two decades sober. What he may not have realized at the time is that dropping acid for the first time would change his approach to sobriety for good.

A Struggle with Spirituality

Wilson, in the midst of writing AA Comes of Age, discovered something important about his program. He noticed that many of the people partaking in the program were struggling to attain any kind of spiritual experience. 

Why is that spirituality needed? It is believed that spirituality can help to sufficiently provide guidance to sobriety. He was also in the midst of searching for ways to reach those suffering from alcoholism that did not respond to the Alcoholics Anonymous program that can be found in The Big Book.

An Important Pair of Friendships

Part of the defining foundation for Wilson was his deep friendship with Gerald Heard. Heard was a mystic, philosopher, and writer and wound up becoming a spiritual mentor for Wilson throughout much of his life.

It also helped the friendship that the two shared a bond due to debilitating depression. They communicated via correspondence, with Heard later introducing Wilson to his friend Aldous Huxley. Huxley authored Doors of Perception, which depicts his own psychedelic experience using mescaline. Mescaline is the psychoactive portion of peyote.

These two friendships wound up being the most crucial to inspiring Wilson. Through these friendships, Wilson became aware of the research being done featuring the use of psychedelics to treat schizophrenics and alcoholics.

The research was conducted over a number of studies throughout a 20-year period. Partially due to restrictions put in place by the Richard Nixon administration, funding for research came to a halt. It is worth noting that Wilson wasn’t too keen on the idea of using psychedelics to help alcoholics achieve the spiritual connection that he had been hoping for.

The First Trip

Despite initial apprehension, Wilson learned of positive results from the aforementioned researchers. This began to increase his interest and curiosity in the possibility of psychedelics in the treatment of alcoholics.

That is where his first acid trip was set into motion. His first experience with LSD came on August 29, 1956, under the direct supervision of Dr. Sidney Cohen as well as his friend Gerald Heard.

Heard took notes during that initial session for Wilson. He reported that Wilson felt a feeling of peace, with Wilsons stating, “Tobacco is not necessary to me anymore.” The greater sense of relaxation led him to state that people “shouldn’t take themselves so damn seriously.”

Later Trips

That first acid trip was just the beginning. Wilson would have two more sessions with Dr. Cohen’s research assistant, Betty Eisner, at the Los Angeles VA Medical Center during the 1950s. Before the initial session with Eisner, Wilson intimated that he was considering implementing LSD into AA’s treatment methods.

The overarching goal was to help alcoholics achieve a spiritual experience, but Wilson believed that some simply could not achieve that experience on their own. In his own experiences, Wilson was noted to look years younger and noticeably more comfortable. It also helped him and others in the session unlock their emotions on a previously unexpected level.

The Impact

All of this leads to the impact that these sessions had on Wilson going forward. Though Wilson felt that LSD could play a crucial role in the treatment of alcoholism, there were concerns. The Chairman of the AA Board of Trustees, Dr. Jack Norris chief among them.

Because of this concern, Wilson was persuaded to stop his use of LSD. Between his initial use and his death in 1971, he noted a drastic improvement in his depression and creativity. The idea of using LSD to treat alcoholism went dormant for some years until Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico ran the first government-approved psychedelic research. Still, it is hard to imagine that step being taken without the experiences of Bill W.

Final Thoughts

Though it may seem like the height of irony that one of the founders of the world’s most recognizable rehabilitation program would try acid, it wound up impacting his vision of sobriety. Since then, “Bill W.” has become a pseudonym for sobriety.

To think that it really started to gain traction by dropping acid will forever be a legendary story. But knowing why Bill W. and psychedelics go hand in hand can be an important piece of history to know regardless of your substance use history.

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