Friends with Bill

“I show my scars so others know they can heal”

Kelley Kitley

State 42: Vermont - June, 17, 2018


We woke up at a Walmart in the border town of West Lebanon, NH well rested and ready for a brand new day. Yesterday, we learned how maple syrup was made at Sugarbush Family Farm, and could not wait to see what adventures lie ahead. Today we drive 75 miles Southwest to East Dorset, to learn about the Cross Country Couple's "Famous Person" for Vermont; Bill Wilson. Along with Dr. Bob Smith, Bill Wilson co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous; an international fellowship aimed at helping alcoholics achieve and maintain sobriety. In 1939, Bill Wilson authored; “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism” The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous derives its name from the title of the book. Interestingly, Wilson’s 400-page literary work is most commonly called the “Big Book” due to the thickness of the paper used in the first edition.

Wilson’s book originated the concept of a twelve step program, and has been adapted to treat a wide variety of addictions including: drug addiction, compulsive gambling, overeating, and sex addiction in addition to alcoholism. The “Big Book” has sold over 30 million copies making it one of the best selling books of all time! In 1999, Time Magazine listed Bill Wilson as one of 100 most important people of the 20th century. In 2012, the Library of Congress designated Wilson’s literary work as one of the “88 Books that Shaped America". Today Alcoholics Anonymous has over 100,000 registered local groups and over two million active members worldwide.

It all began on a dark and stormy night in November of 1934. Bill Wilson sat in his New York City apartment awaiting the arrival of his childhood friend and drinking buddy Ebby Thatcher. Both men had been plagued by alcoholism their entire lives, and have frequented mental institutions and jails for years. Wilson expected to partake in a night of drinking and reflecting about the good ole days with his friend. Upon Thatcher’s arrival, Wilson was shocked by his friend’s refusal to drink! Thatcher told Wilson of a religious conversion he underwent at the Calvary Rescue Mission, and his membership in the Oxford Group consisting of Alcoholics who help each other stay sober.

A month later, Bill W. spoke with Dr. William D. Silkworth the leading authority on alcoholism of the time. Silkworth described alcoholism as, “an obsession of the mind compelling one to drink, and an allergy of the body that condemns one to go mad or die”. Dr. Silkworth observed alcoholics recover when aided by a power greater than one self. Following Wilson’s meeting with Dr. Silkworth, Bill underwent a religious conversion at the Calvary Rescue Mission, and was admitted to Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addiction in New York. Thatcher visited Wilson while hospitalized, and continued to offer support and encouragement from one alcoholic to another establishing the practice which would become sponsorship in AA.

Over the following months, Wilson continued to work with Thatcher, the Oxford Group, and others who were suffering from alcoholism. On May 13, 1935, Bill W. traveled to Akron, Ohio on a business trip, which did not go well. Since talking to another alcoholic helped him get sober, Wilson sought out another alcoholic in Akron to prevent relapsing. Wilson was referred to a surgeon Dr. Bob Smith who had suffered from alcoholism for decades. Dr. Bob invited Wilson to stay in his home. Their mutual conversations not only prevented Wilson's relapse, it resulted in Dr. Bob's sobriety! Thus Alcoholics Anonymous was born by a chance encounter between two men inflicted by an incurable disease, who together found strength, solidarity and sobriety.

Ebby Thatcher struggled with maintaining his sobriety throughout the remainder of his life. Despite Thatcher’s repetitive relapses, Bill W. always referred to him as his “Sponsor”, and looked after his friend for the rest of his life. Dr. Bob spent his remaining years reaching out to those suffering with alcoholism, and is credited with helping over 5000 people achieve sobriety. Doctor Bob stayed sober from June 10, 1935 until his death from colon cancer in 1950. Dr. Bob's sobriety date of June 10, 1935 is celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bill W. took his last drink December 11, 1934, and remained sober for the the rest of his life. Wilson never considered himself as a model of sobriety, and identified simply as a recovering alcoholic instead of the Co-founder of AA. Bill W. declined an honorary degree from Yale University, and refused to allow his picture to be taken for the cover of Time Magazine. In 1955, Wilson turned over control of AA to a board of trustees. Time and time again, Bill W. insisted he was just an ordinary man, who believed by sharing his experience, strength and hope he could help save others from an alcoholic death sentence. On January 24, 1971, Bill Wilson died of pneumonia, and is buried in the town of his birth in East Dorset, Vermont.

How does Alcoholics Anonymous work? AA’s primary goal is to promote sobriety by carrying its message of hope and healing to the still sick and suffering alcoholic. AA is open to all people free of charge regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, and the only prerequisite to become a member is a desire to stop drinking. AA members remain anonymous allowing participants a more comfortable experience in recovery by removing the social stigma of the disease. Meetings are often held in public spaces such as churches or schools. Some meetings are open to anyone who wants to attend, while others are only for alcoholics. AA operates independently from any outside organization, and is not affiliated with any religious or political group.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a strong social and spiritual emphasis. The belief in an entity greater than one’s self is central to AA, but each member defines their own higher power. For some who are religious, God is their higher power. For those who are atheist, AA is their higher power since the program offers the ability to achieve sobriety which they cannot attain on their own. AA participants follow a series of steps to achieve and maintain abstinence from alcohol, and most use sponsors to guide them through the steps. A sponsor is typically a member of AA who has already worked through the steps, and has significant time in sobriety.

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are described below:

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step 6: We are entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In the early morning hours of March 25, 2008, I found myself in a pattern all too familiar. I was at a local bar partaking in another night of hardcore, double fisting, tab climbing and tap flowing binge drinking. I hit the bottle particularly hard that night for no particular reason other than it being a Tuesday. Over the course of two hours, I drank 14 beers, and 10 double shots of Black Label Scotch on the rocks. Had it not been for the debit card receipt I found in my pocket the following morning, I would not have remembered or even believed how much I drank in such a short period of time.

I recall hearing the bartender announce “LAST CALL”, and the next thing I remember I was laying on my bathroom floor drifting in and out of consciousness. I could not stand! I could not speak! My heart was beating out of my chest! I found myself barely able to breathe! I remember thinking to myself, “Nate you really did it this time!”. For the first time in many years, I prayed to God from that bathroom floor and said, “Please help me! I don’t want to die!”, I heard a voice within me say, “I will send you help”. Lori got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and found me lying on the bathroom floor unresponsive. She called 911, and I was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room with acute alcohol poisoning. My blood alcohol level was over 4.0, and I should have died! I have not had a drink since!

Hello my name is Nathan, and I am a grateful recovering alcoholic. The fact I am still breathing and typing this blog post is a miracle! I lived the miserable existence of an active alcoholic for six long, lonely, painful and destructive years! I have no family history of alcoholism, yet I was hooked after my first shot of vodka. No one told me alcohol was a drug, and not everyone who drinks becomes alcoholics. Alcohol is legal, socially acceptable and available everywhere. You go to a ballgame, and beer is for sale! You go out to a restaurant, and a drink menu is on every table! You can drive down almost any street in any state across America, and in one form or another you will find alcohol for sale! Remaining sober when my mind is hardwired to drink defies the natural order of the universe! Despite the constant temptation, the ability today to say no to a drink is infinitely empowering!

My favorite saying in AA is, “A grateful heart will never drink”. Since my worst day sober is still 1 million times better than my best day drunk, I always have endless things for which to be grateful for. In the rooms of AA, I have seen people paralyzed from drunk driving accidents, so each day I thank my higher power for the blessing of having two arms, and two legs which work. In the rooms of AA, I heard stories about how family and friends abandoned their alcoholics, so each day I thank my higher power for my wonderful wife who stood by me during the difficult years of my active alcoholism. In the rooms of AA, I have sat beside empty chairs representing those who died before experiencing recovery, so each day I thank my higher power for revealing to me the possibility of a sober and spiritual life. Maintaining a daily attitude of gratitude has ensured my desire to remain sober has outweighed my desire to drink for 9+ years, equivalent to “3,285” 24 hour periods, because in AA we work the program one day at a time.

Alcoholism is frequently described as cunning, baffling and powerful! It is the only disease which tells you it does not exist! Statistically, 93% of all alcoholics relapse, and many die before they even have the opportunity to make it into the rooms of AA. There were millions of alcoholics who drank longer, drank harder, and were more worthy of sobriety than I, who currently lie in their graves! There are millions more alcoholics who found sobriety in the rooms of AA, then relapsed, and they too lie in their graves! The alcoholic who gave me a “Big Book” at my first AA meeting relapsed, and died from this disease! By divine intervention and the rooms of AA, I was given a second chance at life, and bestowed the fragile and precious gift of sobriety. “Why me and not them?” remains an eluding question haunting me to this day!

Part of the process of achieving sobriety includes taking a fearless moral inventory of yourself. I constantly strive to not only celebrate my strengths, but to continuously work on my weaknesses. One of my biggest weaknesses is my “all or nothing mentality”, which I frequently found myself applying to something negative such as drinking. Once sober, I wondered what would happen if I applied my “all or nothing mentality” towards something positive, and below is the result.

On March, 25, 2008, I was rushed to the hospital with acute alcohol poisoning, and I should have died! Less than two years later, I stood sober in the auditorium of that same hospital graduating nursing school valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA, and gave the commencement speech on behalf of my class. What was once my biggest character defect, I now view as one of my greatest strengths, and I owe it to the fact that I am a recovering alcoholic.

It is estimated there are 700 million alcoholics worldwide, and imagine what would happen if each of them: went to college, started a business, donated to charity, saved for retirement, lost weight, became community leaders, ran for public office, or developed closer ties with family. If alcoholics took even a fraction of the energy we once focused on drinking and instead directed effort into something worthwhile, alcoholics could change the world!

If someone survived cancer with a 93% mortality rate they would be shouting their victory from roof tops. However, those who have defied the odds having achieved decades of sobriety celebrate their success anonymously huddled at AA meetings in church basements across the world due to the stigma of the disease. It is about time that changes! Despite the potential for ridicule and repercussions from family, friends, strangers, and even future employers, I am willfully breaking my anonymity today in hopes it inspires others who are affected by alcoholism to publicly speak out! Author Kelley Kitley exemplified this point best when she said, “I show my scars so others know they can heal”.

If you are still actively drinking keep coming to meetings, and as long as there is breath in your body never give up hope! If you are blessed to have achieved sobriety, then still keep coming to meetings! Never forget, while we may be sober, we are never cured! I owe my higher power, AA and Dr. Bob and Bill W. a debt I can never repay! Publicly sharing my personal struggles with alcoholism is my way of giving to others what was once freely given to me.

I began the day by visiting the final resting place of Bill Wilson and his wife Lois at the East Dorset Cemetery. As I approached the Wilson’s graves, I discovered a plethora of letters and tokens of appreciations left behind for AA’s co founder. The most noteworthy mementos left behind was a gallon sized ziplock bag of sobriety coins. In AA, coins are presented to members on the anniversary of their sobriety, and are highly coveted. Leaving a sobriety coin is a powerful and symbolic gesture for an alcoholic to pay tribute to AA’s co-founder. To keep in line with tradition, I reached into my pocket, pulled out a sobriety coin, and added it to the existing pile. Although Bill W. died before I was even born, the program he helped establish had a profound impact on my life! Paying my respects at the Wilson’s grave was one of the most memorable moments of my cross country trip. Please see the pictures below.

After departing the grave of Bill and Lois Wilson, we drove across town to The Wilson House Hotel. Built in 1852 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, The Wilson House is a historic hotel, and birthplace of AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson. Rumor has it, Bill Wilson’s mother gave birth to the future co-founder of AA behind the hotel bar in the middle of a snow storm. Throughout the years, Bill and Lois Wilson would spend their summers at the hotel up until their deaths. Eventually, the hotel went out of business and fell into disrepair. In 1987, the property was purchased to preserve Wilson’s memory, and over the following years the hotel underwent a series of restorations. Today, The Wilson House Hotel serves as a non-profit bed and breakfast featuring 14 guestrooms, sobriety seminars, Friday night suppers, and regularly hosts AA and ALANON meetings. Please see the pictures below of The Wilson House Hotel.

Across the street from The Wilson House Hotel stands the small and unassuming home where Bill Wilson lived with his sister and his grandparents from age 11 until serving in WW1. Today, Wilson’s childhood home serves as Griffith Library, housing books about recovery, and as a museum dedicated to Bill W. The first floor of the building serves as the library, and the second floor houses the bedrooms where Bill Wilson and his sister once slept. Please see the pictures below.

After departing the Griffith Library, I headed back to the Wilson House, to catch an 8:30pm AA meeting. After departing Bill W’s. childhood home, we drove 75 miles Northeast to the border town of West Lebanon, NH where we found a Walmart to spend the night.