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Bill W.'s Anonymous Children

AA has now spawned some 50 other 12-step programs for different substances and behaviors. Would its famous founder embrace this bountiful brood or disown many of them?

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Bill Wilson photo via

By Susan Cheever

03/04/13

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With 12-step programs for spending, cluttering, eating, sex, medication and getting along with other people, few hours of the day remain beyond the influence of the work of Bill Wilson. In his wildest dreams, Bill could never have imagined this proliferation. But what would he think of it? Would he be pleased that his message was being carried in so many ways for so many substances and behaviors? Or would he be pissed at the way his focus—he started as one man trying to resist one drink—has been so dramatically scattered?

It all began on a December night in 1938, when Bill Wilson settled down in bed with a legal pad to write small, easy-to-understand pieces about the new program he was involved in. Whatever had kept him from having a drink for three years and was helping to keep other men sober should, he thought, be written down for those who couldn’t get to Bill in Brooklyn or to his cofounder, Dr. Bob Smith, in Akron, Ohio. He knew about the six tenets of the Oxford Group and the Catholic Church’s Ignatian Exercises, but neither was exactly what he envisioned. Once he started writing, something else seemed to take over. “With a speed that was astonishing, considering my jangled emotions, I completed the first draft. It took perhaps half an hour,” he recalled later. “The words kept right on coming. When I reached a stopping point, I numbered the new steps. They added up to 12.”

Bill W. and Dr. Bob were a couple of chain-smoking Vermonters who never presumed to have a messianic mission, but the quickly written 12 Steps have had a lasting effect on our world and the way we think. A lot can be said about AA’s success by its numbers: There are an estimated 2 million members in 170 countries. Less ballyhooed is how the steps themselves have grown; they are now applied to more than 50 different substances and behaviors.

The first offshoot of AA was founded by Bill’s wife, Lois Wilson, in 1951. When she realized that she had almost as much trouble dealing with a sober husband as she'd had dealing with a drunken one, she started banding together with other wives of AA members to form Al Anon—with her husband’s emphatic approval. Although Bill’s support of Al Anon may have been based on his understanding that it would help him get along with his long-suffering wife, it opened the door to other programs. Soon enough, Al Anon spawned Alateen, Al A Tot, Adult Children of Alcoholics and a dozen more 12-step programs for non-addicts trying to deal with addicts. Discontented members of Alcoholics Anonymous have also started individual groups.

“You cannot put an AA group into business,” Tradition Six explains. “Too many busybody cooks spoil the broth.” 

By the 1960s, drug addiction, gambling addiction and food addiction (which has at least five separate programs) were added to the roster. The 1970s saw the discovery that destructive sexual behavior could be a compulsion or addiction that might be alleviated by the 12 Steps: Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, Sexaholics, Sex Addicts and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous joined the crowd. In the 1980s programs for nicotine and cocaine were added as well as a few niche groups like Recovering Couples Anonymous and Chemically Dependent Anonymous.

Back in 1956, half as a joke, Bill had written a letter to a friend in California predicting that for “screwballs like ourselves” there might be a group called “Neurotics Anonymous” “to extend the moral inventory of AA to a deeper level, making it an inventory of psychic changes.” 

Ten years later, Neurotics Anonymous was established—it is now called Emotions Anonymous. (In researching my biography of Bill Wilson, I was unable to find any evidence that he was aware of this ironic development.) 

In fact while writing the Sixth Tradition—one of the 12 by-laws that govern AA—back in the early 1950s, he had written, as an example of unrealistic hopes, “The moment we saw that we had an answer for alcoholism, it was reasonable (or so it seemed at the time) for us to feel that we might have the answer to a lot of other things.” In Tradition Six, dreams of expanding the 12 Steps (as a commercial enterprise) into hospitals, say, and educational institutions crash on the rocks of human nature. “You cannot put an AA group into business,” the Tradition explains. “Too many busybody cooks spoil the broth.” 

Have too many busybody cooks expanded the 12 Steps broth into a kind of watery stone soup? Has the use of the 12 Steps gone too far? New addictions clearly require new programs, like Crystal Meth Anonymous, started in 1994, and even Online Gamers Anonymous, 2002. But when Bill wrote that procrastination is “sloth in five syllables,” was he foreseeing Procrastinators Anonymous, established in 2005 with the motto “Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried”?

At a popular center for meetings in New York City on most days of the week, an addict can get 12-step help for spending, under-earning, sexual compulsiveness, cocaine, co-dependency, crystal meth addiction, debting, overeating, surviving incest and problems with addicted family members. The miracle of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is that they often work when nothing else does. Although few of the more than 50 12-step programs for other addictions are as organized or as effective as AA, they seem to have a good effect on the people who attend them.

Yet their proliferation raises a larger question: What is the difference between being an addict and being a human being? Everyone has some kind of problem. Can a 12-step program help every problem?

Although addictions vary in intensity—some addicts are more addicted than others—there is a difference between an addict—someone who cannot stop—and someone who is not addicted. It is also true that many addicts can switch substances if they need to. “High-functioning alcoholics” are often people who also have other addictions, such as money, food and pills‑all kept more or less in check by spreading the addiction thin. Recovery author Patrick Carnes, PhD, who put sex addiction on the map, calls this “bargaining with chaos.”

In many AA meetings members talk about drug addiction, eating disorders and struggles to stop smoking. Although all addictions are the same in some ways, it is deeply reassuring and comforting to sit with a group of people who have exactly the same problems as you.

Bill Wilson may not have dreamed that he was writing steps for de-clutterers and online gamers, but I think he would be pleased.

Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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