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Lois Wilson, My Hero

Al-Anon's founder—the wife of Bill Wilson—transcends a made-for-TV movie I saw recently. She helped to transform my family for the better.

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By Malina Saval

06/13/13

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Five minutes into watching When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story, I literally found myself shouting at the TV. Lois (played by Winona Ryder) was working full-time as a nurse on the psychiatric unit of a hospital, Bill (Barry Pepper) had just quit his bookkeeping job, and now the ice was tinkling in his glass. “He’s a drunk,” I cried out to Lois. “He’ll never change. Get out! Run for the hills!”

I’d rented the 2010 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie (based on the book by William G. Borchert) because I wanted to get a deeper understanding of who Lois Wilson was, what motivated her to stay sane in the midst of Bill’s steep plummet into alcoholic hell, and why she chose to stay married to a man who pretty much ruined her entire life. Lois was a bright girl from a well-to-do family.

I’d hear the phrase “Al-Anon” here and there, but for the longest time I actually thought it was just another way of saying AA.

She graduated from the prestigious Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights and developed a serious talent for drawing. She could have hitched her wagon to any number of strapping young men on the post-World War I New York City scene. Now, I get that love is love and all that, and she and Bill seemed to get along great when he wasn’t getting shitfaced at bars—frolicking in the grassy meadows of Vermont, riding a Harley up and down the east coast during the late 1920’s, a two-year escapade Lois chronicled in Diary of Two Motorcycle Hobos—but Pepper’s pasty complexion and bloodshot eyes when he came to after a weekend bender did little to convince me that he was worth any of the extra effort (maybe if he was played by Bradley Cooper, but I doubt it).

Of course, I knew that I was being a hypocrite (and just a little insane), which is why that first big scene hit home in such a deep personal way. I’d been married to my own recovering alcoholic for eight years. He quit his job six months after we were married (on the same day that I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child), and spent the next four years rolling joints and mixing vodka martinis in the living room while I flitted about in a constant panic wondering how not to wind up living on the street. And I never left him either. Our children worked as an adhesive. I’d like to say it was more, but that’s just the way it was. I couldn’t bear the thought of tearing them away from their father, or of me not being able to see them all the time. And so I stayed, hoping that things would get better. So who was I to take Lois’s inventory?

If anything Lois had it much, much worse than I did: two ectopic pregnancies and an emergency hysterectomy that rendered her barren, a period of homelessness where she and Bill squatted on other people’s couches, and an adoption that fell through when Bill’s reckless drinking turned up in an agency background check. Not to mention that little blip in American history known as the Great Depression. On top of all this, Al-Anon didn’t even exist. Lois had absolutely nowhere to turn. It would take years of countless health scares and professional catastrophes before Bill got sober, admitted that he was powerless and had the spiritual awakening that would enable him to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous (78 years ago this week) along with physician and fellow Vermonter Bob Smith (aka Dr. Bob).

Not until Bill began hosting AA meetings and Lois felt sorely left out of the process—at one point in the film she hurls a shoe at Bill and declares, “Damn your old meetings!”—did she spot an opportunity to invite some of the other long suffering wives, including future Al-Anon co-founder Anne B., to form their own fellowship. Like so many of us that land in Al-Anon out of utter desperation and physical and emotional exhaustion, the women in Lois’s circle were bursting with fiery resentment, aching to feel whole again after sacrificing so much in the face of their spouse’s addiction. They were angry, damaged and sad—entire decades of their lives had been given over to the devastating side effects of alcoholism. Alcoholics, they ruefully understood, are some of the most self-absorbed people on the planet—whether they are sloppy drunk or clean and sober. Now that their husbands were getting the help they needed and no longer drinking, what about their needs? What about their own healing?

Like Lois, I didn’t have Al-Anon at my disposal when my husband was in active addiction. Sure, it was around—I live in Los Angeles where 12-step meetings are everywhere—but I didn’t know about it. I’d hear the phrase “Al-Anon” here and there, but for the longest time I actually thought it was just another way of saying AA. It never occurred to me that all those people lingering outside the church down the street, gripping Starbucks cups and talking long into the night, were there because they knew an alcoholic—not because they were one. It wasn’t until my husband went off to rehab and I attended a weeklong educational program for patients’ family members that I finally figured out that Al-Anon was exactly where I belonged.

I’m not sure how I would have survived my husband getting sober were it not for Al-Anon. Drunk was predictable; drunk was familiar. But sobriety felt like being dumped naked into an ice-cold pool. Sober, my husband was a completely different person, strange and unknown. Once you peel away that outer film of addiction, all that’s left is a bundle of raw nerves; my husband had to figure out from scratch how to function like a normal person again. Sobriety, it turns out, is often the hardest part of alcoholism. There have been plenty of moments where I’ll watch my husband head off to fellowship with his sober buddies, put the kids to bed knowing he’s off chewing the fat, eating a burger and laughing it up, and wonder, Where do I fit in in all this?

Sometimes I think about how my life might have taken a different turn had I gone to Al-Anon when my husband was in the thick of his addiction, drinking and drugging and vomiting in the bushes outside a Hollywood club. But if Al-Anon has taught me anything, it’s that bringing up the past rarely solves anything and that all any of us has is the here and now.

Sure, Lois might have missed out on having children and a stable home life for all those years, and there’s a sadness about that that I’m sure lingered inside them. But in the end she and Bill found peace, which is pretty much all any of us can ask for, and together they created something that continues to save lives every single day.

Malina Saval is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about denial.

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