Addiction treatment as we now know it today, originated in the US when the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, began promoting his unproven theory that heavy drinking was an illness in 1935. There were others before him that mentioned the addiction disease theory, but Bill was the first person to systematize that idea into a model of “addiction-help.” He coined his disease-based model, the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12 steps of AA have remained the most commonly used form of disease-based “treatment” for substance use problems in Western society for more than 8 decades, regardless of the fact that its rate of success is the lowest of all methods commonly used to help substance users overcome their problems. (Miller, 2001) That fact didn’t stop Bill from relentlessly promoting his flawed theory, as there was money to be made and power to grab.
Bill’s disease theory was based on his proposal that there is a line that gets crossed within certain people (called alcoholics or addicts) where the individual is unable to control their substance use habit. “Once they start they can’t stop,” is how it’s portrayed in AA literature and folklore. However, this loss of control idea is objectively untrue; it’s a myth. Yet, in most circles the theory goes completely unchallenged and is taken as fact. Numerous carefully controlled experiments have disproven the loss of control theory (Heather 1983). Half of former “alcoholics” become moderate drinkers (Dawson, 1996). The treatment industry simply ignores the experimental evidence, while dismissing those who’ve successfully achieved moderation as “not real alcoholics.” While it is true some people almost always go overboard when they drink, this doesn’t mean they can’t control themselves. It means they currently prefer heavy drinking. To say they’ve “lost control” is to carry on a charade.
As a society, we assume based on how prolific the 12 steps are in our culture, and how often AA meetings are mentioned in theatre, the news, and common discourse, that it’s all proof of its inherent effectiveness. And so the commonly heard mistruth – “AA is the most effective program for recovery” – has evolved into our universal truth. Meanwhile addiction rates have not gone down, while overdose rates have risen over the 81 year span that the 12 steps have dominated as the goto “solution” to substance use problems.
Bill’s folly also stands on a second equally false claim; that substances themselves are “cunning, baffling, powerful,” and are entities to be battled. (A common statement we hear all the time, “He/She lost their battle with alcohol” is a good example of this oft heard myth.) This personified image of substances where Bill imbued them with humanlike qualities, motives and magical powers, is equally damaging to substance users. Regardless of the absurdity of Bill’s claims, our culture eventually took these ideas as fact, promoted them, and ran with them.
The Foundation of an Argument Matters
If you have a premise, or a foundation of an argument that is inaccurate or wrong, most of what happens downstream from that argument gets tainted with the falseness of the original premise. In other words, Bill’s now popularized false claims of addiction being a disease and his view of personified and magical substances carries with it certain consequences. The need to “treat” people for a disease that in reality, does not exist, and the need to wage a personal battle against substances that don’t have a mind of their own nor any inherent power, pathology or “addictiveness” are two trends that have grown out of Bill’s original fantasy of addiction being a disease. We have now been treating a condition that is not a condition at all, and we have been doing this charade for decades. This is important to understand – Bill’s false premise has spawned an entire 36 billion dollar per year industry that is totally unnecessary, and worse, is counterproductive with a population that is already in serious peril!
By creating a distraction from the truth that addiction is actually a preferred habit of the individual, those who are trapped within the mythology of disease and loss of control are never able to move past those false constructs. They are provided endless recovery methods to stop killing themselves, but never reach the answer to their struggle. It’s a never-ending battle with a mythical foe. By never allowing the idea of choice or individual-centered solutions to substance use issues to be explored or tried, the disease theories and endless battle narrative keeps the person embroiled in a constant struggle with themselves and what they want. Simply put, it distracts them from the truth that could free them permanently.
So how did all this mythology gain a foothold in our society? How did the cult of AA become a staple in Western culture?
(Note to reader: The only portion of the addiction treatment complex that has real life saving value is the physical detoxification process that helps people safely get through physical withdrawal. What we are discussing in this article is not detox, but rather the portion of the treatment industry that deals with matters of the emotions, heart, and mind of the individual, not their physical needs.)
Bill Wilson’s Charade – How TREATMENT and RECOVERY were born
In order to understand how counterproductive treatment and recovery are for drinking and drugging habits, it’s important to understand the man who created the disease and recovery charades. Bill was a failed stockbroker who became a lost, drunken mess in the late 20’s and early 1930’s. He was nearly homeless, and was a daily drinker in his last days of heavy use.
But inside, Bill always had an unrelenting drive to be something bigger and more powerful than the sorry drinker he’d become. As he put it, he wanted to be “a number one man.” He was hungry for fame and fortune, and as history would record, he achieved his status as a millionaire, and as one of the 20th century’s largest cult leaders. As an example of his desire to control the masses, when he first published his book, Alcoholics Anonymous, he tried to name the organization and the book “The Bill W. Movement.” The people around him at the time would not have it, and demanded a less Bill-centered name, and the title Alcoholics Anonymous won out. But this little piece of history just shows how desperate Bill was for fame and control.
Bill created the foundation of the entire treatment complex we now see being spread throughout the world. Those who see the treatment/recovery system as a benefit to users call Bill a prophet, while the researchers and millions of others who see the truth, see Bill for the power hungry man he actually was.
Bill Wilson understood how to wield control. He was a master manipulator, and the current treatment and recovery model has the fingerprints of that skill all over it. So how did Bill go from a wandering drunk in the streets of NYC, to one of the largest and richest personalities in American health at the time?
It all started when Bill became a member of the first-century Christian organization, The Oxford Group, in the homeless shelters of Manhattan in the late 20’s. It’s there that he saw his opportunity to get rich. He founded his own Oxford Group meetings and began evangelizing his own brand of Christ and salvation to the drunks within those meetings. Because he knew the typical customs and language of the drinking and drugging culture, he was able to easily create what was called the “alcoholic squad” within the overall Oxford Group’s mixed bag population. His group quickly became a contentious subgroup of the Oxford Group organization and eventually Bill and the squad went full rogue from the parent Oxford Group organization.
Bill and his followers then morphed the Christian ideals of the Oxford Group into his own bastardized self-serving version – his cult of personality was taking shape.
After the split took place, and his position as the leader of the alcoholic squad was cemented, Bill began making it his mission to collect what he called “the erstwhile erratic alcoholics” from the various homeless shelters throughout NYC and beyond. He then co-opted a back room in Towns Hospital where he convinced Dr. Silkworth, the managing doctor at the time, to allow him access to the “drunks” that would be detoxing in the new detox bed. This small step was actually a leap in the foundation of the disease-based treatment system we see today. Both Bill and Dr. Silkworth were promoting the new “disease concept” in the hospital, and pushed their theory on anyone who listened, including the drinkers now lying, vulnerable and desperate, in their detox bed.
Bill knew how to organize and get what he wanted. He knew if he could instill enough fear into the detoxing patient, that he and his alcoholic squad would be able to wield influence in their life and get them to buy-in to going to their meetings (which eventually became AA meetings). By using scare tactics like “If you don’t do God’s will, surely John Barleycorn will make you do it!” Bill was able to manipulate entire families. The mission of these detox sessions was to break down the emotional state of the person detoxing, and create a desire within that individual to want to attend the AA meetings as the only solution. He made up the idea that “only one alcoholic could effectively work with another alcoholic.” This unfounded theory was his way of separating the new member from the love of their family. It’s a common cult tactic, and he used it brilliantly. We see the remnants of this idea every time a rehab says, “You need to make recovery the most important thing in your life. You will die drunk and alone if you don’t!” This makes treatment, rehab, AA meetings, therapy and sponsorship in 12 step modalities more important than family, friend and careers.
In the early days of detoxing these people at Towns Hospital, they would spend a week scaring the patient into needing support. Then they would explain that the individual needed to be “sponsored” into the AA meetings. In order for a current member to sponsor them into the meetings, the detox patient was required to get down on their knees and surrender their will over to God and the people there. If they did this satisfactorily, they were “sponsored” into the meetings. While this official cult manifestation is gone, the idea that a person “in recovery” requires a “sponsor to get sober” is still used today.
Bill knew he needed as many people as possible to buy-in to his movement, as without people, there would be no captured audience to buy his books and place the dollar or two in the donation basket at each meeting. By using fear and the recruitment tactics explained above, Bill masterminded the entire 36 billion dollar treatment industry we see today. He did die a millionaire, and AA is a multi-million dollar enterprise today. He achieved his goal by spreading a false disease, a religion of his own making, and a pyramid scheme that rolls on to this day. They still sell fear, along with Bill’s bastardized form of a Santa Claus God who only grants sobriety to those who recruit and give themselves to Bill’s “simple program.”
It is time to let this destructive paradigm die. Here are the facts:
The disease concept is a myth.
Addiction is a choice.
People move past their addictions without AA or any formal treatment by the tens of thousands every year, and so can you.
If you want a more detailed explanation of all the addiction mythology that Bill and his followers created and how to move on from it, you can read The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap. Then you can finally be free from the fantasy of a man that never had you or anyone else’s best interests in mind, but instead, was fully invested in himself.
If you want to know more about becoming free whether that’s through abstinence or moderate use, you can get your free abridged copy of The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap at The Freedom Model’s website here www.thefreedommodel.org
Call 888-424-2626 to talk with us.
If you would like to get away and learn the Freedom Model with a certified FM Instructor in a residential retreat setting at The Saint Jude Retreat, call the number above, or go to www.soberforever.net
If you want to learn about The Freedom Model Private Instruction Program, a program you take from the safety and comfort of home, go to www.leaveaddictionbehind.com
Mr. Mark Scheeren is the Co-Founder and Chairman of the St. Jude Retreat, as is co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap, the original Non-12-Step approach for people who struggle with serious substance use issues. Mr. Scheeren and his staff of Researchers and Instructors have helped many thousands find permanent solutions to their drug and alcohol problems.
Miller, W. R., Walters, S. T., & Bennett, M. E. (2001). How effective is alcoholism treatment in the United States? Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 62(2), 211–220.
Heather, N., & Robertson, I. (1983). Controlled drinking (Rev. ed). Methuen. Dawson, D. A. (1996). Correlates of Past-Year Status Among Treated and Untreated Persons with Former Alcohol Dependence: United States, 1992. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 20(4), 771–779. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1530-0277.1996.tb01685.x