History shows successful long-term recovery from addiction requires family involvement

Matt Tucker
Posted 12/2/18

It is a well-established fact that New York stock broker Bill Wilson and Akron, Ohio, physician Dr. Robert Smith (affectionately referred to as Dr. Bob) are considered the founding fathers of what was later to become Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

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History shows successful long-term recovery from addiction requires family involvement


It is a well-established fact that New York stock broker Bill Wilson and Akron, Ohio, physician Dr. Robert Smith (affectionately referred to as Dr. Bob) are considered the founding fathers of what was later to become Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Nationally recognized author and family recovery advocate Debra Jay thinks there are two other individuals who were at least as critical as Wilson and Smith in the founding members of the 12-step movement, Henrietta Seberling and Ann Smith, Dr. Bob’s wife.

The irony in stressing their influence on the creation of the 12-step program is that both women would likely decline their influence and direct you toward God as the source of all of it. They were guided to do His bidding, they would likely say. Since, however, many do not know the history of the 12-step program outside of what is in the basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous (referred to as “the Big Book” to 12-step group members), from which the group derived its name, I can understand why Jay specifically targets these two individuals as being equally influential and responsible for the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In Debra Jay’s book, It Takes a Family: A Cooperative Approach to Lasting Sobriety, she writes about the day Wilson, at that time sober 5 months, found himself in Akron, Ohio in the Mayflower hotel lobby after a business deal just fell through. Wilson describes the event himself, in Chapter 11, “A Vision for You,” from the Big Book. He was “bitterly discouraged…discredited and almost broke. Still physically weak, and sober but a few months. He wanted so much to talk with someone, but whom?”

Wilson had been attending Oxford group meetings in New York and Maryland prior to his trip to Akron. At these meetings, he would seek out other alcoholics to work with. The Oxford group program was what his friend and old drinking buddy, Ebby Thatcher, brought him while he was recovering from his last alcoholic binge in Towns hospital in New York. Ebby was sober and attending Oxford group meetings and heard his friend was under the care of Dr. Silkworth, a specialist in Alcohol and Drug addiction at Towns.

The Oxford group was a spiritual rejuvenation movement started by Frank Buchman. Its goal was to rekindle the first Century Christianity in a modern world. Buchman would say, “I wasn’t trying to get people to join a movement, so much as I was trying to get movement into people.” It emphasized surrender to God, an honest self-appraisal and then confession of sins, restitution to those harmed and then to active use of what they called 2-way prayer for God directed guidance to live out God’s will for their life and help others go through the same steps of life changing.

It was these principles Wilson would later convert into what we now know of as the 12 steps. Wilson used Oxford group literature to write the Big Book. Essentially, the Big Book is a piece of Oxford group literature that was tailored to have a single purpose--help alcoholics get sober. It was written while they were all still going to Oxford group meetings and the Oxford group leaders were not all that happy they were so single-minded in purpose and were more subtle in their approach to people about the topic of God. It was attractive for many reasons to alcoholics who might have some resentment at religion and the church, but for the Oxford group purposes, it would not do and so they split off from them and became the A.A. we know today.

Wilson found himself in that lobby, dejected and broke, where he was presented with two options. On one side was a bar full of jovial, happy drinkers, conjuring up fond memories of his early drinking career. The insidious lie the brain tells itself of the first drink was creeping in. On the other side of the lobby was a list of local churches. He prayed for God to help him. He was reminded that if he drank, he could not help other alcoholics. By thinking of others and praying to God, he was given a reprieve from the disease of alcoholism. His desire to drink left him immediately and he went to the directory of churches listed, closed his eyes and randomly pointed to a name listed--Reverend Tunks.

Reverend Tunks was Mr. Harvey Firestone’s minister. Mr. Firestone had brought 60 Oxford group people down to Akron for 10 days out of gratitude for helping his son, who drank too much. Frank Buchman even came to the event, as did Henrietta and Ann.

Henrietta Seiberling had been going to Oxford group meetings and knew of Dr. Bob’s drinking, although he didn’t think anyone else knew. Henerietta set up a special meeting just for Bob one night and told some of the Oxford group members to be there and be prepared “to share very costly things to make Bob lose his pride and share what he thought would cost him a great deal.”

They brought Bob with them to the meeting. She had warned Ann prior to this meeting that it was specifically for Bob and that she should come prepared to mean business. “There [was] going to be no pussyfooting around.” In typical Oxford group fashion, the honesty was rigorous, and confession and transparency were on display. After everyone had shared, it got around to Dr. Bob and he was undoubtedly feeling a lot of conviction listening to all these confessions and he had a confession of his own.

He said, “Well, you good people have all shared things I am sure were very costly to you, and I am going to tell you something which may cost me my profession. I am a silent drinker. I can’t stop.” They then all got on their knees and prayed with Dr. Bob.

After that night, Dr. Bob continued to struggle with his drinking, but it was not long after that meeting that Henerietta got a call from Reverend Tunks. He had a man that perhaps could help her doctor friend. His name was Bill Wilson and he referred to himself as a “rum hound” from the New York Oxford group. She saw this as “manna from heaven.” She arranged a meeting between the two men, to which Dr. Bob begrudgingly said, “Ok, I’ll give him 15 minutes and no more!” Six hours went by on that first meeting between Wilson and Smith and the rest is history.

Henrietta, Ann and Bob Smith and Bill Wilson would set up an Oxford group meeting in Akron that summer and encouraged others to bring as many alcoholics as they could to the meetings. It was not long after that the Alcoholics Anonymous book was written and published.

A family member and their good friend were essential for not only the creation of what became A.A., but also incredibly influential regarding the spiritual aspect of the program and reliance upon God for all things, including two-way communication with God, which they called, guidance. Both Bill and Dr. Bob were apprehensive about all the God talk, but Henerietta was a very strong-willed individual. She insisted that if they decrease the value of the “grace of God” then they’ll lose the power with which they had achieved recovery from their hopeless condition. They agreed.

Jay is a champion of early intervention, family recovery support groups and a new model of recovery that treats addiction as a family wide disease that everyone, whether they have substance use disorder or not, can use the recovery support group meeting both in their daily life at programs like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon and at home within the family. She goes into detail about how these meetings look and be facilitated, but it is based on the physician’s health programs across the country that have been so successful at achieving long-term sobriety for doctors with substance use disorder.

Her emphasis on the family being in recovery before the person with the addiction even leaves treatment seems to be well-founded. After all, it took a friend and a family member in recovery to finally connect two alcoholics together that could then help each other recover from their alcoholism.

If you are a family member of someone with a substance use disorder I encourage you to seek out a local family support group and begin your recovery today. You do not have to wait for them to do the right thing. You can go and get the support and help you need. Perhaps your example will be like Henrietta and Ann’s. Dr. Bob didn’t admit anything until he was confronted with others revealing things about themselves. Perhaps they’ll finally admit they have a problem and seek out the help they need as Dr. Bob did and give someone 15 minutes. That 15 minutes could turn into a life-time of recovery.

Note: There are four family meetings per week in Walker County currently. Monday night at the Round House on Gardner’s Rd at 8:00 PM, Saturday mornings at 8:30 AM at St. Mary’s Episcopal, and Sunday and Wednesday at 5:30 PM at Desperation church in the Civic Center.