How Bill W. Learned that the 12 Steps Work for Drug Addicts, Too – Shelby, North Carolina, 1939
July 8, 2008, 2:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

From the personal files of Tom Powers Sr., the transcript of a talk given by AA co-founder Bill W., in 1947, in which he paid tribute to Dr. Tom, a man who recovered from both alcohol and drug addiction in Alcoholics Anonymous. Dr. Tom brought AA to North Carolina in 1939 and Bill called his story “one of the greatest ever to come out of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Here’s how Tom Powers Sr. recalled the background

Dr. Tom M. joined AA in 1939. He was a physician. He was an alcoholic. And he was a narcotics addict — hooked on morphine for twelve years. He read the AA Big Book while he was a patient at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.

Impressed by the Twelve Steps, and hopeful for the possibility of a new life, Dr. Tom contacted the AA central service office in New York by mail. After his release from the hospital in Lexington, Dr. Tom returned to his home in Shelby, North Carolina, and started an AA group.

In the beginning, his contact with other AAs consisted of letters back and forth from the AA central office. But he stayed sober and clean; he never drank or took drugs again.

Bill Wilson called Dr. Tom’s story “one of the greatest ever to come out of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Bill told part of Dr. Tom’s story at a large AA meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, in September of 1947. Here’s what Bill said:

It was some six years ago. AA had made a good start. We were getting on firmer ground here and there, but nothing was too certain. One day our central office in New York (which is merely a service center where we receive inquiries and one thing and another) — one day that office received a letter from a man who was an inmate of the Lexington place for drug addicts. This man told us in the letter how he had been a physician, had got onto alcohol, and then onto morphine, and that while there in the asylum someone had written him about AA. He said he had been reading this AA book of ours [Alcoholics Anonymous, the AA Big Book], which is our book of experience.

“Of course, I used to be an alcoholic,” he wrote, “but now I’m an addict of some twelve years standing, and you know how hopeless that is. But I do see hope for me in this philosophy of yours, and when I get out of here I’m certainly going to try it.”

Subsequently our office struck up a correspondence with him as he’d returned home to that little southern hamlet. He told us in his quiet way of the various difficulties he had getting settled again, but never in any complaining sense. The girls in our office would write him occasional letters of encouragement, and little by little he began to describe the formation of an AA group in Shelby. (By the way, this was one of the earliest groups we formed through the mail, without any direct contact.) Well, it was a great thrill to all of us in the office.

Meanwhile, the southern centers had started — Atlanta, Richmond, Jacksonville. In larger places the groups had become larger, and with that a demand had arisen that I get down among the southerners and pay my respects and see if I couldn’t peddle a little of the older AA experience down there.

You see, AA began to look like a success at that time, and as everyone knows, success is a heady wine. I’m afraid that I was a little bit on the “big shot” side, and I spent some little time debating with the folks in the office whether I would stop off at Shelby. I mean, you know, that chap there was a nice chap, and he had done a nice job, but I should get where I could get to a lot of people. After some debating with myself and others, I finally, grudgingly, conceded that I would stop off there at Shelby.

Well, when I got off the train at King’s Mountain, North Carolina, I saw three men approaching me from down the platform a ways. Two of them I spotted as “souses” right off the bat, you couldn’t mistake it — they were sober, you understand, but we drunks know our own quite well. The third one, well I wondered who and what he was. As he drew near I saw some lines in his face that I didn’t quite place, and as he drew nearer I saw his lips were marked in a strange way. I learned later that in the agony of his dope hangovers he had chewed them, leaving scars. He turned out to be the delightful soft-spoken man we call Dr. Tom.

Well, we got in the car and drove from King’s Mountain over to Shelby. We were set down at the door of a beautiful, typically southern ancestral home. We went inside, and there I first met Tom’s mother, and then his young wife and their new baby. And I could feel the warmth and love and happiness through the atmosphere of that home.

The meal came and went — and from an AA point of view, it was a most unusual meal. I found that Tom was rather reluctant to talk about what he had done in Shelby, so there wasn’t much AA “shop talk” at the table ( practically unheard-of elsewhere), and I wondered myself if dope had a humbling effect — if so, I think that some of us alcoholics should have taken more of it.

At any rate, presently meeting time came, and we got down there, and the meeting place was right under the hotel — right next to the barber shop — very public. And I said to myself, “Well, now, for a small town that’s really going some!” And, yes, even over the door, here were two letters — “AA.” And I got in there and here was the usual jolly crowd, and then the meeting started.

Well now, up in New York — incidentally, I’m not from New York, so I can say what I am going to say with impunity; I’m a Vermonter and therefore one of the damndest of all Yankees — our group there is very cosmopolitan. We have vast numbers of what you might call “stumble-bums,” and we have a great many sophisticates and very wise people there, or at least we used to until AA tamed them down.

In those days we used to rather have to pussy-foot in New York on the subject of God, lest we scare away some of the intellectuals, so when I got to Shelby and there was a great, long invocation, and a choir girl got up and sang a hymn — well, it was reminiscent of my youth in Vermont, but I said to myself, “Well now, the New Yorkers wouldn’t call this AA.”

Well, then they called upon me to talk, and I talked (too long — by the way; shut me off any time you get tired tonight — I have that habit), and then I believe there was another long prayer and the meeting was over. And I began to notice with amazement that there were an awful lot of AAs there. I mean, twenty, thirty of them in this small place, and they told me there was an equal number out in the defense industry nearby.

I was wonderfully and favorably stirred by the whole thing, but the crux of my story turns around what happened the following morning.

I was to leave on an early train, and somebody called up from the lobby and said, “Do you mind, Bill — I’d like to drop up and tell you a few things about Dr. Tom.”

And a man came up, and after he re-introduced himself (I remembered him from the meeting the night before), he said, “I’ve got some things you should know. Speaking of myself, I used to be a banker. I once organized a whole string of banks in these southern states. I was on the high road to success. But I was cut down by alcohol, and then I was cut down by morphine. I was in the asylum in Lexington with Dr. Tom once. He knew my story and knew that I couldn’t stay clean. He asked me to come here for a visit, and I ended up staying here to work with him. I have been sober and clean now myself a year, and he about three.”

And he said, “You know, I’m very gladly working as a janitor at the Masonic Temple, just so I can have time to work with my friend Dr. Tom. But enough of me — let me tell you about Dr. Tom.

“Do you realize that when that man came back here to this little town — can you possibly comprehend what the stigma was upon him? The stigma of both alcohol and morphine was on him. He had dishonored his profession of medicine, and disgraced his highly placed family in this community. People were so scandalized that they hardly spoke to him on the street.” And he said, “I’m sorry to say that even the drunks of Shelby were snobbish, saying that they were going to be sobered up by no damned drug addict.

“Well, little by little he began to work, and little by little he began to succeed, and the group grew.

“Well, now,’ said this man, “you’ve been at Tom’s home — you have seen that happy mother of his, you’ve seen the new wife, and you’ve seen the new baby, but you still don’t know the whole story.

“Tom now has been made the head of our local hospital. He probably has the largest medical practice in this county today. All this was accomplished in just three years, from a start way behind the line. We have a yearly custom in this town in which all the citizens take a vote on which one of them has been the most useful individual to the community in the year past. Last spring Dr. Tom was unanimously nominated as the most useful citizen of the town of Shelby.”

And when he had finished his recital, I said to myself, “So you were the man, Bill Wilson, who was too important to go to Shelby.” Indeed, what hath god wrought.

Three years before Bill gave that talk, Dr. Tom had written a letter which was published in The AA Grapevine. He was answering another letter from “Doc” N. — himself a recovered narcotics addict who had gotten clean in AA. We publish this correspondence from The AA Grapevine issues of August and September 1944, for the interest and help of other recovered and recovering addicts.

The first letter is from “Doc” N. —

Dear Grapevine:

Your second issue at hand inspires me to an idea. I’m sure there are other AAs who, like myself, are finding in AA the highway to freedom from narcotics. Why not give us a “hophead’s corner” in The Grapevine? After all, we do have a particular problem.

Even if mine is essentially the same problem of all alcoholics, I occasionally could wish that there were just one other narcotic victim in my AA group with whom I might share experience. And though through the help of the Higher Power and my AA friends I no longer take morphine, I realize I fear it in a way I’ve ceases fearing alcohol.

If I could just share experience with some other “hophead” I know it would be a big help, and among AA’s thousands I’m sure I’ll find my fellows.

“Doc” N.

The next issue of The Grapevine published an answer to this letter, from “Doc M., Shelby, North Carolina” —

Dear Grapevine:

I noticed recently in an issue of The Grapevine a letter from “Doc” N., who had found release from narcotics addiction through AA.

This letter I was glad to see, and hasten to assure him and others that his experience is one that is beginning to be shared by quite a few. We have in our club five men who have had many years of drug addiction but who are finding complete freedom from drugs and are well on the highway to successful and happy living. Their period of freedom varies from five months to six years, and they all attribute this to the help of a Higher Power that has come to them through AA.

These men, with one exception, were all primary alcoholics, and I believe this is largely true of all “hopheads.”

I think all drug addicts will have less difficulty in accepting Step One than the regular alcoholic: that their lives have become unmanageable, and that they are powerless over narcotics.

I think we feel the need of even greater help than does the usual alcoholic. Our spiritual lines of communication must be kept clearer and there is need for greater voltage from the spiritual dynamo. The Higher Power is able unto the uttermost to supply this; and many others should find the answer in AA.

I’m sure that the other AA groups have men who are finding the new life of freedom and I earnestly wish that we may get into communication with each other; and I suggest the possibility, some time, of interesting the U.S. Public Health Service in the establishment of an AA group in the United States Public Health Services Hospital, which is in Lexington, Kentucky.

Doc M.,
Shelby, N.C.

Thanks to Matt D. From NY for the article!

28 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Quite informative. I especially like that AA was helping those who were not pure alcoholics. I found new life through the AA program and hardily thank the early pioneers for spear heading this worthwhile, life saving endeavor.

Comment by Jim Sc

Last night I say in AA after being out for 5 years, I still hold my 16 years of recovery close yo my heart.However knowing how the world is changing, we have so many young people with drug addictions. And when they sit and share how they are told by the old timers not to discuss drugs.I send them a wink to let them know to keep sharing.
This program is about not dying nor going insane. When I went home and found this article I felt my higher power working in my life once again.

I think if there is away to AA could make pamplats on How Bill W. learned that the 12 steps work for the drug addicts too-Shelby NC 1939. We may help the addict and the oldtimers realize that we are all here for the same thing. Recovery. We are all sick and suffering looking to live a sober life. AA is for all.

Comment by Patricia P

We don’t have that particular pamphlet, but what great is that we have Bill’s views on the subject in another pamphlet called, “Problems Other than Alcohol.” Here are some of the points Bill makes in it:
• “Now there are certain things that A.A. cannot
do for anybody, regardless of what our desires or
sympathies may be. Our first duty, as a fellowship,
is to insure our own survival. Therefore, we have
to avoid distractions and multipurpose activity.
• “Sobriety — freedom from alcohol — through
the teaching and practice of the Twelve Steps, is
the sole purpose of an A.A. group. Groups have
repeatedly tried other activities, and they have
always failed. It has also been learned that there is
no possible way to make nonalcoholics into A.A.
members. We have to confine our membership
to alcoholics, and we have to confine our A.A.
groups to a single purpose. If we don’t stick to
these principles, we shall almost surely collapse.
And if we collapse, we cannot help anyone.
• “I see no way of making nonalcoholic addicts
into A.A. members. Experience says loudly that
we can admit no exceptions, even though drug
users and alcoholics happen to be first cousins
of a sort. If we persist in trying this, I’m afraid it
will be hard on the drug user himself, as well as
on A.A. We must accept the fact that no nonalcoholic, whatever his affliction, can be converted
into an alcoholic . . . and an A.A. member.
• “We cannot give A.A. membership to nonalcoholic addicts. But, like anyone else, they should
be able to attend open A.A. meetings, provided, of
course, that the groups themselves are willing.”

Comment by Damon

Dr. Bob, our co-founder, used lots of sedatives in addition to his favorite drug (alcohol). Our third tradition is very clear that the ONLY requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. So why are we even having this discussion? Our responsibility declaration says “I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there, and for that: I am responsible.

I know some folks who introduce themselves as alcoholics when they go to AA meetings, and as addicts when they go to NA meetings, out of simple respect for both programs. I also know some folks
who just say they’re powerless over alcohol and all other chemical intoxicants.

I’m grateful we have a big tent for our spiritual kindergarten, and thankful that I have been able to have uninterrupted sobriety for the past 55 years, and a life I never could have imagined. Please don’t anyone louse it up with any kind of rigid religiosity

Comment by Bill P.

Hey i got a real bad run in with members of aa i live in delaware and we have 3 countys but we have a big NA following here ands its just great to see that there was adddicts in the begging of aa it makes feel that we should nt have 2 hide the fact that iam not an pure alcholic iam glad u printeed this blog thanks Mike D recovering addict

Comment by Michael Dorris

This is an interesting bit of history. One that i am sure will be helpful to many. I did pick up though that Dr. Tom and the others were Alcoholics who then picked up drugs. So what we are talking about is the results of Alcoholism. Do we have any articles that tell stories of Alkies who become depressed, or go to jail, or become spousal abusers. Are those type of alkies “Pure” alkies. It’s not how much i drank, but what it did to me. Skewered my thinking.

Comment by John F.

I got clean through treatment in 1983 , I went to a treatment centre that was AA based and totally identified with AA s first step , I could easily admit I was powerless over narcotics and in order to stay sober I too , like AA s had to abstain from all mood changing drugs . I loved AA , loved the stories and made a descion to continue , except from a few instances I was totally supported , my use of alcohol was incredibly problematic but definitely not my choice . Thank God for AA and the love and accecptance I got from AA mems .. Thank God for the dear little lady who said she prayed for me when she did nt see me for awhile , it was the kindest thing I think anyone had said to me for a long , long time . I am now sober , working in treatment , with tertiary qualifications , I wound nt alive today if it was nt for AA .

Comment by Jon m

There is little doubt that AA would be less than a third of it’s current size if it were not for “addict / alcoholics” 12 step work… which most AA members are unaware of…. Bill W. went as far as to say one of these members was the best AA’s he ever knew, because he had carried the message to more alcoholics than any member he knew….. yet strangely for the most part AA remains hostile toward them….

Comment by Keith M.

AA has helped me in my struggles with my allergy to alcohol and drugs. Their work is sound and if someone says otherwise they haven’t worked it thoroughly

Comment by henry johnson

Drugs helped me drink for days on end. I only identify as an alcoholic in meetings. If you are an alcholic and something your saying you are different. I believe this will decrease your chances of recovery. Alcoholics need to identify in order to receive hope. “Using” in not in our preamble.

Comment by john w

My personal recovery, as a drug addict, and my subsequent spiritual growth as a Christian, has led me to examine the 12 steps from a scriptural point of view. This was, it would seem, the original starting point. What I have discovered is that the 12 steps work for any addiction, and that includes an addiction to sin, from which all mankind suffers!

Comment by shaun

Well, Both Bill W. and Dr. Bob used drugs in their stories in the big book. So, drug use has been a part of AA. from the beginning. To me people have to identify as Alcoholics in an AA meeting and adding anything else to that does reinforce the idea that they might be different from the rest of the people in the room. That’s why we have other 12 step programs. As a recovered Alcoholic who spent some time using only drugs, I can assure you that the dynamics of drug use are different than alcohol. Even if the solution is the same.

Comment by Steve

Marijuana is as different from cocaine as alcohol is from either. It makes no sense to make a special distinction where alcohol is concerned. Alcohol IS a drug with a specific phenomenonology. But so is heroin. The question is whether the underlying condition driving addiction is the same. Selfishness and egotism reflect a fundamental spiritual disconnect that is common to ALL addicts. And it effects us all the same in terms of what it does to our relationships and psyches. That was my point of identification. Hangovers and opiate withdrawal are peculiar to certain subatances, selfishness is the root condition of ALL addicts. Furthermore, the pure alkie is an increasingly rare breed of cat. Most people coming into recovery are poly-addicted. Do we alienate these folks by telling them how they must speak, or do we welcome them regardless of their preferred substance if they are suffering and in sincere need of a spiritual solution? I’m not going to turn my back to anyone…. My loyalties are first to God and drug addicts, and only then to an all-too-human institution…..

Comment by Piers

Excellent article. Thanks for your insight Piers. For me it’s been all about getting rid of the selfishness and centering on God and helping others. Who knows, after reading about this Shelby meeting, I may just start our next Chapter two meeting with a hymn and a real prayer! LOL

Comment by Marlin

The stuff underlying the addiction {whatever it is] has, as long as I’ve been sober , been reco
gnized as being the same. No surprise here.

Comment by tom k

Hi! I was in a group on Facebook called Speak Out 2, it is a bunch of people in recovery (from whatever). I used this article in a discussion on drug addicts in AA. Thank you 🙂

Comment by f33dyourhead

my experience in the fellowship of A.A. has freed me from the bondage of addiction to narcotics as well as from alchohol but the narcotics addiction was the more dominant . It was very enlightening to see the problem of narcotic addiction existed in A.A. back then, I used to go to meetings where drugs did not be discussed because fellow A.A.’S would frown on it . That is one area where i’m glad A.A. has changed ‘However i do sometimes wish the fellowship would return to it’s hard concept days of no sugar coating padding the newcomers ass and the sit down and shut up methods.I am now at the age of 45 continuing my education and entering a certificate program for drug and alchohol rehabilition counselor,and this is a two year program and afterwards continuing on for a bachelors and then a masters in either physchology or behavioral science. I am going to copy this article and keep it because it was very informitive and a breath of fresh air, I also believe it will be usefull in my course of study for a classroom discussion.

Comment by Jeffrey Guglielmo

Back in San Diego there was a group called the Men’s 449. I don’t know if it still exists, but the group sure has an interesting history. It started out as an AA H & I meeting in a Hospital that not surprisingly treated quite a few addicts and at that time heroin was the drug de jour of many of these men. In fact, many resented anyone who identified themselves as an alcoholic, at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Most AA meetings, at the time, were very contentious regarding what was an outside topic, so that particular animosity carried over to many of the addicts that mingled with alcoholics.

But despite the turmoil of that time, I witnessed one of the greatest examples of inclusivity that I’ve ever seen. One night a guy came in from the “Fat Boy” program at the Naval Hospital, at Miramar. Simply put, if he didn’t lose weight then he was out of the Navy.

He said that he was a happy member of Overeaters Anonymous, but he really needed a men’s meeting. He said that if we’d let him into the meeting, he promised not to mention food. Dennis said, “Look man, if you want to talk about Twinkies, that’s your business, and we’re cool with it.” He then rubbed his slightly rotund belly and said, “But many of us may be able to relate, but if you want to share about why you need to get relief, then you’ll relate to all of us, and then we’ll all be in the same life-raft.”

In the midst of all the controversy, and the days of the Alcoholic-Addict and the Addict-Alcoholic, one man chose to reach into his heart instead of defending his territory. I eventually left that meeting, because I felt that I was inhibiting the junkies, and I was upset when a pot head was laughed out of the meeting. After over 2 decades in AA, I have damn near turned my back on The Fellowship due to the latest level of controversy over pain meds. I watched alcoholic after alcoholic succumb to the cunning, baffling, and powerfully insidious nature of pain pills, and mostly out of ignorance and cockiness.

The NA today is more mature, and just like in AA where us skid-row bums felt that we were the elite, with our assumed lower bottoms, I still see a slight status-enhancing bravado from some of the junkies. However, NA has almost no dissension these days, and many old-timers who have abandoned the AA life-boat, either partially or fully have found a welcome home.

Comment by Anonymous Addict

Congratulations on the excellent, termperate, informative discussions this topic stimulated. Yes both Bill and Bob were addicts and alcoholics; and they said so in descriptive terms in their Big Book stories. Yes, most that I have sponsored in A.A. fit well under the canopy of “addict/alcoholic” and are constrained to announce themselves as “an alcoholic.” One of the posts recognizes that the issue of recovery is not about the malady. It’s about what God can and does do for those who cannot do it themselves. For the alcoholic who seems today almost invariably to have been a heavy drug user as well, may the remarks above focus you on the power of God that all three of the first three AAs turned to, relied upon, and were cured by. And at that time, the answers were in the Bible. See AA Pamphlet P-53. The Bible is no less important t oday, nor is God. When the first three AAs got sober, there were no Steps, Traditions, Big Books, drunkalogs, or meetings like today. Recourse went to God. And it worked.
God Bless, Dick B.

Comment by Richard G Burns

Alcohol drugs food etc. is not the problem.It was the solution.we have one message.A spiritual solution.we all need to grow up.People are dying.

Comment by Joseph

Why doesn’t anyone read tradition three in the 12 and 12? It clearly states and talks about a man with an addiction far more stigmatized then alcoholism. (sexual deviant). He never mentions his other addiction and is able to help at great number of alcoholics .
Most drug attic’s are hurting Alcoholics Anonymous in my opinion. No unity .
Dr. Jung was the one that said unity is the most important thing we need. I agree

Comment by Michael parker

In the first edition of the Big Book it says we are sure that our way of life can benefit all.

Comment by Joseph

All this can be misleading, and harmful to A.A if misinterpreted. No doubt about it, as long as someone has a problem with alcohol, i.e., is an alcoholic, or drinks too much and can’t seem to stop, we welcome them to A.A. In short, if you’re an alcoholic, we don’t care “what else” you are, i.e., over-eater, gambler, sex-addict, hoarder, etc.

But we don’t want you introducing yourself as such, or as a “hyphenated alcoholic,” i.e. “alcoholic and an addict.” etc. because it weakens our unity. It creates two different subsets of people in the room, and two different issues, As our First Tradition makes clear, A.A.s unity is our most important safeguard.

(It’s a little different when an alcoholic is “telling his/her story.” There, just as one might mention that their drinking led to serving time in prison, one might also want to mention that it led to narcotics. But just as we don’t want to here extensive descriptions or details of prison life, we don’t want to hear much more than than a passing reference to narcotics.)

We hear much more drug-talk in A.A. nowadays than we did thirty years ago, and back then there was much more such divisive talk then there had been thirty years earlier. It has increasingly become a serious problem, and in the interest of A.A unity it should be stopped.

Avoiding drug talk in A.A. was one of the main reasons we happily lent our Twelve Steps to a fledgling Narcotics Anonymous group decades ago. In that era Bill Wilson said, in a Grapevine article, that any group is certainly free to work toward healing both drunks and dope-addicts, but it may not call itself an A.A. group.

Comment by Gerry Rault

Attending the Shelby Group’s 79th anniversary dinner and speaker tonight. This article is a great way to understand the history behind the Shelby Group.

Comment by Tony S

It is very interesting. Would like to known if Aa literature talk about narcotics in AA literature.
In France the fellowship AA talk only about alcohol . Could you help me to find a reading who talk about the importance to consider narcotics like alcohol for an alcoholic.
In America you talk about liquid alcohol and solid alcohol . I did not find in French literature any text about that.
When Aa talk about sobriety is it only about alcohol sobriety .
Compare to an other fellowship who talk about clean ( NA) . The talk about narcotics, alcohol and all other substance who make the same effect .
Thank you for your answer

Comment by Mic castet

Sunday 103 in NewYork does not differentiate between Alcohol or any Addiction.We are all inclusive and thriving.

Comment by Joseph Cabret

Thank you Joseph for your answer because in France specially in Paris it is not very clear.
Sobriety talk only to stop drinking on the literature.
Many people in AA France think realy with honesty that it is just a problem of alcohol.
A group ask me to give an experience about this missunderstood. My own experience is perfect to share about that but I would like to find a reading , aa reading who talk about all addiction.
If you known a text who talk about all addiction let me know .

Comment by Mic Castet

AA is for alcohol users who suffer. The program was set up to allow drug use and still maintain their alcohol free date. Wilson used LSD. Dr Bob took goofball pills… and they are sober, and died sober. I am an alcoholic. I drank. I had one drug experience that proved to me that I was, and am an alcoholic. I do not have a drug issue…… just alcohol. I am sober in AA since my last drink 01-30-1970. Thank you. Bill Donovan

Comment by Bill Donovan

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