In researching our forthcoming Wired piece on drug and alcohol abuse, we’ve found ourselves keenly interested in the tales that addicts tell about their first inebriatory experiences. One common thread we’ve found is a sense that the first drink or dose provided something that the person had always been searching for—the intoxicant made them whole, in an odd way. And though it is certainly a cliché, these afflicted souls can spend lifetimes trying to recapture that sensation of wholeness.
The most telling anecdote we’ve yet come across is from none other than Bill Wilson, aka Bill W., the man who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. A shy and sensitive kid from Vermont who had recently been inducted into the Army, Wilson took his first drink at a 1917 dance near Fort Rodman, Masschusetts. He recounted the wonder of that experience a half-century later to his authorized biographer, who told the story thusly:
Perhaps it took a little time, but it seemed to happen instantly. He could feel his body relaxing, a stiffness going out of his shoulders as he sensed the warm glow seeping through him into all the distant, forgotten corners of his being. Then, unaccountably, the room was tilting, and he was sure he would slide down to the floor, but gradually everything evened off. And he found he was beginning to talk—not just answering now but bringing up subjects on his own—and apparently he was being amusing…It was wonderful to be so free and so witty…
He stared at the drink in his hand and as he did he felt a numbness in his arms and legs, a sudden pounding in his chest, all the old signs of terror grabbing him. But by some great, inexplicable miracle, it lasted only a moment. Then another, older, wiser, infinitely stronger Bill seemed to be there and to be taking possession of him…
At his back he could hear the whine of a saxophone, little waves of voices rising, falling, but now they in no way ran against the overwhelming joy he was feeling. His world was all around him, young and fresh and loving, and as he made his way down the drive he moved easily, gracefuly, as thouhg—he knew exactly how he felt—all his life he had been living in chains. Now he was free.
Our first thought upon reading this passage? “We’ll have what he’s having.” But then it got us to wondering: What might this story teach us about the nature-versus-nurture argument as it pertains to addiction? Was Wilson’s dopamine pathway simply primed to enjoy alcohol to such an inordinate degree that he never stood a chance once the neurotransmitters flooded his brain? Or did alcohol just come along at the right time in his life, as he teetered between adolescence and maturity, and was thus an easy mark for any substance, concept, or diversion that might alleviate his anxiety?
Tough questions to answer, of course. For the moment, all we know is this: Our first drunken experience, which involved a bottle of tequila and a vacant lot, was nowhere near as transcendent as Wilson’s.