One of the most controversial aspects of AA’s history is the role that psychedelics may have played in Bill Wilson’s creative process. As I discuss in the Wired piece, when Wilson experienced his spiritual epiphany in December 1934, he did so at a New York City drying-out facility. Part of his treatment there consisted of something called the Belladonna Cure, in which detoxing alcoholics were given hourly infusions of a potentially hallucinogenic drug. A recent New York Times piece gives some backstory on the Cure, including its many shortcomings—particularly the fact that it didn’t seem to impact the relapse rate (typically quoted at around 90 percent during the first 12 months of sobriety).
The fact that belladonna was coursing through Wilson’s veins during his spiritual awakening raises an important question: Can psychedelics play a role in the treatment of psychological disorders? My answer, which I posted on comments yesterday, is a qualified yes, though I think we’re many decades away from employing such tools in the medical realm. An effective drug must have predictable results when used among a broad cross-section of patients, and the odds of catastrophic side effects must be small. This cannot be said of psychedelics at the moment, though that is in large part due to the dearth of research—something we can blame on the War on Drugs. It’s probably high time that we heed the words of LSD’s creator and acknowledge that psychedelics aren’t worthless just because they can be abused.
Wilson’s psychedelic exploration did not end with belladonna, of course. Years later, while suffering from deep depression, he tried LSD. A 2005 article from Modern Drunkard relates some details, which seem to have been plucked from Francis Hartigan’s exhaustive biography:
One of his therapeutic journeys lead him to Trabuco College in California, and the friendship of the college’s founder, Aldous Huxley. The author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception introduced Wilson to LSD-25. The drug rocked Wilson’s world. He thought of it as something of a miracle substance and continued taking it well into the ‘60s. As he approached his 70th birthday, he developed a plan to have LSD distributed at all AA meetings nationwide. The plan was eventually quashed by more rational voices, and a few years later the Federal government made the point moot by making the drug illegal.
It’s probably for the best that Wilson’s plan didn’t come to fruition. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t on to something.