Bill W, LSD, and AA Spirituality

AA Spirituality

By bob k

Toward the end of 1943, the Wilsons were preparing to leave New York. Bill was tired and depressed, and very much looking forward to an upcoming cross-country trip with Lois. Alcoholics Anonymous was doing well, its membership numbers having swelled from about 2,000 in early 1941 to over 10,000 people. The trip combined a vacation for the Wilsons and a tour of some of the cities where AA had taken hold and flourished, and where grateful rehabilitated alcoholics were anxious to meet the world’s Number One sober drunkard.

Wilson’s depression began to lift almost immediately upon leaving the Big Apple. There were stopovers in Chicago, Omaha, and Denver, and then a tour of the Grand Canyon. All of these were a prelude to the arrival at Los Angeles where AA had been exploding. The growth and success of Alcoholics Anonymous had taken Bill and Lois away from the poverty of a few years earlier. There was money for hotels and for restaurants. Of course, the Wilsons were welcomed into the homes of AA members, generally the more affluent ones with larger houses with guest suites and multiple baths.

Distilled Spirits“Dave D., an AA member from Palo Alto, had been to Trabuco (College) and offered to take Bill and Lois to the retreat center and introduce Wilson to {Gerald} Heard. Now Wilson was about to meet the man he would later call ‘the best example of spirituality’ that he ever knew.” (Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk, published in 2012, Don Lattin, p. 140)

Gerald Heard (1889-1971), sometimes called “the godfather of the New Age movement,” was an English philosopher who, in 1937, along with his friend Aldous Huxley, migrated to the United States. They

…settled in Los Angeles in the late 1930s with a group of displaced Englishmen who came to be known as the “British mystical expatriates of Southern California.” Wilson came to the west coast from New York battling depression but eager to embark on his own pilgrimage of self-discovery. Heard and Huxley had come to believe that humanity had the potential for a breakthrough in consciousness. In the three decades leading to the 1960s, they emerged as the leading evangelists of a philosophy that mixed meditation, mysticism, psychology, psychedelic drugs, and a utopian vision of an enlightened society. At the same time, their spiritual program was a utilitarian approach to living a more fulfilling life. Wilson called it “a faith that works”.

(Distilled Spirits, pp. 6-7)

Bill Wilson was impressed with Heard, and they began a lifetime correspondence. The “Brave New World” author rounded out the triumvirate of influential spiritual seekers.

In the early 1950s, Huxley came across a recently published Journal of Mental Science paper by Humphry Osmond and John Smythies, two British psychiatrists then working in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. The article explored the authors’ theory that there were biochemical similarities between mental illness and acute mescaline intoxication.

Doors of Perception In a letter to Osmond in the spring of 1953, Huxley suggested that mind-altering drugs might contribute to the understanding of aesthetic experience and mystical enlightenment. Huxley invited the researcher to stay in his home during an upcoming psychiatric convention in Los Angeles.

In a follow-up letter, Huxley requested that Osmond bring with him some mescaline from Canada.

Humphry Osmond complied and supervised the drug trip in Huxley’s home that led to the penning of The Doors of Perception. Although the inner journey began undramatically, the man of words confessing to a lack of visual imagination, Huxley at one point turned his attention a vase containing three flowers. He later wrote about that experience.

“Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,” I answered. “It just is.” Istigkeit — wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness.” The Being of Platonic philosophy — except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were — a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.”

Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

In other words, Huxley had seen God. (Pardon the expression)

With another colleague, Abram Hoffer, Osmond began to incorporate the chemical d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) into their research with schizophrenics at the mental hospital in Weyburn. The clinicians were “treating alcoholics as well as schizophrenics, and their interest centered on patients suffering both disorders. These were their toughest cases, for the schizophrenia seemed to impede the kind of insightful experience thought to be required if an alcoholic was to stop drinking.” (Collected Ernest Kurtz, p. 41)

The initial intention of the LSD use

…was to induce a psychic experience similar to delirium tremens, or DT’s, in the hope that it might serve to shock alcoholics out of their dependence on alcohol . . . LSD was considered as a last resort, to be tried with otherwise untreatable alcoholics… In the aftermath of the DT’s, some alcoholics with whom all intervention efforts had failed were capable of understanding the desperation of their condition and responding to treatment.

(Bill W., Francis Hartigan, pp. 177-78)

When Gerald Heard enthusiastically reported these events to Bill Wilson, he was not thrilled with the idea of giving drugs to alcoholics. AA had already had some experiences with “pill heads.” Nevertheless, whatever his deficiencies, Bill Wilson had an enormous passion for helping alcoholics. The reported successes with a very poor demographic for AA, the “constitutionally incapable,” overcame Bill’s nervousness and earlier skepticism to the point that, on August 29, 1956, at the Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital, the AA cofounder had his first LSD session.

Gerald Heard was there as his “guide,” and the experimental process was overseen by physician, Dr. Sidney Cohen. On another occasion, Cohen interviewed a research subject whose first ever dose of LSD had rocketed her to a state of bliss. “I wish I could talk in Technicolor,” she told Cohen.

Heard turned on Time publisher Henry Luce and his wife, Claire Boothe Luce; Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray; and William Mullendore, the chairman of the board of Southern California Edison. He also inspired Dr. Oscar Janiger, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who turned on Cary Grant, James Coburn, and Jack Nicholson. “It was the philosopher Gerald Heard who introduced me to psychedelics,” Janiger said. “He told me that the emergence of LSD in the twentieth century was simply God’s way of giving us the gift of consciousness. He believed that LSD was a device for saving humanity from Armageddon”.

(Distilled Spirits, pp. 191-92)

Wilson’s reaction to his first experience was fully positive. Osmond who had told Wilson earlier that LSD was “good news” recalled the initial trepidation at the idea of having alcoholics being assailed by “some strange chemical.”

When Wilson finally “tripped” himself in 1956, as recalled by Osmond in a 1976 talk at the Esalen Institute that Bill “likened his LSD experience to his earlier vision of “seeing this chain of drunks around the world, all helping each other.” This caused various scandals in AA. They were very ambivalent about their great founder taking LSD, yet they wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t been of an adventurous sort of mind.

(Distilled Spirits, p. 195)

The LSD experimentation had unanticipated side benefits for Wilson. In his own words, “I am certain that the LSD experience has helped me very much. I find myself with a heightened color perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depression… The sensation that the partition between “here” and “there” has become very thin is constantly with me.” (Bill Wilson in a letter to Gerald Heard, 1957) Once more, the old Wilson enthusiasm was stirred.

Far from keeping secret his experience with LSD, AA’s cofounder judiciously but eagerly spread the word, inviting not only his wife and his secretary but also trusted friends to join his experiments… Clearly, Bill experienced no sense of shame or guilt over his activities… Bill was seeking a cure for alcoholism… a way of helping more alcoholics get sober in Alcoholics Anonymous… one more facet in his persistent pursuit of “the spiritual”.

(The Collected Ernie Kurtz, pp. 40-41)

There are two extremes one encounters in hearing the reports of the LSD use, emanating from the  mouths of untutored AA members. Some cannot divorce their minds from the LSD of bell bottoms,  tie-dyed t-shirts, hippies, and “In A Gada Da Vita.” Thus they have Wilson flying high on the “acid maintenance” program, not really ever even sober. At the other extreme, founder defenders point out that Wilson’s use of the drug was a medical experiment in a laboratory setting.

Neither tale is accurate, yet neither are these accounts fully inaccurate.

The first LSD usage was as described by Wilson apologists – experimental, clinical, scientific. But there were many other occasions where the cofounder went under the influence. Exactly how many times, even approximately, we know not. These other uses took place in a variety of locations, including private homes. One of the frustrations for the student of history is that answers are not always available.

Another story about LSD is that it was prescribed to him for depression. Wrong again, but it’s easy to see where that explanation arose, as LSD DID help him with his depression.

Little is known concerning Wilson’s personal experimentation with LSD beyond the fact that it certainly occurred. Whatever its effects upon him, there is no evidence that he ever thought his alcoholism ‘cured’ in the sense that he could again drink alcohol safely.

(Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, p. 137)

Wilson biographers cite different ending date for the LSD experimentation, from 1959 to the mid-1960s. In 1959, in a letter to Sam Shoemaker, he stated his intention to stop using LSD. Of course, it may be remembered that there are written pledges to Lois written in the 1920s that he was done with drinking. Wilson may simply have told Shoemaker what he wanted to hear, in order to avoid further recriminations. A second possibility is that he sincerely intended to stop, then later changed his mind.

The best indicator that the 1959 date is incorrect is found in the comment of the most esteemed historian to address the issue. “Bill continued his experiments with LSD into the early 1960s.” (The Collected Ernie Kurtz, Ernie Kurtz, p. 40)

“How often did Bill use LSD?” and “When did he stop?” are interesting questions, but perhaps a good deal less than my final query:

“What does it say about the founder’s view of ‘spiritual experience’ that he thought it could be duplicated through the ingestion of a hallucinogenic drug?”


Bob K. is the author of many of the essays on AA Beyond Belief and AA Agnostica.

In 2015, he published a secularist’s view of the events leading to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Key Players in AA History has received some critical acclaim.

Coming this winter are two new books. In The Road To AA: Pilgrims to Prohibition, Bob takes a look at the myriad of efforts to treat alcoholism in the three centuries prior to AA.

In The Secret Diaries of Bill W., Bob dares to pen a biographical fiction about the fascinating, but flawed, AA co-founder.

Bob recently celebrated 27 years of continuous sobriety.


18 Responses

  1. Robin McM says:

    The author’s closing question says less about Bill Wilson’s view of spiritual experience than it says about the author’s.

    It’d be nice to know if Wilson agreed with the block quotation from Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception”, the one followed by the author’s seemingly snide observation that Huxley had “found God”. For what it’s worth, I can’t reconcile the appearance of that gratuitous snark with this web site’s declaration of the ‘Agnostic AA Preamble’, in particular the pretty much unambiguous clause about not “oppose(ing) any form of religion”. To lawyerly split hairs, maybe ridicule is not the same as opposition. When a staunch atheist invokes “finding God”, it’s comedic value is reduced to ridicule. Maybe that simple clause is ambiguous after all.

    If only we knew without doubt where Wilson stood on Huxley’s “Isness” and the real or perceived transcendent unification with the divine to be had by one’s ingestion of psychedelics. Unless or until one knows that with certainty (not likely since Wilson went silent in 1971), it’s all post mortem speculation and agenda-driven projection. Wilson may have gone all ouija in his spook room, but I can’t imagine an atheist’s residence having a chamber so dedicated.

    Two plausible and at least a little oppositional “answers” to the author’s question don’t bode well for Wilson’s hagiography.

    If Wilson agreed with Huxley that hallucinogenics could indeed unify the temporal with the divine, why would Wilson, 24 years sober in 1959, have desired a replication of his self-documented and curative unifying experience in Towns Hospital in 1934? His abusive drinking was dormant in 1959: a 24-years-abstinent ex-drunk is a poor subject for testing the hoped-for cessation-facilitating properties of this or that hallucinogenic. Why not go to Fifth Street and collect up some marinated lushes?

    If instead Wilson did not at all believe that his Towns Hospital epiphany was anything but a drug-induced illusion, there’s no clinical point in replicating a failed treatment, especially on a bone-dry Bill. It also means he’s as dishonest as the day is long and that his Society, Alcoholics Anonymous, is a confidence scheme.

    In the (at least) bifurcated “sub-Society/sub-Fellowship” that is Secular A.A., I wonder if the author falls into the (curious to me) “spiritual secular” camp or the non-spiritual (and truly secular) “determined atheist” camp. I wonder if I should have posed that as a question for the sake of stylistic congruity. What do you think?

    That the author asks a question which can’t by facts and circumstances be rhetorical, I’m not sure of the purpose of its inclusion in the first place. But I’m just an atheist who doubts everything.

  2. Cron says:

    Like William James, Huxley had a wealth of educationally acquired knowledge of the mystical state, but no first hand experience of it. As he describes in The Doors of Perception, he was hoping to see what Blake saw, what Swedenborg saw. Bill had been turned on to William James’s Variety of… shortly after his “white light” experience, from that concluding he had seen the divine. Whatever his stated purpose, it is certainly possible that he was hoping to catch another glimpse of the divine, return to the “radiant core” where he might be “for the moment one with truth.” If indeed it recreated what Bill saw as his mystic experience, it would surely save time over the educational variety spiritual experience. And there are some modern day gurus who might share that notion of hallucinogens being a shortcut to the mystical realm.

  3. Bob S. says:

    This was all very new and interesting, thank you. After reading it, I think the founder’s view of ‘spiritual experience’ would be that it is to be found entirely within yourself.

  4. Marty N. says:

    Bill’s white light experience was a result of coming off of belladonna. What else should we expect?

    I just read Life’s and Beth’s article, too (on AA Beyond Belief).

    A real double header! Thanx to all.

  5. John L. says:

    Thanks for enlightening article. The last sentence says it all. Indeed, what kind of “spirituality” is achieved by chemically disabling the brain?

  6. Martin T. says:

    I could’ve told you that LSD was not a cure for alcoholism back in the late ’60’s because I consumed plenty of both. While I was tripping it felt spiritual and enlightening, but then I would return to reality when the euphoria wore off and be disillusioned. But I do believe LSD micro-dosing could be one pharmacological aid, when properly induced (set and setting) to encourage recovery/sobriety.

    Regarding pot, NA is right, substituting one drug (marijuana) for another (alcohol) is not sobriety, IE, the ability to deal with life on life’s terms.

    Why acid and not pot? For one thing, LSD isn’t something that becomes a dependency. Way too profound for that and not what I would consider a “recreational drug”, although it could be abused just like anti-depressants.

    Speaking as a former D/A counselor, 33yrs sober.

  7. John B. says:

    Great consolidation of information. Your final question is a real beauty; what’s your answer? Here’s mine. Several years of alcohol free living had not rewarded Mr. Wilson with a feeling of spiritual comfort. I also think it casts some doubt on the long term value of the “bright light” experience he had while in Towns hospital. Lastly, this willingness to pursue spiritual growth via chemical enhancement seems to logically clash with the first part of Step 12, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps…” He wrote ’em, did he do ’em?

  8. Jan A. says:

    Thanks for this article. It has opened the door to my own perception of the difference between mind-altering and mood-altering chemicals. I have long believed that my alcohol and drug use was grounded in the former, but the two are difficult to separate. Within a year of getting sober, I was told about Bill W’s fallibility and of his drug experimentation and his womanizing. The year was 1984 in NYC, so there were still some people who remembered Bill personally. I suppose it was intended to drive the point home that he was to be appreciated, but not canonized, and that we were all just a group of drunks. But I’ve long been fascinated by the connection between depression and alcoholism. Or madness and alcoholism. And for Bill’s continued inquiry into avenues of recovery.

  9. David J. says:

    I don’t think I would have been capable of having the clear and succinct realization that I was an alcoholic even though I was a DT suffering 40 ounces a day blackout drinker by age 21, if I hadn’t taken LSD. It was suddenly all so simple… I’m an alcoholic so I found a rehab, dried out and went to AA for the next 45 years…

    One side effect of the LSD experience I should warn gentle readers about is that it brings a clarity of thought (or did to me anyway) which makes it hard to swallow most of the Big Book but that comes later as I’m sure it did to Bill. I think that’s why he all but disappeared in later years… He didn’t want to tell all the newly arrived thumpers that morality had nothing to do with sobriety… lol…

    Ps. I never wanted a drink again after Nov 21, 1973… but I sure as hell would if some Bible freak was telling me to get down on my knees and thank (who again?) for my sobriety. If I want to see God I can go to a bathroom mirror…

  10. Neal C. says:

    For some reason, I have a negative reaction to the word “duplicate.” Was there a negative connotation implied? Would a word like “induced” have worked? Regardless, if a spiritual experience is a personality change sufficient to overcome drinking as suggested by Alcoholics Anonymous, the question becomes whether Bill was moving closer or further away from a drink? Essentially, Bill was trying to regulate himself with an outside “substance.” In AA terms, he was looking for power greater than self but doing so through an intermediary (the substance) rather than through being an instrument of that power (working the steps). Doing so, places one at risk for becoming dependent on the intermediary versus dependent on that which one seeks. There is a lot of room for confusion over the nature of the power which one is seeking.

    • Steve V. says:

      What if one is not seeking a “power greater than themselves”?

    • bob k says:

      I think “duplicate” conveys my intended meaning. Perhaps “replicate” is better, but they are pretty much the same.

      I don’t understand your statement that “Essentially, Bill was trying to regulate himself with an outside ‘substance.'” If you have some theory about that, please elaborate on it.

      I hope the article makes clear Bill’s intent in using the drug. He wasn’t trying for a spiritual experience for himself. He’d already had one. The LSD experience, and the “white light” experience were seen as similar. The schizophrenics were incapable of the slow, educational variety described in Appendix II.

      The “personality change” comes for most by doing the steps. He was hoping to poof the mentally ill with a more sudden “contact with God” awakening. The artificial inducement of that was hoped to move them along in the process. The Saskatchewan doctors had had some success.

      As a depressive, Bill seems to have gotten some relief from the drug. I think that sparked him to use the drug multiple times. If he was chasing a spiritual awakening, you need to tell us about that. The evidence had led me nowhere near that conclusion.

      • Neal says:

        Thank you for clarifying some misconceptions on my part. I appreciate your clarification of not using the hallucinogens to find a higher power. That was a huge assumption that I made.

  11. Jim W. says:

    Thank you, as this subject has always fascinated me. I am definitely not a Wilson apologist, but I want to say something about the fundamentalist mindset in AA that condemns Wilson’s use of LSD. One time I was in a meeting where they read “Pass It On.” Wilson’s use of LSD was the topic of discussion that night. I brought up the Native American Church’s use of peyote and the facts that abstinence from alcohol is a tenet in the NAC and that I knew several men who had been bad alcoholics on the streets of Denver and Oklahoma, and through the NAC had been sober a long time and were family men and leaders in their communities. The general response was “They aren’t really sober.”

  12. Steve V. says:

    Thanks for the clarifications Bob! As always, I enjoy your writings as your knowledge of AA in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s seems extensive and I have learned a lot from your various articles and book. It continues to amaze me how much misinformation about early AA gets circulated in the rooms of AA.

  13. Thomas Brinson says:

    Thanks Bob for. a fascinating article, which provides additional information about Bill’s use of psychedelics than other articles have revealed, and Roger for publishing it.

  14. Tommy H says:

    The last paragraph has really piqued my interest.

    Good article.

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