We have all heard of 12-step program groups, but for most of us they are a bit of a mystery. They never advertise or sell anything, they never ask for money nor seek media exposure. And yet many millions of people worldwide who were seemingly condemned to an early death from the ravages of addiction have found long term sobriety and useful lives through them. And there are a bunch of them – from Celebrate Recovery to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Over-Eaters Anonymous – I stopped counting at 40. Since they are such an important piece of the puzzle for those that quit using drugs and alcohol, it seems appropriate to find out where they came from, how they work and what they do. In researching this topic I found a great story that I am sure you will enjoy as much as I have.

The rich story of the humble beginnings of 12-step programs seems to defy logic. It reminds me of “The Butterfly Effect” from Chaos Theory in Physics. The Butterfly Effect says that in a complex system, such as the weather on our Earth, a seemingly insignificant event can be magnified by forces around it and ultimately build its way into something that has a huge impact. Given the right conditions, the faint breath of air movement that a butterfly flapping its wings creates can be magnified by conditions around it into a larger and larger gust of wind. In fact, if the effect is reproduced enough times it can start or alter a hurricane or tornado that takes place at a later time on the other side of the earth. The origin of 12-step groups ultimately came down to a single man, broken and desperate to not take a drink. The flap of the wings was when he put one more coin into a payphone after numerous unsuccessful attempts to find help.

In 1935 a 39-year-old broken down dealmaker from New York City named Bill Wilson had uncharacteristically made it almost six months without a drink. He had once been flying high with great success in the stock market, but alcoholism had ravaged his life. He had been in and out of asylums for years – medical doctors specializing in the field of addiction had written him off to be dead or brain damaged beyond repair in short order. But an encounter with a childhood friend had given him some hope. His friend also was an alcoholic of the hopeless variety, but he had found a way to put down the drink. He had found that as long as he was seeking spirituality and was actively trying to help others who couldn’t stop drinking, he himself was able to not pick up another drink.

Wilson decided to give it a try, and he went into a hospital one last time for detox treatment. While there he blindly prayed in desperation for any kind of divine inspiration. Immediately upon begging for this help, he had a spiritual experience that profoundly changed his thinking. After his discharge, he began going back to the hospital to try to help others who couldn’t stop drinking. Time went by, and although no one else got sober, Wilson himself had not picked up another drink.

At six months sober, Wilson decided to try to put another stock deal together. He took a train some 400 miles from New York to Akron, Ohio and put himself up in a hotel. If the deal came together he would once again have an executive position and would be back on his feet. The deal fell apart, and he found himself in the hotel lobby on a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do until his return trip to New York. The band was playing in the bar, he had a tab with the hotel – all the conditions were right for him to once again pick up the drink and hopefully put an end to his miserable existence.

But he spotted a bulletin board on the wall of the lobby, and on it was a directory of local churches. In desperation he started calling churches, trying to explain that he needed to find an alcoholic who needed help so that he himself could stay sober. He made numerous calls without success, but kept putting another nickel in the phone to try again. He finally got a Reverend who gave him the name of a man to call, who gave him the name of a woman to call. He plugged one more nickel in the phone to try to reach this woman, who not only answered the phone but said she had a man he might help. But this is only half of the story — the woman’s story is amazing.

Henrietta Sieberling was 47-years-old and the wife of the founder of the Goodyear Tire Company. She had been having marital problems and had been seeking solace in a small religious group that met regularly. Henrietta had recently received a phone call from the wife of a local surgeon asking if there was any way they could help her husband, who was a terrible alcoholic. Henrietta had invited the woman and her husband, Anne and Dr. Bob Smith, to a meeting.

A letter Henrietta wrote later in life recalled the events leading up to Wilson’s call. Fifty-six — year-old Dr. Smith had admitted to being an alcoholic at the meeting, but had insisted that he had tried everything and was condemned to die an alcoholic death. Henrietta suggested that at least they could pray that God send someone to help Dr. Smith. So as a group, they held hands in a circle and prayed that God send someone that could help this surgeon. The meeting broke up without further fanfare.

The following Saturday the phone call came in from Wilson, saying that he was desperate to find someone who needed help. Henrietta tried to arrange a meeting that day, but Dr. Smith’s wife said he was passed out drunk. They arranged to meet the next day, which was Mother’s Day, May 12, 1935. The stockbroker spent a number of hours speaking with Smith, and the two resolved to go as a pair and try to help yet another alcoholic. Smith, being a medical doctor, had access to the alcoholic ward in the hospital where he worked. Smith was to have one last relapse on alcohol, taking his last drink a few weeks later on June 10, 1935. This date is recognized as the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The two men set about helping alcoholics in Akron and within a year a small group of recovering alcoholics had formed. Wilson returned to New York and another group formed there. Yet another group formed in nearby Cleveland Ohio. Out of their shared experience of what worked and what didn’t work with those trying to recover, they published a book in 1939 entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous.” The book detailed the process that had evolved from the efforts of these men and women to stay sober and help others get sober, by then numbering around one hundred recovered.

If you ever happen to be around Alcoholic’s Anonymous, they still use this book as a basic textbook. They lovingly refer to it as “The Big Book,” but it really isn’t that “big.” The whole roadmap to recovery is only 160 or so pages long followed by a few personal accounts by individuals who have recovered using the program. The group got a good deal on the first printing of the book by allowing the printer to use some surplus paper that could be purchased at a discount. The paper was much thicker than normal, and when the book was completed it was “bigger” than expected. So the early members quickly dubbed it “The BIG Book,” as a reference to its unexpected size.

Over time AA developed traditions, which are basic bylaws that help groups organize and stay together. Among these were some radical concepts. AA never promotes itself, but rather relies on attraction for new members. It also requires that groups be self-supporting. AA does not accept outside donations, rather it relies on members putting a dollar or two in a basket that is passed at meetings. As an organization it is not allowed to own property or accumulate money lest “problems of money, property and prestige” spoil the groups focus. Today, there are more than 100,000 AA groups worldwide, supporting millions of sober members.

AA realized early that the 12-step process it had developed for recovery from alcoholism worked well for other issues. But they had the wisdom to realize that if they tried to be all things to all people they would ultimately fail. So, they freely give of their program to any group that wants to use the 12 steps or the traditions to address social maladies.

The 12-step process is a fascinating subject all of its own, and perhaps a future article giving a bird’s eye view of the process is in order. But for this article, the main thing that strikes me is “The Butterfly Effect.” That one last phone call that Wilson made put him in contact with a woman who had just prayed that someone be sent to help her with this drunken surgeon. How easy it would have been for the stockbroker to give up and seek some temporary relief at the bar. But that one last call set in motion a series of events that has had a huge positive impact in the lives of many millions of those who have struggled with addiction. And just think of the ripple effect through the spouses, children, families, friends and employers of those that would otherwise have died.

So, if you are down to your last nickel and you think it doesn’t matter what you do, think again. When you know what you should do but you are on the verge of giving up, remember the Butterfly Effect. Yes, the vast majority of butterflies don’t start storms by flapping their wings. But some do. And the ripple effects from those few can gather enough strength to change the world.

The Tri-County Intergroup Alcoholics Anonymous hotline number is (843) 554-2998. The only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking.

This article series, written the first and third week of each month, is meant to educate the community about addiction in general and the Opioid Crisis in specific that is affecting communities nationwide. We are hopeful that this series will make a difference. When appropriate the names will be changed of those the articles feature. The author welcomes inquiries or shared experiences, and can be reached at David@PhoenixSC.org.