William Wilson, also known as Bill W., was one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), whom Life Magazine named one of the most influential men of the 20th Century, routinely suffered from bouts of personal problems and inner turmoil despite the obvious success of the recovery movement he had helped create. Lest we forget that prior to the advent of AA, the only places for drunkards in the advanced stages of alcoholism were jails, mental institutions, the streets, or cemetaries. But Bill W. was a chronic philanderer, even after he sobered up, and his paroxysms of what can probably be termed sex addiction caused no shortage of internal discord and friction in his marriage and, one may assume, in his own mind. Behavioural addictions such as sex, spending, eating, gambling and working are tougher to recognize, let alone treat, because through the activity itself, the addict’s brain is a lab manufacturing its own supply of the very thing it is craving. Wilson was also eager for publicity, proving his own hypothesis that addicts are generally self-centered, childish and insecure, and he suffered from bouts of depression, loneliness and self-doubt—not to mention a debilitating addiction to cigarettes.
This information is in no way intended to detract from the invaluable contribution Bill Wilson made to the human race, but to demonstrate that he clearly didn’t know or possess sustained inner peace; if the man who more or less wrote the book on conventional 12-step recovery suffered so much mental anguish after sobering up, I put forth that it is possible that the organization’s program is missing some elements required to achieve happiness, peace and serenity—at least for some.
One of the greatest attributes a seeker of truth needs to possess is an objective, discriminating mind which is free from prejudice. It appears Bill Wilson possessed this faculty, and his afflictions eventually led him to dabble in the occult and various forms of mysticism, including his friendship with Aldous Huxley and experimentation with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD). Wilson likened LSD to a miracle substance, and he reportedly used it regularly in a therapeutic context well into the 60’s. Modern Drunkard Magazine writer Richard English even reports that Wilson, near his 70th birthday, had concocted a plan to distribute tabs of blotter to AA meetings nationwide. This idea was presumably hatched with the best of intentions, although the notion of feeding acid to scores of insecure, often anxiety-ridden, recovery neophytes who huddled in musty church basements across the continent is, to put it mildly, alarming.
“The plan was eventually quashed by more rational voices,” writes English, “and a few years later the Federal [US] government made the point moot by making the drug illegal.” Nonetheless, no substance has been more widely tested and used in the treatment of addiction in North America than LSD, and it hasn't been without significant success. Ayahuasca, however, is stepping away from the laboratory and moving further into the mystical realm of entheogens, into the sacredness of plant consciousness itself.
When I recently travelled to Peru to take part in shamanic yoga training, I’d done my homework on the roots of recovery and the nexus between addiction and psychotropic plant medicine, but the knowledge I carried when I arrived in Cusco didn’t do much to discharge my aversion to psycho-reactive substances. I reminded myself that many of these medicines, particularly ayahuasca, are traditionally used for the treatment of addiction, and while my recovery program has kept me clean and sober for over 11 years, I have not yet managed to find freedom from addictive patterns of thought and behaviour as well as depression and anxiety.
My gut urged me to delve into the experience of plant medicine with a teachable heart and to seek out the courage and support I needed to do so—not only from the competent and professional people running my training, but from my non-physical guides and teachers. Ultimately, as much as I feared and had antipathy towards letting anything perception-altering past the blood/brain barrier, I also knew intuitively that there was something in this opportunity that would assist me in becoming more adept at shifting my existential reference point to allow me to more fully experience the lessons which are, I believe, all around us.
Yet the gerbil in the wheel of my small mind kept running back to the awareness that I was more or less bucking the tradition I come from, and potentially isolating myself from my own community of recovering people. Ultimately it was worth the risk, partly because it has long confounded me why so many people recovering from addiction are trapped in grief, depression, anxiety, ignorance, subtle layers of denial, not-so-subtle judgement. So many people in recovery, myself included, engage in this navel-gazing victimization, too often re-hashing their problems and living in fear. The characterization of recovering alcoholics as chain-smoking coffee addicts who subsist on an abhorrently unhealthy diet is not far off the mark in many cases.
As a yoga teacher and student of yoga, I have come to understand how, after my breath, the food I put in my body is the most vital component to my health—not only my physical health, but my mental and emotional health. The time for our species’ belief that these states worked independently of one another passed a long time ago. So here it was: I wanted to know why are so many people in recovery living such unhealthy lives, treating their bodies as garbage pails, similar to how they functioned in active addiction. I also want to know how to help them.
Recovery systems work for many, bringing happiness, health and a sense of inner peace, but the program does not seem to really take for many more. It’s a sad but earnest truth. The answer to this problem by the members who stick around and stay sober long enough is that the people who relapse and continue to live in misery are just not working. Still more fascinating are the multitudes of men and women who stay in recovery and stay sober but require the use of selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) for depression and anxiety, and those who are on medication for stress, for high blood pressure, for many other physical ailments the roots of which I suspect are planted in a lingering and profound sense of disconnection. I don’t know of any reliable statistics on the number of addicts who turn to behavioural addictions to continue the natural search for connection and inner peace, but my sense of it is that the numbers are alarmingly high.
Shortly after I arrived in Peru, I established that the use of these traditional sacred plant medicines was, due to my recovery, a counterpractice for me, principally because it meant embracing an altered state of consciousness.
Although it is true that very advanced yogic or shamanistic practitioners can enter into these same states without the use of sacred plant medicines, the reality is that very few humans have this potentiality in realistic terms or time frames. These medicines, as ancient history as well as some avant-garde researchers have demonstrated, have proven extremely useful for opening a students’ or patients’ paradigm rapidly and safely. In confronting my own doubts and fears, I reminded myself that these medicines have been considered sacred since before recorded history—likely well before. They are recognized as important, legal and ethical by not only numerous governments around the world, but by the United Nations as well.
So I need to stand at what Joseph Campbell refers to as the mythical “jumping off place” and delve deep into the belly of the whale, the mystical unknown, in order to gain new insight and growth and be of better service to others, and hopefully follow, in some humble manner, the archetype of the wounded healer.