Bill W. – Compulsive Debtor?

I’m in an intensive Big Book Step Study group, where you read aloud the first 64 pages of the Big Book with your sponsor and discuss it. Though I’ve read these pages countless times, I was shocked when my sponsor commented on Bill’s spending habits as we read Chapter 1: Bill’s Story. For the first time, I focused on the spending aspect of his story alongside his drinking.

My sponsor also talked about Bill’s penchant for larger-than-life language in this chapter, which is quite familiar to me as “big spender.” He talked of his “sumptyous apartment,” “the impeccable coat of tan one sees upon the well-to-do,” and how “the local banker watched me whirl fat checks in and out of his till…”

Bill was a fan of the big idea. Instead of living a life of moderation, he swung between poverty and riches over and over. Even on page one of his story, he says of himself (at age 22), “My talent for leadership, I imagined, would place me at the head of vast enterprises which I would manage with utmost assurance.”

That was me. I am multi-addicted, but my compulsive debting exhibited itself in the big idea. Fame came along with fortune in my mind. When my ideas went south (because I could get no more credit or money to throw at these expensive hobbies), it was delusionally devastating. Never mind that I wasn’t willing to keep slogging forward with the dull, day-to-day tasks that are necessary to success (e.g., paperwork, marketing), the willingness to keep going when it wasn’t easy, and to continue doing the creative work without much recognition.

Reading pages two to eight of Bill’s story with a focus on compulsive debting and spending was eye-opening to me. On page eight, his “musing was interrupted by the telephone.” That fateful call from Ebby Thatcher signaled the end of any discussion of money or work for the rest of the chapter, which is devoted to Bill’s spiritual awakening and the solution to his (and my) spiritual malady.

From what I know of Bill W.’s life, he never addressed his issues with “big shot-ism,” but his work with other alcoholics, and maybe his getting continually getting shot down when he tried to grow too large, was his Higher Power working on his behalf. The man never reached the financial heights to which he aspired, mostly living hand-to-mouth, relying on the kindness of those he helped to make it one day at a time financially. It seems clear to me that his financial humility goes hand-in-hand with his sobriety.

Though I never reached the financial highs or lows Bill did, I related to the mental obsession and continual delusion that having “enough” money [or fame] would cure me. For instance, on page four, Bill began to drink after discovering he was financially “finished” when “all hell broke loose on the New York stock exchange.”

Next morning, I telephoned a friend in Montreal. He had plenty of money left and thought I had better go to Canada. By the following spring we were living in our accustomed style. I felt like Napoleon returning from Elba. No St. Helena for me! But drinking caught up with me again and my generous friend had to let me go. This time we stayed broke.

Astonishing to think about the implications of this paragraph. Bill never saved for a rainy day, never even considered the possibility that things might go south. He lived the highest of high lives in complete avoidance of the facts about who he was with alcohol AND money.

Denial of the highest sort. Vagueness veiled with alcohol. But I maintain that though both are symptoms of a spiritual illness, each is a separate malady, as is evidenced by the fact that many of us are in multiple 12-step programs.

Though I stopped drinking on my own when I became pregnant with my son in 1990 (I did take one drink a few years later, but that was the end), and I have been abstinent from food binging for over 15 years, I still had to come to see my compulsive debting as its own illness. Still had to bottom out in this disease, despite years of sobriety in others.

My denial and self-dishonesty around money, despite my stringent honesty in other areas was shocking when it was pointed out to me. $33,000 in credit card debt and I was still reaching for more cards to fund my son’s college education, hitting the wall and a true bottom when I knew that it was all falling apart, as was I.

Regardless of Bill’s foibles and other addictions, he was the conduit to creating a way of life that has saved mine and countless others’. And the fact is that he never used his financial failures to excuse his drinking once he had his spiritual awakening, though he came close at least once.

The story on page 153-155 of the Big Book (A Vision for You chapter) is part of Bill’s journey. Though he had had his spiritual awakening early on, his financial bad fortune nearly drove him back to the bar.

Years ago, in 1935, one of our number made a journey to a certain western city. From a business standpoint, his trip came off badly. Had he been successful in his enterprise, he would have been set on his feet financially, which, at the time, seemed vitally important.

The story goes on to say:

Bitterly discouraged, he found himself in a strange place, discredited and almost broke. Still physically weak, and sober but a few months, he saw that his predicament was dangerous.

How familiar that is to me. Such an event could drive me to self-destruction in my active addiction days for sure. He paced the lobby of a hotel, with the devil of a bar on one side, and the angel of a phone on the other, his thinking and desire torn.

In the end, miraculously, his willingness to feel the pain and stay sober wins out when he makes the phone call that leads him to Dr. Bob. See footnote in the AA version of the BB online (bottom of page 155)

The bottom line is that though Bill never directly addressed his money issues, his commitment to recovery encompassed it all. And though he tried on more than one occasion to garner huge sums for vast enterprises, he was surrounded by people who kept him in check, surely those through whom his Higher Power spoke, such as Nelson Rockefeller:

Later, in 1940, Rockefeller also held a dinner for AA that was presided over by his son Nelson and was attended by wealthy New Yorkers as well as members of the newly founded AA. Wilson hoped the event would raise much money for the group, but upon conclusion of the dinner, Nelson stated that Alcoholics Anonymous should be financially self-supporting and that the power of AA should lie in one man carrying the message to the next, not with financial reward but only with the goodwill of its supporters.


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