Episode 144: Bill H.

This week’s secular speaker is Bill H. who has been sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for 52 years. This recording is from a talk he gave in Kansas City, Missouri on December 1, 2018. Bill talks about his early days getting sober in AA in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, his days on the AA speaker circuit, and how he approaches recovery today.


Bill: My name is Bill and I’m an alcoholic.

Audience: Hi Bill.

Bill: What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now, I don’t know whether I can wrap that up in 15 or 20 minutes or not. My sobriety date is September the 28th 1967, so I’m working on my 52nd year. Been around for a while, it’s a long time between drinks. I came to Kansas City, gosh, it must be almost 30 years ago. Kevin, how long have you been here?

Kevin: Twenty-seven. I’ve been in the program for 27 years.

Bill: Okay. So, somewhere around 27 years ago I came because Kevin was just getting sober when I got here. At any rate, I started to… I think I had my first drink in a public bar when I was 14, and I had a lot of fun in the early days. I have friends who were in trouble from the time they took their first drink, and that wasn’t true for me. I had a lot of fun; it was just drinking after parties and after dances through the high school years. And in the college years, I went to a very upstanding Christian college. If they caught you drinking even if you were off-campus, you were expelled immediately, and so I didn’t have the usual college experience as far as drinking was concerned either. But as soon as the college years were over, and I was free to do what I wanted; the drinking went out of control very quickly.

Bill: As I said, I had some fun even in the early days of the heavy drinking, I had some fun with it. But the time came when it was the most important thing in my life. If they weren’t serving liquor, if it wasn’t in a bar, I wasn’t going there. Again, there weren’t any particular problems. I had grown up with the feeling of being different. And I’ve heard this hundreds of times from other people in the program, and I’m not quite so sure how I thought I knew what other people felt like, but I felt like I felt different than other people. They would seem to enjoy each other; they’d laugh and have a lot of camaraderie. And I would go through the motions, you couldn’t tell from the outside looking at me, but I felt differently. I never felt that close or that relaxed with people and the alcohol made it possible to do that, to unwind.

Bill: But yeah… The first couple of drinks were like somebody who hasn’t had a cigarette for a long time that’s addicted. That first drag you just feel “Haa”, and alcohol was like that for me. The problem was that it continually took more, and more, and more to get that feeling, until it turned on me, and I didn’t drink anymore for the relaxation and for the pleasure. I drank because I had to, and that went on for a few years. And when I realized that it was starting to get me into trouble, I decided that it was time to give it up and to quit drinking, and I’d go on the wagon, it would never last more than three or four days. And I’m pretty sure of the time because I can remember lying to people. I’d tell them that I had been sober for a week or two weeks, and it was never true.

Bill: So, I could stay sober for a few days, and as soon as I started to feel good, I would think, “Oh, one couldn’t hurt me.” And I’d take that one and I would feel it all over my body, that same feeling that I described a second or two ago, just “Haa”, and once I had that, then if one felt good, two would feel better, and three would be just great. And one for the road, and one for the ditch, and all of a sudden, it’s off to the races and I’m falling down drunk again, and the only time my hands stopped shaking was when I had a couple of drinks in me. When I couldn’t quit, eventually I got to the point where I quit quitting, and I decided to drink myself to death, and it was literal, I’m not talking about a subconscious death wish. I knew what I was doing. I deliberately tried to drink myself to death.

Bill: I thought it would kill fear. I had used it all my life to kill fear, and I thought eventually it will kill me too, and so I gave it a try. What I didn’t count on was that it’s not the easiest way in the whole world for a young man to die. As I said, don’t let the white hair and the beard fool you. I’ve been around here for a long time, so I was still comparatively young. And like I said, it’s not the easiest way for a young man to die. Pain up and down my spine and in my legs and burning sensations about the size of a quarter or a half dollar in my back, in the muscles in my back.

Bill: I would throw things back up again. Sometimes, I would have to have a couple of drinks in the morning just to hold anything down on my stomach and I’m all familiar with projectile vomiting. I can turn my head and hit that wall really, really easy, no problem at all. Except eventually, things would start coming up yellow-green because I wasn’t eating anything anymore except the kind of things that you can buy at a bar, salmon sharpies, hard-boiled eggs, deviled eggs, pickled eggs. That was my diet, whatever I could drink at a bar or eat at a bar, that’s what I ate.

Bill: And even when there wasn’t anything yellow-green to throw up anymore, my system didn’t seem to know that there was nothing down there. And I would keep trying to heave things up and I would go through a period of dry heaves. I learned how to drink water just so I would have something to throw back up again. I learned how to put Abdec in it because it’s the vitamins that they give the babies that have colic. I don’t know whether it helped any or not, but I tried it. I learned how to drink warm water rather than cold water because it’s nicer to throw up warm water than it is to throw up water that’s still cold.

Bill: So, I learned a lot during those years that I tried to quit drinking and then, like I said, eventually just gave up and quit quitting. When I couldn’t kill myself that way when I found out how difficult that was, I went back to the trying to get sober again and I would lock myself up in little places and I’d sweat and sweat it out for four or five days and I would eventually get hungry and go out to get something to eat. And, as I said, you don’t eat anywhere except in a restaurant that has a bar or you’re going to a bar that you know has kind of the food that I’ve already described.

Bill: I don’t know exactly how long I tried that but four or five times at least, I would lock myself up into this little, little motels, hotels, whatever motel, whatever you want to call it. Actually, what it was, was a shack and there was a single, light bulb hanging down in the middle of the room and the floors were concrete and they kind of sloped to a drain in the middle. And, as I said, I would spend four or five days in that place and the only entertainment, they didn’t have TVs or anything like that, they would rent that shack to me for a couple of dollars, and my entertainment for a lot of that time, the place was kind of just inundated with silverfish and they would get behind the radiators where it was warm and I had a can of lighter fluid and I would squirt lighter fluid underneath and they would scurry across the floor and I would light them and watch the flaming silverfish scurrying across the floor. It was great entertainment. It was a lot of fun. [chuckle]

Bill: I had just come out of one of those when I accidentally, coincidentally, whatever you want to call it, met the man who was to become my sponsor. I had been teaching those last years of my drinking and my teaching salary, I walked out on my teaching job six weeks before the school year was over, and the salary from the teaching was toward the end of the summer, and my salary would be gone soon. The pro-rated part of the salary would end, and I needed an income, so I thought I could make a living in real estate. The family-owned a small construction company and I thought maybe I could make a living off their name.

Bill: So, I applied for a license and eventually, I needed an ID picture and the photographer was a man who became my sponsor. I walked in to have my picture taken. He had known me since I was 13, 14 years old, and he just took one look at me and he said, “You look like hell. What’s wrong with you?” And I said… And I was beyond lying. I was a sponsor’s dream. There was no denial at all. I just said, “John, I drink too much and I can’t stop.” And he said, “Get your coat.” We ended up in a five-day detox center and at that time period in history, I was lucky enough to have that detox center almost in my backyard and there weren’t many places like that anywhere in the country. I’m not sure that there were any at all of those short-term detox centers. You couldn’t get an alcoholic into a hospital in those days. A lot of the hospitals, you’re taken to an emergency ward and they say, “Get him out of here. He’s not sick. He’s drunk.”

Bill: So, I was lucky to have that and I never went through that detox as a patient, but they had coffee rooms, maybe about the size of this room, maybe a little bit bigger, and they had three or four maple wood tables, and I would sit at those tables every day and listen to the people who came into work with the patients that were in there for treatment, and I would just sit there and listen to them. I never talked to anybody, because if I talked to anybody, I would start to shake again.

Bill: And I didn’t want to go through that anymore, so I just was quiet. I just sat there and listened. Eventually, I started to follow my sponsor and his buddies around. They did a lot of service work, and again, I never said anything, I would just go with them. Court groups, hospital groups, jail groups, and I just tagged along. I lost my temper in a court group one night and the words just kept tumbling out, and when they found out I could talk, from then on, for the next year or so, I spent on a speaker circuit for the tri-state area, and the tri-state area for me at that time was West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and I had a lot of fun. Be nervous for the first couple of minutes, and then I would just relax and enjoy, and I enjoyed the years that I spent on the circuit.

Bill: I can remember doing one tour group that was very much like the word, Parkway Group. A lot of affluent people. I looked at the front row of that little meeting one night and there must have been a couple $100 million of assets sitting across the front row. I won’t mention the names because they’re nationally known. But there was a woman who sat in the center of the room and maybe a row or two back, and she just sat there, and she stared at me with her mouth hanging open, and I said, “Frannie, what’s wrong?” And I stopped right in the middle of my talk, and she said, “I didn’t know you could talk. I thought you were permanently brain damaged.” So that’s how quiet I was. I never talked to anybody ever unless I absolutely had to, and she thought I had just burned up too many brain cells out.

Bill: At the end of the first year, the temptation to take a drink during those initial months was tremendous, because I knew one drink and I would start to feel better. And my withdrawals were horrible, they went on, and on, and on. I didn’t have the legal troubles, I didn’t have the DUIs, DWIs that a lot of people have. There’s no jail time, no prison time. I didn’t have any serious financial problems. I walked out on a marriage, but it wasn’t very much of a marriage, to begin with, so that wasn’t a big loss either. She was perfectly willing for the marriage to go on as long as I would start drinking with her again, to give you an idea of where I was with all of that, and it just got to be an impossible situation.

Bill: So at the end of the first year, I had gone to a lecture at Pitt on alcoholism, and as we walked up the stairs somebody introduced the woman that was walking next to me, and by the time we got to the top… She was a great deal older than I was, but we just really, really hit it off and she controlled all of the money for rehabilitation in the State of Pennsylvania. So, by the time we got to the top of the lecture room, I could have gone to work in any one of several hospitals, and I chose the one her brother was chief of staff on. So, I worked in the field and I doubled my teaching salary by the time I took that job and I thought that was pretty neat. If I told you what those salaries were today, it would be laughable. But at the time, it was kind of affluent, 10,000 bucks 50-some years ago was a lot of money. So, like I said I had doubled my teaching salary. I think my last teaching salary was $4800 for the year, was a country school they weren’t playing very well. [chuckle]

Bill: But at any rate, I felt guilty about taking that paycheck when I knew that anybody who had been sober for more than a year knew more about alcoholism and recovery than I did, so I did what seemed right. I quit and I got my replacement before I quit, and she took, it was a nurse and took the job. I went to Atlanta, Georgia, and worked with the convicts coming out of the prisons and all the guys that were in prison because of something they did while they were either stoned or drunk and fell in love with the program. As I said, I just gave up the job with the hospital and moved down to Atlanta. It was interesting. The lieutenant governor was on the board of directors and the whole thing was phony. They had faked their statistics and they were doing it just for the influence that it gave them. When I found that out, I quit that job and moved back up to Pennsylvania and asked if they could find a job for me again and I still had all the contacts from being there before.

Bill: So, they got me a job alright. A farm on the West Virginia of Pennsylvania line, and place when I walked in it, it was a wreck. And the guys that were in there, it was all men at that point, and the guys that were in there were afraid that they would never get anything to eat on a regular schedule, and they had hidden food behind the books in the library and things. So, there was molding, desiccated food. Almost everywhere, every corner you looked they had hidden food, and so got that place cleaned up. Again, it was an interesting experience. I enjoyed the time on the farm. Somewhere along the line, I turned China yellow. My eyeballs, my fingernails, my belly, and the diagnosis was cancer of the liver, the pre-diagnosis. And eventually, I was out of the hospital in 10 days. They decided that they had made a mistake and that it was really hepatitis, and I was still doing the rehab from that.

Bill: Went back to the farm for just a little while. Somewhere in the process of that hepatitis and making contacts with the farm, I had filled out an application for a grant to spend a year at Johns Hopkins and study alcoholism, and it was a combined program, with Hopkins and the city of Baltimore. I don’t think I would have ever had the nerve to ask for it if I had… But I thought I was dying, I thought I had… Was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. I thought I won’t be here long. What the hell difference does it make? So, I made that application and I got the grant. So, I spent an academic year with that program, and again, it was a lot of fun.

Bill: I don’t have many triggers as far as drinking is concerned. I wanted to be sober, almost from the, well, not almost, actually from the first meeting. I fell in love with the program. I wanted to be sober, I wanted a different way of life, and the program offered that to me, and that was fine with me. And I was what you ask every newcomer to do, I was willing to do anything to get that sobriety, it didn’t matter.

Bill: I would turn it all over, and when I took the second and third step. The second step for me was hope. It was the hope that I could be the way I saw the rest of you and that I could begin to live a sober life and that it would last. The third step I took quite literally. Part of it was because I’m lazy. I thought if I can just turn all my problems over to a higher power, then I don’t have to worry about anything anymore. Well, I was worried. I was right about that. I don’t have to worry about anything anymore, but it took me a while to get on and when I said that I was open-minded and willing to do anything, there were reservations.

Bill: And when I went through the 12-steps, anything that said, “God” or had a capital H for He or Him, they weren’t fooling me with that capital He or Him, [chuckle] that I knew what they were talking about and I didn’t want any part of that. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck would actually stand up. I didn’t want anything to do with it, anything that sounded like Christianity or any other religion for that matter. I grew up in a household with a Lutheran father, a Christian Science mother, an Irish Catholic grandmother. She would take me to Mass to make my father mad, and they fought for years, so I got a lot of Mass out of the thing too. I was an elder man in a Methodist Youth Group. I sang in an Episcopal boys’ choir. I graduated from a Presbyterian college. I arrived at AA a very devout atheist. [chuckle]

Bill: And even that is a more joke than anything else. I don’t know that I was ever an atheist. I was sure an agnostic. Yeah, little by little, I don’t… I think I’ve qualified enough to give you an idea, where I was, and what things were like, and what happened for that matter. I just never knew I was having my last drink. I didn’t know that I was on my way to an AA meeting when I walked into that photographer’s shop that day and John stayed my sponsor for years and years and in a lot of ways, he still is. He was tall, very slender. His eyes were set back in his head about that far. He had a huge big nose. He was not a good-looking man. [chuckle] And he was loud, he was vulgar. He yelled, he yelled a lot and I think he tried to scare people to keep them at a distance because he was really… He had a great heart and he would do anything in the world for you. And I was lucky enough to have him for quite a few years and as I said, I can still hear him in my head. And so, he’s still my sponsor in a lot of ways.

Bill: I’ve chosen other sponsors along the way, but I don’t know. It never seemed that important to me. I worked my way through the steps and I’ve already told you that was a problem if it had a capital, He or a capital H for Him. The word God, even the phrase higher power, was kind of a turn-off for me. Again, I knew what they were talking about. They weren’t fooling me with that higher power shit.

Bill: After I’d been sober for a while and worked my way through those programs, I ended up back in my own hometown. My sister was diagnosed with cancer and she wasn’t as lucky as I was. And when she was in the last months of her life, I went home to be with my mother and dad. I gave up that farm in Southern Pennsylvania and just went home and one of the guys from the farm went home with me and we worked for the family construction company. She, in a lot of ways, was my best friend. So, I was not just losing a sister, I was losing my best friend and it was really rough on me.

Bill: I would go to work during the day and at night, I’d get in a pair of pajamas and sit in front of a TV set, and I never went anywhere. I just was back in those days when I didn’t want to see anybody at all. I was never a lone drinker, so I wasn’t drinking during that time or at least I wasn’t even concerned about drinking. I just sat there and used whatever excuse I could think of to not go anywhere, not do anything. Somebody called me and they said as long as you’re here and you have all the education that you have as far as rehab is concerned, would you counsel one boy in a program that they had? And I said, “Yeah. I’ll counsel one boy.” And two weeks later I was director of their program.

Bill: They had had a Roman Catholic priest who they didn’t realize that he was drinking right there in the rehab center. When we opened his closet, the top shelf on it was all the empty bottles were stashed away in the closet. He told somebody at one point that his life’s ambition was to see my hide stuffed over his mantle. [chuckle]

Bill: We were good friends at one time. Yeah, I took and then, spent some time with that program. So, I never got along very well with the boards of Directors. I stole their program out from underneath their board of directors and the Catholic Church. As I said, I’m a Protestant puppy, basically but the Catholic Church was very good to me. They gave me an old nursing home. It was a huge outfit. We probably could have easily slept 30 to 40 people in that complex. They had built a dormitory over at one point, what had been a family swimming pool and the old mansion, the church gave us the whole thing, and all we had to do was pay the bills to keep it from freezing, and that was a problem with the building that big and that old are heating bills were for four, four and half, 500 bucks a month.

Bill: But it was fun again. I enjoyed all the service work. I enjoyed all the places that I worked for and all those rehab centers that I worked in, but I still had that problem. I was beginning to realize that there was probably more to the spiritual end of the program than I had been willing to admit in the beginning. I began to think differently about the steps in the beginning. I had just kind of briefed over them and not worried too much about it and my sponsor let me get away with that. He never worried about my working steps.

Bill: For me, the program was pretty much the camaraderie and the friendships. And it took me a long time and when I say a long time, I’m talking about a few months because now, people talk about a long time before they start really working the steps and they’re talking about two or three years. There’s no way that I could have managed that. I probably would have been drunk if I had waited that long. So eventually, I did start working. What I found was that as I began to work the steps, I began to see more and more sense to them. It wasn’t just a matter of alcoholism.

Bill: Maybe, the primary purpose of the program is recovery from alcoholism. But the ultimate… The ultimate program is to get you into a spiritual life, whatever that means to you. And for me, I could begin to see that if I worked the steps the way they were meant, the first nine steps, it robbed the ego of its defects and its character flaws. And as that happened, the chaos in my life began to reduce, and as the chaos began to reduce, the conscious contact began to improve, and it got to the point where there was a lot of intuitive knowledge, where answers to my problem would just suddenly be there in my mind.

Bill: There was no thought leading up to it. There was no linear thought leading to the conclusions. The information was just there, and that was startling for me, for someone who had never believed in things like that. And all of a sudden, to have it start to happen, and the feeling that went along with it was great. And that speaker circuit that I had talked about, I would start to talk and for the first few minutes, I would be nervous and shaky, and all of a sudden, this other thing, this intuition, would just flood into my mind and what I wanted to say next and the stories would just fill my mind.

Bill: As I talked in my voice, my vocabulary, that I would become part of the group just like anyone else, because what I was really listening to be that intuitive knowledge pouring into my consciousness. And that went on, I could depend on it. It would happen almost every time I spoke to a group. Somewhere after the first few minutes, that would kick in and I think the groups could feel it as well as I did. You can tell the change in their attention. And every once in awhile, I would wait for it to kick in so that I could join the group and just listen with everybody else, and it wouldn’t happen.

Bill: When it happened, I felt good. The feeling that went along with it, it was just fantastic. When it didn’t happen, I thought, “Oh, I don’t ever want to do this again. I don’t ever want to make another talk, another speech in my whole life.” And eventually, I get conned into doing another one and it would be all right again. But I hated those times where I was banking on it is happening and it didn’t happen, and it was just me, standing up there in front of a microphone, wondering, “What do I say next?”

Bill: Like tonight, you’ve been great. And I think we must be running close to the time but at any rate, that’s where I was and pretty much where I am now. I do a meditation group here or over in… I guess it’s still over in Parkes, just off of 75th to 7400 block on Neiman. And I guess we’re giving that up, too. We lost that room, too. So, the New City Church has offered us a new one, but I haven’t seen it yet. And so, maybe for a week or so, it’s going to be without that meditation meeting, and I will miss that as I’ve enjoyed doing it. Okay. I thank you all very much for your time and your attention. And I think whatever…