Monday, 14 December 2015

The Science of Habit Change

Part 3/14 (to see other parts of the article, click on the pages at the bottom)

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To understand the Golden Rule of Habit Change better and begin to apply it to our own bad habits, let us explore one of the largest and most successful attempts at wide-scale habit change, which was born in a dingy basement on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1934.

Sitting in the basement was a thirty-nine-year-old alcoholic named Bill Wilson. Years earlier, Wilson had taken his first drink during officers' training camp in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he was learning to fire machine guns before getting shipped to France and World War I. Prominent families who lived near the base often invited officers to dinner, and one Sunday night, Wilson attended a party where he was served rarebit and beer. He was twenty-two years old and had never had alcohol before. The only polite thing, it seemed, was to drink the glass served to him. A few weeks later, Wilson was invited to another elegant affair. Men were in tuxedos, women were flirting. A butler came by and put a Bronx cocktail-a combination of gin, dry and sweet vermouth, and or ange juice-into Wilsons hand. He took a sip and felt, he later said, as if he had found "the elixir of life."

By the mid-1930s, back from Europe, his marriage falling apart and a fortune from selling stocks vaporized, Wilson was consuming three bottles of booze a day. On a cold November afternoon, while He was sitting in the gloom, an old drinking buddy called. Wilson invited him over and mixed a pitcher of pineapple juice and gin. He poured his friend a glass.

His friend handed it back. He'd been sober for two months, he said.

Wilson was astonished. He started describing his own struggles with alcohol, including the fight he'd gotten into at a country club that had cost him his job. He had tried to quit, he said, but couldn’t manage it. He'd been to detox and had taken pills. He'd made promises to his wife and joined abstinence groups. None of it worked. How, Wilson asked, had his friend done it?

"I got religion," the friend said. He talked about hell and temptation sin and the devil. "Realize you are licked, admit it, and get willing to turn your life over to God."

Wilson thought the guy was nuts. "Last summer an alcoholic crackpot; now, I suspected, a little cracked about religion," he later wrote. When his friend left, Wilson polished off the booze and went to bed.

A month later, in December 1934, Wilson checked into the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions, an upscale Manhattan detox center. A physician started hourly infusions of a hallucinogenic drug called belladonna, then in vogue for the treatment of alcoholism. Wilson floated in and out of consciousness on a bed in a small room.

Then, in an episode that has been described at millions of meetings in cafeterias, union halls, and church basements, Wilson began writhing in agony. For days, he hallucinated. The withdrawal pains made it feel as if insects were crawling across his skin. He was so nauseous he could hardly move, but the pain was too intense to stay still. "If there is a God, let Him show Himself!" Wilson yelled to his empty room. "I am ready to do anything. Anything!" At that moment, he later wrote, a white light filled his room, the pain ceased, and he felt as if he were on a mountaintop, "and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness."

Bill Wilson would never have another drink. For the next thirty-six years, until he died of emphysema in 1971, he would devote himself to founding, building, and spreading Alcoholics Anonymous, until it became the largest, most well-known and successful habit changing organization in the world.