Equipment for Living: Losing and recovering oneself in drugs and sobriety

In December of 1934, an unemployed stockbroker named Bill Wilson checked himself into Towns Hospital in Manhattan. He had a habit of consuming more than two quarts of whiskey per day, and his wife had implored him to get help. The doctor gave Wilson an extract of belladonna, a plant with hallucinogenic properties, which at the time was an experimental treatment for alcoholism. That afternoon, the “room blazed with an indescribably white light,” Wilson later wrote. A vision of a mountain came to him. “I stood upon its summit where a great wind blew…. Then came the blazing thought, ‘you are a free man.’”

Bill Wilson never drank again. He went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous, the grassroots organization that has helped millions of people achieve and sustain sobriety. The story of Wilson’s spiritual awakening figures prominently in AA mythology. The part about the preceding drug dose does not.

Wilson’s dabbling in psychedelics—including later experiments with LSD—comes up in two new books: Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, a memoir of drinking and quitting intertwined with literary and cultural criticism, and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, an exploration of the awesome powers of psychedelics to enrich human consciousness. Many other authors have covered similar ground, but Pollan and Jamison bring to bear singular gifts. They are, in some ways, very different writers: Pollan is at heart a journalist oriented toward the world; Jamison, trained as a fiction writer, is drawn to her own psyche for material. But both deftly synthesize research and their own experiences into finely crafted narratives that give new life to these familiar themes. Read the whole review here.