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Lessons from Lois Wilson, a trailblazer in 12-step program development | COMMENTARY

If we were paying attention, we learned a lot in February about little known Black leaders who are part of the long chain in the fight for freedom and equity. In the women’s movement, there is a similar chain of little-known leaders who have and are building the bridge to women’s equality. One of them is Lois Wilson, whose 1891 birth we celebrate on March 4.

Lois Wilson, who died in 1988, empowered millions of women and offered each a path out of the slavery of a toxic, life-threatening relationship. She and her husband, Bill, along with many others built a movement that is today the largest and most successful self-help movement in the world.

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Given such an amazing contribution, why don’t we know much about Lois Wilson? While that is an interesting question, an even more important one is: What might we learn, about how to get out of our current national leadership and trust crisis, from Lois and the movement she helped lead?

Lois started out trying to get her husband Bill to stop drinking. She was sure her love for him would be enough. She tried everything to get him to stop. She organized trips to the mountains for weeks of hiking and camping. She prayed for him. She was patient with him. She got angry and threw things at him. None of it worked. Bill was drinking himself to death. Along the way, Lois suffered the humiliation of being turned down for adoption because of Bill’s drinking and was homeless living on couches of friends for three years after Bill stopped drinking.

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How hopeless do you feel about what is going on in America? Do you fear there is no return to being able to disagree without hatred and violence? Will we ever be safe from viruses that fly around the world like poisonous bees stinging people in their path?

Lois learned a powerful lesson that is the bedrock foundation of the organization she cofounded — Al-Anon Family Groups. This principle is to admit defeat and focus on what you can change about yourself. Lois and the many members of Al-Anon who followed her came to see that being angry at the person with alcoholism and trying to change his behavior was a waste of time. All it did was make the spouses of people with drinking problems sicker and more obsessed with a problem about which they could do nothing.

America and the world are in a time when there appear to be many things out of our control. As hard as President Biden tries, it is a challenge to imagine how American “get-it-done” optimism is going to change the current global dysfunction. The amazing thing for Lois and the women and men who have tried Al-Anon and its 12-step program is that once the focus shifts to one’s small “s” spiritual development, there are more choices for how to improve the world around us.

Imagine if we all decided to be open-minded and go a little deeper in looking for the truth. What if we decided to let go of preconceived ideas and our favorite safe ideological beliefs and listened to other points of view? What if we aimed to do whatever was best for the common good in our families, neighborhoods, cities and country?

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These are just a few of the principles that Lois Wilson and others decided to follow to get out of hopelessness. One other thing about Lois was her willingness to not worry about who got credit. Everyone was equal in Al-Anon. There were no leaders, just “trusted servants” given authority for a limited period of time by the members of the group. No one had a role for too long; the trusted servants rotated roles to make sure all were contributing.

Alcoholism, drug abuse and other addictions are not pretty. No one particularly likes to talk about them. Families impacted too often feel shameful and defeated. That is one reason Lois is not too well known. The other is that she was leading from 1940 to 1970, when women weren’t expected or invited to lead. Her husband Bill, who cofounded Alcoholics Anonymous, is much better known than Lois.

That is unfortunate because without Lois and the other women who shaped the 12-step movement, it most likely wouldn’t exist. It’s time for Lois Wilson and the other women who helped launch the 12-step movement to take their place in the history of women’s rights in America — and for the lessons learned by these women and those who came after to be shared with the many hopeless people in America today.

Tom Adams writes on topics of racial equity, leadership, spirituality and recovery and their connections at Critical Conversations (thadams.com).

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