Metaphor Drawings

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Metaphors: Tornado

 Corroding Arch


What did I want from addiction? Happiness at first. Then freedom from pain. What did addiction bring me? Unhappiness. Pain. I didn't go there alone—I was married and had a family.

As the winds of addiction hollowed out my humanity, I became less of a comfort to my loved ones. No matter what touch, or thought, or feeling I shared, I was always holding something back. I would enjoy the moment only with the permission of my addiction. If my kids wanted to go to the park, but my cravings said "no", the kids lost out. If my wife wanted understanding, I would listen only as long as my addiction would allow. I loved them still, but was blocked from feeling the love or kindness. I was hollow inside yet full of colliding forces; like a tornado.

Bill Wilson described the alcoholic (and by extension, the addict) as being "like a tornado roaring his way through the live of others." I don't know if I was all that dramatic. I wasn't exactly roaring. I was meekly hoping no one would notice how awful I had become. I was trying to disappear quietly into my own destruction and not really bother anyone. But that is apparently not how love works.

While I was in a dizzy stupor, there were people trying to hold onto me. They weren't trying to hold me back or hold me down. They just needed a father or a husband and they reached for me as a solid support. I was not that solid. If you ever try to hug a tornado—even a meek one—you will discover it is impossible. Anyone who tried to hold onto me promptly had their arms ripped cleanly away.

If you stayed clear of my path, you would probably be okay. And increasingly, my loved ones began to stay out of my way. My wife confided more and more in other people, less so in me. My kids stopped asking for attention or support and made their own arrangements. Friends stopped contacting me, probably because their invitations and inquiries were completely ignored. My job spun further and further way, then flew off completely. I arrived at church later and left earlier, until I felt no connection at all.

I felt numb during most of this time. It was like watching a sad disintegration happen to someone else. I still knew and loved my kid's faces, and I still greeted my wife nicely, but eventually there were no more faces and there was no more wife. They were carried off in this slow motion dance of destruction that spun out from me in all directions. What had been near now flew off into the distance. What had once been high now fell low. Not much mattered, because not much was left to matter.

The Big Book had it right; I was like a tornado. Whoever I approached would flee from me. Whatever I embraced would shatter. Once a productive person, the path I now left behind me was strewn with scattered feeling and lives. And in surveying the terrible destruction, my reaction was to gape in amazement at the damage as if I were not its very SOURCE! Recovery has helped me see that I was destructive, even while considering myself meek and weak. I didn't chase down and hurt anyone on purpose. But I allowed the winds of addiction to blow me wherever they pleased, and in doing that, I broke up a pretty good home, and people who I love still bear the emotional lacerations.

The illustration for the "Tornado" is perhaps my most chaotic in appearance, as fits the subject matter. The detail that rips a tiny new hole in my heart each time I see it, are the childhood belongings standing untouched in the window. There used to be such small items in my children's windows as I sat up late telling them bedtime stories. (Sentimental yes, but somberly accurate.) Those remnants of my children's lives before the storm forever remind me of what had once been.

Still, in the real world, people usually do survive tornados. The obvious warning signs of unholy noise and destructive fury usually trigger instincts to flee for safe shelter. My loved ones did that. They got away safely, in their own ways. I don't blame them; instead I bless them and hold them in the Light every day.

The ending is not a sad one. I no longer rage and storm, even in a meek or weak way. In recovery, I am a person who you could count on to be there for you. Today I am wobbly in ways that don't show, but with the help of my Higher Power, I am a solid friend, father, husband, and neighbor. With that help, I hope the last tornado I ever see is the one disappearing over the horizon in this drawing.



TRIVIA: After tornados pass, people report all kinds of improbable circumstances left behind. One house might be torn to splinters while the one directly next door remains intact. Or an untouched drinking glass may remain perched upright and filled with juice on a shattered marble kitchen counter. I hope my loved ones have been miraculously preserved in similar ways. When I see photographs of our family from those years, there is no visible sign of anything being wrong. You wouldn't pick me out as a person with a grave problem. All of my insanity swirled inside the confines of a good-natured guy and a gentle father. When my addiction permitted it, I did throw fun birthday parties and worked hard to romance my wife. And love never vanished from my heart. Neither love of family or love of God left me entirely, even as I threw both into a blender. I hope you cannot understand what I just said, I really do. But if you knew nothing of these strange truths, you probably would not be reading this sentence right now.

Metaphors: Corroding Thread

 Corroding Arch


"Unspeakable fear" is not from the Twelve Step literature; it is from me. I find fear to be almost impossible to talk about. When I talk about fear directly, the subject matter has no solid meaning. There is my fear of falling, of taking tests, of public speaking, or of dying. Clearly, fear has many degrees, most of them go unnoticed by me until they drive me to regretable actions. Only afterwards do I recognize that fear was my motive for grabbing more than I deserved (selfishness) or avoiding the truth (dishonesty) or disregarding the needs of others (inconsideration).

In other words, fear "was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it." (NOTE: Some people don't like to use the word "fear", perhaps because admitting fear is considered weak by some. At first, I substituted the word "anxiety". To me, they were the same emotion but felt to much different degrees. Soon, I became comfortable using the word "fear" freely.)

I know my Higher Power can break the spell of fear, but only if I ask to be filled with His will. For example, when I feel tempted to get angry, selfish, or inconsiderate, I ask God what He would have me be. Most of the time, I realize my fear has taken control of my thoughts and actions. Driven by my fear, I might feel justified in somehow punishing someone who has triggered my fear. But my Higher Power's view might be: "Don't worry about it. You have done much worse. Leave justice up to Me."

I have begun to call fear my "lower power" because it seems to grow stronger when I neglect or ignore my Higher Power. In my experience, fear steals power from me whereas God seems to flood me with His power.

The Illustration

When I thought about how to make a drawing based on the word "Fear", the choice was not an easy one to conceive. I don't like to use pure symbolism, preferring real situations like Bill might have had in mind. I wondered in what circumstances might a single "corroding thread" be a serious problem. Thread does not truly corrode in exactly the same way that rusty metal can corrode nearby metal. But if a thread were to ruin the usefulness of nearby fabric, that would fit the definition as I understood it.

Thus, I conceived of a sailing ship with one single sail. Across its center is a tear which follows the path of a single thread. The failure of that one thread threatens the usefulness of the entire sail. This failure is especially worrisome considering the dark storm clouds looming in the background. Such a failure of a single thread puts the sail, the ship, the cargo, and everyone on board at risk.

I am not certain what Bill W. had in mind when he wrote about a "corroding thread". But his words reminded me that I must prevent fear from holding a key place within the fabric of my being. Another way I say it is, every day of recovery involves a choice between the lower power of my fears and the Higher Power of the Divine.

Metaphors: Triumphant Arch

 Triumphant Arch



You may know that a triumphant arch (a.k.a. triumphal arch) is a type of monument found in ancient Rome. It was not an entry way into a city or any place else. It simply stood in a visible location and usually served as a reminder of a military victory; great victories inspired great arches. In modern times, new arches have been built for special occasions and this is not the place to list them all. What is important here is that such arches are very real things, but their purpose is mostly symbolic.

I enjoy drawing things, and when I decided to draw Twelve Metaphors I found in the Big Book of AA, I thought the triumphal arch would be the easiest one to depict. After all, there are hundreds of existing photos and images of triumphant arches from locations all over the word. I could just pick any one of them as inspiration, right?


If you read through the Big Book description of the Triumphant Arch, there are only a few specific details. The book describes a structure with one arch, capped by a keystone. But that description does not fit most triumphant arches. (I suggest you research this point for yourself.) Most triumphant arches I found have multiple arches; one prominent central arch, flanked by at least two smaller arches (below). Since arches typically require a keystone, a three-arch monument would have THREE keystones. 

But the Big Book describes only a single arch. Am I nitpicking? Read further.

Bill Wilson, writer of the Big Book, used the triumphant arch to make an incredibly important point, declaring that our Higher Power is the keystone to our spiritual arch of recovery. One arch, one keystone, one God. Period!

I searched hundreds of images of triumphant arches and found only one ancient arch that had a single arch and single keystone: the Arch of Titus (below). Built in the first century in Rome, that arch was certainly majestic and massive enough to inspire a Twelve Step Metaphor. The problem was, Bill was writing primarily for a American audience...not a group of architectural historians. Why would Bill choose an arch that very few readers would be familiar with? I couldn't answer that question, but I had found an accurate model.

Photograph of the ancient Arch of Titus

With my amateur research completed, I was ready to begin a drawing inspired by the Arch of Titus. Something still bothered me, but I had no other choice. On the day I started sketching the arch, I was sitting in a crowded office, waiting to go home (it was a slow day). My gaze wandered several desks away to where a coworker was showing her friend a thick stack of vacation photographs. Up popped a snapshot of a perfect white triumphant monument with only a single arch! The pure coincidence was stunning.

I wasn't sure what to say. I abruptly interrupted the pair and asked the startled women where the photograph was taken. "Washington Square in New York City," the older lady replied, "Last week when I visited my daughter." I stammered something like, "M-m-may I look more closely at it?" Slightly alarmed, she slid the color print towards me. As if hoping to get rid of me, she added, "You keep it, dear. I have other copies." I hope I remembered to thank her!

I couldn't believe my luck. Washington Square Park Arch is one of New York's most familiar landmarks. It exactly matches Bill's description of a Triumphant Arch. It is less grand than the Arch of Titus  but it is familiar to far more people. Unlike most other such structures, it has only one arch—and one keystone.

Photograph of Washington Square Arch

My earlier hesitations vanished. I drew the arch much as it appeared in that photograph, but I simplified it to suggest the twelve-stone construction that Bill Wilson described. After it was finished, I told and retold the story about randomly seeing the photograph at exactly the moment I needed it. Others were not as impressed as I was, but the pure coincidence continues to amaze me today.

Is it pure coincidence that Bill's description matches the arch in New York City? Perhaps not.

Bill Wilson got sober while attending Oxford Group meetings in New York City. The Oxford Group met approximately one mile from Washington Square. The square's magnificent arch stands very close to the street. While one mile is a great distance in Manhattan, Bill and his wife Lois reportedly took pleasure walks measuring dozen of miles. Bill could easily have passed Washington Square on his way to or from Oxford Group meetings. 

Whether he knew it or not, Bill chose a triumphant arch which readers could find either in the agelessness of ancient Rome or in the bustling center of New York City. I can't speak for the rest of his audience, but Bill's description was very easy for me to picture. I owe my thanks to Bill Wilson for his choice of metaphors. And for a generous lady at work for sharing a vacation photos with me.


TRIVIA: I am often asked where the all-important keystone is in my drawing. I numbered the stones to help the viewer understand my meaning, but there is no number twelve visible. Some expect the keystone to be the highest stone in the entire triumphant structure. But by definition, a keystone is located at the top of the rounded OPENING of the arch. Additional stones typically do rest above it. Traditionally, the keystone is made larger than the other stones because that it is widely believed to give the entire arch greater strength. Because Bill described his keystone as being Divine in nature, I showed it hidden in a burst of blindingly radiant sunlight. I left off the numeral XII out of respect for the Divine power that continues to fill me with hope and help daily.

(BTW: An engineering professor recently challenged the age-old belief that an enlarged keystone is necessary give to a structural arch its strength. Through whatever computer or construction models, he and his students determined that the keystone does not necessarily play a crucial role. They scientifically proved that every archstone is equally important. That makes sense to me. My Higher Power has illuminated every Step of my recovery, not just the Twelfth Step. The keystone retains its majestic presence, but to paraphrase Bill W., Divinity is everywhere or nowhere at all.)






Metaphors: The Actor



When I first read the Big Book of AA, I was on on a sort of mental autopilot. I was hurting and distracted. Honestly, I didn't care very much what this man in the 1930s had to say. I respected his military service, but that was in WORLD WAR I...more than 100 years ago! So, I muddled through the yellowed pages, griping to myself that someone should update this musty old book into modern language.

Things changed when, on page 60, I met an imaginary actor. The writer Bill W. appeared to be inviting readers to rethink their own ways of thinking. He was writing the book specifically to alcoholics who generally do not like being told how to think. To get his point across, Bill invented a character who does not exist in reality, but whose story makes a very real point. In short, he used an imaginary actor as a metaphor.

The description is one of the longest metaphors in the book, so I won't repeat it here. But in it, this actor decided he knew better than anyone else how the current play should be staged. Overruling the director, the actor was "forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery, and the rest of the players in his own way." (Big Book p. 60). 

Bill W. used this tale about this egotistical actor to nudge me into admitting I was guilty of the same attitude. Until that moment, I honestly believed I should be the one who ran the entire universe. I thought I knew everything and that others were incompetent pretenders. Like that actor, I had tried to control everyone around me using charm, threats, dishonesty, and bribery, but I was never satisfied with the outcome for long. 

In that description of the actor, I saw myself. And through that actor, I realized that whoever wrote this stale, outdate, Depression-era book knew me better than anyone else alive. My arrogance deflated slightly. Through Bill's metaphor, I could clearly see that this actor character was causing his own problems through HIS attitudes, and that his attitudes were MINE as well.

My drawing "The Actor" is perhaps the most literal of all my Twelve Metaphor illustration. I drew exactly what I heard described: the ballet, the lights, the scenery, the director. I had fun staging exactly as I had pictured them. A different person might picture it differently, but that is the magic of well-chosen metaphors... they get into each reader's imagination, then use that imagination to make their point.

I have nothing to add beyond what the Big Book says about the actor. Like him, my ego was out of control and the harder I tried to direct other people, the more I hastened my own downfall. Like him, I had scampered up the ladder but could never stay there long. Like many other Big Book readers, I had to start a search for a new and more qualified "Director" whom I could trust to run the show. I found such a director in my Higher Power—thanks, in large part, to a real World War I veteran and an imaginary actor in an imaginary play.

Metaphors: The Wringer

 The Jawalker


This drawing is important because laundry wringers have completely disappeared from the average home today. The people, places, and things that inspired most of Bill Wilson's metaphors remain intact today, including ocean liners, jaywalkers, men without legs, etc. But it is mostly a dwindling number of older people who know first-hand what it means to feel the "nip of the wringer" or to be "pretty badly mangled" by it (p. 43).

Until the early 1900s, clothes washing was a daily and time-consuming chore. Clothes emerged soaking wet from the washing process and had to be hung up to dry. If the sopping wet clothes could be wrung out before hanging up, it speeded up the process tremendously.

Thus, the roller wringer came into wide use. It was nothing short of a miracle in the eyes of homemakers for it shortened their laundry time without harming the clothes. Two rollers which were synchronized by metal gears would wring out the clothes quickly and efficiently. The earliest models (shown above) were hand-cranked. Electricity became widespread around the time the Big Book was written and an electric-powered wringer was a prized home appliance.

There was only one serious problem with wringers. The twin rollers were made out of an extremely stiff material (initially wood and then metal) and were sometimes coated with a thin layer of rubber. This combination made for a serious safety hazard since there was nothing preventing the operator's hands, hair, or jewelry from being grabbed by the rollers, thereby dragging the struggling operator directly into the relentlessly grinding rollers. Though rare, wringer accidents could create serious injuries.

I am barely old enough to remember my grandmother running wet clothes through an electric wringer. The smooth rollers fascinated me and an irresistible urge rose in me to touch the seam where the spinning rollers came together. When my grandmother's back was turned, I decided to touch those wringers in exactly that spot. I will never forget the ferocious way the fast-moving rubber rollers took hold of my tiny fingertip. By some miracle—my reflexes must have been lightning fast—I yanked my fingertip painfully back out of the rollers. My heart pounded fast and my fingertip burned with pain. That instant scared me badly, for I could tell the mindless machine would have happily gobbled up my entire hand. In Bill Wilson's words, I had "felt the first nip of the wringer". 

When doing research for this Wringer drawing, I was surprised to learn that wringing washing machines caused horrible injuries in homes all across America. Friends recounted stories of women who had an arm yanked into such a machine and the result was blood and screaming. Someone whose grandfather was a doctor at that time reported it was not uncommon for women to fracture every bone of their hand and arm from a wringer accident (Gulp!). Bill Wilson was speaking literally when he said such an experience would leave the person "pretty badly mangled". 

Today, a new emphasis on safety surrounds all home appliances. A motorized wringer in its original configuration would raise serious liability concerns. But for many years, homemakers eagerly accepted the risks of the dangerous machines to spare themselves the drudgery of hand-wringing their water-logged laundry. Perhaps Bill Wilson was drawing a parallel... that many drinkers willingly endure the dangers of liquor to be relieved of their terrible cravings.

Regardless, people like me were lucky if we experienced only the "nip" of the wringer. That childhood scare was enough to convince me to never repeat the experience. Others—and Bill Wilson believes it was "most"—kept flirting with the risks until they were badly mangled. In either case, the alcoholic (and addict) remains forever strangely fascinated by the thrill of flirting with many dangerous practices. This is the only one of the Twelve Metaphors that I think the contemporary reader might require so much explanation of. The other eleven metaphors still carry their message unaided from the 1930s through to today.

Metaphors: The Jawalker

 The Jawalker



If a vote were taken, the most beloved character in the Big Book would almost have to be the Jaywalker. I base that hunch on the grins, laughter, and head-nodding I see in my Meetings whenever that character is mentioned.

If you have even casually read the Big Book, you probably remember his story. The Jaywalker is sort of a tragic clown who enjoys intentionally dashing out in front of fast-moving traffic. At first, he enjoys his dangerous habit, but over time he is plagued by increasingly frequent and serious injuries. He vows he will stop but soon finds himself returning to the busy roadway and continues taking ever-greater risks. After one too many mad dashes, this tragic clown is flattened by a streetcar and suffers a broken back—ending up being paralyzed or perhaps even dead.

The Big Book's author Bill Wilson writes: "if we substituted our alcoholism for jaywalking, the illustration would fit us exactly." 

I do not believe Bill W. used casual or loose language in the Big Book. He had a panel of sober alcoholics overseeing his writing at every step. So please consider exactly what "illustration" Bill was referring to. Was this really a tragic clown story? Was he saying that every alcoholic is a laughable Jaywalker who takes senseless risks until one day it catches up with him. Is THAT the lesson that AA teaches—that alcoholics should stop their foolishness and act sober? Seriously?

Doesn't that description sound more like how NON-drinkers view alcoholics (and addicts)? Non-drinkers tend to view drunks as tragic clowns who merely need to straighten up. They believe that alcoholics could—if they really wanted to to—simply give up alcohol and then all of their problems would go away. Non-drinkers have those beliefs for their own reasons, but isn't that  totally at odds with the AA view of the drinking problem? Does the Twelve Step program of recovery ever describe real alcoholics as tragic clowns who merely need to "wise up"? I don't see where it does.

So if the Jaywalker is not a foolish, cartoon-like character, what OTHER interpretation could there be?

I see an alternative interpretation in plain sight. I notice that the Jaywalker story appears in the Big Book (BB p. 37), right after Bill Wilson defined the "insanity" of alcoholics. He reduced it to two traits: "the lack of proportion, of the inability to think straight". I believe Bill Wilson traced the countless mis-steps, mistakes, and tragedies associated with alcoholic behavior to only those two traits. On the very same page, Bill offers his description of the Jaywalker.

This is why I doubt that the Jaywalker is merely Bill's attempt at comic relief. Bill could have invented any insane character he wanted, including an insane person who jumps off a bridge or sets themselves on fire. What then did Bill choose a Jaywalking pedestrian to illustrate alcoholic insanity?

To understand my answer, please put aside any cartoonish view you may have of the Jaywalker. Picture him instead as a living, breathing human being—someone you might pass every day on the street. Imagine this gentleman stepping out of a cigar shop and onto a busy New York sidewalk. He notices that his barber shop is located directly across the street and realizes he needs a haircut. He wants to cross the street but he's in the middle of the city block—far from the traffic lights located at either end of the block. 

At those traffic lights, there are countless people crossing this same street in complete safety. The people in those crosswalks simply wait for the "Walk" signal, then they cross without a care. They feel no need to hurry, because the cars will remain motionless as long as the light remains red. At those distant crosswalks, the Jaywalker knows he can find a proportioned (sane) and straight (sane) route across the street.

But something is troubling the Jaywalker. The crosswalks are many yards away. He doesn't want to walk from the cigar shop to the crosswalk and back to his barbere shop. Why walk so far—he asks himself. That seems crazy when a quick dash across the street will get him there within seconds.

Let's pause and consider his situation. The Jaywalker has two clear choices. One is to walk calmly and safely for five minutes. The other is to dash into the open road, legs furiously pumping, heart pounding, narrowly eluding painful death....and arriving at the other side within a few moments. His reward? He will be seated comfortably in a barber's chair while those trudging slowpokes at the crosswalk are still staring at a red light.

The excitement and superiority he feels after jaywalking is irresistible. He willingly risks his life to avoid five minutes of boring safety. Let me repeat that for those of you who do not suffer from an addict's insanity. This Jaywalker is willing to literally risk his LIFE to prevent just FIVE MINUTES OF BORING SAFETY. If hel suffers a near-accident, he will brag about it later to his friends. Then he will indulge in more risk-taking again at every opportunity in the future.

Bill's definition of insanity becomes perfectly clear. The Jaywalker suffers "the lack of proportion" and "the inability to think straight."

I do not believe Bill was describing alcoholics as tragic clowns—that would make no sense given the contents of the entire Big Book. I believe he was describing a type of person who is constitutionally incapable of doing things the ordinary and "boring" way even when the ordinary way is simple, safe, convenient, nearby, and free. I believe Bill was pointing out that alcoholics (and all addicts by extension) lack the proportion and straight thinking to take the safe route—to choose the sensible solution even when it is easily within their grasp.

My drawing reflects that understanding. It shows the Jaywalker's making his typical mad dash across the open road, heedless of whether cars are coming or not. He shows contempt toward the dull "trudgers" who cross safely at the distant intersections. His body already bears certain bandages and scars from his recent close scrapes, but he is lured back to his habit by an insatiable desire to "beat the system" and return to his favorite shortcut. His sense of superiority motivates him to defy ordinary rules, customs, and habits.

He is not a clown, in my eyes.....tragic or otherwise. He is me. The Jaywalker is ME. He is my tendency to take shortcuts. And my secret desire to defy society's rules. And my aching need to feel better than everyone else. And my egotistical love of always being right. He is my lack of proportion. He is my inability to think straight. 

I am the Jaywalker. Plain and simple.

That is, until I ask God what HE would have me be. Would He have me walk 100 yards, wait with the crowd at the intersection, cross with the WALK light, then trudge the Road of Happy Destiny another 100 yards back to my barber shop?

I think so. I believe so. And I now do so.


TRIVIA: Around the time Bill W. wrote about the Jaywalker, there were a number of political activists who believed anyone should have the divine right to cross any street when and wherever they pleased. These believers weren't entirely crazy. They were holding onto the pre-automobile days when people on foot reigned supreme over the streets. They felt all cars should be compelled to stop for any pedestrian who stepped into traffic, period. The historical snippets I found suggest that Chicago was a focus for these die-hard bipedal believers. I have no idea whether that movement had followers in New York City where Bill W. got sober. Had it existed in my time, I guiltily admit I would have considered joining it myself. It would have allowed me to explain my own insane Jaywalking tendencies.

Metaphors: The Man Without Legs

 The Man Without Legs


On page 30 of the Big Book of AA, Bill W made a statement that has always haunted me. He wrote "We are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow new ones." Here was a sentence that left no room for escape. Bill had to leave no loopholes here. He already stated elsewhere that every newly arriving addict and alcoholic is obsessed with getting back the pleasures they recall from earlier days. The user clearly remembers enjoying a harmless little indulgence and the next thing, they were pitifully and hopelessly hooked. All they want is to rewind that memory like a movie and replay that early good part over and over. 

It was Bill W's goal to invite as many alcoholics into recovery as possible. Yet he stubbornly included the very statement that none of his recruits would ever want to hear. He used this single-sentence metaphor to squash the greatest hope and comfort of every person in recovery.....the wish to go back, back, back.  It is an astonishingly blunt and brutal statement, considering the temporary pain it caused people like me.

Today, I have to give Bill W. a lot of credit for writing those words. He had the guts to confront me....or ask me to confront myself. I'll admit it. I WANTED to go back badly. I wanted the happy times. Just like when a good marriage turns bitter, or a beloved job is lost, I yearned for those wonderful, carefree, joyful, and innocent days. Those fun-filled days never appeared more glowing and lustrously perfect as when viewed from first-time visit to a recovery meeting room. It took a lot of courage for Bill to tell all who enter recovery that they must fully close the door of illusion behind them.

I made drawings of twelve of the many metaphors that appear in the Big Book. It should not surprise me that this one was especially bittersweet to draw. It shows a man of good standing, financially, emotionally, socially. And only after a moment does the viewer realize that he is a greatly diminished man. He has lost his legs by unknown means and is reduced to putting his own shoes up for sale. There is a dismal and yet elegant grief to this picture. He has resigned himself to his situation—maybe quickly and maybe slowly—but he has arrived at acceptance.

Where do his thoughts wander as he waits for these belongings to find new owners? Where did mine go? I had started so many ventures with great excitement. I had expanded my circle of friends tremendously. I had become admired for talents I didn't know I had until I became addicted. The world had seemed larger, the air clearer, the future brighter. And now it was all piled in a heap of memory. Gone but still able to torment me with its absence.

I cannot tell you more about the man without legs than you yourself can see. There is no more "backstory" to my drawing than there was to Bill W's simple sentence. What once was, is no more. What will be, is yet unseen. It is a lonely place to start anything, which I suppose is why recovery people seek meetings. We are tasked with facing the world without all the fascinating trappings of our addiction. That probably doesn't sound that so tough to others. But I can tell you that I almost died resisting it, before my Higher Power showed me how I could be happy, joyous and free again.

Metaphors: The Flimsy Reed

 The Flimsy Reed


Bill W. wrote the Big Book in a way that reminds me of everyday conversation, plus formal academic writing, plus grandfatherly advice, plus poetic prose. That poetic streak showed up in an obscure but (for me) powerful sentence on page 28. It reads as follows:

"What seemed at first a fllmsy reed, has proven to be the loving and powerful hand of God."

He was comparing the desperation felt by alcoholics (and later by addicts) to the panicked struggles of a drowning person who might literally grasp at straws. As often happens with Bill's writing, I got the feeling I had heard it before. While much of his writing did draw upon literature and familiar sayings of his day, I could not find any clear origin for a "flimsy reed". It sounded vaguely Biblical to me, but I was unable to find the term in those pages. Maybe he had another source or maybe he just made it up.

In creating my Twelve Metaphors, I skimmed the Big Book looking for word-based images that Bill probably made up himself. I can't know for sure, but I did my best. I myself use a lot of metaphors when I talk and most of them appear out of thin air ("out of thin air" is an example). Some are borrowed, some are vaguely remembered, and some come from... who knows where. After searching for Bill's source for a time, I gave up and decided to go ahead and illlustrate this image.

This turned out to be one of the most technically challenging of any of my drawings. I won't go into great detail, but I struggled to show one instant when a flimsy reed might actually make a huge, HUGE difference to a drowning  person. One such moment would be when a person is drifting towards the edge of a great waterfall. That would surely work. I began sketching with all my heart and was frankly surprised when a reasonably clear picture emerged.

The drawing shows a hand rising from rushing water as that water is about to plunge over a steep waterfall. Floating on the surface is a long and limp piece of reed. The hand is in a good position to grab one of the reeds, but at this point the situation looks hopeless. I somehow doubt that anything less than a steel cable and a powerful machine could rescue the person shown here.

Still, working the Twelve Steps often involves seeing things at first rather casually, then seeing them again in a much deeper and serious way. In fact, that's what this metaphor did for me. Towards the end of my addictive days, I was out of answers and feeling desperate. I was all alone inside my head and there appeared to be no solutions left. Suicide was starting to sound smart (how asburd!). I wasn't swimming anymore. I was DROWNING.

What happened next isn't very clear in my mind. I know I latched onto a lot of things towards the very last. I kept lying, hiding, explaining, and pretending. But I also considered getting help. I remember picking up a phone and dialing a number and telling whoever answered that I was in trouble. Bad trouble. 

The guy who answered that first Twelve Step call was a great person. He still is. But by any measure, he was nobody special....not a president, priest, psychologist, or prophet. To me he was just some voice in a Twelve Step program who was taking calls that day. In short, he was a very wet and flimsy reed, but I grabbed onto him with every ounce of strength I had left.

Somehow, my grasp on his voice kept me from slipping over the edge. That ordinary guy's presence became like a steel cable for me. And through his simple words and actions, the most powerful Force in the universe began to steadily pull me away from the brink of death. Literally.

I could type on this keyboard all day and never fully express my amazement at being alive today. That phone call led to some meetings. Which led to a sponsor. Which led to the First Step. Which led me to a God I could understand. Which led me to a spiritual experience. Which led me to be alive today.

When Bill W. wrote that a flimsy reed could be the loving and powerful hand of God, I frankly did not believe it. As defeated as I was, I still didn't want to admit that anyone else was right except me. How wrong I could be. How glad I am that Bill could help me hold on and keep coming back until my loving and powerful Higher Power got me firmly in His grasp. 


Metaphors: Passengers



The sinking ocean liner has remained an enduring image since the Titanic was lost. Until recently, a movie named after that ship was the most popular film in history. Bill W. used that tragic episode as a metaphor on page 17 of the Big Book. Various people may interpret it differently, but I think Bill was asking us to notice that alcoholism (and perhaps addiction in general) does not respect economic or social classes. He prepared me for exactly who I found in Meetings: workers, preachers, teachers, business people, single moms, doctors, etc. all thrown together by their common problem.

I tend to over-analyze everything, but I notice that Bill devoted a lot of attention to this metaphor, compared to ones like the "flimsy reed", "root and branch",  and "corroding thread". Perhaps he thought it was complicated and needed explaining. Maybe he thought is was extra important and gave it more emphasis. Or maybe, in light of the Titanic sinking, he thought it was a particularly gripping image.

As I considered ways to illustrate the "Passengers" metaphor, I wanted to stick closely to the facts. I didn't want to rely on paintings or other artistic depictions of lifeboats, preferring to do research on actual events. I was expecting to find very dramatic images since the subject involves real life and death moments. 

To my surprise, almost all of the photos of genuine lifeboat rescues that I found were rather dull. In a vessel full of survivors, very few passengers showed any reaction to being rescued. No cheering. No leaping up and down. That seemed odd. Then I realized most of those people had suffered long and often icy ordeals prior to being rescued. I wouldn't be surprised if the subdued figures were all hunched down trying to stay out of the frigid wind.

It made me think back to my reaction after going to my first Meeting. The next day, I ate breakfast, went to work, watched TV, etc. etc. etc. No special reaction at all—outwardly. Inwardly, I was on fire with the hope that I had found a solution to my problem. But it probably didn't show. Just like those people in the lifeboat photos. Bill had probably seen the same photos, since ship sinkings were usually heavily reported in the newspapers.

The predictions made by Bill W. were right. I did sit in Meetings alongside architects, ministers, construction workers, and computer experts. And when I sometimes ran into these same people by accident away from the Meetings, I did feel a special bond that was blind to economic and social class. 

When I made my drawing, I drew one person on the lifeboat making a triumphant gesture: raising his arms above his head. Other than that, the people in the lifeboat are in various positions of disbelief, distraction, numbness, unconsciousness, and near death.

I felt all of those reactions at the moment I first stepped into a Twelve Step Meeting. I had given up hope of rescue. I was exhausted. I was whipped by my addiction. I didn't see how anyone in my dismal situation could cheer about anything at all. 

To this day, it irritates my fellows in recovery when I am often light-hearted as a newcomer tells their miserable story. I know they have come alongside a Solution that works and that they need do no more than climb aboard. But they don't know that. I suppose that's why, in the illustration, I added the guys cheering from the deck of the rescuing ship. They KNOW the ordeal is over. They are not numb or scared or dying. They can offer life and hope and warmth.

Why shouldn't they—or we—smile at this most remarkable rescue from deep and pitiful despair?

Metaphors: The Mountaintop

 The Mountaintop


The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was written by a severe alcoholic named Bill Wilson. In it, Bill reported several close scrapes with death. Because alcoholism is a progressive condition, he recognized that each low was getting lower. One day, he got an unexpected call from an old drinking buddy named Ebby Thatcher. Ebby had gotten sober by working with a local religious group—this was before A.A. was formed—and he was there to invite Bill to join. Bill was not interested. His health continued to decline.

It was when Bill was alone and dying in a hospital bed that he began to have what I would describe as a spiritual epiphany. He saw a glowing light and then, "I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a mountain top blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden and profound."

His description was both poetic and gripping. The dramatic wording almost sounds like something from holy writings. (I say that because mountaintops are sacred settings in several religions.) His grandfather had told Bill about a similar spiritual moment that he himself once had experienced on a hometown mountain top in Vermont.

Regardless, the mountain image came at a pivotal moment in the Big Book, separating Bill from a terrible problem and marking the beginning of a new solution. So hyper-dramatic was his description that in the Second Edition of the Big Book, Bill felt it necessary to urge later readers not to expect such a melodramatic vision in their own recovery. For most, recovery would happen through a gradual "spiritual experience" and not like his almost Hollywood-movie type of "spiritual awakening".

As an artist, I wanted to draw the dramatic mountaintop moment in Bill's inner journey. I had previously promised myself never to resort to mythical or symbolic devices, but Bill's description itself was highly symbolic. Certainly, I could draw Bill standing on a mountaintop, but he admitted that the only mountaintop was in this mind. How was I to put this mythical moment on paper without resorting to imaginary symbols?

I couldn't.

While I finally did draw a mountaintop, I used a bird as a stand-in for Bill's visionary self. I suppose I could have used a sheep, mountain lion, goat, or even butterfly. But after prayer and meditation, it was a lowly bird that came to mind for me. I drew the bird at the instant that it surrendered to that mountaintop wind. With this as my own vision, I was able to finish my drawing fairly quickly.

Shortly after completing the drawing, I started to experience a strangely disappointed feeling. What was the reason? It felt like I had let myself down. Or maybe I felt I had let Bill down. After all, I had turned him into a BIRD and shown him flying away from his mountaintop...not standing fast on it. As I examined the drawing, I knew it did not yet capture the true essence of Bill's spiritual moment—a moment that has inspired so many since that day.

Then I pictured something new in my mind's eye. I imagined that same bird still clinging to a broken branch from that mountaintop tree, even as he was being swept away by the powerful wind. That stubborn bird wasn't letting go after all. Like me, that bird was determined to hang on to self-will until the bitter end. There it was; the telling detail that my original drawing was missing. Few of us take the necessary spiritual leap out of true courage—at least I did not. I held tight to my addiction until it was lifted from me by a power much higher than mine.

Look at Bill's own situation. He had drank himself into a hospital bed even after a doctor had clearly warned him he would DIE if he kept drinking. He absolutely refused to let go of his old ideas until he was forced to. I suspect Bill held on tightly until the wind of the spirit broke off the branch he clung to until ... SNAP!

I don't know what was really in Bill's mind that day, other than what he shared in his writing. But it seems clear to me he ignored many earlier chances to let go and change himself. The same was true for me. Many of us do cling too long to ideas that do not work. That's why I added several other birds to the tree in the drawing. They represent the still-suffering addicts who cling stubbornly to old ideas and keep getting the same results. Bill's branch simply snapped first, and the mystical transformation which followed has inspired generations of alcoholics and addicts who seek that same personality change.

If you are not an addict, the drawing may make you yawn or shrug. That's okay. The birds are still kinda fun to look at.

But if you are an addict or alcoholic, note that the tree they cling to has been there for a long, long time—its shape is permanently bent by the relentless wind. It is the tree of denial, excuses, resistance, self-will, or whatever we use to fight the overwhelming winds of truth that blow at us each day. We cling as tightly as we can for as long as we can. The unlucky ones cling until they reach a bitter dead-end. The lucky few let go out of incredible courage or wisdom. And for the Blessed (which comprise the majority of us), the branch mercifully snaps and we plummet in whatever direction the Divine wind seeks to carry us.

I apologize for breaking my promise to avoid using symbols in my drawings. For ages, such things have been the tools of those who think they have glimpsed a world that is unreachable by plain words. If I could say precisely what made Bill Wilson fall or fly or flee from that tree of denial, I wouldn't be writing this blog. I would be out saving you or someone you love from the invisible suffering of addiction. Instead, I recognize that addicts must illogically struggle to hold onto what does not work. And we who love them must pray to hear that SNAP before those all-too-mortal addicts lose their last chance at recovery.

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