The Steps Drawings

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The Steps: Spiritual





I wanted to create an original drawing for each of the Twelve Steps. I never intended to share these illustrations; they were drawn exclusively for myself and for my Higher Power. I share them now only as I might stand up in a meeting and share a spoken message.

Step Twelve: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs."

It was not my ambition to explain the Step here. My only goal was to illustrate one word from it, using whatever was current in Webster’s Dictionary when that Step was written. I could have picked any word, but the one that stood out for me was "spiritual". That word is used by a lot of people with very majestic and mystical meanings attached to it. So, I was curious how the dictionary would define it.

"Spiritual - adj. Of, pertaining to, or consisting of the breath of life."


I read it again: "The breath of life?" Does that mean like plain old breathing? Like anybody's breath of life? Like my breath of life? Like an animal's breath of life? Like a dog, giraffe, hippo, monkey, pelican's breath of life? Or maybe even an insect's breath of life? THAT breath of life?

Surely the word "spiritual" meant something high and untouchable. You know....The mountaintop wind? Lives changed forever? THAT kind of "spiritual" experience. But "the breath of life"? Shoot, I use the breath of life to blow up balloons!

I looked into the history of the word and discovered ancient Latin definitions referring to soul, courage, and vigor. But even in Latin, “breath” was always included as a fundamental definition. So it was no accident that the 1934 Webster's defined spiritual as "Of, pertaining to, or consisting of the breath of life".

I should stop and put my emphasis on the Webster’s Dictionary into perspective.

Picture a little, Depression-era town. Consider the very first person in that town to order the Big Book. The package arrived from New York City. That first person had no local Meeting, no sponsor, and certainly no other Twelve Step books available. Their only local resource material was a common dictionary. Bill W knew this and I suspect—and this is only my conjecture—that he chose the words he wrote with that in mind.

Sure enough, people in those remote locations got sober. Before there was access to television, rehab, the internet, local meetings, or even sponsorship, people in the late 1930s got sober. In fact, their success rate back then was reportedly much higher than ours today.

What was their secret? Was there some hidden mysterious truth that only people in the late 1930s knew about. BALONEY! It is nonsense to believe any alcoholic farmer would have time to fool around with lofty mystical truths. But there is one truth that he (and every other living person) knows instinctively:

•         If you stop breathing today—you will die today.

•         Breaths you took yesterday don’t change that.

I suddenly found myself looking at the word “spiritual” from a very practical perspective. The Big Book tells me I must make Twelve Step work as much a part of my day as breathing. 

•         If I want sobriety today, I must work The Steps today.

•         Steps I worked yesterday won’t change that.

This concept was very different from what I was expecting when I first looked up the word “spiritual”. It was a stunning twist, and I had to pray and meditate about it before I felt satisfied it was true. 

This was a definition that made sense to me and would have made sense to that alcoholic farmer in 1939 when the Big Book was published. A spiritual path of recovery required—at the VERY LEAST—making recovery work a part of my daily life. The Big Book says, "What we really have here is a daily reprieve..." (p. 85). No exceptions. No vacations. No excuses. Every day. Like breathing.

If "spirit" really did mean the breath of life, my drawing of it would need to call attention to the importance of something we usually cannot even see: our breath. I drew a man swimming safely underwater. I say “safely” because many, many, people drown underwater. But this man is safe because he drew a breath into his lungs before diving in. The proof is seen in the bubbles seen emerging from his lips.

He is surrounded by air in the form of thousands of bubbles. But the air in these bubbles are as useless to him as yesterday or tomorrow’s breath. He must survive on the breath he took before plunging in.

My day is like that now. I must…Must…MUST remember to draw my Higher Power into me each day. Yesterday or tomorrow don’t count. I can survive on the Divine help I receive each day, if I will but ask for it. 

I don't supply myself with air; I can simply choose to breathe or not. Likewise, I cannot create my Higher Power; I can only choose whether to seek Him or not. Like my breathing, my daily acts of recovery can extend my recovery indefinitely. I do my part and my Higher Power does the rest. 

The Steps: Conscious/Contact




I like to look up definitions of key words found in the Twelve Steps. I use an old 1934 Webster’s Dictionary that was current when the Big Book was being written. My habit of studying these old definitions somehow turned into a pastime of making drawings based on them.

Step Eleven has lots and lots of words. It reads: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out.

I could see a lot of important words in there, but the most important word for me was really two words: “conscious contact”. When I first read Step Eleven, the phrase “our conscious contact with God” sounded highly religious and difficult for me to relate to. Whenever the word “God” was mentioned in the Steps or at meetings, I wanted to skip ahead to another the subject. I associated God with the ideas and practices of highly religious people and that made me feel uneasy.

At some point, I believe my sponsor detected that I was faking it when I mentioned my Higher Power. One day, he asked whether I believed in God. I reluctantly shook my head no. After a pause, he asked if I could ever remember a time when I believed in God. I was about to shake my head again, but stopped. I suddenly recalled that when I was in Elementary School, I felt an invisible and loving presence always near me. Whatever it was, it was pleased when I did the right thing, and disappointed when I did wrong.

I found myself smiling at that distant memory. When he saw my smile, my sponsor asked, “Can you make contact with that presence again right now?” For some reason, I felt irritated that he would waste time talking about my distant past when I was losing my life to addiction in the present. I almost snarled at him, saying “Well of COURSE I can.” My sponsor didn’t miss a beat. He said “Okay. Then use that as your Higher Power, for now.”

It is difficult to describe how much his statement shook me. That old memory had been dead and buried in my childhood. How could my sponsor suggest that I accept such a childish impression as my Higher Power? I suppose it is because he had read the literature. He concluded that regardless of what others may believe, that this conception of God was both real and natural to me (as opposed to addiction which made me a slave to the unreal and the unnatural).

When I decided to create a drawing for Step Eleven, I knew I needed to show a real-world example of “conscious contact”. I turned to the dictionary definitions for guidance. Conscious means “Sharing knowledge”… knowledge is what goes on in my mind.  Contact means “A union or junction of bodies”….my body is my physical existence. So Step Eleven seemed to suggest that I keep my mind and my body close to my Creator. I wasn’t certain what that meant, but it sounded like a good idea.

While at the drawing board, a memory came back to me. Whenever my mother would babysit my young children, she would sit them on her lap and read books to them. The usually squirmy, noisy kids would become very quiet while perched in her lap. To them, there was something magical about her physical presence and the knowledge she wanted to give them through the books. Here was a very personal example of sharing bodyand mind. Today, if I can maintain this much closeness to my Higher Power in body and mind, maybe I can stay sober one more day.

Today, I feel grateful to my sponsor for helping discover that my Higher Power had been with me all along. I am humbled that my family was supportive as I trudged my way back to sobriety. But during this twenty-four hours of sobriety, I am glad to be in a fellowship that is built upon improving our conscious contact with God as we understand Him.




The Steps: Continue



Step 10 - Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

I knew from the beginning that an illustration on the word "continue" would come easily. Some of my other drawings may seem complex, but I honestly try to keep things simple. There are plenty of examples of things that continue. There are things like a train on a track, a spinning wheel, a roaring river, etc. All are good examples of continuation.

As part of my illustration project, I looked up the meaning of that key word in a Webster's 1930s dictionary. Bill Wilson wrote the steps around 1939 so I thought that the definitions would be helpful, and I was right:

"Continue - v. to remain in a given place or condition."

No real surprise there, but I did notice that all of my examples of "continue" were things in motion: train, wheel, river, etc. Yet the definition included things which remain still. One can indeed continue a stare, musical note, a pose, standing guard, etc. without moving.

Since both aspects were included in the same definition (I confine myself to the first numbered definition in the dictionary), I thought I should include both in my drawing. Plus, I wanted all of it to somehow relate to my recovery. Now my self-assigned task was looking more challenging. 

It sounded like a riddle. What's something that continues by remaining in motion and in place? You can probably think of something but I cannot. So, I tried to think of something about recovery that was difficult to continue doing. Now, that was easy. I had trouble remaining calm while those around me acted insane. It felt impossible to ignore all that commotion.

That's when the two meanings of continue emerged from my mind in the form of a dog and a cat. The dog is me as I would like to be: calm, steady, peaceful, serene. The cat is more like my unguarded emotions: angry, scared, crazy, loud, and/or energetic. Like the dog, I wish I could just ignore everything and be at peace. Like the cat, I see a thousand and one reasons to run away, get into trouble, break something, hide somewhere, then attack suddenly. Over and over again.

There you have it. A drawing of a dog and cat which reminds me I can "continue" by taking action OR by remaining still. God can work with me either way, but He probably knows I pay better attention when I am peaceful. Step Ten itself suggests that is true: "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it." I suppose that Step could trigger some people to go raving mad, but for me it is a way to know Peace and to fully comprehend the word Serenity.

The Steps: Amends




I have an old Webster’s Dictionary that was new when the Big Book was being written. I like to look up definitions of key words found in the Twelve Steps. What I found by studying these old definitions and reflecting on my own personal recovery has inspired me to make some drawings based on the definitions.

It is no exaggeration to say that my addiction cost me my business, my reputation, and my home. While addiction devastated me, my family inevitably suffered. I was sure things had gone so far down, that I could never make things right again. I thought that the only remedy for my guilt would come through punishment and suffering.

When I started the Twelve Steps, that’s what I expected recovery to consist of. Like anyone, I normally avoid pain at all costs. But if the program had to hurt me to heal me, I was prepared to endure it. Doesn’t medicine have to taste bad to do good?

I remember the first time I read the Twelve Steps. I actually skimmed them, because I was jumping ahead to find the expected painful parts. My eye was drawn to the Ninth Step which reads: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Surely, this was the punishment step I had feared. That seems like a strange idea to me now, but back then I was convinced that those words described something painful and very dangerous. My addiction had driven away loved ones and business associates who had once placed their full trust in me. The suggestion of going back and speaking to any of those people sounded unbearably painful.

I was afraid of the Ninth Steps. Back then, I was afraid of everything—including the very thing that would save me.

Fortunately, when the time came for me to actually work the Ninth Step, I had become a devotee of the Big Book. I no longer believed the Twelve Steps contained any punishments or “bitter medicine”. Fear is a liar, and fear lied to me about how the Steps work. Fear alone had told me the Steps had to hurt to work. But that wasn’t true, which I learned by working Steps One through Eight.

I started Step Nine with my sponsor’s help. Using the literature, I pieced together my plan for how to make my amends. I cannot lie; I had a huge lump in my throat the first time I made an amends. But that was mostly first-time nervousness—like you’d expect on a first job interview or asking someone out on a date. And like those past “firsts”, I now wonder why it ever seemed so impossible to me.

I must have done something right, because I felt a genuine shift in my spirit as I worked Step Nine. I didn’t recognize it at first, but I was experiencing the Promises. It’s hard to believe that even today, because I did nothing to deserve the gift of the Ninth Step. It really was a gift. A priceless one.

When I decided to create a drawing for “Amends”, I didn’t know where to begin. My old 1934 dictionary described “amends” this way: “Compensation for loss or injury.”

Bill Wilson didn’t need a dictionary to tell him that definition. It’s commonly known that Bill went through law school, where legal principles such as “injury”, "harm", and “amends” are taught. In legal terms, a loss relates to money or property. An injury relates to health or reputation. It seems interesting that a program devoted to spiritual awakening would use language straight from a stuffy old law course.

I wanted to draw something that was familiar to most people. How could I depicts something as abstract as “compensating”? Putting a cast on someone’s broken leg? No, that’s a job for a doctor. Handing someone money because you dented their car? No, auto insurance does that for us now. I might show someone simply saying “I’m sorry” but that’s an apology, and the book suggested something more must come from an amends.

I thought back. When I was a kid, I remember accidentally breaking a wooden railing in our home. I felt terrible about it, but that didn’t fix the railing. My father got angry, but he never told me how I could fix it. He stayed angry and that railing stayed broken for many years, and I felt guilty about it every time I walked past it. Finally, just before we moved out of that house, my father repaired the railing. It took only part of a day, yet it relieved years of guilt for me. I now wish I had asked him how to fix it right away.

That’s what I learned to do in Step Nine. When I cause damage, I ask those I have harmed, “How can I make amends to you?” I then follow their directions, so long as no one is injured by it. There is more to making an amends than that, but that is the key ingredient as I understand it.

The past is unchangeable. Everyone has an opinion about the past, but I have never seen a factual report of anyone changing it—not in any history books or even in books about religious faith. If no one else has ever changed the past, why would I spend so much time thinking about doing so?

The past may still feel real to me. If I so choose, I can obsess about a past word or action I would change if I could only go back in time. But, real change only happens in the present. Before I got into recovery, I didn’t know that. I wasted so many years wanting to change a past that could never be changed, while ignoring present opportunities to compensate those I harmed.

When I spot a loss or injury that I caused in the past, I promptly offer to correct it in the present. Thanks to the Ninth Step, I have become very fond of the present. I see that every minute spent idly worrying about the past is one minute of the precious present I have wasted. With the help of my Higher Power as found through working the Steps, I can fully live in the present, one day at a time. 

The Steps: Harm



I once decided to make one drawing based on a single word from each of the Twelve Steps. I armed myself with a Webster's dictionary that dated to the 1930s, the same decade when the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were written. The idea was helpful to me and wherever you are reading these words, you can probably see examples of how I combined other Steps, words, and drawings.

Eventually, I reached Step Eight: "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all". The word "harm" was a strong choice for the Step Eight drawing. Unfortunately, I found myself running in the following circle:

•   My old Webster's dictionary offered this basic definition: "harm v. -  to hurt"

•   Frustrated, I flipped over to "hurt" and found that it means "to physically injure". 

•   Frustrated again, I went on to find that "injure" means "to harm".

A dead-end had been reached. I found an etymology dictionary which confirmed the above, but helpfully adding that the injury could be "to the body, feelings, reputation, etc." I am no scholar, but everything pointed to "harm" as meaning "to injure the body, feelings, reputation, or finances."

Thus, whenever I make a list of people I have harmed, I try to identify which type of harm. I know some people might recoil from my conclusion like it was a hot stove*. Others might say that harm can take almost any form and should not be restricted to these few choices. But I know my insanity stems from "a lack of proportions, of the ability to think straight" (Big Book p. 37). I personally need proportion and straight guidelines or I literally go insane. 

I found this simple definition especially helpful in combating stinkin' thinkin'. I had been literally tormented by the memory of my children going to high school prom without a dime of support from me. I am almost certain they bought their clothes at second-hand stores and drove our old junker car to the big events. I felt my insides ignite with molten, raging regret whenever I pictured them standing in humiliation in front of their friends. 

Reality check.

• Did I injure their bodies? No. They had good food, water, a roof, and parental care.

• Did I injure their feelings? I don't honestly know because I never asked them.

• Did I injure their reputations? In no way I can see, all these years later.

• Did I injure their finances? This is the hard one. Did I INJURE their finances? As in reach into their pocket and remove money? No. But my guilt would rush in and observe that I FAILED to fill their pockets with money. True statement. I failed to fill their pockets with money. Would an objective third person call that an injury? Neglect maybe, but not injury. 

My jaw dropped. The guilt that had allowed me to rip my insides apart vanished. Objectively and spiritually speaking, I had not injured them. I failed to give them what I wanted to give. But God was taking care of them just as He takes care of all his children. I am not Him.

"I am not God." Those are the words I have heard people in recovery blurt out as if it were news. And now it was my turn. I didn't destroy my children, as years of bitter guilt would have me believe. My kids are doing okay; better than most of their friends in terms of bodies, feelings, reputations, and finances. Not because of me. Because of their walk in life and their dance with a Higher Power.

My drawing is pretty simple. It shows a flower that lies fallen on the ground. It may take a few moments to realize that the flower did not break, but was cut by something sharp. Not by the loving hand of the gardener, who would likely never leave it laying thus. It was cut by a malicious hand, and left as a sign of vindictive cruelty for the gardener to find too late. A sign of victory by the harmer over the harmed.

It is a petty thing, I grant you. But it was the example that leapt to my mind as I drew. I believe it fits because a flower's stem and roots do not DIE from having the flower itself clipped off. The injury was not a fatal one. The plant still lives and will grow another blossom if kept healthy.

Injury is like that. Those people who I believe I devastated? Most of them have moved one to find better friends, lovers, or loved ones than I was. But in Step Eight, I must step up and name them all. Remember the unkind cut...the injury I inflicted, and put it on paper for my sponsor to review.

These Twelve Steps healed my own body, mind, and spirit by such small steps. Piece by piece. Cut by cut. In making a list of my inhumanities for Step Eight, I was reestablishing my own humanity, really. And that is not a bad step along the way to becoming sane.



* NOTE: I have been in recovery for years, not days. In that time, I have met many solidly sober alcoholics and addicts who drew very different conclusions about the best path to Twelve Step recovery. Some swear by daily affirmations, inventories of positive assets, particular eating guidelines, rigid routines, sobriety partners, and many more. They swear by these things, yet I never use them. Do I see controversy brewing in these differences? Not especially. I believe recovery is a sacred space between a person and their Higher Power. I call it a sacred space because I believe it is above the human plane (thus the phrase "Higher than human power"). How I get there includes aspects that are as personal to me as my own fingerprints. But get there I must. Whatever gets me there must surely be part of my correct path.

The Steps: Remove



Yes, that is a gigantic rubber drain plug and I know it is a pretty ridiculous thing to draw. Please hear me out before judging my sanity (or total lack of it).

My sponsor encouraged me to look up Twelve Step words in my home dictionary. He was trying to keep me busy between meetings. I wasn't very pleased by the "assignment", but it eventually led to a deep respect for the words used in the original Twelve Step literature.

Modern dictionaries were useful, but when I happened upon a 1934 Webster's Dictionary, it connected me even more directly with the words used in the Steps. It revealed the exact meanings of the words back when Bill W first wrote the Big Book of AA. Take the word “remove” as found in Step Seven: “We humbly asked God to remove our defects of character.”

Before checking the 1934 dictionary, I thought the word “remove” meant to make something vanish. You know—such as erasing a written word or washing away a stain. Once it's gone, it is permanently gone. Therefore, when I worked Step Seven, I expected my Higher Power to permanently make my dishonesty, fear, selfishness, and inconsideration disappear.

But I noticed that my defects kept creeping back in. Whatever defects (i.e., dishonesty) He removed on Monday, I found returning on Tuesday. After this happened several times, I started to sincerely doubt God’s ability to remove any of my defects of character permanently. Sadly, I began to resent my Higher Power. If my God really could remove my defects completely—like removing a stain from cloth—why didn’t He?

I turned to the 1934 dictionary and found this definition: “Remove: To change or shift the location, position, station, or residence of;" Hmmm. I read it again carefully. The definition did not describe making anything disappear permanently; it just said, “shift the position”.

This insight hit me hard.

The definition helped me see that my defects will always remain nearby in case I get the insane urge to invite them back. I suddenly had to let go of my old—and illogical—assumption that God wanted to make me permanently “perfect”. That made sense; there is only One perfect being and that is definitely not me! Thanks to my old dictionary, I reached a greater understanding of Step Seven.

This and other examples of 1934 definitions redoubled my interest in the Steps. What could I do with my newfound enthusiasm? If I went to my local meeting and started reading from my musty old dictionaries, they would label me as insane. Or they would declare, "Conference approved literature only, please!" If I typed up the definitions and handed them out, it seemed unlikely anyone would ever read them.

I am an illustrator, which eventually led me to realize I could turn to my sketch pad as a form of sharing. I reflected on the newly discovered definition of “Remove” and began sketching some possible images. I’d never heard of anyone turning their meditations into drawings before, so I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I felt a little foolish at first, but I prayed for serenity and courage as I worked.

I asked myself “What’s something that we remove but never stays removed?”  Eventually, an image slowly started to emerge from my memory. I remembered my grandparents’ old 1930s bathtub. When the drain stopper was removed, that black rubber plug would float aimlessly around in the bathwater for a time. Left to drift, the plug would follow water currents and eventually make its way back onto the drain hole. The round plug might block the hole completely, or else turn sideways and slow the water flow.

As quirky as the memory seemed, I had to admit it fit the definition perfectly. When God removes a defect from me, the defect never goes completely away. Sometimes it drifts harmlessly around, and at other times it returns to either partially or completely block me off from God. I busied myself at the drawing table and soon had a finished drawing. It was an enormous rubber bathtub drain plug. You heard me right. 

“People are going to think I am absolutely insane!” I thought. One day, I gingerly showed it to someone, then another, then another. Their reactions were surprising: “Could I have a copy of that?” I had other drawings that were not related to recovery, but those received a ho-hum response, even from me.

The drawings based on the 1934 dictionary resonated with people… both in and out of recovery. I don’t try to understand it. The drawings are the result of prayer and meditation, so I cannot fully understand their source.

All I know is, I no longer harbor the notion that my Higher Power wants to make me perfect. He doesn't want my defects to permanently disappear. All I am expected to do is make daily progress. If I want my defects cleared away in the next twenty-four hours, all I must do is ask Him to remove them now.


TRIVIA: Most plumbing is stamped with the name of the manufacturer. In case you cannot read it, the drain hole is enscribed with one word: "OHIO". This is a nod to Akron, OH, which was a key location in the founding of AA.

The Steps: Ready




Poor Step Six. The short, short step. I sometimes see it and Step Seven clumped together in certain literature. It is as if taken alone, the Step is not worth much so it settles for an undignified "Buy One Get One Free" deal. Step Six reads as follows:

"We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character."

To those outside the program, it may sound like a fairly substantial undertaking. Removing all of someone's defects of character certainly sounds like a big job. Strangely, to my recovery-minded ears, the Step sounded like a no-brainer piece of fluff. Of COURSE I was ready to have God remove my defects. That's what I had been waiting for ever since I walked into my first meeting.

At the time, I breathed a sigh of relief and breezed right past Step Six. I didn't slow down for Step Seven either—more on that later. I thought perhaps the Fourth Step was like a big hill on a roller-coaster and the following Steps were much smaller, easier ones. Surely another REAL Step would come into sight soon.

I cannot recall what turned my thinking around on this. But today, I would call Step Six the most important of all the steps. What.... say again? Yes. I consider Step Six the MOST IMPORANT Step of all.

How so? I will do my best to answer.

Until that Step, I had been "talking the talk" and was beginning to "walk the walk". In the first three Steps, I had admitted, believed, and decided....all activities of the mind. In Step Four, I had created a factual record of past actions and unearthed my blame in many of them. In Step Five, I had dared to confess the whole truth outside of myself.

So, now what? Now would I FINALLY take some real action? Would I be given access to secret Recovery meetings where the most potent secrets of the program would be revealed at last? I imagined I might finally be asked to drink some sort of potion or submit myself to a painful initiation rite. 

None of this was true. Instead, Step Six was a chance to ask: "Am I ready to change my entire attitude? Am I ready to stop expecting God to do MY will? Am I ready to face the world without an imaginary shield of imaginary perfection? Am I ready to face my entire life (including loved ones, co-workers, strangers, enemies, family, etc.) without hiding behind my regrets of the past or my fears about the future?"

These questions mystified me. But what was truly painful was whether I would allow God as I understood Him to do these things for me. When I was tempted to resume fear, was I ready to let God (not me) prevent that? When I felt the urge to be dishonest, inconsiderate, or selfish, was I ready to let God (not me) guide my next action? Steps Six was asking me a tough, tough, question: "Was I READY to let go of my will and plunge into the unknown that was God's Will?"

I wanted to express this difficult challenge in a drawing titled "Ready", but my mind was blank. Showing the shift from my failed will to a greater Will was beyond me. I doodled and sketched, without much luck. It turned out that inspiration waited just outside my window.

Where I live, there are many squirrels. They routinely take daredevil leaps from one tree to another, despite various lurking cats waiting to take advantage of any accidental falls. I assumed the squirrels had identified a few safe routes and were sticking to those. Perhaps they faced very litte risk in their adventurous plunges. But when I looked more closely, I realized their leaps often involved a large measure A squirrel would crouch on one trembling branch before rocketing itself across an abyss into the vicinity of a nearby tree. Since tree limbs soften or thicken or stiffen or even disappear with the seasons, I realized that no surefire routes were possible. As I examined the critters in their spectacular mid-air moments, they looked wildly frantic as if they were questioning whether their leap had been well-aimed.

Such moments of uncertainty reminded me of my own emotions. By Step Six, I was an experienced Step-worker. I had admitted, decided, etc, but I didn't truly know where all of this was heading. I was leaping (with good guidance from literature and sponsors), but each action was still was a very private and even modest leap.

My attitude at this altitude was expressed well by my drawing. It shows a squirrel at the very moment of release from a familiar tree. Before him stretches a large and forbidding expanse of empty space. The distances involved seem immense and his attitude appears completely courageous or entirely foolish, depending on an outcome he cannot fully control.

He has left behind the old; he is hoping for the new. But in this singular moment, he has few choices other than being ready or to blindly panic. Given the choices, it just makes sense to become entirely ready. What's the point in panicking? If the next tree branch comes within reach but the squirrel has clenched himself shut out of panic, he will miss his safe landing crash to the ground. So, why NOT be ready? Why not have all claws out and eyes wide open? Why not have your body tense and you tail whipping around like an improvised rudder?

Why NOT be ready to have a new Power? Why not believe a Greater Power can help me? Why NOT turn my will and my life over to Him? 


I finally saw it! I really saw it! This was the Step where I finally had a chance to change. Not merely in my actions, but in my every attitude. All along, that was where the real need for change had been hiding; at the very center of me—where I was clinging fearfully to control, yet hopelessly running out of power.

Be ENTIRELY ready!

I really I got it! I really GOT it! The next 24 hours is my next big, incredible, uncontrolled, and thrilling next leap into faith. Half-measures could be fatal. My readiness had to expand out to its fullest possible size! Ironically, the "smallest" of all the Steps was really my biggest leap in the entire Twelve Step program.

It still makes the hair stand up on my neck.

The Steps: Admit




Every Step puzzled me at first. I might think I understood a given Step, then my sponsor or the literature would offer an important insight and I realized I didn't understand it very well at all. The same was true when I looked up words in the Webster's Dictionary that was published back when Bill wrote the Twelve Steps. I was working to illustrate one word from each of the Steps and came across this Step:

"Step 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs."

It is a sentence with multiple parts, but all of them turn upon the word "admit". So I looked up that word in the 1934 dictionary and found a very short definition: 

"Admit v. To suffer to enter."

I believe in this case, the word "suffer" meant "go to the trouble", rather than to endure some type of physical pain. If I am correct, then "admit" means "to go to the trouble to enter". This was not good news for me, since I wanted to turn each definition into an illustration. When woven directly into Step 5, it didn't make much sense:

"Went to the trouble to enter to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs."

The fit appeared rather awkward. I wanted every detail to fit. I was tempted to go searching for alternate definitions. But I stood by my earlier decision to always use the first definition in the dictionary. Maybe I am eccentric that way. I had it on good authority (Joe and Charlie's "The Big Book Comes Alive") that Bill Wilson was extremely careful in choosing his words. I doubted Bill would choose a word when the first definition of that word did not contain his intended meaning. Maybe I'm wrong, but for my little project, I stood by my decision. Now, I could see my decision had painted me into a corner.

Prayer and meditation followed. In abundance.

Then, a story (by Franz Kafka?) came floating into my mind. Since I ask God to guide my thinking, intuition, and decisions, I gave the story considerable attention. In that fable, a traveler had sat outside a great door waiting to be admitted by a guard. Each time he asked permission to enter, the guard firmly refused. Time passed, but the guard's answer never changed. More time and requests passed, but the guard never varied in his absolute refusals. The man waited for permission until he became deathly weak. Eventually the physical ordeal drove him irreversibly toward death. Too weak to argue or stand anymore, he feebly asked the guard why he was never permitted to enter through the door. The guard said something like, "Oh, I would have allowed you to enter freely at any time. But it is my job to reply to any spoken REQUEST for permission with the word 'no'." In this fable about futility, the man died in bitter sorrow.

Somehow, that story melded with my story of recovery. After taking a long time to finish my Step 4 inventory, I made dozens of excuses for not beginning Step 5. The primary reason was because I didn't see the point. So what if I read my inventory to my sponsor? Reading these painful facts would not change them. And as for admitting to God and myself, well, I thought that both parties were already aware of the contents of my Step 4 inventory. Every time I wanted to bring it up with my sponsor, a voice inside me would refuse permission. "Don't waste his time. He has other sponsees who have REAL problems" was my inner guard's insistent reply.

It startled me one day when my sponsor nearly barked out, "So are you going to do the Fifth Step or NOT?". That was the prodding I needed. We promptly set up a time and place. It took two sessions, but we went through every nook and cranny of my shortcomings. It was a very different experience than I expected. It was an inner journey of some kind; one that brought me to a new place I had never been before.

When I took up my drawing pen, the image you see now leapt into mind. It had ingredients of the Kafka story. There was an important entrance. There was a seat just outside that door where applicants for admission could wait. But there was something else; I added a fairly small door that is historically called a "man door". It was a person-sized door built into large city gates. It allowed individual pedestrians to slip in and out of the city without the necessity of opening the heavy defensive gates.

All of the above ideas came together in my mind. The "suffering" (trouble) that prevented me from admitting the truth had came in the form of my dread, procrastination, inertia, bad habits, and general fear. My sponsor's gruff demand that I take Step 5 allowed me to overcome all of these. Somehow he gave me the courage to push past the negative guardian and step quietly through the man-door.

And what a gate it turned out to be. I had expected that act of admitting my shortcoming would be huge, terrible, melodramatic, and earth-shaking... as if pushing open those enormous and infinitely heavy fortress gates. What nonsense! The actual act of doing a Fifth Step was simple and humble and gentle and sensible meeting with my sponsor. Everything my internal guard had threatened me with completely vanished.

I am glad I went to the trouble to tell God, myself, and another human being the exact nature of my wrongs. And now that I have done it, I look forward to Meetings where I can share my wrong with others. I never did have to battle my way past a fearsome guard or a fortified castle gate. Instead, it took the simple courage to admit in a small and true way, what I had done that separated me from God. And almost that quickly, I found myself once again admitted to the presence of my Higher Power.

It is amazing. Simply amazing. I still cannot find the words for it. So, the picture must speak for me.





The Steps: Inventory



Step Four consists of a short sentence, but it sounded like a big deal to me when I first read it:

Made a searching and moral inventory of ourselves.

I did not know exactly what this meant, but as a still-suffering addict, I did not like the sound of it. I was in the habit of hiding my true nature. Step Four sounded like a step I could not hide from. But remaining an addict was, for me, a death sentence. So even though the inventory sounded interesting, scary, mysterious, and impossible to do, I sensed that something powerful might happen if I tried it.

A GOOD START, UNFORTUNATELY FOLLOWED BY HALF-MEASURES - My sponsor gave me simple instructions for doing my inventory. I went home that night and did what he suggested. It felt good to be taking real action. I wrote a few pages of my inventory that first night. But then I skipped the exercise the next night and, before long had quit working on it entirely. My inventory was still incomplete nine months later. (By comparison, an extremely willing person might be able to work their entire Fourth Step within days or weeks.)

My sponsor was a live-and-let-live person. He never hurried me. He knew my willingness HAD to come from me and NOT from him. I occasionally worked my inventory, but I only halfway followed my sponsor's instructions. When I finally finished and I was ready to do my Fifth Step with my sponsor, my sponsor had moved away. At a crucial moment in my step work, I became derailed.

I kept coming back to meetings, but there was little sobriety for me or others. Lacking any other resource, I started listening to recordings of “The Big Book Comes Alive” series by AA members Joe and Charlie. They described the Twelve Step recovery as they believe it was originally practiced in the 1930s. Joe and Charlie's description of the Fourth Step inventory was fascinating, and I had to admit that it very closely matched what I had read in the Big Book of AA.

STARTING OVER AGAIN - Armed with this new insight into "old school" Twelve Step work, I proceeded to work steps Four through Twelve exactly as described in the Big Book. As the result of working these steps, I was astonished to find myself staying sober one day at a time.

When I decided to illustrate Step Four, my attention was drawn to the word “Inventory”. It is a fairly common word and I predicted that its definition would be unremarkable, even in my 1934 Webster’s Dictionary. As usual, that old book surprised me.

Inventory - n. An account catalog or schedule made by the executor of all the goods and chattels and sometimes the real estate, of a deceased person.

The phrase “deceased person” shook me. Was my Fourth Step inventory really the account of a DECEASED person? Certainly not literally! Still, the words gnawed at me. I had to admit that when I walked into my first recovery meeting, I felt dead. Every joyful part of my life was gone: my livelihood, my home, my marriage, my children. I know I was near death because the idea of suicide seemed totally acceptable. Fortunately, I was taught to work the inventory as it was described in the Big Book of AA. I used the tone of an objective third party, briefly recording the relevant facts of my life without adding any unnecessary commentary.

HOW WOULD BILL KNOW ABOUT THIS LEGAL MEANING? - Not everone realizes that Bill W. completed nearly three years of classes at Brooklyn Law School. Law students were taught how to take the "personal inventory" of a deceased person's property. Such inventories describe absolutely EVERYTHING... from real estate to farm animals (called "chattels" back then) to shovels, to buckets, to bars of soap. Any county courthousein America contain thousands of these detailed inventories. When I examined some historically accurate inventory forms, the rows and columns looked very similar to what the AA Big Book shows on page 65.

My Twelve Step drawings are intended to call attention to the definitions of key recovery words. But no drawing I could think of could improve on the precise definition found in the dictionary. So for my drawing, I did the only thing I could; I produced an sample of what a typical legal personal inventory would have looked like in the 1930s.

MY DRAWING IS NOT SOMEONE'S REAL INVENTORY: I copied a real inventory form, but I changed it to obscure the real name and details. I note with some amusement that whoever filled out the original form followed the written categories correctly—but only for the first several lines. After that, they ignored the column headings and began writing a numbered list of belongings. If you ever help someone else work their Fourth Step Inventory, don't be surprised if they, too, veer away from the written instructions. It is my experience that addicts always try to complicate simple things. That's why year after year, signs are posted in Twelve Step meeting rooms that say: "Keep It Simple".

My old 1934 Webster’s Dictionary hints at how grave my condition was before I got into recovery. And it reminds me that my Higher Power, the Twelve Steps, and my fellow addicts are all that stand between me and my real, legal personal inventory....taken by someone else after my death.



TRIVIA: If Personal Inventories were so common in the 1930s, why don't we still commonly hear about them today? I asked an attorney, who informed me that many states only require these forms only if the deceased owned a particularly valuable collection of something, such as guns, coins, jewlery, etc. In those cases, the executor creates a detailed inventory so family members cannot dispute which belongings were in the home at the time of death. Any incidents of relatives "helping themselves" to valuables would be quickly detected and thoroughly documented. In short, a lawyer took a thorough inventory to reduce anyone's temptation to fudge the facts. If you wish, you may ask a lawyer you know whether they have ever used a legal personal inventory. Please share what you discover at [email protected]

ADDENDUM: When someone in my family passed away in 2012, I was surprised to learn that their executor was required to file a written personal inventory for all of their personal assets and possessions. What had been true in 1934 remained true many decades later.

The Steps: Decision



Back in the 1930s, the definitions of common words were sometimes difficult to understand. My best evidence of that is found in a 1934 Webster's Dictionary. One example is the word "Decision". I myself might have defined that word as something like, "Making up your mind" or "Coming to a conclusion". But back in the 1930s, when the Big Book was being drafted, the official definition was this:

Decision - n. the act of terminating by giving judgment on

That definition stumped me for a while. It wasn't shocking or unexpected. I simply could not understand exactly what it meant. And what did it have to do with my 12-Step recovery? That word plays an important role in Step Three, which reads, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him."

Step Three is a pivotal one. In the earliest draft of the Big Book, Bill Wilson wrote that if the reader cannot comprehend and accept Steps One, Two, and Three, they might as well throw the Big Book away! 

According to Joe & Charlie's "The Big Book Comes Alive" lecture series, Step Three gives many in recovery a brief scare. The step seems to be making an ominous demand that the follower instantly surrender their entire will and their lives to God. On the surface it sounds like way too much, way too suddenly.

Fortunately, Joe & Charlie (and most 12-Step sponsors I know) point out the big difference between "decision" and "action". For example, I can decide to learn to the French language but I will never speak it unless I take the actions necessary to learn that language. Likewise, I can decide to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand him, but that will only happen if I follow that decision with action.

I now recognize that the decision I made in Step Three was impossible to put into action without the important things I gained from working later Steps. So Step Three is a decision to change, which will (and MUST) be followed by the later action.

Since I was creating original drawings based on those 1934 dictionary definitions, I began thinking about how to illustrate the word "Decision". The dictionary mentioned TERMINATING something by giving JUDGMENT. In my own words, "Terminate" means "end". "Judgment" means drawing a conclusion. So, Step Three involved ending things by drawing a conclusion.

I stopped and considered my past in light of this definition of "Decision". I had previously JUDGED that I should lose weight. Or get a better job. Or improve my house. Or be nicer to my wife. And with each judgment, I had made a dramatic vow that things were about to change based on my new decision.

Just one problem. I failed to follow those decisions with action. None of the things I decided on happened in exactly the way I intended. Like me, the person in my illustration was full of bold gestures but was needing to take prompt and decisive action.

Having understood the terms used in the dictionary, my drawing idea formed fairly quickly. I envisioned a figure standing on a railroad track who had clearly drawn a conclusion. By dramatically pointing their hand toward a side track, this person was indicating a clear JUDGMENT about what should happen next.

It is a fact that railroad trains go in the the direction that the tracks take them. A person's decision, judgment, or finger-pointing doesn't mean a thing to an oncoming train. That person needs to follow their DECISION with immediate ACTION if they want the train to change directions. They need to scramble forward to the nearby switch and change it to a new position. (An expert on trains assured me that the person in the drawing will surely be run over if they do not change the position of that switch.)

So, in Step Three I need to stop the endless debate in my mind (i.e., terminate through judgment) and take action. I already know where my previous will and my life led me—into addiction. I had to decide to change first, and then later take the actions of change. Based on that decision and action, my will and my life were carried to a completely new place.

The Step wasn't so difficult once I understood what it was asking. And yes, I did vigorously work the steps which follow Step Three. And yes, I did wind up in a marvelously better place.

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