John’s Recovery: Step Four

Step Four

AA Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

My Step 4: Conduct an honest evaluation of my past life in order to identify harms done, personal faults that need to be addressed, and personal strengths to be utilized.

By John B

Completion of the first three steps had allowed me to carve out my own God-free niche in AA. I now felt like a bona fide member of AA minus any divine intervention. I was aware of progress and I was getting pats on the back and favorable actions from others. I now look back on this early period of optimism with gratitude for the reality based mentorship I received. Of my two sponsors, one was a bit more assertive than the other, and his idea of a compliment was to casually suggest I should listen more and talk less at the meeting where we regularly met. He was fully aware of my four year history of perpetual relapses. We knew we had been at this intersection before and we both knew this was where I had veered off course and got drunk. Pink cloud euphoria needed to be avoided but I could rightfully claim some credit for my trending toward reasoned thought and for incorporating the opinions of others into the evaluation of my judgment. My sponsor’s firm but respectful insistence on honesty had set the stage for me to take on this next task that would demand sober introspection. It didn’t look easy.

It didn’t look easy, but the idea of taking an inventory of my life actually made sense to me as I approached my fifth decade.

Here at age forty-eight I could look back on a life where I had never maximized any of the opportunities that had been presented to me, I had been given my fair share, and my current life was a disaster zone. The threat of losing my marriage, looming financial problems, and self-loathing had brought me back to AA. For the first time, I was giving serious consideration to the possibility that my judgment was flawed. I had arrived at a dark place and AA was challenging me to look for and record the evidence that had brought on the darkness. The need for some sober introspection was long overdue.

In accordance with standard AA sponsorship in 1984, I was directed to the chapter “How It Works” in the Big Book. Some of it made sense to me, much of it did not. The chapter does contain some common sense suggestions for behavioral change, but I had to reject Wilson’s claim that the necessary changes would always occur as the result of faith in God. He also, in my judgment, seemed to be overly concerned with the topic of sex. More recent writings by Lance Dodes, The Sober Truth, Francis Hartigan, Bill W., and Susan Cheever, My Name Is Bill, clear that up for us. The old boy was a serial womanizer.

Early in the chapter, Wilson asserts that, “Half measures availed us nothing.” (p. 59). True, my four years of paying lip service to the idea I needed to quit drinking had not rewarded me with sustained sobriety, but my AA involvement did not add up to “nothing”. I had a home group, I had two sponsors, and most importantly, I had somehow developed enough willpower to keep trying. I was back!

A major point of contention for me is Wilson’s claim that resentment “destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” (p. 64) The stress this statement gets in the meetings I attend ranks right up there with God in the minds of most Big Book worshipers. Wilson instructs us to compile a resentment list of “people, institutions, or principles with whom we are angry.” (p. 64)

Here are the highlights for why I saw this suggestion to no longer be relevant for me.

  1. I was past denial. The last four years of periodic binges had left me saturated with guilt, remorse, and excruciating emotional pain. I knew I had to quit. No resentment here with the principles of powerlessness and unmanageability.

  2. Every sober friend I had, had done a Step 4. No resentment here with the principle of necessity. Case closed – Do it.

  3. I had taught and coached at four different school systems and never been treated unfairly. No resentment there.

  4. I had received threats from bank loan officers, the IRS, and the Indiana Department of Revenue. All deserved, no resentments there.

  5. My first wife (5 years) divorced me. I deserved it. No resentment there. My current wife (now 53 years) four years active in Al-Anon. She was coping much better with life than I was. I was envious, not resentful. I could go on but you get the point.

From the outset my sponsor had been blunt. No blaming other people, or circumstances. I was instructed to spell out my thoughts, beliefs, values and behaviors. I was told how my thinking, my interpretation of reality, combined with how I had lived my life all added up to me being qualified to be a member of AA. This was an achievement I could take full credit for. The end result of this inventory process is to point the way toward self-improvement, positive change. Basically, all I was being asked to do was to be as honest as I could, and as thorough as I thought necessary.

One of the popular AA aphorisms heard frequently in meetings had a hard-assed sponsor telling an upstart… “I’ll tell you what needs to be changed about you, everything, every damned thing. If you’re thinking it, it’s automatically wrong.” I try not to think in absolutes, but to me, this sounded absolutely stupid. Wilson himself thought so too, he conceded that newcomers did have assets that could be listed along with their liabilities. (12 and 12, p. 46) He obviously did not think any of us needed to change everything. It would have been nice of him to have told the folks that back in 1939 in the Big Book, instead of waiting until 1952. Anyway, just in case I should uncover one or two positive attributes in my fearless search, I’ll have the guy who wrote The Big Book on my side.

For all my skepticism about what I was reading in the Big Book, Bill Wilson had me clearly in his sights when he started talking about fear. Overdue bank loans, overdue tax deposits, overdue utility bills, all contributed to daily fear. The marriage was troubled, would a sheriff’s deputy come through the door with divorce papers? And the worst fear of all, would I drink again? And now I’m charged with coming up with a fearless moral inventory? According to The Big Book, if only I would trust in God I would be blessed with serenity. I chose a different path.

One of the positive attributes I was able to excavate from my troubled past was a fierce competitive spirit that had served me well as I strove to achieve excellence as a basketball player. Competitive basketball was in the past, but the competitive spirit was alive and well. My problem had been that I was trying to out-compete the effects of alcohol, trying to prove I could control my drinking. What I needed to do was change opponents – I needed to start competing with myself. I knew that I had a long history of pushing myself to extreme limits both mentally and physically in that pursuit of excellence. Now I needed to harness that same will and focus it on resisting the urge to take that first drink, one day at a time. Willful commitment on my part, fortified by the support of sober friends, combined with the rewards of right living, gradually lessened the power of fear in my life. The inventory I came up with would not have won any awards for length, but I did make an honest effort to be honest and thorough. One thing I did not do that many therapists emphasize was I did not delve deeply into my childhood. I was a forty-eight year old drunk who was totally responsible for his predicament. Everything I needed was within reach. I just needed to do the reaching.

My sobriety has not led to an anxiety free life. I don’t think “the human condition” is designed for such a life anyway. One of my favorite books is Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. Here’s what he has to say about that: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”(p. 110) Every morning I get up my freely chosen task is to do what is necessary to not drink, and to take care of my responsibilities for the day to the best of my ability. The only justification I have for this simplistic approach is that I have been sober for 35 years.


We are now posting John’s Steps every two weeks, on a Wednesday. Here are his previous Steps:

John’s Recovery


John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.


“There are many versions of the 12-Step program of recovery. In fact, there are about as many versions as there are alcoholics in AA who use the program to get sober and to maintain their sobriety.”

The Little Book


5 Responses

  1. Pat N. says:

    Good article-keep it simple.
    The inventory, in my opinion, should ask just two questions:

    What’s apt to get me drunk again? and
    What gifts do I have that are my bulwarks against getting drunk again?

    The first tells me what to change, the second tells me what to keep active and growing.

  2. John B. says:

    Jeff: It took me awhile, but the more alcohol free days I put together, the easier it was to sort through the b.s. and pick out who was worth paying attention to. That is still necessary today. It’s a rare meeting where I don’t hear something useful and a few minutes later something that doesn’t pass the smell test. Thanks for taking the time to share. John B.

  3. Teresa says:

    Thank you for your account and of reminder of a simplistic approach to life. Shared at a meeting the other night that I like to keep things simple. More often than not, I utilize 3 “steps”…be honest, clean “house”, & help others, to the best of my ability, one day at a time. It works, it really does.

    • John B. says:

      Teresa: That’s an excellent formula to live by. I’ve never asked them, but I’m sure the folks that attend the meeting that I go to every Monday are tired of me saying the most important lesson I have learned in AA is to live my life “one day at a time.” It works for me. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jeff P. says:

    Very well stated sir. I’m coming up on 2 years in January and have taken a nearly identical path in my recovery.

    It’s a shame for anyone to get mixed up with a bad sponsor. Unfortunately, like everything an alcoholic does, being a control freak often dribbles into sponsorship and, if not checked, the feeling of control becomes almost like a substitute for being drunk. There is a lot of wisdom in AA; but, there are also a lot of egomaniacs who should probably not be sponsoring anyone – a fragile, newly sober confused alcoholic is just too tempting a prey not too pounce on for them. They quickly revert to the same kind of control habits they had as drunks. Lesson: choose a sponsor very carefully. The guy with the biggest mouth and the longest time is usually just a rampaging control freak looking for another pawn for his chessboard.

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