John’s Recovery: Step Five

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

My Step 5: To maintain my commitment to honesty and humility I’ll share my inventory with my sponsor.

By John B

I now had at my fingertips a vivid outline of my alcohol saturated life. It was not pretty. I now view Step 5 as the strongest indicator of how serious I was about getting sober. Some might view this step as a confession, maybe even a plea for salvation. Not me. Along with the first four steps, it completed the foundation upon which to build a durable recovery.

The word foundation gets a lot of metaphorical use and almost always the metaphor implies strength and long term viability. I was confident that was the type of foundation we had built. Yet to be determined was what form of recovery would rise from this base. I fully intended to win the competition with myself which I alluded to in last month’s posting on Step 4, and I had a clear vision of what that victory would provide: without equivocation, I would come to the realization that alcohol induced powerlessness and unmanageability would be totally removed from my life. Admission would lead to elimination.

We were trending in a positive direction and moving towards what I can now describe as “self-leadership.” Not a prideful leadership nor a leadership with the spotlight on self. A key variable in being an effective leader is to have enough humility to admit you don’t know everything – admitting that you need help to get the job done – the polar opposite of the arrogant alcoholic I was trying to defeat.

A sense of faith based on fact was developing. The process was working. The printed word (all AA suggestions aren’t loaded up with God), human based support, and a patient one-day-at-a-time attitude all strengthened my resolve. In the wake of four years of relapse fueled hopelessness, confidence was slowly building.

Thus far honesty had been the order of the day and I thought of it this way. If at this stage of my recovery I cannot share Step 5 honestly, I either have to go back to Step 1 and start over or find some way other than AA to find sobriety. I sure as hell had my fill of start-overs and any alternative to AA was nowhere in sight. Honesty was my best option. Transferring my inventory from thought to paper had required a measurable dose of humility; to share these personal flaws and the related negligences with another person will demand significantly more. I also need unreserved confidence in my sponsor. No problem there, he had earned it.

A fortunate few non-God thinkers like myself figure out a way to function within AA without ceding control over our lives to an unseen, unknown, unmet deity. My personal understanding of a power greater than self was working effectively and my sponsor was waiting patiently for me to set a date to share the content of my Step 4. Since one of the admissions in Step 5 is to God, let me explain how the term “higher power” and the phrase, “God as we understood him”, ended up in the 12 steps.

I know this is old stuff to AA history gurus, but it’s quite possible that all the 2,050 (as of Sep. 14, 2019) subscribers on AA Agnostics are not as informed about the history of AA as you are. Most people know that Bill Wilson wrote the Big Book. Less known is that Bill regularly solicited feedback from the early AA’s in New York and from Dr. Bob and the early AA’s in Akron and Cleveland, a collection of derelicts usually referred to as the original 100, although that number has been subjected to question. Regardless of the number, try to imagine a roomful of recently dried out alcoholics trying to act as proofreaders, editors, and literary critics. That may have been where the rule against cross talk originated. Some of the feedback was intense, some of it in support of reliance on a deity some of it opposed.

In the book, Language of the Heart, Bill shares a heated response because, “In one of the steps I had even suggested that the newcomer get down on his knees.” (p. 201) The howling began immediately… “when this document was shown to our New York meeting, the protests were many and loud.” (p. 201) Similar protests are noted in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of AA, where Wilson was told, “You’ve got too much God in these steps, you will scare people away” and then a comment still heard today, “Who wants all their shortcomings removed anyhow.” (AA Comes of Age, p. 162) Clearly Bill was told by some of the early AA’s that AA had no business advocating for theistic principles.

Further frustrating his quest for consensus was a group that was unabashedly Christian who thought the Big Book should be clearly based on Christian dogma, and urge the use of biblical scripture to remove any doubt. (AA Comes of Age, p.162) Ultimately Bill was given the power of final judgment on content and that’s how we ended up with what I call the “Agnostic Loophole”. The agnostic contingent… “finally convinced us that we must make it easier for people like themselves by using such terms as ‘a higher power’ or God as we understand him.” Those expressions as we know so well today, have proved lifesavers for many an alcoholic.” (Language of the Heart, (p. 201)

My reasoned approach to the first part of Step 5 was simple. If there is a supra-human entity known as God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, he, she, or it already knows what I have committed to paper and I have no control over what this theistic authority may conclude. To the best of my understanding any verdict from on high is still pending. What is not pending is my development of a faith based on fact. My involvement with these sober alcoholics in AA has provided impetus to a transformational process that has changed how I think and how I act. I now had a sense of necessity for conforming to some of the fundamental suggestions of AA: those that recommend the use of personal will and those that emphasize the need for personal improvement.

I never questioned the value of doing Step 5, but my sense of necessity didn’t coincide with Wilson’s. Even though I’ll be sharing my inventory which had been compiled by me, I’m designated as the least important participant. Wilson makes that clear when early in the chapter, “Into Action”, he says… “we usually find a solitary  self-appraisal is insufficient.” (Big Book, p. 72) He supports this position in later years when he wrote this in the 12 and 12… “what comes to us alone may be garbled by our own rationalization and wishful thinking.” (12 and 12, p. 60) I had no problem accepting those observations; I had just done an honest inventory, and it was loaded with past prevarications, rationalizations, and denial.

I knew this was an honest effort. What I could not accept was what Wilson says is the intent of Step 5 and what the result of the step will be. The intent of the step … “is to get a new relationship with our creator, and to discover the obstacles in our path.” (Big Book, p. 72) Also unacceptable is his prediction of the end result. “We begin to feel the nearness of our creator.” (Big Book, p.75) And, “We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe.” (Big Book, p. 75) The inventory was the right thing to do – the AA way was to do it for the wrong reason designed to achieve the wrong outcome.

My sponsor, Louie C., was a mild mannered retiree who went to mass two or three times a week. As my sponsor he never brought up the topic of religion. He was a retired railroad engineer, the guy who drove the train. For decades he drank a quart of bourbon a day and never had a mishap. About a year after he got sober his train hit a pick-up truck and killed the driver. The guy had ignored the flashing lights and the striped gate. When the first sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene Louie asked for an immediate breathalyzer and arranged for a urine screen and a blood analysis. He knew his reputation as a drunk was still alive among the railroad community.

We both lived in rural Indiana and as I drove the 12 miles of county blacktop to his place; I was a bit apprehensive about how some of my “stuff” would be viewed by this gentle old man. My fourth step was comprised of standard alcoholic screw-ups, a mix of guilt by omission and some guilt by commission. No warrants out for my arrest; no concern about any statute of limitations. Going through the inventory line by line with Louie made it painfully clear that I had not been leading a rationally defensive lifestyle. Louie listened and Louie added value. Throughout the session he did an excellent job of asking questions which demanded more in depth clarification on my part, and he offered meaningful self-disclosure which helped move me forward on the issue of self-forgiveness. It took about two hours. We agreed we had done a good job of identifying “the nature” of several wrongs. Louie had already accepted my version of a higher power, so the first part of the step was considered done. He stated that he was satisfied that I had assumed ownership of my wrongs so part two was done. We both agreed that he was in fact a human being so part three was done.

I drove home quietly grateful that I was in the midst of people who understood the nature of my problem and the pain it created, people who knew there was a solution, knew I could find it, and who were willing to lend me the support needed to stay on course.


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


4 Responses

  1. Steve V. says:

    Thanks John – a well written and well thought out approach to Step 5. Very practical and I think most Agnostic and Atheist AAers can find this as a useful guide to doing a 5th Step without the religious stuff. Two human beings connecting in a meaningful way.

    • John B. says:

      Steve: Well said. It continues to amaze me how few people in the meetings I have attended here in Georgia where we have lived for 9 years and those up in Northern IN don’t understand that two human beings connecting in a meaningful way is the cornerstone of the whole damned thing. I cringe every time someone picks up a yearly sobriety token and says “God did it.”

  2. John B. says:

    Pat – thank you for taking the time to respond. I’m sure you are correct that a detailed inventory of past screw-ups may not be necessary for everybody – there certainly is not a one size fits all formula for getting sober. I was at a stage of life where I had failed to stay sober over a four year period on self-reliance and I knew I had to do something different. I went through the steps with the one sponsor and it did make me feel better but the difference maker was that by hanging out with sober people on a daily basis served as the catalyst that awakened those “personal resources” you referred to. John B.

  3. Pat N. says:

    Good article, John, and I’m glad your approach to #5 worked well for you. I’ve never done that, and at this point doubt I ever shall, but I know the 5th seems to have helped many.

    By the time I hit bottom, my self-judgement didn’t need any reinforcement from Steps 4-7. I knew I was the weakest, worst, craziest SOB in town. I knew I was a failure, a liar, an adulterer, with no redeeming traits. The last thing I needed was to make an “Inventory” of my “wrongs”, “defects”, and “shortcomings”. I’d been drinking toxicly for years in part to blot them out. To me, those Steps are a reiteration of fundamentalism’s Sinner’s Prayer. I shouldn’t be in denial about what needed changing, but what I really lacked was any confidence that I had the personal resources to get sober. I ignored the mortgage, the marriage, the good kids, the profession, etc. – all the signs that I could do some things adequately or even well. And the Calvinistic Irish-American Catholic Church hadn’t done anything to make me feel worthy of health and sobriety.

    As an entrepreneur and athlete, you may not realize that some of us can’t handle money well (even when finally sober), and I’ve never in my awkward life been able to sink a basket. The last thing some of us need when entering sobriety is a detailed recounting of our negative traits and behaviors. It was countless meetings and real, intimate friendships with recovering people that enabled me to start building a realistic and positive persona.

    Sounds like your sponsor was a great, real friend. I fear too many sponsors think all the direction they need is in the Big Book, and that personal sobriety is a qualification, not a condition.

    Thanks for all your commitment and hard work in producing this series.

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