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?
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.