Quicksand needs no explanation, right? Everyone has seen it in the movies. In the typical scenario, a group is walking on a jungle path when WHOOPS the first person suddenly disappears up to their waist in a pit. The fallen victim realizes with horror that they are rapidly sinking.
“Help!” they exclaim, “I have fallen into quicksand!”
A dramatic scene unfolds as a frantic rescue is attempted by others in the party or by the sinking person themselves. The drama is intense: a sudden life and death struggle with a merciless force.
Did Bill Wilson have a Hollywood movie in mind when he mentioned quicksand on page 8 in the Big Book of AA? It is possible, but I don’t know. I do know he used that word to describe how he felt when, as a dying alcoholic, he overheard the doctor tell his wife that the last hope for his recovery was gone. I don’t know of him ever sinking lower than that point. It sounds like Bill Wilson hit “rock bottom”.
Bill did not use the phrase “rock bottom” to describe that moment. Instead, he wrote: “No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in the bitter morass of self-pity.” He was describing how he felt, but it doesn’t sound like he had Hollywood on his mind. Sounds like a guy realizing that his boozing, conning, lying, evading, joking, excusing, blustering, denying had finally led him to the deadest of all dead ends. He described it as feeling like “Quicksand stretched around me in all directions” (BB p. 8).
As an artist, I was secretly delighted that Bill W. mentioned quicksand. I thought it would be interesting to draw quicksand and show all the drama that goes with it. For accuracy, I began searching for images of real quicksand. I found multiple images but most appeared to be staged photos from movies. The more authentic pictures of quicksand looked nothing like the movies. Most of the authentic photos showed a beach or massive area of sand in which the one area of quicksand was readily apparent. Further investigation confirmed this. The only pictures showing any real person sinking into real quicksand appear to be people clowning around—like when you mug for a friend’s camera. The rest showed curiosity seekers walking long distances to reach the very visible quicksand area. Once there, they had to make an effort to sink in to their knees and they could easily get back out again.
Once again, the Big Book had surprised me with its canny details. Bill W. said he felt he was surrounded by quicksand. But he never claimed that he was on a firm footing one minute and suddenly fell in up to his neck the next. If Bill Wilson was familiar with real quicksand (not just the Hollywood type), then he was admitting he had worked VERY hard to reach a point of such hopelessness. He had not merely taken one wrong step; he had taken hundreds and thousands of wrong steps to get there.
So, my drawing reflects that idea. The lone figure is mired in a circle of quicksand which measures just a few feet across. His predicament is real and he may die there. But what did it take to get him there? The footsteps tell the story. He had acres of safe ground he could have chosen to walk on. He could easily see the patch of quicksand that lay ahead. He had every opportunity to turn back or head in a new direction, but he didn’t do that. He did whatever it took to find the small patch of quicksand and “accidentally” fall face down in it.
That person in the picture has exhausted himself struggling to escape from his self-created trap. It appears his efforts to escape will be futile. Bill W.’s choice of the “quicksand” metaphor accurately describes my own tireless and desperate effort to make matters worse; to snatch defeat from a life full of victories. I wasn’t a victim of anything but my own addiction. And in the end, my addiction became a search for a bleak and numb end, lying face down in a pit of despair.
Fortunately, my Higher Power doesn’t like waste. He let me play out my hand and He saw I was ready to embrace the death that addiction was beckoning me towards. He asked if I had any more “moves” that I would like to try. He asked if I would let Him help me. He asked if I was willing to follow His instructions from now on and take a few simple Steps. . . . No. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I am alive today thanks to putting myself in that despair. When I reread Bill Wilson’s metaphor of quicksand, I am immediately transported back to that moment. I am grateful that Bill found the words to remind me of that place and for finding the Steps to help me get out.
TRIVIA: I personally experienced genuine quicksand once. I was walking on an ordinary beach in South Carolina when I noticed an odd, shimmering puddle ahead. There was some sort of water bubbling up through the sand, evidently fed by an underground spring. The entire puddle was no more than three feet across and a few inches deep. A mixture of sand and water was continuously churning just an inch or so below the clear surface. Feeling adventurous, I waded timidly into the small pool and was surprised to feel the watery sand giving way underfoot. There was a tense moment. But by the time my ankle sank just below the watery surface, I felt the the sand become solid under my foot. It kind of tickled, so I put my other foot in. The sensation was odd because the water kept liquifying the sand, then the sand would quickly solidify.
Now abandoning all fear, I deliberately burrowed down into the slurry as far as I could go. Slowly, the quicksand did draw me down, but no farther in than mid-calf. Below that level, the sand was too tightly packed to be liquified and I sank no further (even when I tried hard). I was able to pull my feet back out with ease. For my illustration of quicksand, I relied on outside research. But what I found in my research matched my quicksand experience very closely.
Could it be that the movies have been wrong all these decades? Maybe a little Hollywood creative license was used? Doesn’t matter. I got a personal message from Bill’s writing. I myself never did get instantly sucked into trouble. I went looking for it, found it, wallowed in it, stayed there, and if I ever did get out, I would quickly head right back into it. Others learn quickly. I learn slowly. I’m glad Bill put it all in writing so the information would have time to soak in.