Back to the Basics of Recovery – Step Five

By Wally P.

Basics of Recovery – Step Five

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

In a previous article, I described how, during A.A.’s early days, the sponsor and sponsee together filled out the liabilities side of an assets and liabilities checklist. Now it is time for us to choose the person or persons with whom we share this inventory. In order to recover, it is essential that we confide in someone.

In the second paragraph on page 72, the “Big Book” authors tell us why we admit our faults to another person:

“. . . The best reason first: If we skip this vital step, we may not overcome drinking. Time after time newcomers have tried to keep to themselves certain facts about their lives. Trying to avoid this humbling experience, they have turned to easier methods. Almost invariably they got drunk.”

Sponsees tell their “life story” about the events and situations on the one-page inventory sheet. Sometimes it takes only a few items to get down to “causes and conditions.” Once they “come to believe” in the process and experience the relief and release that result from talking about the things that had been blocking them from a spiritual solution to their problems, they become much more willing to conduct additional inventories in the future.

Today, this is referred to as “peeling the onion.” We deal with the first few “items in stock” during the initial inventory. This prepares us to dig deeper and deeper during subsequent inventories.

The “Big Book” authors tell us that taking inventory is an ongoing process. They write at the top of page 71, “If you have made an inventory of your grosser handicaps, you have made a good beginning.” So this is just the first of many inventories to come. As some A.A. pioneers used to say, “We take the Steps quickly and often.”

How thorough is this simple and straightforward inventory? It was thorough enough to produce a 50-75% recovery rate during the 1940’s and thorough enough to produce similar results today.

Sponsees can share their inventory with any number of people. It may be the person who helped put the list together, but it doesn’t have to be. The “Big Book” authors provide other options. Starting with the fourth paragraph on page 73, they describe some of the people with whom sponsees can discuss their checklist:

“We must be entirely honest with somebody if we expect to live long or happily in this world. Rightly and naturally, we think well before we choose the person or persons with whom to take this intimate and confidential step. . . . Though we have no religious connection, we may still do well to talk with someone ordained by an established religion.

“If we cannot or would rather not do this, we search our acquaintance for a close-mouthed, understanding friend. Perhaps our doctor or psychologist will be the person.”

Of critical importance is confidentiality. The “Big Book” authors list some of professionals who are legally bound to keep a secret. This “privilege” protects communications between certain individuals and keeps these communications private. The people listed in the “Big Book” who have this legal protection are members of religious, medical, and mental health communities. Attorneys also have this “privilege.”

This legal protection, the “clergy-parishioner privilege,” the “physician-patient privilege,” and the “attorney-client privilege,” is not absolute– there are exceptions. But, this “privilege” does NOT include A.A. sponsors. This is why both sponsor and sponsee must be cautious about what is shared during a Fifth Step. Events that may be construed as criminal or abusive are best discussed with someone legally bound to keep a secret.

Not withstanding the necessity of being careful, sponsees need to share their inventory as soon as possible. The “Big Book” authors confirm this in the first paragraph on page 75:

“When we decide who is to hear our story, we waste no time. We have a written inventory and we are prepared for a long talk.”

A key concept from the 1940’s was, “The healing is in the sharing not in the writing.” Nothing was put on paper that could be potentially incriminating. Today, this concept can be summarized as, “Do not put anything in writing that can be used against you in a court of law.” This is why, in the early days, an inventory consisted of a few generic names on a checklist.

When Dr. Bob took sponsees through the Fifth Step, which he did more than 5,000 times, he discussed their assets as well as their liabilities. He knew that most of them were overwhelmed and horrified by the shame, guilt, apprehension and fear associated with their alcoholic behavior. They had a poor self-image and low self-confidence. These people tended to treat themselves badly.

Dr. Bob would counter this lack of self-esteem, by encouraging and uplifting them. He would talk about the assets they already had and those that would be strengthened as the result of making restitution to those they had harmed and forgiving those who had harmed them.

In the next article, I will describe Steps Six and Seven. Some A.A. old-timers called these steps the “second surrender.”

Wally P. is an archivist, historian and author who, for more than twenty-three years, has been studying the origins and growth of the Twelve- step movement. He is the caretaker for the personal archives of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith. Wally conducts history presentations and recovery workshops, including “Back to the Basics of Recovery” in which he takes attendees through all Twelve Steps in four, one-hour sessions. More than 500,000 have taken the Steps using this powerful, time-tested, and highly successful “original” program of action.

On March 16, 2013, Wally will be conducting a “Back to Basics” workshop in Fort Myers, FL. For more information, please go to