Highlighting different types of passages in different colours is an effective Big Book sponsorship strategy. As the newcomer reads their Big Book, it is their job to pay close attention to every word and passage and determine for themselves if what they are reading should be highlighted in one of the six (6) colors we use.
Having the newcomer be responsible for figuring out the coding forces them to “think” and to really comprehend the meaning of what they are reading and to be responsible for asking questions when they are unclear about something they are reading.
The job of the “teacher” or “sponsor” is to be fully present so as to “catch” those sections of the Big Book which the student may have missed.
In reality we are both students. Quite often the newcomer is teaching me sections they see should be highlighted that I never noticed. It is a dynamic process that requires both of us to be “present” to think and listen actively to each other.
As for the colors you use and their meaning, I honestly don’t think it matters. Come up with your own color coding system that fits for you. Here is what I use today:
Green = Instructions
Highlight things you need to do to get the promises. Just remember green for go, or action.
Yellow = Prayers
Highlight suggested prayers. i.e. page 68, “We ask Him to remove our fear and direct our attention to what He would have us be”.
Purple – Teaching others
Highlight specific references the Big Book makes to the importance of teaching others. However, when a specific reference to teaching others is also an instruction, that portion of the passage which is an instruction would be highlighted in green while the rest could be in purple. This color is used to help emphasize how import teaching this program to others is in their achieving permanent recovery. When a person knows they are responsible for teaching what they are learning, they listen and comprehend at a much higher level.
i.e. page xvi, “This seemed to prove that one alcoholic could affect another as no nonalcoholic could. It also indicated that strenuous work, one alcoholic with another, was vital to permanent recovery.”
Pink = Positive Promises (Hint: Green + Yellow = Pink)
Highlight specific positive experiences you too will have if you do the work as outlined in the book.
Blue – When the book refers to itself
The Big Book itself is blue so that’s the colour I use to mark those passages where the book is speaking about its purpose and objectives. This color is also used whenever the book references itself. i.e. “the subject presented in this book seems to me to be of paramount importance to those afflicted with alcoholic addiction”.
These passages help the newcomer understand why we as teachers are so passionate about sharing the message that is contained in this book.
Orange = Pay close attention
Used at the students discretion to mark passages that are real “ah ha” moments for them, provided that the other colors aren’t appropriate. Like the amber at a traffic light, these flag you to slow down and pay special attention.
An example of a highlighted Big Book (pages 62-63)
So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kill us! God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid. Many of us had moral and philosophical convictions galore, but we could not live up to them even though we would have liked to. Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help.
This is the how and the why of it. First of all, we had to quit playing God. It didn’t work. Next, we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director. He is the Principal; we are His agents. He is the Father, and we are His children. Most Good ideas are simple, and this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom.
When we sincerely took such a position, all sorts of remarkable things followed. We had a new Employer. Being all powerful, He provided what we needed, if we kept close to Him and performed His work well. Established on such a footing we became less and less interested in ourselves, our own little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life. As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter. We were reborn.
We were now at Step Three. Many of us said to our Maker, as we understood Him: “God, I offer myself to Thee — to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!” We thought well before taking this step making sure we were ready; that we could at last abandon ourselves utterly to Him.
We found it very desirable to take this spiritual step with an understanding person, such as our wife, best friend, or spiritual adviser. But it is better to meet God alone than with one who might misunderstand. The wording was, of course, quite optional so long as we expressed the idea, voicing it without reservation. This was only a beginning, though if honestly and humbly made, an effect, sometimes a very great one, was felt at once.
A way that works
This way of working with the Big Book has benefits and protects the integrity of the content.
- It works with the original text with no changes.
- Your book is clean (it became difficult to make sense out of one all mucked up).
- You can find references you want easily.
- You can focus on the kind of passage you need at the moment.
This is a good system that has helped a lot of addicts. I sincerely hope that it works for you and that, if it does, you can someday pass it on to someone else who may find that it works for them too.
Why I Colour Code the Big Book
Recently, I was asked to provide an explanation of the colour coding process I use with newcomers working with the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
November 1999 – Fresh out of treatment
While I was in treatment in November 1999, one of my counselors told us that the recovery centre we were in had the best proven, statistical results for the treatment of alcoholism. BUT, he warned that if we happened to also be addicted to crack cocaine (which I was) then, statistically, we had less than a 1% chance of staying free from alcohol and drugs for even one year.
This news was not only eye opening, but to be blunt it scared the crap out of me. Even if I did everything the treatment centre said to do, what they were saying is that I would probably still relapse. I decided that in order to beat these odds, I would have to do MORE than what the treatment centre was telling us to do – something unconventional and different from what everyone else did.
In treatment we were told to go to AA meetings every day. In fact, they insisted that 90 meetings in 90 days was absolutely critical to recovery. Going to meetings was okay because it was an opportunity to be free of the strict rules and be out in the real world. But, on the whole, I found the meetings boring, an obligation I had to endure. Plus, it seemed that 12 step meetings were a place where people who were suffering got together and shared about their pain, which I found boring and sometimes depressing.
I saw what was wrong in everyone and everything, including myself and 12 step meetings. But I also need to be honest — this is spiritually where I was at – at that time. I judged and criticized and blamed and complained about pretty much everything. I had severe victim mentality back then and needed to find fault in others as a way to avoid looking at the truth about my own life.
One day I was talking to a fellow addict in treatment and he told me that he was going to a Cocaine Anonymous meeting. First of all, I didn’t realize that we were allowed to go to meetings other than for AA. That Friday night I attended a meeting of Cocaine Anonymous. It was different and I will never forget it. There was so much passion in the air. This was no boring AA meeting – this was exciting!
My introduction to the Big Book
As each person in the meeting spoke, they declared that they had found a common solution to their addiction problems and that that solution was the text book Alcoholics Anonymous. A solution which they believed was “The Real” solution. They also shared a higher level of happiness and purpose than I had ever experienced in any 12 step meeting to date.
The person chairing the meeting had a glow in his eyes – he was happy on fire. He shared how he had repaired the damage he had done with his family by making amends and that he learned how because of the instruction in the Big Book.
He seemed to me to have so much wisdom I figured he must have been in recovery and sober for at least 10 years. So, I thought I’d talk to him after the meeting and maybe see about having him be my sponsor.
He was excited about wanting to help me so he showed me his copy of the Big Book. It was all mucked up with all kinds of circles and notes. It was hard to read or understand but it was clear that this guy studied it word for word like his life depended on it. And for him, he believed it did. Man, was this guy excited about the idea of teaching me what was taught to him.
When I asked him how much sober time he had, however, he told me was only about 60 days clean. I was in absolute shock. I was also confused – it just didn’t make any sense. How can this guy with so little clean time be so much more energetic and happier than so many other people I’d met that had years of clean time under their belts? How could he have even more passion and purpose in his life than any of the seasoned professional counselors from the treatment centre I was at. And my counselors were “recovering” alcoholics themselves and some of them had more than 10 years sobriety.
Not only that, this guy claimed to be a recoverED — not recoverING — drug addict. Seasoned professionals with 10 years clean time still claimed to be recovering (that they were still sick), and yet this guy was 60 days and was claiming to be recovered (he was well). Now, because I was told that less than 1% of the people in treatment actually make it clean and sober for one year, I felt that, as amazing as this guy was, he did not have everything I was looking for in a sponsor. I figured the ideal sponsor for me would be a guy with at least one year of clean time so I asked for the guy who had sponsored him.
He pointed me to that guy. His name was Charlie. I went to Charlie and asked him if he would sponsor me but he wanted me to work with his the 60 day clean guy instead. I guess he felt his sponsee needed to be working with me for his own sobriety more than Charlie did, so Charlie told me he was too busy. But I was adamant, I told him I would wait till he was less busy and that I wanted him. With some hesitation, he gave me his home number and said I could call him. Totally excited that I had taken the next important step on my journey to recovery, I went back to my treatment centre on fire with more than just hope – with real passion that I had found the right path for me and thrilled that I now had a sponsor.
Meet The Muckers
Back at the centre, I went to my favorite counselor and told him all about what I have just told you. For the first time ever I saw my loving counselor got angry. He told me that these people I had met were members of a cult, that they were called muckers and that they had bastardized and distorted the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. He told me in no uncertain terms to stay away from them.
Because I was also addicted to approval seeking, and because I was worried about getting kicked out of treatment if I did not do as he wished, I led him to believe that I would stay away from them. I lied.
More often than not, when you tell an addict what to do, he/she will almost always do the opposite. Which was the case with me. My gut knew I had to investigate this and, if anything, I wanted to even more now that I was told not to. And while I was in my second week of treatment, a new guy came in that was real mangled up. He was medicated heavily in treatment with antipsychotic pills and he was often being accused of drinking alcohol when he went out to AA meetings while in treatment with us – but he never got caught.
I recognized him. I used to play squash with him regularly years earlier when I would play literally 3 games of squash 5 days a week to replace my drinking and depression. He was a famous recording studio engineer.
When I told him what the counselor had said about my experience, this guy looked at me with this piercing intensity and said not to listen to this counselor. He said he had been “mucked” years earlier and had “booked” or “mucked” all kinds of people and was sober for something like 10 years as a result of “booking” others.
He said that mucking gave him his life and when he stopped “booking” others he had relapsed so badly he was living on the streets now. As desperately as he wanted to stay sober, he just couldn’t anymore.
Kevin told me that, not only should I get mucked by Charlie (he knew who Charlie was), that there was a fellowship called the muckers and they had a weekly meeting. He said I should go to this meeting and ask for a guy by the name of Don who was the founder and a guy with more experience than anyone taking people through the steps this way.
I spoke to Charlie when I was still in treatment and he agreed to book me when treatment ended. Two days after treatment, I met with Charlie in a coffee shop and was taught the 12 steps. I studied them to the “best” of my ability but as far as living them goes, I made few amends and still and still saw myself as a victim. Having said that, the experience was amazing! I then tried to “sell” other people into getting “booked” – and ideally by me – but I guess people could feel my desperation and didn’t want what I had since I was not fully recovered. I was still angry and unhappy so I found out where the muckers meeting was and I went. I found Don and I asked him if he would book me because I was still messed up. He did a “tune-up” of 3 mini sessions and I went to his Thursday night muckers meeting religiously. It was the highlight of my recovery.
Obsessed with Booking
After about 18 months sober, I finally got to book my first guy and it was amazing! I started getting addicted to booking people. I would book or teach others and get off on the feeling of superiority I would temporarily get from “saving” a newcomer. I went to 12 meetings for the purpose of finding more people to work with. I was staying sober and, occasionally, some of the people I would work with stayed sober and went on to help others too. And boy was that exciting – to duplicate yourself and know that you are leaving a legacy.
Eventually I was sponsoring so many people that I was looked at as a cult leader – sometimes 3-4 people per day for 2-3 hour sessions back to back – then I’d rush over to another 12 step meeting to find new recruits.
Intolerance and controversy
Mucking the Big Book as a method for recovery was controversial. Looking back I think it was because I had an attitude of intolerance of other peoples’ views. Our Big Book states on page 19 that “real tolerance of other people’s shortcomings and viewpoints and a respect for their opinions are attitudes which make us more useful to others.” During one period when I was working with an even unusually high number of people (even for me) I started to notice that the newcomers I was working with were getting flack from others about the fact that I was their sponsor. Many of them would actually tell me how people with substantial clean time were telling them to stay away from me – that I was a lunatic. As much as I was obsessed about booking , I cared deeply about addicts – particularly the ones I was working with because I was so emotionally invested. The people I was working with were raw and vulnerable and didn’t deserve to be attacked because of the controversy I had caused. They had enough on their plates.
The book states on page 19, “Nothing would please us so much as to write a book which would contain no basis for contention or argument.”
I knew that the Big Book was powerful but I also knew that as soon as anyone had any circles and lots of notes in their Big Book, they would be labeled a mucker and would be ostracized by some members of their respected 12 step fellowship.
People said the Big Book was whole and complete and required no interpreting. The Big Book even states, “there is a sentiment against any radical changes being made to this book”. Many perceived that we were radically changing the book by adding our opinions and conceptions to it. The Big Book says on page 77, “Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us”. So I figured it would be serving the people about us (the addicts I was working with) if I could help them avoid having to endure controversy and argument.
New system but same obsession
What came to me was that I needed to stay true to my working the Big Book one-on-one but re-invent a new way of doing it that would be at least if not more powerful than what I was already doing – and do it in such a way as to protect the newcomer from being labeled a “booker” or “mucker” – not that there is anything wrong with being a booker or mucker! My thought was also to keep the message of the Big Book clean and pure and to have it look that way too. So, I came up with the idea of using coloured highlighters to highlight and emphasize the words in the book rather than mucking the Big Book up with my notes and interpretations. It worked. It wasn’t the only way, a better way, or the best way – it was simply a way.
A fundamental change
I still use the highlighting process and I know it helps a lot of people. But the fact is, it’s not the only path to recovery. It’s merely one way of working a Big Book program.
Scott G. is the founder of All Addictions Anonymous. He is also a keynote speaker who works primarily with high-school students across North America. In his program, “The Power of Choice”, Scott helps teenagers break free of destructive habits and addictions.