Introduction

This website presents 12-Step program principles, disease concepts of addiction treatment, the science of humor, the neurobiology of addictive disorders, the results of a qualitative study of the culture of humor in 12-Step programs and my personal experiences with all these related topics. Intermingled with this text are cartoons I have drawn to add levity, provide examples of humor related to discussion, add meaning and insights as well as hopefully entertain the readers. The 12-Step program principles were adapted with permission from Narcotics Anonymous (NA) including the 12-Steps and 12-Traditions. The scientific information comes from the basic descriptions of the disease model of addiction recovery, the science of the effects of substances of abuse on the brain and behavior, as well as the known healing power of humor.

The Story of Recovery Cartoons

I first began drawing a few cartoons in the early 1990s while working as a nurse at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I poked fun at some of the people I worked with, including healthcare researchers that smoked cigarettes. The smoking area at the time was at the back door and the smokers would congregate there on their breaks and smoke cigarettes. This seemed ironic to me, that healthcare researchers smoked, so I drew this cartoon and posted it on the bulletin board. Everyone thought it was pretty funny, except the smokers of course.
Sometime later in early 2000, I was joking with a very special friend, the late Kevin A. from Winchester, Virginia, about long-winded speakers at AA and NA meetings. I drew a cartoon depicting a person that had hogged up the whole hour-long meeting and still hadn’t gotten past the first grade while telling his story. I gave this cartoon to Kevin, which he loved, and kept it taped on the front of his refrigerator. A few months later, the local NA newsletter committee chairperson announced at a meeting a request for submissions of stories, poems, or cartoons for the next publication. I copied and submitted the cartoon I drew for Kevin, which was subsequently published in the newsletter the following month and seemed to be well received.
The newsletter chairperson asked me if there was any chance I could draw another recovery related cartoon for the newsletter for the following month’s edition. I told him I would think about it and try to come up with something. I went home and thought about different scenarios and eventually came up with another idea. I drew a cartoon about a guy from the meetings that became irate that a girl broke his anonymity, she revealed to someone else that he was a member of the NA program. Keeping the anonymity of others is an important Tradition in 12-Step programs. The problem was this angry guy just happens to be wearing an NA t-shirt and other NA items and had NA bumper stickers plastered all over his car. The idea seemed pretty funny to me that this guy was so self-righteous to be upset about his anonymity being broken, yet he was a walking NA billboard. This cartoon also got published and I received positive feedback from friends that it was funny and reminded them of a few people. It felt good to be able to contribute some humor to the newsletter.

At this time in my life, I just happened to be reading a book entitled The Artist Way by Julia Cameron. The focus of this book is discovering and cultivating one’s creativity. The Artist Way was not only inspirational, but also laid out some specific exercises and activities to unblock the artist within. I followed the instructions and completed all the writing and other activities. At the time I was reading a lot of self-help type literature, craving to be more artistic. I envisioned the creativity locked deep within me as perhaps manifesting in my guitar playing or my drawing. I had designed a couple of logos that were used in NA conventions for banners and merchandise that looked nice. Looking back now, I have come to believe that writing and drawing recovery related cartoons became my passion as a result of this footwork following the readings and instruction in The Artists Way.

The newsletter committee chairperson requested more cartoons from me after the second cartoon I submitted was published. I thought about it, but later explained to him, “You know, those cartoons I drew were pretty funny, but I think I’m all tapped out of ideas.” Nothing else really came to me as I thought about possible ideas for a third cartoon. Then about a week later I was sitting with my wife, Beth, talking about the newsletter submissions and the cartoons I had drawn. 

During our conversation I suddenly felt very inspired as I realized, “Hey, wait a minute, I could draw all that funny stuff we see and hear in meetings and all the absurd situations in life that come up at the treatment center where I work every day.” Beth agreed and said, “All you really need to do is write them down when you think of them and draw them later when you have time.” I was a clinical research nurse in an alcohol rehab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at that time and went to AA and NA meetings both at work and on my own almost daily. The next day at NIH I admitted a new patient for detox and treatment. He arrived carrying two large black trash bags which contained all his worldly belongings that he hadn’t already lost thanks to his addiction. The bags were filled with mostly dirty clothes. A fellow nurse and friend in recovery, Dell, looked at him and said, “Look Ben, he has matching luggage.” I about fell out of my chair laughing and later drew my third recovery related cartoon.

After that third recovery related cartoon the ideas and my drawings started to flow. Like a mad man on a mission, I started drawing several cartoons every day. I called it my employment hobby, as I drew many of them while at work. It really helped that I was a nurse on a 28-day addiction treatment center where the patients provided a wealth of additional new material for humor. I also noticed that at several points during the 12-Step meetings I attended there would be outbursts of laughter. I focused on what the essence of the humor was that generated the laughter and noted these incidents of humor. Later I would sit down, pen in hand and turn these humorous situations into one-liner cartoons. It felt like I was pioneering new territory, as I had never seen any single-caption, 12-Step related cartoons before. My artwork in the beginning was a little rough, but I felt the humor was still being conveyed.

After a couple years of drawing, I had amassed several hundred cartoons and wasn’t sure what to do with them all. The monthly newsletter couldn’t keep up with me, so I searched for a new venue to present my work. I now had cartoons about every one of the 12 Steps and most of the 12 Traditions, so I decided to categorize the cartoons accordingly. Another dear friend, Hugh M., helped me self-publish my first book entitled Recovery Cartoons, a beautiful hardcover limited edition. The following year my wife, Beth, helped me self-publish the second book entitled Conference Approved and we created this website, www.recoverycartoons.com .

Recovery Cartoons includes a wide range of 12-Step recovery related topics including each of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, codependency, detox, treatment, research, therapy, sponsorship, relationships, sex, literature, courts, and jail. These cartoons use humor to depict the principles embodied in each of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions as adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous. The lives of the main characters are followed through the various stages of recovery in these single-framed, one-liner cartoons.
Life drastically changed for Beth and me shortly thereafter with the birth of our twins, Robin and Kevin. The focus of our lives shifted to raising these two wonderful gifts of our recovery. I still drew cartoons regularly but never really pursued marketing and publishing. I would sometimes draw personal cartoons as greeting cards for my friends in recovery as they celebrated sobriety anniversaries. I would also submit cartoons upon request to various AA and NA newsletters and recovery related websites.