Making Amends to Ourselves — a Path to Self Forgiveness

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of self forgiveness lately. I think that self forgiveness presents a challenge for many people, in and out of recovery. As humans, we often judge our own actions through an unrealistic lens and are particularly hard on ourselves.

According to Freud, we all have three parts of our personalities — the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id being the part of our personalities that is responsible for our animal instincts, sexual desires, and aggressive drives. The super-ego is the part of our personalities that functions as the moral compass and the ego is the part that mediates between the id and the super-ego. Perhaps it’s the ego that can’t accept that we might say or so something that falls outside out ethics governed by the super-ego.

Now, I am not a psychologist, and I’m not sure that Freud got it all right, but this model may be somewhat useful as we explore the concept of self forgiveness.

When we do something that we regret, the idea of forgiving ourselves can be difficult. We act as the prosecutor (super-ego), defense (id), judge and jury (ego) in our own minds. Rarely do these disparate roles agree about an action that we regret. In fact, this internal conflict that arises between these three parts of our personalities may be the very essence of regret.

When this conflict is strong within us, forgiving ourselves may seem impossible. Perhaps the strength of the voices of our internal judge and jury make us feel that we are unable to forgive ourselves. But, I’ve learned it’s important not to confuse ability with willingness. We can always forgive — even ourselves — the question is are we willing to do so or not.

Steps 8 and 9 are all about making amends and hopefully receiving forgiveness. When we get to step 8, we often look back at step 4 to make our list of people based on our moral inventory — it makes sense that we would look to address our amends to the people who were affected by the items on the list. This list may include our friends, spouse, children, other family members, business associates or supervisors, former lovers, and even former friends or others to whom we are estranged because of our behaviors while drinking.

There is one person that I think is excluded from the list more often than not and I believe this is unfortunate. That person is ourself.

How often does the amends list include ourselves? Why should this list include ourselves? Don’t we owe it to others to make things right first? What does making amends to oneself even look like?

While it may appear egotistical to make amends to oneself at first glance, I believe that it is foundational to making amends with others. I believe it is foundational to loving oneself. Just as one can’t truly love another without loving oneself, I believe that one must make amends and forgive oneself in order to truly grow in the program.

If we go about our lives regretting the past and thinking horrible thoughts about ourselves then we can’t truly change as a person. Brené Brown says, “we become the stories we tell ourselves.” If we are constantly telling ourselves that we are no good because of our past or that we are defined by our past, we come to hold this as a core belief about ourselves. And if we believe in our core that we are unworthy, then we will live as if we are unworthy. We will act as if we are unworthy. We will hold in to and repeat those old behaviors.

One of the promises is, “we will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.” When we are newly sober this promise may seem the most extravagant of them all. How on earth could we not regret our past? It’s exactly what got us here. Our past is defined by problems, poor choices, misbehavior, and pain. How do we get to a point where we don’t regret it? The magic that makes this possible exists in self forgiveness. And self forgiveness begins with making amends to ourselves.

So, how do we do this? It starts, as all amends do, with an assessment of what when wrong and how it could have been handled differently — the core difference between an empty apology and an amends being that an amends tries to make things right, by fixing the mistake of possible and by ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. So in order to make an amends to ourselves we need to know how we hurt ourselves and how we might fix it, as well as have a plan not to do it again. Then we tell ourselves that we are sorry for what we did, acknowledging how it was hurtful, and explaining how we will avoid it in the future. That is what making an amends to ourselves looks like.

Suppose that we hurt ourselves emotionally and spiritually by putting ourselves and others in danger by driving under the influence. We now see that our behavior was reckless and dangerous and we may feel bad about it. We may feel a deep sense of regret and fell like we can’t forgive ourselves. We need to make an amends.

To do this, we could write ourselves an apology letter explaining that we can’t change the past, but we can ensure that we never drive under the influence again, which should be easy since we are not drinking. We could even take it further by promising ourselves that we wouldn’t drive under the influence even if we did have a slip. If writing a letter to ourselves seems strange, we could record ourselves making the amends and listen to it, or even say the words to ourselves with a mirror. And while this all sounds a little strange, there is something powerful about making this concrete rather than simply thinking about it.

After making the amends to ourselves, we are in a better position to forgive ourselves. Again, making it concrete is valuable. Actually saying the words “you’re forgiven” is invaluable. Repeating them to ourselves when we are triggered about the past is also valuable. We become the stories we tell ourselves.

While it’s certainly not required, I believe that when we’ve forgiven ourselves for our past mistakes — when we believe the story that we are making changes and living a better life — then we are in a better position to make amends to others. Our belief in ourselves inside shows on the outside and we carry ourselves differently because we have a new found sense of self respect. Our self respect builds and becomes love of self and we are able to show others that we have changed, and it is per cicely these changes that enable us to make amends.

And what are amends, if not an act of love?

Step 11: This Too Is Prayer

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

“Seriously? We haven’t talked about God for a while so we better bring Him back into the picture.” This was how I felt when I looked at Step 11 for a long time. The only saving grace for me was that the payer recommended in the Twelve and Twelve was the Prayer of Saint Francis, which despite being a Catholic prayer, has always been a personal favorite and that peculiar word “meditation” in the step.

I really couldn’t imagine myself praying. Certainly not to an omniscient, interventionist deity who had fixed me and now had a plan for me. I struggled with this step. As a way to make this work, I tried to get comfortable with ignoring all the theistic overtones and focusing on meditation.

I’ll be honest, my success with meditation has been less than stellar. I have tried doing it in my own. I’ve tried to do it with the help of apps. I’ve read about it to the point of recognizing that reading about it isn’t actually doing it.

Where I struggle with meditation is making it a ritual. I’m just not a very ritualistic person. The only ritual that I adhere to is the ritual of making coffee in the morning. That happens every day, right after getting up.

But when I do make time to meditate, something happens to my monkey mind that is hard to explain. It never stops. The thoughts keep coming. But I’ve learned that this is not actually the point of meditation. By recognizing the thoughts, noting the thinking and not judging it, over and over and over again, I come to a more peaceful state of mind.

I do a fair amount of walking, running, and in the past cycling. I’ve always found that cycling by myself is meditative, and the same is true of walking and running. It’s time for me to slow down the thoughts, focus on one thing, get moving, and just be in a state of flow. Time passes effortlessly.

Still, I wondered if I was doin this step wrong since I was so adverse to praying. I worried that I needed to actually be praying — on my knees, hands folded, eyes closed, saying some rote words to a deity that I knew in my bones does not exist. And so I did a lot of reading. One book that really helped me is Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, by Marya Hornbacher.

In the chapter on Step 11, I came across some words that would totally change my perception of prayer on page 114:

“November morning. The sky turning from indigo to violet blue, the curly oak sketched in black on the sky. Steam rising off the lake. I sat in absolute stillness, absolute peace.

This, too, is prayer.”

These words encapsulate what I’d sensed all along in my life every time I’d stood in awe of the natural world. The sense of finiteness in the infinite that I feel when I’m alone on the beach looking at the ocean. The feeling that everything would be okay when I’d hike up to the top of the ridge at Shingletown Gap and look down in the campus of Penn State when things felt overwhelming. The sense of peace that comes when I can no longer hear the sounds of cars as I walk down a trail in the woods.

Those words also showed me that prayer need not be directed to a specific deity. That you could simply send prayers out to the great mysterious universe. My uncle gave us a small Buddhist prayer bowl for Christmas. The bowl came with the instructions to write our prayers on a small piece of paper, to put them in the bowl, and to set it near a window. When the suns rays hit the papers the prayers are carried out to the universe. This gift reinforced the notion that prayers need not be directed to a specific deity.

Today I think of many things as prayer. My silent walks in the woods can be prayerful. My time writing these words can be prayerful. Simply closing my eyes and noticing the breath is prayer. There is something centering about prayer. Something contemplative. Something quieting.

It all comes down to intentionally making time to refocus, to find a small amount of peace in an otherwise chaotic world.

That’s what prayer is for me.

Step 4: Honestly Recognizing Our Own Humanity

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

This step scares most people. The language feels foreboding, heavy, daunting. It sounds really hard. And for many people it is really hard.

This step is all about getting honest with ourselves. Some of us have suffered grave consequences and some of us have not. But we all know in our hearts that our addiction has caused harm. And so we must get honest about what we’ve done in our lives. Honest about how we’ve hurt ourselves and others. Honest about how our addiction affected others in our lives.

If you read the big book, there is a description of how to approach this step. For many the book is the only source they need. Others find the book’s recommendations problematic for a variety of reasons. I didn’t know it at the time but there are many ways to do the fourth step. One can find several guides online.

Step 4 was scary for me because I felt that I had to get it right. I thought that this was a one shot deal and that I had to make sure I got into all the things that I’d ever done wrong in my life. If I stole a 5¢ candy from the corner store when I was 10, it better be in the inventory along side my admission that I had punched a boy in my class in eighth grade. I felt that I had to do it exactly as it was described in the book and I was terrified.

Additionally, I could see no reason why I needed to include a sex inventory in my fourth step. What I did in the privacy of my own bedroom with other consenting adults was (and is) my business. Bill Wilson, who wrote the chapters that describe the steps, had a problem with infidelity. It made sense that he would include a sex inventory in his fourth step. I have always been monogamous and so it made no sense to include this.

And so, I wrote the list and sat on it. And I’d pull it out and look at it, decide that there was nothing more to add but that sometime something would come to me, and put it away. I did this for eight months. My sponsor was going through some heavy life changes at the time and so he didn’t pester me about it. And so I kept it to myself.

I was firmly convinced that I would never get it done perfectly, and thus could never progress. Luckily, about a month before my first anniversary I opened up to a friend that I was struggling and that I’d been carrying around this step for months. I told him that I was nervous because I really wanted to ask another man to be my sponsor but I was afraid of hurting my current sponsor’s feelings. My friend told me that I shouldn’t worry about that, that it would be okay, and that I should ask the other man and move as quickly as possible to step 5 with him so I could get the weight off my shoulders.

And that’s what I did. When it came time to talk through step 4 we spent an afternoon at his house talking through it. And not only did we talk about all the bad things but we identified some assets as well. My sponsor shared some things that he’d done in his past and I saw that we are both human beings — neither innately good nor innately evil.

It was really valuable to me to look not only at my defects but also at my assets. I think this is something that is often overlooked in 12 Step rooms. We have a tendency toward self flagellation. We are quick to identify how we fail, but often slow to identify our successes. Part of this may be related to the sense that we need to keep our ego in check. But there’s a difference between grandiosity and acknowledging that we aren’t entirely rotten to the core.

Really, we are all human beings. People with addiction issues may make more mistakes that are driven by their addictions but the final analysis we are human. Humans make mistakes. We have moral and ethical lapses. It’s part of the human condition.

In my mind this is what step four is all about — Getting honest and recognize our own humanity.

Step 2: It’s Not What I Thought

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

I cringed when I first read this step. In my mind, that capitalization of the word power clearly meant something. And that something was an interventionist God that was going to fix me. I was having none of it.

I’ve written extensively about my struggles with the God Talk in AA. It all comes down to a spiritual trauma inflicted upon me by a person in authority in the Roman Catholic Church. Quite simply God is a trigger for me. How could I possibly work through a step that triggers me?

Not very well is the answer. I spent months, wrestling with this step. I read countless books about alternate takes on the steps. I read about Buddhism and the steps. I read about secular versions of the steps. I read and talked and tried to reframe it in a way that would work for me. And I failed. Nothing satisfied my angst.

Then one day I was re-reading a journal entry that I wrote shortly before getting sober. If there ever been a moment of clarity captured in words in my life this was it.

‌September 21, 2015
Severna Park, MD / 65F, Cloudy

I cannot keep living like this. This is not living. This is a slow, painful suicide. What else can I call it, but that. Night after night of not quite enough booze to kill me has to be taking it’s toll.

I am terrified of the thought of AA. Terrified of not having a drink ever again. Terrified of the stigma that society puts on people like me. The ones who can’t drink within reason.

The first few gulps at the end of the day seem to put my world back on it’s axis. Level things out — but it almost always ends in guilt and shame. Deep senses of depression.

So, I have to make a choice. I have to stand like a warrior and fight against this foe who is trying to and eventually will kill me. It’s time to stop this madness.

It’s time for AA.

It literally jumped off the page at me. There was, in fact, a power greater than me that restored me to sanity. That power was my own mortality. I knew that if I were to continue drinking I was going to die a slow and painful death. I knew that I was not ready to die. I knew that I needed help and that I would find that help in AA. And that gave me hope.

Today I firmly believe that the power greater than ourselves referenced in step two need not be the same as the God of our understanding that makes its first appearance in step 3. The power greater than ourselves is what ever makes us seek help. It’s whatever gives us the hope that there is a way out of the mess we find ourselves in. For many people, that power is the God of their understanding, but it doesn’t have to be.

Step two is all about hope. Hope is so important in early recovery. Without the hope that things would get better, that I would get better, I could never have achieved a week, let alone a month, or even years of continuous sobriety.

Hope and Faith are sisters. My wife has told me that I have a strong faith. At first I thought she must be joking. How could an agnostic like me have a great deal of faith? But she pointed out that I always believe that things will get better, that things will work out, even in the most horrific and tragic of situations. I believe that because my life experience has shown me that it’s true. That’s resilience.

When I look back now, I can see that I’d already taken step 2 when I walked through the doors of AA. I just didn’t know it at the time. What I did know was that I had hope and even faith that things would get better. With time I came to understand that with support I would be able to stop drinking and live a rich and full life.

Triggers, Messages, & Flack Jackets

This one is gonna be messy — honest and messy, like me.

The rooms of 12 Step Fellowships are triggering for me. Not in a “I’m gonna need a drink” way, but triggering none the less. They have been since day one.

A few of the things that I find triggering in 12 Step are God (regardless of who’s understanding it is), Religion, Outdated and Imprecise Language, Hypocrisy, and Dualistic Thinking.

And I know I’m not alone in this. Many other people are triggered in the rooms as well. The rooms may be triggering for many different reasons, but they are still triggering for a lot of people.

How does one recover in an environment that is triggering? How does one recover when one doesn’t feel safe?

The short answer is that often, we don’t. Often we leave. And more often than not when we leave, we fulfill that 12 Step saying that we’ll end up dead, in jail, or institutionalized.

And yet, I continue to show up because when I lean into the discomfort of the triggers I recognize that they are memories of traumatic events that happened in the past and aren’t currently happening. In other words, I’m currently safe, even in a triggering environment. And by leaning in, I get to remain connected to a group of people who help me to stay sober. For me, 12 Step has always been about the fellowship rather than the program.

I also happen to know many people who have left the rooms of AA who continue to maintain happy and healthy lives. People who continue to live their life following a moral compass, who are sober, and who are anything but “Dry Drunks.” These people are often highly emotionally intelligent. For those not familiar with this term, here’s the definition according to Google.

Emotional Intelligence
noun
noun: emotional intelligence
the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot in the Recovery community about Sobriety being more than abstinence. I’ve heard a lot about something called emotional sobriety. I personally believe that emotional sobriety and emotional intelligence are the same thing. I also believe that sobriety is not dependent upon emotional intelligence, but that a happy and healthy life actually is dependent upon the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions.

But this is a topic for another post. What I want to write about today is a dialogue that must happen. A dialogue that needs to be given space to exist within as well as outside the rooms. A dialogue that I believe can save lives.

The simple fact is that the 12 Steps have an abysmal success rate, at least as best as can be measured. Depending upon what statistic one looks at, the success rate is anywhere from 5% to 40%. The variance in the reported success rate is largely due to the anonymous nature of the program. Even if one wants to argue that the success rate is better than 40% there are still thousands of people dying every damn day because they aren’t getting the help they need.

We need to have a dialogue about multiple pathways in the recovery community as well as in society at large. We need to add professional help from the medical community and the psychiatric and mental health therapy community.  If the recommended treatment method for any other disease failed as often as the 12 Steps do, it wouldn’t be the recommended treatment. If people continued to die because antibiotics were only successful at treating bacterial infections such as Staphylococcus at the same rates that 12 Step is effective, we would be looking for alternate treatments.

This conversation needs to start in the recovery community. We need to make space for it. We need to allow it and we need to take the cotton out of our ears and stuff it in our mouths if we don’t like the conversation, because people are dying.

We need to start carrying the message that there are multiple ways to recover and that no one group knows best. We need to be open to the possibility that the way we’ve always done it may not be the best way. But most importantly, we need to talk about it.

Today, when someone expresses these concerns within a 12 Step forum, the most frequent response is that it gets shut down. We hear a lot of fear mongering. We hear a lot of reasons why it doesn’t work for everyone. We hear a lot about people needing to “want it” and willingness. And I don’t discount that.

What we don’t hear is that its okay that it doesn’t work for everyone and that there may be other ways to recover. For a group that claims “love and tolerance is our code” we can be awfully hurtful and rather intolerant when the topic of alternate paths of recovery comes up.

The fact of the matter is that we know a lot more about addiction after 84 years of study than we did in 1935. We know that addiction fundamentally changes our brains. We know that addiction is fueled by chemical reactions in our brains that have to do with dopamine and GABA receptors. We know that substances not only give us a dopamine hit, but also cause our brains to create more and more dopamine receptors. This is why we develop tolerances. And we know that when we suddenly remove the substances that gave us the dopamine hit, the brain reacts, sometimes in violent and life-threatening ways.

And yet, we continue to treat addiction with prayer and meditation. We continue to treat it with a program that is essentially a guide to living a good life. A moral compass of sorts. A program that essentially says, don’t be a dick, and when you are, admit it and do what you can to make it right.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s an important lesson for anyone. But it is not the be-all and end all of how to treat addiction. And it’s especially not effective when there are aspects of the program or the rooms that trigger people, causing them to feel unsafe and to leave. As one of my good friends in recovery says, “I can’t treat a dead person.”

So, we need to have people who are brave enough to bring up this topic. We need to also have people who are open minded enough to listen to the conversation and participate in the dialogue. I know from personal experience, that raising questions about 12 Step often leads to flack from some factions in the recovery community.

I also know that I have a flack jacket. I know that when I put something like this post out there, I need to put that flack jacket on. And I also know, that some days, I can’t bear the thought of wearing that flack jacket. So on those days, I put the jacket down and I don’t put myself in situations where I’ll need it. I am comfortable that the day will come when I can put it on and continue to raise this awareness.

Today, clearly, is a day that I’m ready to put on the flack jacket.

 

Stopping for Sam

If you follow me on twitter on Instagram then you know I’ve transformed myself from a relatively sedentary guy to a relatively passionate runner. In a little over a year, I’ve gone from barely being able to run for 90 seconds to running between 10 and 15 miles per week. Running has become a form of self care for me and I love it. I’m grateful that my body continues to heal from the damage I did when I was drinking.

Running is also a way for me to get out of the past and future thinking modes for which my brain is so hard wired and to get into the present. I tend to count off my footfalls in fours. I notice when my heart rate is higher than I want it to be (thanks to my watch) and I slow down and focus on my breath to bring it back into the zone that I am targeting. I notice others in the road or trail. I am delighted when I see friends in the trail, especially if they are friends from the rooms, as I did yesterday.

Because I am present and aware I notice my environment and what’s going on around me. And this is where the story of this post comes into focus.

Yesterday, I was out on a long training run, planning to run 8 miles as I train up for a 10 mile race in August. I’d been out on a tempo paced run for about an hour and a half and was closing in on the last mile when I noticed a man who I’m going to call Sam to protect his identity.

This was the longest run I’ve ever done and my motivation to complete it was very high. I wanted the little hit if dopamine that comes with the realization of a goal and a virtual trophy on Strava. I wanted to prove to myself that I could go the distance. I didn’t want to stop along my route.

Sam was underneath a picnic table which was underneath a pagoda on the side of the B&A trail in my town. He was on his back and looked to be writhing around a bit. The situation did not look good.

At first I kept running. I thought to myself, “that poor bastard is really in bad shape. Best not to engage. You’re so close to the end of your run. Keep moving.”

But then, because I’m in recovery and acutely aware of the epidemic of opioid addiction, I started to get concerned. “What if that guy is ODing? What if he needs help? If I don’t stop, who will?” I’d like to claim that the AA responsibility clause was ringing in my ears but it wasn’t. I just knew that I needed to check on Sam.

And so, about 25 yards after passing him I turned around.

I’ll be honest, I was a bit afraid of what I might be getting into. If he was ODing, I knew that I didn’t have Narcan and even if I did I’ve not been trained to administer it. I knew that I would need to dial 911 and stay for a bit. I knew that I might witness a man dying before my eyes. And I knew that if none of those things came true I could be in for a tongue lashing from a homeless drunk who didn’t want to be bothered.

I also knew that even though the trail was crowded in the glorious mid-day sun of June 2, 2019, not a single other soul was going to check on Sam.

And so, I approached cautiously. “Hey man, are you alright?” Something barely audible came out of Sam’s mouth and for a moment I was more concerned. “What’s that? Do you need help?”

“No, I’m okay,” his tired voice said. “I’m okay.”

“I saw you on the ground and wanted to make sure. I was afraid you might be ODing.”

“No,” Sam said. “I don’t do opioids — I drink a lot. Are you an EMT?”

I told Sam that I was not an EMT but that I am in long term recovery. I told him that I used to drink every day and that I’d been sober for three and a half years. I told him that there were a lot of people like us who would help him if he wanted to get better. I offered to call someone if he needed me to or to get him an ambulance.

Sam talked to me about his experiences with my old home group and mentioned a local legend from the AA community known for his drum circle meetings. I had to tell him that BR had passed about a year ago and that he’d died sober. Sam was sorry to hear this.

While Sam was clearly drunk and slurring his words he was able to hold a relatively coherent conversation and I felt that he wasn’t in immediate danger. He commented repeatedly about how I looked good and in shape and that he couldn’t believe that I used to have a problem with the drink. But I assure him that it was indeed true, that I’d worked hard to change and that he could have what I have if he wanted it.

I shook his hand and told him that he should make sure to get some water and eat something and that if I had any money with me I’d be taking him to get those things. He appreciated that.

And the I was off to complete my run. When I got to the cool down part of my workout I called my sponsor and another friend in recovery. Both told me what I already knew, that I can’t save everyone and that I’d done the right things. My sponsor reminded me that my stopping and talking might just be a little light in Sam’s world, perhaps the nudge he needs to find sobriety.

I’ll probably never know.

Later in the day, while doing errands with my son I drove by the spot just to see if Sam was still there. My son tiled me I’d missed our turn and I told him I just needed to see something. Sam wasn’t there and I don’t know what happed.

What I do know is that this small act of kindness took less that 10 minutes of my day and that if I hadn’t stopped it’s likely that no one else would have checked on Sam.

Maybe even a small act of kindness makes a difference when we live in such a disconnected world where others look past their present surroundings and ignore the plight of their fellow human beings.

Be kind to yourself and to your fellow beings. We are all just walking each other home.

Gratitude on Thanksgiving

I have been reluctant to write. For months, I’ve felt I have little left to be said. I’ve struggled to post a single thought in a month. The truth is that the Promises have come true in my life — not always in the way I might have expected them to, or even hoped they would, but they have come true. I wear life like a loose garment most of the time today.

I rarely struggle with the words I hear at meetings these days. Yes, there are things that get said that I find absolutely ridiculous, but I am able to let them roll off me with little concern these days. I know what my understanding of a Higher Power is, and while I choose not to name it, I respect others who choose to do so, and even understand that some will choose to tell us that they choose to call their Higher Power by a name that used to rankle my soul and I can be at peace with that. I can be secure in the knowledge that regardless of how we talk about it we are all talking about the same thing.

I’ve tried to tell myself that perhaps it’s time to close up shop here. That maybe my work is done. I’ve also tried to convince myself that I should write about all the gifts of my sobriety. Not sure that either is the right path. What I do know is that I have to carry the message. I have to show others that there is a way out. I have to deal in hope.

Not long ago, I couldn’t imagine that I would live past the age of 50. I truly believed that my death was coming soon due to my drinking. And it was this certainty that formed the basis of my emotional bottom. I was not (am not) ready to die. I turned 46 this month and I don’t expect that I’ll die before 50 today.

I was reminded this week that life is short. I was reminded that this disease steals lives from not only its victims but also from those who love them.

When I first got to the rooms, I was frequently annoyed when the topic of gratitude came up. I didn’t feel that I had much to be grateful for. In fact, I felt that others owed me a debt of gratitude — that I was making a sacrifice by getting sober and that others owed me for that. As I’ve spent more time actually working with the concept of gratitude by writing gratitude lists, listening to others, and practicing meditation, I’ve come to love gratitude. Gratitude now fills me up and makes me whole when I am in a bad way. I have learned that I can be grateful for anything, large or small, and that by bringing this to mind I can change the course of my day.

I try to write in my journal every day and to close with three different things I’m grateful for each day. I focus on why I’m grateful for something and not just naming the thing. This makes a huge difference in how I respond to the practice of writing a gratitude list. It’s not enough to say I’m grateful for something — that doesn’t help me to be more grateful and live better — I have to express why something makes me grateful. That’s where the juice is.

My gratitude list is long on this Thanksgiving Day, but tonight I’m most grateful for the fact that I am alive — that I made it out of the woods and by continuing to do the right things have a good chance of staying in the sun. I’m grateful for this because I was not and am not ready to die. I have a life to live and message to carry.

I’m not a praying man, but I will send out a metta practice tonight for those still sick and suffering, in and out of the rooms.

Speaking My Truth, and My Truth Only

My story is pretty unspectacular. The abbreviated version is that I began drinking heavily in response to some unresolved trauma from my childhood triggered by the birth of my son. I subconsciously knew this at the time of my drinking and after getting sober I know this to be true to fact. I hadn’t always been a heavy drinker, there were times when I’d binged, but by my early thirties, I was pretty mellow.

Over the course of my first year of sobriety, I did a lot of listening at meetings. I heard many stories of the first drink holding some sort of magic. Stories where people had become addicted nearly instantaneously. Stories that were not my truth.

I also heard many sayings. Sayings that seemed to make some sense for many people, even if they didn’t make sense to me. Sayings that went counter to my understanding of the universe based on my own experience.

Gradually, I found myself adopting these sayings. I found myself changing my narrative to fit the stories I’d heard in the rooms. I began to believe that perhaps my drinking had been troubled all along. That perhaps I’d had a problem from the start. I began to believe this in my core. Until one day, I didn’t.

I was reviewing my life, once again, and I came to realize that no, I hadn’t been an alcoholic all my life. And even though I perhaps showed some tendencies early in my drinking career, my drinking had not adversely affected my early life. The narrative that I’d started to tell myself, was not my narrative. It was the common narrative of the group. I was adopting it even though there were parts of the story that weren’t true of me.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things that get said in the rooms. I’ve been thinking about how some of them resonate and others don’t. I’ve been thinking about how at times (particularly as I was changing my own personal narrative) some things resonated after they’d previously rang hollow.

And I’ve started to question things. How much of what gets said again and again in the rooms comes from a person’s own experience? How much of it is learned experience? How much is just being repeated because others have said it before?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I know that for some people what they say in meetings is their true experience. But I also know, that I found myself saying things as if they were my experience when they were, in fact, not from my experience.

I’ve learned that it’s important for me to be true to myself. I’ve learned that I need to be vigilant against adopting a narrative that is not my own. And I’ve learned that I have to be careful to share what is true in my experience rather than simply parroting the words that were said to me.

This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Imposter? I Don’t Think So.

im·pos·tor
imˈpästər
noun

a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.

synonyms: impersonator, masquerader, pretender, imitator, deceiver, hoaxer, trickster, fraudster, swindler

As I sit in the meeting, listening intently, trying to hear a message that I’ve not heard one hundred — (no, thousands) — times before, I hear only the same things over and over again. The medium might be different but the message is the same.

Meeting makers make it
I go to a meeting a day, sometimes two just for good measure.
This is my medicine, I need to take it daily
Your addiction is doing pushups in the parking lot

If you didn’t feel a great sense of relief when you did your 5th Step, you didn’t do it completely

The only way I know to stay sober is to be of service to others
If you don’t stay in the center of the herd, you’ll end up dead, in jail or institutionalized
If you don’t do all the steps, in order, you’re not going to stay sober.

And what I hear in all this is a familiar refrain. One that I’ve heard all my life. One that tells me that I’m not good enough. A refrain that tells me that I haven’t done things right. Over and over and over again, I hear the refrain:

You’re Doing This Wrong

And more often than not, today, I leave a 12 Step meeting with a deep sense that I’m an imposter, that I’ve gotten nothing out of the meeting, and perhaps worse, that I’ve contributed nothing to the meeting because what I have to share doesn’t fit the narrative so I keep it to myself.

I want to share that I’ve been sober for nearly three years, that my life has gotten immeasurably better, that my relationships with the people that I love are better than they have been in a long time, and that I’ve not done all 12 of the steps. I want to share that I’m not so sure that the 12 steps are as magical as they’re made out to be. I want to say that when I did my fifth step it was no big deal and I didn’t feel a great sense of relief after it, more of a “well, that’s done.”

I want to share that I feel strongly that I made a decision on September 23rd 2015 to stop drinking and that I needed the help of the fellowship to do that, but that I don’t struggle daily with the thought that I need a drink, and it’s not because I go to a meeting every day, and sometimes two for good measure.

And so, I wonder, am I doing this right? Have I missed something, or am I just an imposter.


Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

I’ve lived with it most of my life. When I was a kid, I was incredibly afraid that people would find out that I wasn’t cool. That I really couldn’t skateboard as well as I might have liked. In college, I was terrified that people would discovery that I really wasn’t working that hard on my studies despite my good grades (I wasn’t, sorry Mom.). My entire career has been in the world of information security, despite having a degree in English. I go to work every day wondering if people are actually going to believe that I know what I’m talking about, despite the fact that I’ve got over 20 years experience and have been recognized as a leader in ever role that I’ve ever had in my career.

So, why wouldn’t I doubt myself when it comes to being a sober man?  Especially when I hear messages that reinforce that I’m doing it wrong in ever meeting I go to?


This is not an indictment of the 12 Step model, or even a critique, its just a statement about my truth. My truth is that I have stayed sober for nearly three years for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was making a decision to abstain and having the support to achieve that goal.

When I walked in the doors of my first 12 Step meeting (this time) I knew deeply that I needed to change and I knew that the people in the rooms could help me. I knew that I needed to surround myself with people who were living a sober life. I was (and remain) powerless over alcohol, in that once I have my first drink all bets were off. I found the conversations about spirituality confusing at best, and annoying at worst. I’ve written about that extensively, so this is no surprise to my readers. But I found that the people in the rooms were warm, welcoming, and happy. And I wanted that desperately.

So I stuck around. And I found that the community was the most important part of the program for me. I found that in the beginning, daily meeting were necessary, but that over time as I became more comfortable in my own skin and gained surer footing walking this path, that I needed meetings less and less. Daily meetings became a few a week, a few a week became one a week. As my life became fuller, I had less time for meetings. And I am okay with that — until I go to a meeting and hear the messages that others need meetings daily and then I the doubt creeps in.

Some may recognize this in some way as fear mongering. That these repeated messages are meant to scare people into remaining in the 12 Step world. And that may in fact be a part of it, for some people — I’ve always said, “some of us are sicker than others.” But I’m not sure it’s that simple.

Recently I was discussing this with my wife. Ever insightful she said, “I think there are people who need to go to meetings ever day. I think there are people who, even several years in to sobriety, have thoughts of taking a drink daily. Who struggle with the decision to turn into the liquor store or the bar on the way home. But, you’re not one of them. The only way you’ll go out is if you make a conscious decision to take a drink.”

And I think she’s right about that. I don’t struggle with the idea of a drink, thankfully. Yes, the occasional thought crosses my mind, but these thoughts aren’t cravings or urges. They’re just thoughts. And I think there are many more people like me — people who got sober by going to a 12 Step group, who stayed a few years, and then stopped going to meetings. Like me, they don’t disparage the 12 Step world, they are grateful for it. And they know that if the time comes that they need to go to a meeting they can return.

When I think about my life, and I think about what it means if I don’t go to meetings, one thing that I worry about is the newcomer. I worry about the fact that if I’m not in meetings I won’t be there to help. Thats a fact of proximity and presence. But there are other ways to carry the message.

There are other messages that I hear in the rooms, less frequently, which I find incredibly valuable.

I didn’t get sober to spend all my life hiding in church basements.
I make my recovery the center of my life rather than my life.

I’m very active in the online recovery community — particularly on Twitter. Every time I engage with an addict or alcoholic on twitter and offer hope, I’m carrying the message. Every time I write a post here and broadcast it to my audience, I carry the message. But more importantly, each day that I live my life in accordance with the principles of the program — honesty, humility, service to others, and abstinence — I’m carrying the message.

Showing others, though example by my words and actions, that one can remain sober and live a rich and rewarding life is indeed carrying the message. And that’s what I’m doing. If that makes me an imposter, so be it. I know in my heart, that I’m enough, and that I’m living a better life than I ever did when I was drinking.