Step 12: Give Others Hope

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Fundamentally, the 12 Steps are a roadmap for change as well as a guide for living a rich and full life. Whether one calls it a spiritual awakening or something else is immaterial. Some folks do feel that they have undergone a monumental psychic shift as the result of working through the steps. Others feel that the change is more subtle.

I personally suspect that the degree to which one feels a change is highly dependent upon how circumstances of their active addiction. For an addict who found himself or herself living on the street, steeling to survive, and living in constant fear, the shift is undoubtedly monumental. But for others who managed to keep their outward lives together while they suffered existential dread internally the shift may seem less dramatic, at least from outward appearances.

Personally, it took more than the 12 Steps for me to feel a fundamental shift in my outlook on life. Specifically it has taken the support of friends and family as well as trauma therapy. I began trauma therapy about nine months ago and as I’ve learned what triggers me, how to recognize with these triggers, and how to be with these triggers in the moment, I have felt a calmness that I’ve never known before in my life.

Many people do find this calmness through the 12 Steps. I didn’t. I felt just the opposite for a long time because the 12 Steps tripped my triggers. I am triggered by the word God. I am triggered by the the notion of an omniscient, omnipresent, and benevolent deity. The root of these triggers are in my life experience. I suffered spiritual trauma when I was told that my birth father could never go to heaven because he died of suicide. Additionally, my life experience is at odds with the idea that there is a benevolent deity directing the world — my direct experience is the opposite. The universe is chaos.

And yet, I’ve learned to accept this. I’ve learned that even if the universe is chaotic, it can still be a power greater than myself. I’ve learned that the mystery of the universe shows me that there is something more out there. Something that deeply connects us to all other things in the universe.

Recently, I was reminded of the scientific Law of Conservation of Mass, which states that matter can not be created or destroyed. When I consume food, that matter gets converted into either cells in my body or waste. For my rational brain, this is proof enough of the interconnectedness of everything in the universe.

For the past few months, I’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist church and have found in this church a welcoming of my skepticism. It’s as if I suddenly found a bunch of people who think like me. Who suspect that there is something out there but who may not always be sure. The church is welcoming of theists, non-theists, atheists and agnostics. There is very little dogma. They don’t tell me how to believe. And that’s what I needed. This is my spiritual tribe, at least for now.

Importantly, I couldn’t have considered attending this church without going through the therapy process. I needed to deprogram old thinking and old patterns of behavior that no longer served me.

In the 12th step, we are asked to carry the message to other alcoholics. I believe the message is simple. There is a way out of the horrors of addiction and we can have a happy, healthy, and full life without the bondage of addiction. In short, it is a message of hope.

That is what I felt when I came into the rooms in 2015, a great sense of hope. Hope that I could turn things around. Hope that I could feel better. Hope that I could get the monkey off my back. Hope that I could be free. Hope that I might live past fifty years old.

Interestingly, when I was in high school I knew the importance of hope. In a very dark time I scrawled out a short poem that likened life to a matchstick. It shines bright and strong. Intense and dramatic after being lit. And then it’s over. The poem asked the question, if there’s nothing more than this life “why even spark the match?” Years later, one of my teachers found this poem tucked inside my old social studies book and got it to my mother.

And so, when I was confronted in therapy with the question, “what does a God provide to people who believe?” I knew the answer even if I wasn’t ready to accept it. The answer is hope and meaning.

And hope was vital. Without hope, my recovery would not have been possible. And so, even if I don’t like the words, I’ve had what one might call a spiritual awakening.

We need to be able to see that there is a way out of the things that we struggle with. We need to see that our struggles are part of the human condition. All humans struggle with “character defects.” All humans have problems with their egos. All humans have thoughts that if given voice might cause others to pause, to be taken aback. There is nothing unique or special about alcoholics and addicts that predisposes us to these things. The difference is how we have attempted to cope. Alcoholics and addicts have attempted to numb the pain of being human. But numbing the pain doesn’t make it go away.

What helps in times of struggle is the belief that the present reality won’t always be the reality. That things can and will get better. It doesn’t matter what the struggle is — it may be addiction but it may be something else — the message of hope is the answer.

I carry the message of hope with me in my daily life. Through my words and actions, I share it with others who are struggling. Sometimes in one on one conversations, sometimes in tweets with the RecoveryPosse on Twitter, and sometimes here on this blog.

Step 5: Unburdening Ourselves and Finding a Path To Forgiveness

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

Early in recovery (and as a recovering Catholic), this step reminded me of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, better known as Confession. In my younger years this meant going into a stall where there was a thin veil between me and a creepy old man who wanted me to admit all my failures in life. It was particularly important to discuss impure thoughts and impure actions. That’s right, sex fantasies and masterbasion. This was supposedly the only way to actually commune with God, through another human being, in a creepy space, talking about creepy things. Is it any wonder that I became agnostic?

So, I ignored the part about God in this step. It’s as simple as that.

In most situations people working through step 5 share their fourth step inventory with their sponsor. This has become the convention in the 12 step community, but it’s important to recognize that this is not a requirement. The requirement is that the fourth step inventory is shared with another human being and the book makes it clear that this may be a friend, a doctor, a therapist or even a member of the clergy.

Regardless of who you choose to share your fourth step inventory it should be with someone whom you trust and someone who will not divulge your story to others. In short it must be someone who you feel safe sharing your inventory with openly and honestly.

No one should feel obligated to share their story with a sponsor. If you do, it’s probably time to reconsider your sponsor choice. This is my opinion and is not fact but I feel strongly about this because the approach to the fourth step recommended in the book can have undesired consequences in some situations, particularly when working with a sponsor who has no formal training.

The book emphasizes that we must find our part in the resentments we carry with us. I know people who were asked what “their part” was in their childhood sexual abuse by insensitive sponsors, and subsequently relapsed because of their guilt and shame.

As I mentioned in the last post I spent an afternoon talking with my sponsor about my fourth step inventory. It was a good experience and I was able to recognize that he and I are both human, and as such subject to faults.

Many of the people I’ve met over the years talk of a great feeling of relief that accompanies the fifth step. With no disrespect meant to my sponsor, I cannot say that I felt this great unburdening.

This was not because the session with my sponsor was unsatisfactory or unproductive. Prior to coming into recovery I’d been to see several therapists in my life. I already knew the value of sharing my dark thoughts and secrets. I’d already experienced the great relief that came from talking honestly about my past. And so, this conversation was no big deal for me.

I felt the same relief that comes from unburdening myself as I’d felt in the past. I can imagine however that it would have been more momentous if I’d never experienced the healing that accompanies the brutal honesty required in telling our stories to a trusted human being. Indeed, that’s exactly how I’d felt after the first few sessions with a professional therapist.

Sadly, in the United States, we have a problem with access to health care, mental health care in particular. Of all the providers I’ve ever seen in my adult life only one or two had accepted insurance. There is a very real economic burden associated with quality mental health care in our country. This may be why the fifth step figures so prominently in the lives of so many in recovery. Many of us have never been afforded this opportunity before in our lifetimes. I am grateful that I have been privileged to have the access to quality health care that I have.

The fifth step is about getting honest and sharing our the truth of our lives with another trusted human being. There is something powerful to giving voice our darkest secrets and our transgressions. There is something powerful in just being heard.

It is also about forgiveness, and maybe this is why the recovering Catholic in me saw the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the step. However it’s not that we are forgiven by the listener, rather as we become more aware of our selves, the patterns that have driven our behaviors, the fact that we are not the worst person in the history of the universe, and hopefully that we have some assets as well as our defects; we can find it within us to forgive ourselves. That’s when healing begins.

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 1: No Control, Negative Impacts

 

This is the first post in a series that I’m working on about the 12 Steps and what they mean to me in my recovery.


We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.

By the time I finally made it into the rooms, I really didn’t care what this step meant. I was defeated and I was ready to surrender. I’d performed the mental masturbation that many of us perform about the exact meaning of the words of this step so many times in the two years that lead up to me entering the room of that 6:00 AM meeting on September 23, 2015 and I’d finally decided that really, it just didn’t matter. The pain was too much to bear any longer. I would figure it out later. Or I wouldn’t. I had no idea. I just knew that I needed help and that I couldn’t do it on my own.

I’d been hung up on two words in this step for years. powerless and unmanageable.

I’d reasoned over and over again that I couldn’t be powerless over alcohol because there were times when I could have just one drink. In my mind powerlessness had to mean that I had absolutely no control. That I couldn’t go a day without drinking. That I had to be drinking in the morning, dawn to dusk. I saw it in a very black and white way. It never occurred to me that having one drink at lunch, waiting a few hours, and then drinking half a fifth, wasn’t exactly the portrait of self control.

And unmanageable. My life was not unmanageable. I had never had a DUI. I’d never missed a day of work. I’d never stolen. I’d never had a bar fight. I’d never done anything or suffered any significant consequences as a result of my drinking.

It never occurred to me that the pain I had in my right side under my ribs, might be considered unmanageable, even if I knew that it was surely a sign of my liver being inflamed. The bruised tailbone that resulted when I slipped on the ice while drinking around the bonfire in the neighbors driveway during a snow storm couldn’t possibly be a sign of unmanageability. Temporarily losing my hearing in my left ear might have been, in point of fact, be a sign that my life was going off the rails — but I sure didn’t register it as such. Nor did it seem odd to me that I carried a pack of wet-ones in my briefcase because my bowl movements were either horrendously loose or incredibly sticky and I had trouble cleaning my rear.

I had solutions to these trivial problems. I was managing fine.

I may not have suffered dire consequences, but I suffered. I suffered from shame and guilt. I have said to people that while I never lost any possessions, any privileges, my wife or my family, I lost something that every alcoholic loses at some point.

I lost my self respect.

Oh, the delusions of addiction.

With time, I learned that Step 1 was a 100% accurate depiction of my drinking. I may have never felt powerless over alcohol, but alcohol certainly held a power over me. And my life, while I was barely holding it together was not manageable.

Today, I think of Step 1 a bit differently. Instead of dissecting the words of the original step, I think about what it means to me. And what it means to me is that I can’t drink normally and when I do drink it doesn’t improve my life.  I know for a fact that if I have a single drink, all bets are off.  I know that I am powerless over alcohol after that first drink.

I also know that if I were drinking, it wouldn’t improve my life in any way.  In fact it would negatively impact my life.  All of those mysterious ailments I mentioned earlier — from the pain under my ribs to the shit sticking to my butt — they are all gone.  And those aren’t the only ways drinking impacted my life negatively.  I’ve been able to do things that I could have never dreamed of doing when drinking.  From simple things like going to the store after 7:00 PM without risking a DUI, to being an adult leader in my son’s Cub Scout Pack and a Committee member in his current BSA Troop.

So today, when I think of Step 1, I think of it as follows:

I admitted that I couldn’t control my drinking and it was negatively affecting my life.

Prior to entering the rooms, I spent a lot of time trying to answer the question, “Am I an alcoholic?”   I googled it.  I took the tests (dishonestly).  I asked my wife (who told me that I was the only one who could answer that, as Al-Anon had taught here).  I asked my friends (who had no idea what the full picture was).  I questioned the meaning of the words powerless and unmanageable.

I was asking the wrong questions.  The only question that needs to be asked is: “Does my drinking negatively impacting my life?”

If you ask yourself this question and your honest answer is yes, and you’d like to change it, then you’re ready to take Step 1.

So, this is where I am

The thoughts that I’d been having over the past few days stuck with me into the evening yesterday.  Despite my best efforts to occupy my mind with other things including listening to music, playing my acoustic guitar, opening up my electric guitar to see if I could fix it (it’s busted and probably will not be worth repairing), and taking a long walk in the cold air, I had trouble shaking those thoughts.

So, I went to a meeting.  And that helped.  As I walked into the meeting I thought to myself, “I sure hope this speaker is a good one.” And she was.  She had a story to tell, but more importantly she was good at conveying a message of hope.  I went to bed last night with good thoughts in my mind.

And then this morning came around. Continue reading