When I was newly sober, having a list of amends to make was like having a big pile of bills to pay. And I hate that feeling: a stack of checks to write and a list of people and places I owe. It’s just always on my mind, lingering in the back row like somebody murmuring behind you at the movies. When I stopped drinking my conscious woke up and I start hearing the voices of remorse.
And then there was that one time when I was in high school that I stole a whole bunch of books from the public library. It was way back when shoplifting was easy. Go in with a nearly empty backpack, load it up with Hobbit adventures, and walk out. Just be careful and it was really that easy. I didn’t feel any guilt at the time because for whatever reason in my head, the world owed me.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. — Step 8 of Alcoholics Anonymous
When I got to the Eighth Step I was kind of disappointed that they use the word “harmed.” I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the thought of me actually hurting people. We get a taste of peace after working the previous steps and then Step Eight comes crashing in like a bowling ball. Announcing we’d done harm.
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. — Step 2 of Alcoholics Anonymous
The drug and alcohol treatment center I went to in the early 90s was 12-step based. Their treatment plan was to have patients complete the first five steps in order to graduate. When working Step Two, we spent a good chunk of time making lists of how and why we were insane. Those lists were easy to make but in the here-and-now I kinda think they missed the point.
The point of this step isn’t to review what we’ve done in order to convince ourselves that we have a drug or alcohol problem, that in fact we were insane. Insanity is fairly obvious when you’re ready to stop. I’ve felt insane in my fingertips.
The Second Step is about finding something bigger that we can believe in to “restore us to sanity” with “restore” being the keyword in the latter half of the step. I’m not here to define insanity. That’s looking at the problem and keeps me stuck.
I have plenty of them “and then one time” stories along the lines of… on Christmas Eve when the family and I were all decorating the tree, I would sneak down to the basement every so often and take a big pull off my whiskey bottle. And then before the night was over my ex-wife was saying to me teary-eyed, “are you drunk?”
Crazy, I know it all too well. I’m much more interested in looking for hope now, in reinstalling some sanity now that my jugs are plugged. And pay attention to this: it’s not “will restore” but “could restore.” We have to let that power in.
The good news is that I was sane when I was a little kid. Children are pure, they’re untainted. They aren’t born with judgement or resentment or anxiety. Through a higher power’s help I was able to find my way back to a sound mind, a stable way of living as a grownup. Anxiety free more often than not.
And then there was that one time not long ago when I was having dinner by myself at Denny’s. Looking around the restaurant, there I was the only person flying solo. Eating alone isn’t my favorite thing to do but whatever. I mostly have self-assurance. I generally have peace. I can be by myself in public. I have my phone. I have the whole Internet.
On one of the social medias I saw a picture of my ex-wife. With her boyfriend. And they were smiling at each other. And there I was sitting by myself.
At one point in my career that was a recipe for emotional overload.
But get this: by no choice of my own, I was honestly happy for them. Because I could see they had something going on between them that she and I hadn’t had for a long time. Happy because I always wanted the very best for her and looking at that picture I knew the “very best” wasn’t me. She had found it with someone else.
Because I had closure, because I had walked through that breakup’s phenomenal pain, I could be sincerely happy for them in the here and now. Even though I was alone with my fork and knife, a power greater than me had served me up some sanity.
One time several years ago I woke her up at 6:00 in the morning because I had lost my mind and I needed to tell her that she had played a part in all of that. This alcoholic had gone crazy when he first sobered up. Life was staring me straight in the face like a loaded gun. Waking her up before the sun was even shining was me embracing and exercising insanity in my daily life. Spilling it onto her life.
Moving from that kind of early morning, alarm clock crazy to being truly happy for her at Denny’s, that’s being restored to sanity. And not by my own doing.
How and when does that restoration happen? How does one move from alarm clock crazy to genuine happiness for another?
With failed marriages and sour breakups time is always key factor. I needed some distance, needed some room for my mind to breathe, to detach from the things that were making me crazy. It was hard not to see only darkness when I was living in darkness.
Before I could detach and let go, though, I needed to feel all those feelings. Those scary ones I’d kept locked up in me, down in the basement. I can’t move on from something if I’ve never dealt with it, never processed the madness. Hence moral inventory and amendments.
So the simple and yet hard answer is that we’re restored to sanity by working the steps. It’s really that simple. And go to meetings. And talk with our sponsor, too.
As Jerry said not long ago, “and then the pay off is peace.”
I had peace that night at Denny’s. Peace for me and peace with her.
After I let go, after I came to believe, I found out that that peace was what I had always wanted.
For a while I had confused the word “practice” with “perfected” in Step 12:
Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and had practiced perfected these principles in all our affairs. — Step 12 of Alcoholics Anonymous
I thought that because I’d worked all the other steps and had arrived at number 12 that I should be over some hump. Maybe even overflowing with love while walking with spiritual principles or whatever.
Like I had crossed some finish line because I had had a spiritual awakening.
It wasn’t something that I consciously thought. I knew the step used the phrase “practiced these principles”, similar to applying them but for whatever reason I was holding myself to a “perfected” standard.
Of course then would feel like I was coming up short.
But… Just because I’ve had that spiritual awakening that doesn’t mean I’ve perfected anything. I have to continue to practice much the way Maggie needs to practice her cello.
Granted with working the others steps and making it to twelve I have been elevated to a new plane of existence but I’m not cured or healed. By any stretch.
Okay that “elevated” part sounds a bit arrogant. But I have changed.
It’s funny how our minds can know something but then deeper down we believe something else.
If something’s bothering me, I should investigate. Even if it seems minor. If anything is making me feel bad about me, something’s wrong, no matter how slight or subdued or subliminal it may feel.
I’m overly fond of how they worded all of AA’s Twelve Steps.Case in point: the 11th Step.
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. — Step 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous
It doesn’t say that we pray in the morning and meditate in the afternoon or whatever. It says that we continued to seek, it doesn’t say when or where or how. The reason they didn’t put it on a schedule is because some people might work the third shift.
It’s really that simple. It’s not up to me to assume that everybody else’s life is just like mine and they need to work the steps just as I do.
Sometimes I kneel when I pray. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes my prayers last five seconds and sometimes they’re extended. Sometimes all my heart and soul are in them. Sometimes I’m just mouthing the words. That’s okay. Because I’m praying.
I never sit Indian style with my hands on my knees and meditate either. That doesn’t work for me. I either end up falling asleep or thinking about something nonsensical. And the point of meditation for me is to quiet my mind. To listen. To not to have all the crazy monkey chatter going on. Just shut it all down and let my thoughts come and go as they please.
It doesn’t matter. However I do it is fine so long as I continue to do it. “Continue” and “sought” are the first two keywords in the 11th Step.
Only seeking God’s will when I pray is also important. One of my most often prayers in early recovery was:
“God, I don’t care what happens just help me accept it.”
Prayers for me don’t work. Prayers for God’s will do. They keep me focused. They keep me out of what I want and in what’s really important.
And after I pray I meditate. Sometimes only for a moment, sometimes more. I put myself out there and I need to be open to the cosmos sending something back.
God speaks to us. Directly. It took me a long time to let go of the notion that God is separate from us. That God’s somewhere else, far away. But I don’t believe that God is anymore. I believe that God is here. Right here. Right now. With me, with each of us. In this very room. Or wherever you’re reading this.
Quiet your mind and feel the presence. We’re never alone. Tune out the static. It’s irrelevant. Embrace the peace.
If you’re not familiar with AA’s Twelve Steps, don’t worry none. Just follow along and you’ll get the gist.
When I worked Step One I was in horrible, emotional pain. Nightmarish pain that’d wake me up at night. Day in and day out pain unlike anything I’d felt in my life.
And that pain was with me up until after I’d worked my Fifth Step. Then after Step Seven I started to really feel that peace, that everything was gonna be okay. That overwhelming and underlying good feeling that comes from walking a spiritual path.
When I started making my Eighth Step list I wasn’t motivated by pain so much anymore to finish the steps. I was motivated because I wanted something more than what I’d always had in life. I wanted more of the happiness that I’d been given. I was still willing to do whatever it took to stay sober but the willingness came from a different place.
For maybe half of my life I’ve been unhappy. Discontent with how my life was going, what I was doing. Sitting where I do now I know that unhappiness is on me. Sure, I was just doing what I knew how to do but I’d made myself miserable. I wanted something more from life and I knew that making the Eighth Step list and making my Ninth Step amends would help change fundamentally who I was. I’m passive in life and stepping outside of myself, going beyond my limitations was something I knew I could do. And it all started with asking god for help. And being willing, of course.
So when I got home from work today I tried to take a nap but I just couldn’t rest for whatever reason. I went downstairs and the cats were yelling because their food bowl wasn’t full enough. Then the robot vacuum tangled itself up in the Christmas tree skirt and was about to tumble down the stairs.
With not getting a nap and the cats and the vacuum, I was losing my patience. Ugh. Plus, I hadn’t had dinner yet.
So then I’m eating cereal and trying to read my meditation books, snap me out of whatever funk I’m in. I picked up the first one and rolled my eyes. Ya, I know about that. I picked up the second one and was like, “fuck I’ve read all of this before.”
I felt like the disgruntled person that I’d been most of my life. Restless, frustrated, and overall just discontent.
When I picked up the third one it’s about a caterpillar on a leaf. YES. It sounded a straightforward bell, something simple that I could latch onto. A concept without complex thoughts and overly wordy spiritual truths.
So the caterpillar spends much of his life eating the same leaves, day in and day out. But then something happens and it grows into something more, it turns into a butterfly. It can fly wherever it wants, sample the sweet nectar from a whole world of flowers. It’s not limited to the leaves that it’s always had. It’s been graced with a newly found freedom.
It got me thinking that I can eat the same leaves I always have. I can have my same life. I can be constantly frustrated and throwing my hands up in the air. Or I can let go and do something different. Be something different. I can be a fruity butterfly.
I got on my knees afterward and prayed, asked God for help, help me live that better kind of life. That I know about.
After I said my prayers the cats came over, trying to love on me. And then I gave them some love back. Life’s just not about me. When I get outside of myself and do for others, life takes on a new meaning. One that feels full.
Even though I’ve been sober I still need to pray for willingness, still need to pray for help. It’s that old saying that “just because I got sober doesn’t mean I get to stay sober.” Sometimes the dysfunction kicks in and I just want to give up, hide from my responsibilities, and not deal with life.
But really I don’t want that life anymore though. I’m willing to do whatever it takes just like I became willing to make my amends. I want my life to have meaning, to have purpose.
I want it to be big. Cosmically big. Butterfly big.
People always say that the 12 steps are in order for a reason. I guess I never really paid that much attention to that statement until after I was in recovery for a year or so. Looking back on my experience with Step 4 I know there’s no way in hell that I would’ve been able to write a searching and fearless moral inventory if I didn’t have a concept of God that I believed in. I just wouldn’t have.
Writing them was hard (I’ve done two) and I felt all kinds of feelings with the second one. Anger, shame, guilt, regret. Horror. Felt all the things that drinking kept me from feeling. I had burning resentments and sexual traumas. Had broken friendships and ruined relationships. And more.
I needed to pray for the strength to make it through, pray to that God concept each and every time I started writing. All those feelings I’d kept hidden under blankets and in boxes in the basement came up and out. Like boiling bubbles in a stock pot. I was finally feeling what I should’ve been feeling all along when I was drinking. Being in touch with that hideousness forced me to lean on, rely on that Higher Power. Reaffirm my decision to turn my will and life over to the care of God. Remember that a better way of life lay on the other side.
And I was willing to feel and deal with all my monsters if that meant that I didn’t have to drink again. If that meant that I didn’t have to be the person that I’d become. Be the person that I hated. That I was. I was willing to work the Fourth Step if it meant that I could be somebody new. Be a sober me.
Back in the Second Step it talks about being restored to sanity. Writing the Fourth Step is part of how and when that restoration happens. It’s part of how my life became manageable again.
This step also gives us the freedom to make our inventory however necessary, with the guidance of a sponsor of course. It doesn’t even say that we “wrote” it but only that we “made” it. I pay close attention to the wording of the steps as they are the program, they’re how we get and stay sober.
As an aside I got into a minor debate once with someone regarding if everyone should actually “write” their inventory. We need our sponsor’s input on how we make it and that doesn’t always mean that we write it. Why not? If a person is blind or if a person can’t read or write, then they need to do what works best for them to make their inventory.
The most important thing is that we make it. Don’t complicate or procrastinate.
I was also relived to find out that we don’t need to make a complete inventory but only a “searching and fearless” one. I wrote the best one I could at the time and the Tenth Step allows me to self-analyze and follow up on issues later as needed.
And after I put the pen down (because I wrote mine), I realized that doing my Fourth Step hadn’t kill me. It was horrible for sure but I made it through with only a deflated ego. And that was one of the best things that needed to happen to this alcoholic.
I also finally got some real relief. The kind of relief that drinking never gave me. Relief at the spiritual level. All of my secrets were no longer secrets, they were out in the open. At least on paper. After carrying around emotional trauma for so long it felt good when I was done.
So I made an inventory the best I could, took a look at the things that were holding me back, that were standing in the way of me being the best me that I could. And I thank God for the help I was given. Without God, I wouldn’t have been able to write those words.
Back when I was drinking I wasn’t enough. Inside. I wanted something, anything to tell me that I was. And one of those things I wanted, probably the biggest was “more.”
Not just more drinking but more “doing”, too. Constantly feeling on the go, I got this to do and that to do. Doing more, wanting more. More, more, more.
And then when I would actually do something, I never felt like I could commit to it because everything else I had to do was on my mind as well.
Looking back now I can see that underneath all of that “more”, I felt that if I could just get all these things done, then I’d be happy. That you’d be happy with me. I’d feel like that I was enough. That I’d accomplished something with my life. That I’d be a complete person like everybody else. It’s the textbook example of a “human doing” instead of a “human being.” As it were.
What’s more is that when people would ask me to do something, I’d be like “sure, okay” even if I didn’t want to, even if I felt like they were just out for themselves. I’d already be juggling too many balls but hey, what’s one more up in the air? More is good, right?
It’s no wonder I felt overwhelmed for most of my life.
So getting sober, being sober I had to learn how many balls I could actually juggle. I had to learn how and when to say “no.” And learning how to say “no” to myself came a lot easier than learning how to say “no” to other people.
By working the 12 steps, going to meetings, hanging out and talking with other people in recovery and my sponsor, I learned how to live sober. I learned how to be assertive and accept what I can do and what I can’t do.
We learn our lessons, we learn our skills one day at a time, one conversation at a time. We’re not going to master life in an hour. It takes time to absorb new concepts and then practice them in our daily lives. Even more so when you’re like me and have a whole slew of unhealthy behaviors to let go of first.
I can’t say enough for setting boundaries either. There’s plenty of people that also want “more.” And they will try to take their “more” from us, too. And we’ll have to learn how to deal with them if we want to be at peace with ourselves.
Step 10 from Alcoholics Anonymous reminds me to continually look at my inventory, see what’s going on and how I feel. And then Step 11 reminds me that I need to look for God’s will and the power to carry that out.
Similar to before, it’s easier for me to see when my will differs from God’s. But then it’s a little trickier to figure out where someone else’s will and God’s will differ. Like when someone would ask me to do something and then I thought that was God’s will, God wanting me to step up and do whatever.
And sometimes it is. But then also sometimes it isn’t. There’s plenty of people in the world that will take advantage of us, that will try to use and manipulate us. When they ask something of us that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s God‘s will and that we have to do it.
I think that it could be God‘s will that a lesson just came into my life through those people. And that lesson very well could be learning how to and continuing to practice saying “no.”
We were talking about the Serenity Prayer last night in a meeting, accepting the things that we cannot change and so on. Sometimes I have a whole list of things I need to do. Chores and groceries and errands and bills and laundries. Being responsible is something that I can’t really change. So I prioritize, do what I can each day, and let that be good enough. If I’m in a good spiritual place that will come relatively easy.
It’s important to remember there’s more to the Serenity Prayer than just acceptance.
I sometimes forget that. The prayer isn’t about me blindly accepting whatever comes along as God’s will. There’s also the “courage to change the things I can.” And sometimes that’s me telling another person “no.” That I’m not going to cosign their bullshit. As it were. I’m not letting you have any more of my stuff.
Jimi told me once not to do something I didn’t really want to do. Yeah, sometimes I’m being lazy and don’t want to do whatever but there’s also times when I don’t feel comfortable with what someone is asking. In those situations I need to find the wisdom to know the difference between a- if I’m being self-centered and b- if me doing whatever will only end up hurting me.
I find that wisdom by pausing. If someone asks me to do something and I’m not completely on board with it then me saying, “let me get back to you on that” is the best thing that I can do. I don’t work well under the spotlight, I need time to inventory and seek God’s will before I agree to something. And God will show me the path because “god could and would if sought.”
Jimi also reminds me often that we’re entitled to serenity, that it’s our divine right to peace and happiness. If I look at the first three words of the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me”, they support that entitlement.
To wrap this up, I’m not trying to juggle more balls these days. I don’t want that quest. I want inner peace.
Having “more”, doing “more” doesn’t make me feel good or complete. Being right with God, being right with me, and being right with you guys, that does.
When I was drinking I would hurt people, because that’s what I did when I was drinking, and then I would feel bad and avoid them. Sometimes go out of my way not to see them. And then when the day came around that I did, I would hang my head in shame and hope that they had forgotten.
My guilt would pile up like garbage. The trash can would be overflowing, shit falling on the floor, and I’d just ignore it. But then I’d walk by the guilty trash pile and step on something and it’d stick to my shoe and I’d be like…
“Dude just get off”
And that’s how I lived.
We talk in 12 step meetings about how the steps change us, make us better people. How they awaken our spirits. And with that I was thinking about Steps 8 and 9 recently and the cool thing about working them is that years later when I have something to do, amends to be made, or whatever I know that there is freedom after I walk through it. After I sweep up and take out my trash I’ll feel better. “Freedom from bondage of self” as it’s written.
The first time I was making my list, preparing to make those amends and so on, I had all kinds of anxiety and fear because I’d never done something like that before. Not something that monumental anyways. I didn’t have much experience with facing not only what I had done but also facing the other person. I didn’t know what was going to happen or how it was all gonna work out. So many unknowns. And unknowns are scary. Plus, I felt bad for what I’d done that led me to the person’s door in the first place.
People in the meetings said it was going to be okay and I knew that it was going to be okay just from earlier step work. But right then it wasn’t okay. Because I hadn’t made them. I was still living with the burden of my trash heap.
So in the here and now, because I went through the whole amends process, became willing, and knocked on people’s doors, I know there’s good stuff on the other side. I can rely on my past experience of taking action. I have that benefit now. The steps not only clear away the “wreckage of the past” but also give us the skills to live a clean life moving forward. Steps 8 and 9 are “training for Step 10” as John recently said.
Walking around with something on my mind, something that I need to do it really bothers me in the here and now. After having a clear conscience and knowing what a blue sky feels like, whenever my conscience isn’t clear it grinds on my emotional gears. It’s like life comes to a halt. It interferes with my relationship with god, with the cosmos, with you guys.
Today, I don’t have to walk around a trash pile. I know what to do. I can reach out to whoever now and be done with it. I won’t have to wonder if someone’s still mad or hurt because I can take responsibility for what I did. I can simply say “I was being an ass. And I’m sorry.“ It can really be that simple.
Then all that burden, all that discord, it goes away. Doing that kinda thing is how come I’m happy today. It’s how I get to live my life fully in the present. Not looking back, not feeling bad, but enjoying everything this very moment has to offer. There’ll be no fucking trash on the floor.
Also, just knowing that a relationship can be repaired or set back on track is a wonderful feeling. Just knowing that it will no longer be an obstacle, that I don’t have to avoid someone or not look them in the eye. Just knowing it’s gonna be okay gives me hope, gives me relief, gives me the motivation to clean it up.
And it will also make the other person’s day just that much better. They can have and share in that same freedom, in that same closure. They deserve it more than I do.
I’ll never forget the look on his face after I said, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” His eyes teared up the same as mine as we shared that moment, as we both let go of a shard of glass that was holding us back. That was keeping us from having the best relationship possible. We shared in that release. I’ll doubt if you’ll find something better than that.
After I’d been sober for a number of years I relapsed. It wasn’t something that I thought was gonna happen. And also, it didn’t “just happen” either.
So with that being said I feel qualified, I feel confident, I feel like I’m able to talk about relapse overall. I have experience with it.
I didn’t have any deep, dark, dank secrets. I didn’t hold anything back when writing my Fourth Step and I didn’t hold anything back when sharing my Fifth Step. I made all of the amends on my Eighth Step list. I was more spiritual than I’d ever been my whole life.
So why did I relapse?
Because I quit going to meetings. I quit hanging out with people in recovery and hung out instead with “normal” people. that drank like normal people do. We had a lot in common those “normal” ones, similar interests and so on. We could bond over things I couldn’t with people in the meetings.
And really we alcoholics aren’t that much different from them. I’ve known plenty of “normal” people who had resentments, who’d been plagued with fear their whole life, who felt lost and couldn’t find their way.
Anyways with my relapse, somehow I had convinced myself that I was okay, that me drinking was okay. Plain and simple: I’d lost touch with where I’d came from.
And I write this because I hear people talk who say that the reason alcoholics relapse is because they have reservations. And I think it’s bullshit to say that everyone who’s relapsed didn’t work the steps to their full ability. I’ve heard that in meetings.
And further I’ve known people who have relapsed or were in the midst of a relapse who were and still are more spiritual, more kind, more compassionate and caring then those 20+ year sober guys who think they know it all. And obviously something is lacking in their program if they’re up there pounding their fists at the soapbox about a relapse they never had.
Yes, some people do relapse because there’s a secret that they don’t want to tell or they never found the humility or willingness to make a certain amend or whatever. But that’s not fucking everybody.
Okay, obviously I have some emotion behind this but just to be clear, just because you’ve never relapsed that doesn’t mean that you can come along and tell me that I didn’t do something right the first time. Or that you can make some broad assumption, or borderline accusation against everyone who has relapsed.
Be careful with airs of intolerance or ones of arrogance. They’ll get you in trouble. Further, you’re the authority on your recovery, not mine. And further still, my relapse doesn’t discount my previous recovery. It doesn’t wipe the sobriety slate clean or take away the decade plus I was sober. It only makes my recovery now that much better.
And lastly while I’m picking bones… Who cares if I would have been sober for over 25 years if I hadn’t relapsed. I’m not keeping score. Why are you?