My 12 Steps: Step 5

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“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

While those of us going through a 12-step program can talk through step five with anyone we trust, I chose my sponsor, as do many people in recovery. As a fellow alcoholic/addict, she seemed to be the person most able to understand the “exact nature of [my] wrongs.” In step five, the aim is to come clean about past transgressions, which could range from thoughtless petty actions to long-buried sordid secrets. It made sense in theory; I’d usually felt relief in getting things off my chest in the past. However, in the past it had not been these particular things, the most unappealing and unflattering facts about myself I had to offer.

The source material for my step five came from writing out my step four —“a searching and fearless moral inventory.” For that step, my sponsor had given me forms with columns on them that helped me to organize my thoughts and identify situations and patterns of my own behavior that were troublesome. At the same time, this exercise set forth in black-and-white the variety of problems I had created for myself and hurtful things I’d done to others around me. It wasn’t easy, but it was enlightening.

By the time I was done with step four, I was painfully aware of my “potential areas for improvement,” as I might have heard it put in a performance review at work. Less diplomatically said, it was time to ‘fess up all of the selfish, nasty and offensive behavior in which I had previously engaged.

Beginning the Work of Step Five

My sponsor lived in a high-rise building in New Jersey, straight across the Hudson River from Manhattan. I arrived at her place early on a Saturday morning armed with my step four forms for discussion, a giant wad of clean tissues and a full pack of cigarettes. I anticipated a long day. My sponsor was even more prepared than I was: She had ready a 12-pack of Diet Coke, two different kinds of SnackWell’s cookies and a back-up pack of cigarettes.

We started with the Serenity Prayer, which is how we always begin step-work sessions. Then she repeated something that she told me when we first started working together. It had given me great comfort at the time and I now say it to any new sponsee I start working with as well: “Remember,” she told me, “there is absolutely nothing you can say that will make me mad at you or judge you as a human being.” It’s a simple statement, but one that allows for complete soul-baring in a way that I just cannot do with other people. This has always been a centerpiece of sponsorship for me — the existence of this safe space to say anything, no matter how despicable-sounding.

We spent close to six hours that day not just going over the list of awful things I’d done and said in the past, but also digging into why I had done and said them. It’s different for everyone, but my particular motivations almost always traced back to the same fears and insecurities I had carried around since childhood. I did things like lying, backstabbing and pushing others out of the way to get what I wanted not because I thought I deserved what I was after. Rather, I learned, the opposite was true. I didn’t believe that I was good enough or deserving enough to succeed on my own merits, so I’d take what I could from someone else. Screw the other person. It wasn’t pretty stuff. A lot of it fell somewhere between inconsiderate and unforgiveable on the selfishness scale.

As promised, my sponsor didn’t chastise or criticize me for any of the things I admitted. In fact, she shared some stories of her own past that weren’t so different than mine. I also didn’t feel like I was being psychoanalyzed. It wasn’t a confession; it was a conversation.

By the time I headed back into Manhattan at the end of the day, I felt as if I had just crawled out from underneath a gorilla that had been sitting on my chest. The relief didn’t come solely from telling someone else all the terrible secrets I’d been hiding. It also came from getting some understanding of why I had done those things and what I could work on to avoid those actions in the future. At that point in my sobriety, I had come to care about what type of a person I was, something I never cared about when I was drinking and blaming the rest of the world for my problems. Step work was helping me change how I thought about things and, therefore, acted.

Step five helped to dissolve the deep-seated feeling of isolation that came with so much hiding and lying. We say that “we’re only as sick as our secrets,” and now mine were out there, shared with someone I could trust. It wasn’t exactly like the blast of opening a freshly shaken can of soda, but pressure I hadn’t been able to articulate before was relieved, finally.

The other big bonus I discovered is that if I need to find humility, step five will get me there fast. Nothing will stomp out any creeping feelings of self-importance quite as firmly as running down the list of things I did when I was drinking. And if I can find humility, I can stop trying to direct everything in my life and those of the people around me. All I have to be is a friend among friends and a worker among workers. So far, I have found no better things to be.