My Experience with Steps 6 & 7
When I first got sober, I couldn’t recognize any character defects in myself for the first few months. See, I was such a nice lying, cheating, manipulative, self-pitying, ass-kissing, two-faced gossip, how could you hold it against me? Selfish? Me? No more than the next guy!
I was raised in an alcoholic home and had carried a secret compulsive disorder for most of my life. If denial were an Olympic event, I think my whole family would make the US team. I can see us in snazzy team unitards with EVERYTHING’S FINE! emblazoned across the chest. Always, when I was drinking, it seemed to me I did what I had to do to survive; I believed my own story. Or at least, my public relations stand with myself was that my own story was to be believed. But deeper down, even years before I got sober, I hid the heavy, dark acknowledgment that I was full of shit.
The first defects to go were lying, cheating, and stealing. From the beginning of my young adult years, I’d lived off the high of infatuation, which I found ways to manufacture. Since I’d learned from my family that I was not enough, the star of approval that would cure my insecurity lay always outside me, carried by certain designated hotties. First, I’d notice you had it. For weeks I’d stalk you, thrilling each time I caught a glimpse. Eventually we’d become friends and drink together. This is when I could really let it rip, confiding in you how my current partner didn’t understand me, held me back like some kind of jailor. You’d empathize, unaware that I was frickin’ FLYIN’ ON DOPAMINE in your presence. Your attention made me pretty, charming, and deep. It was heaven! The more I reeled you in, the closer I got to clinching that gold star. But once I had you, once you’d given me both your heart and the star, the fucker turned to tinfoil. You farted. You told the same story twice. You were, in short, human. So before you knew it, you became the jailor, and I was off looking for someone new to commiserate with about you. I repeated this cycle every five years. Three times.
With my first partner in sobriety, I quit that game. I never looked at other women – or men. I was done with that. I also gave up flirting. Why? Because flirting sends a message that I’m interested and available, and if I’m neither, I need to knock it the fuck off. I also quit stealing. Mine had been wimpy theft – padding the tip jar, pocketing office supplies – taking what I told myself I deserved. But now, I walked back into stores if I found something in my cart I’d not been charged for. When a cash dispenser gave me an extra $20, I turned it in. And when my employer put an extra paycheck in my account, I called and reported it. Twice: Not. My. Money.
Next to go were those defects listed by my sponsor during my first 5th step, about 2.5 years into sobriety. She wrote:
- Playing god: casting, directing, scripting (I believed you ought to do whatever worked best for me)
- People pleasing (to get you on my side, cause I might need you later)
- Dominant (cooler than you) / dependent (you’re cooler than me) dichotomy
- Self pity
I was not allowed, she said, to rate people higher or lower on a coolness scale anymore. We were all just stars in the night sky, some grouped as constellations, some not. How do you quit doing something like that, stop thinking in a way that’s been reflex since kindergarten? Step 7, in her version, went like this: God can’t remove a character defect if you’re still using it. That means you have to try like hell not to do it, and god will eventually lift it.
Letting go of those defects took a lo-ong time. It took making 9th step amends with people I had judged as less cool and seeing the grace with which they’d made peace with my wrongdoing. It took hearing 5th steps from women of all shapes and sizes, gradually seeing that we all worry about the same shit. We all fear not being loved, not being seen, not having dignity. Whenever I ask a sponsee what the person resented ought to have done, the answer’s the same: what would have worked best for me. Understanding this helped me let go.
Eventually, I came to “victimless crimes,” or behaviors that only hurt me. I’d already seen that smoking was a form of lying. Whenever I compartmentalize an inconvenient truth (smoking kills) for the sake of what I want to do (I like it), I’m denying truth. Yep. Lying! So I quit. I saw that saying I loved animals (I value their feelings!) and eating meat (so suffer your life in a sunless hell and die in terror with no caring soul anywhere to rescue you) made me a hypocrite. Today I’m a vegetarian, and my eggs come from my own happy backyard chickens. (Of course, I still drive a car and enjoy white American privilege – not sure what to do there.)
In recent years, having been beat up sufficiently by life, having lost serenity and myself enough times, as well as many loved ones who’ve died, I quit judging struggling alcoholics who act out, and I quit gossiping. I guess I’ve just known craziness enough times to appreciate that the person in question would manage better if they could. I separate the behavior (which is unfortunate) from the person (who is likewise unfortunate). Women in all kinds of dicey dilemmas call me, some sober, some not. I listen, empathize, and give them my best shot. Then I tell no one. To not gossip at all is no easy feat! I needed training wheels at first: my best friend, a trustworthy man, served as my overflow outlet. If I absolutely had to tell someone, I’d tell him, and him only. The buck stopped there.
Really, all these defects are interrelated. Whenever I look to people instead of god for worth and validation, they become a means of meeting my needs. But god does heal us. It’s still a miracle to me that I’ve gone almost ten years without infatuation, eight loving the same boyfriend. Never, never, I thought, would god free me from that.
I ain’t perfect. Trust me, I still have a kitchen junk drawer full of defects – impatience, envy, vanity, anger, Facebook-induced ADD/procrastination, and 27 forms of fear. I honestly think many of these are essential to the human experience – the trick is to recognize them and laugh at yourself.
So at 19.5 years sober, here’s what’s left: I judge myself. I feel I’m not enough, that I’m somehow a failure. I feel guilt and shame for something I can’t name. I fear financial ruin. I fear growing old without the humility to accept it. And most of all, I fear that I’m wasting my life, because being right here doing this seems not as good as what I ought to be doing, off in the Andes or on Oprah or whatever. I lack. I am wrong, faulty, unacceptable. These beliefs are the inheritance of having grown up around alcoholism, wounds of the child I hid so long with my own addictions and dysfunctional behavior. Now that I’ve quit all those false covers, what’s left is, they fuckin’ hurt.
Therapy. Check! EMDR. Check! Sometimes I’ll feel good for months and think I’ve finally reached the sunlight. But other times they creep back. Self-blame, guilt, I-suckness. I’ve asked god a zillion times to take them, sometimes on my knees and crying.
But god does not do drama. That I’ve learned. Instead god had me call an old friend after 32 years who suggested I buy the ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) big book. And, holy shit! There I was, described in its opening pages! So last week I went to my first two ACA meetings, where people understood my experience to a T – people who were healing.
Here’s the bottom line: If you’re on a spiritual path, there’s always more footwork to be done. There’s always trying like hell when you don’t really know what the fuck you’re doing. But that’s where faith comes in. However blindly you stagger, head toward goodness. Head toward Love. Keep putting one uncertain foot in front of the other, and trust that god will guide you.