Let the spring tide wash away the past – How to do a 4th step.

(The fourth installment of a series)

As we move further away from the cold and damp of winter, the sun begins to shine, and the air becomes fragrant with the early blossoms of spring. Sparrows, finches, and doves  work diligently to prepare their nests for their new chicks.

Spring is full of all that is vibrant and new.  It is full of life.  A time of Easter and baseball, and, for many, it’s also a time of spring cleaning.

We throw open the rain-stained windows letting fresh air in. Old toys and clothes are hauled away to a local charity. Gardens are planted in anticipation of a bountiful harvest of juicy tomatoes and fresh, home-grown, organic vegetables in late summer.

It’s also tax season. For many businesses this is a time to take stock in what has happened over the previous year and set budgets for the new fiscal year. Some business owners may look at ways to improve their revenue or cut expenses asking: Are we better off this year than last? What do we need to do differently to change, to grow? Where can we improve? What new opportunities are there? Challenges? How about our people? Are we pouring into them, training and equipping them  to benefit all stakeholders?

The nice weather may inspire a fresh start at new year’s resolutions that were quickly kicked to the curb through the last of the winter doldrums. Ones to work out, eat better, or plan summer vacations. Every day we have a fresh start, the key though is to start.

Did you know people spend more time planning a vacation than planning out their goals for the coming years?  It is no secret that many successful people have a healthy perspective of their strengths and weaknesses, and are what many call, “self-aware” and  diligently set and achieve goals. For those with lasting recovery, it is no different. There are steps to follow if one is to achieve lasting sobriety.

In previous blogs, I have written about steps one, two and three.

The First Step: A Journey of a Thousand Miles
The Second Step: Came to Believe
The Third Step: Made a Decision

The steps need to be done in order to the best of your ability, before attempting the next one.

Today, I am going to talk about the 4th step:
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Like spring, the fourth step for those in recovery represents a fresh start – a way to look at the underlying causes and symptoms of our addictions – the things we “drank and used” over.

You might be wondering what a fourth step is – what does it mean and what does it require?

There’s a simple plan to properly complete a fourth step. The entire process is outlined on pages 63-71 of the basic text for AA, 4th step

In summary, to start, one makes a list of their resentments – people, institutions, and principles –  that they are angry about. In addition, it is imperative that the inventory  include sections that outline and list our defects of character, fears and sex conduct.

For those new to the 12 steps or not in recovery this may sound like an easy task right? I mean how hard can it be to make a list of some of the things that piss us off or that we are afraid of? Well, that’s usually the easy part. The more challenging part that many don’t want to address lies deeper – taking an honest look at our character defects, or sin, and our sex conduct along with trying to look at the seeming cause of, and our part in, each situation.

It is easy for the simple things like making a shopping list, or cleaning out our garage, but for the things that cause us pain, shame, or guilt or which evoke some form of emotion, even making a list can be a challenge. Those are often things we don’t want to look at, let alone make a list of to later share with a trusted friend or pastor. We procrastinate and find a hundred other distractions to avoid taking an honest look inside at what the root causes of our inner turmoil.

I was no different than many in early recovery when it came to starting my fourth step. I balked. Why? Because I thought I was alone. That nobody could understand what I was going through. I was ashamed and full of fear and guilt. I was also worried about telling some of my secrets to another, but was reminded by my AA sponsor, that that comes in the fifth step and that I only had to complete an inventory now.

For alcoholics this is a life or death step. As the AA big book says, “Resentment is our number one offender…” Holding onto resentments leads us to drink and, for us, to drink, is to die.

Therefore, for the alcoholic, completion of this step, as well as the eleven others, is critical to not only lasting recovery, but to life.

There is a specific format and instructions on how to do this in the Big Book.  As with all the steps, counsel with a sponsor (someone in AA who has already worked these steps) is highly recommended.

You’ll want to get a notebook and create four columns. The headings should be as follows:

  • Resentments (broken out into three sections)
    People, Institutions, Principles
  • Fears
  • Character Defects (Flaws)
  • Sex Conduct

Here’s a sample outline:
4th step outline

Be mindful however that the list as discussed above is only part of the solution. The complete solution as outlined in AA, is found by reading through the Big Book and working all 12 steps, with a sponsor, and developing faith and trust with a power greater than ourselves through the fellowship of AA.

The solution is spiritual.

I know I cannot get sober of my own will power. That I found, was part of the problem that keep me out there so long. I can’t merely work my way into sobriety. Don’t get me wrong, it takes effort. But for the mental transformation to bring about lasting sobriety,  I had to get to a place of surrender as I have already discussed in previous blogs; to admit my problem, come to believe in a power greater than myself, which  I call God, and becoming willing to turn my will and life over to that power greater than myself.

By design, the spiritual solution and concept of a higher power is open-ended to enable alcoholics of any faith background, or none, to get sober if they want to.

As Maxine, an old-timer, used to say at virtually every meeting, “if the word God frightens you, a bottle of booze will scare you right back.”  She also would make it clear, that, “if you don’t do your 4th, you’ll drink a fifth! ”

Those words saved my life on several occasions. Usually when I was stuck in feeling sorry for myself agonizing over a new resentment that had surfaced. I knew I had work the step and pray to have it removed. I did the work, and left the results up to God. It worked.

The good news is for the fourth step we need only make the list and take a look at our thoughts, attitudes and actions and be willing to change. Faith is what relieves us alcoholics from the deadly grip of the spiritual maladies we’ve outlined in our fourth step; we see what the problem is, admit it, become willing to give it to God, and move on to the next step.

Don’t quit before the miracle. The miracle of recovery happens in the next step.

Know this, you’re not alone. Chances are high that we have a few things in common.

If you’d like to learn more about my own personal recovery journey, of pick up a copy of my book.

Thanks for stopping by.

God bless,

Shawn

Made a decision…

Everyday we make hundreds of decisions – choices. In fact, according to various sources on the internet we make an average of 35,000 decisions EVERY Day; over 276 involve food. Not all require a grand analysis. Many are routine like brushing your teeth or taking a shower. These simple choices have become so automatic they require little, if any thought, for most. Others, like deciding which is the fastest way to get to work, or where you would like to take your next vacation, require some analysis, planning, and weighing of pros and cons.

When it comes to recovery, the road map for many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts is laid out in the first 164 pages of the AA big book. There are 12 steps to follow.

Like many important decisions it wise to seek counsel and/or feed back from someone with experience regarding the choices and actions that need to be made. In AA that counselor is called a sponsor. A sponsor in AA is someone to  guide your through the 12- step program of recovery. Yet even with resources and support at our side, many stubbornly declare, “I can do it on my own.” My response is, yeah you could, we have have the freedom of choice, but the odds are slim to nil that you will stay sober if you don’t seek help, not only from a sponsor, but also from a higher power.

As it says in the preamble of the Big book, Chapter 5 “How it Works”:

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of be­ing honest with themselves…”
In recovery, being honest can be the difference between life or death. Can I be blunt? If you want to get sober, follow and work the steps,preferably with a sponsor. Don’t bullshit yourself thinking you can do it alone. Half measures  will avail you nothing.

In my previous two blogs of this series, I discussed steps one and two:

1-Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.

2-Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Now, I address step three:

3-Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

What does this mean “a God of my understanding?” It means a power greater than yourself. Something that is not a derivative of your self will.

Why not be more specific? Because the founders of AA wanted to be as all encompassing as they possibly could with respect to varied religious and spiritual leanings. One thing they found to be true was that lasting sobriety required reliance upon a “power grater than ourselves.” In the Big Book they devoted several chapters to  a deeper explanation of this topic.

How does one do this in AA? That is, how do you make a decision to turn your will and life over to something can’t see? That is a fair question and one I struggled with in early recovery.

In my memoir, Beyond Recovery: A Journey of Grace , Love and Forgiveness
I talk about the fear I had at my first meeting. During the reading of the steps I heard the word God and it scared me. I didn’t really have any frame of reference or reason to fear it, yet my own conception of what I thought it meant was enough to scare me away and back to the bottle.

Eventually I found my way home, back to the rooms that eventually became an integral part of saving my life.

It’s funny but it’s also sad how much we fear things we really don’t fully understand. In the early days of recovery there was an old-timer named Maxine who used to say for the benefit of the newcomers in the room, “If the word God frightens you, a bottle of booze will frighten you right back.” In the first 120 days of recovery those words saved me on more than one occasion.

Even though I was doing everything that was suggested: I went to ninety meetings in ninety days (as an over achiever full of fear, I actually went to 180.), I had a sponsor, I read the Big Book, had commitments at meetings and, most importantly, I was not drinking between meetings, even though I still thought about alcohol all the time. i heard others in meetings tell how they were sober; how the obsession  was lifted from them. I was impatient. I wanted to be free from that demon so bad. I longed for the  obsession to be removed from me. There were occasions where I lay on my back at night shouting in my head, sometimes out loud to take it away. I was still operating under self will. My knuckles were white from hanging on so tightly.

Finally the day came when I was ready to do my third step with my sponsor.

The weight of all that I thought I had drank over for so many years; my dad leaving and the multitude of anger and resentment, which I would later discover was just another form of self-centered fear, was weighing me down so heavily I worried if I would make it.

It was a sunny day and my sponsor had suggested we meet on the dusty hillside behind Mt. Carmel church in Mill Valley. I had done the first two steps to the best of my ability but was not confident that I would experience any grand miracle by just becoming willing to believe in this so-called “higher power.” But, honestly, I had no other choice.

Earlier we had read how it works and page 60 of “Alcoholics Anonymous.” Now in the bright sun my sponsor and I walked along the small path behind the church. He told me what we were going to do,”See this garbage can?”  He asked, lifting the lid to the steel can.

I nodded.

“I want you to take all that anger, fear, hurt and resentment you’ve been carrying around like a sack of rocks, and imagine yourself dumping it into this can. Then we’re going to get on our knees, hold hands, and say the third step prayer out loud. Afterward the compulsion to drink will be lifted from you.” He offered with compassionate certitude.

Despite being briefly distracted with worry over what passers by may say or think if they spied two men kneeling  in the dirt holding hands under the summer sun, I did as he suggested. My sobriety was more important. We said this prayer:

The Third Step Prayer
from page 63 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
God, I offer myself to Thee-
To build with me
and to do with me as Thou wilt.
Relieve me of the bondage of self,
that I may better do Thy will.
Take away my difficulties,
that victory over them may bear witness
to those I would help of Thy Power,
Thy Love, and Thy Way of life.
May I do Thy will always!
Amen
I spoke the words and let go.
As we stood  I felt a peace wash over me. I had “dropped the rock.”
I felt protected, even if I didn’t fully understand what had just happened.
Being willing to let go was the cornerstone upon which I was able to continue along the path of recovery. That is not to say that the thought to drink was completely removed. That day though, I was given a reprieve from the mental obsession over alcohol.
It stuck. I have gone back to that hillside in my mind many times throughout my life. It symbolizes a safe place of letting go.
The next step would require more than just willingness, it would require deep introspection, faith, courage and work.
I was now at step four, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Stay tuned for step four.

Came to believe…

When I staggered into my first AA meeting in July of 1986 I didn’t know what exactly to expect. I had a few friends who’d managed to stay sober but knew nothing about what it took. Like many before and after me, I heard the word God in the reading of the steps  at that first meeting and immediately bristled. Why? I don’t know. I was not brought up with any religious background and really had no reason to be afraid of the word God, but, nonetheless, it bothered me. In fact it bugged me so much that I went back out and tried to control my drinking on my own for another three months after that initial meeting.

On sheer will power, I managed to string together a few days of sobriety but, inevitably I started up again. I quickly realized that my own will power was not enough for me to stay stopped. I had to find a power greater than myself. I found that in the second step of AA:

Step 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The founders of AA understood the varied dynamic of people’s spiritual, religious, agnostic, and even atheistic leanings and address it in great length in the basic text of 12 step recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, aka the “Big Book.”

In fact, they discovered that those who managed to stop and stay stopped had a common thread-spirituality. This was baffling to many in the medical community at the time.

As I mentioned in my  previous post, I had no problem with the first step when I finally had been beaten. I knew I was powerless over alcohol and that my life was unmanageable.

But, when it came time to work the second step, I struggled.  Even after reading “More about alcoholism” and “We agnostics” in the AA “Big Book,” I didn’t know if I could “get it” and worried I would drink again. These chapters address very real concerns for those struggling with a concept of a higher power. My sponsor at the time said that I didn’t have to fully explain it or even understand it. Rather, he asked me to address this short question from page 47:

“Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?”

When I was willing to believe, my life began to change.

At first my higher power was a doorknob-something to focus on besides the floor, when I sat in a meeting.

After a month or two, I began to feel better on the inside. The mental obsession to drink began to wane. Soon my eyes lifted up from my shoes or the doorknob and I began to witness the “lights go on” in other newcomers who came in after me. I saw them smile. I listened to their stories and those of others and identified with what they were going through. In the meetings, many AA’s talked about a “Higher Power” or spirituality as the key to their sobriety. I listened and began to believe that this “Higher Power” would work for me too.

As a reminder to the steady stream of newcomers in meetings, one old-timer used to say,”If the word God frightens you, a bottle of booze will scare you right back.” His statement always got a chuckle, but it was true. It took me awhile, and the word God scared me away at first, but I had nowhere else to go. I was willing to do whatever it took to stay sober, even if that meant developing a better understanding of the spiritual experience necessary to stay sober in AA.

Today, I honor my faith daily. I nurture it and maintain constant contact with my higher power whom I call God. It has become a regular part of who I am.

The benefits are clear:

Not only has the obsession to drink been removed, but when I maintain and grow my connection with God, my days are good. When I don’t intentionally practice a spiritual way of life, I drift along in self-will. I quickly become selfish, self-centered, and self-seeking and my days turn to shit in a heartbeat.

Getting sober is not an easy task. It takes work. You may think that after thirty years of sobriety it is automatic for me to be nice and “spiritual”. Hardly. I have days where I am a complete asshole. Fortunately, I am much quicker to recognize it and change my attitude and when I don’t, I have a wife who is not too shy to let me know.  Like anything worthwhile, I must practice spiritual living daily. When I do, I am filled with joy and gratitude and life doesn’t seem to be such a struggle. Today I choose to be happy, joyous and free.

For more on my personal journey, check out Beyond Recovery: A Journey of Grace, Love, and Forgiveness.

Peace.

Shawn

“Thy will, not mine, be done.”

I awoke four times in the middle of the night to pee. 

One o’clock, two o’clock, three.

Woke up the last time at 4:04. “Sorry, go back to sleep.”I said to my wife as she rolled out of bed, heading for the door.

Too early to think with a head so foggy, only five hours of sleep – I still feel groggy. 

Yet after she got up and quietly closed the door, I thought briefly of hitting the floor. Instead, my mind took off. The starting gun had fired. Why does my mind do that, when I’m so very tired?

I made some coffee and began to think, my mind wandered off in self-will- to that dangerous neighborhood, where thoughts usually stink.

I paused, sipped my coffee, and grabbed my phone. Not for Facebook, email, or reading. No. Instead I began to write a few words- in search of a meaning.

Why was I awake at this cold dark hour? Perhaps it was to be still, let go of self-will and ask God for help; to do what I know works best- to turn my day over to my higher power.

Yes, that’s what I believe, because things happen for a reason. Even if I don’t know why, I’m beginning a new season. Christmas is over and the new year draws near. I’m practicing living without any fear. 

It starts by me asking God for courage, guidance, and strength. In a morning prayer where I let go, turn it over and say, “Thy will, not mine be done.” 

Happy New Year all! Now let’s have some fun!

BREAKING THE CHAINS THAT BIND US

Thirty years ago I began a journey of healing-one that would forever change the outcome of my life. I made a decision to stop drinking and seek help.

Before any problem can be solved it needs to be identified. At the ripe age of twenty-two I succumbed to the fact that I was powerless over alcohol and drugs; of my own will power I could not control my consumption, no matter how hard I tried. Continue reading