Step 5 of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says:
“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Although it’s been a while since I posted about the steps, I am still working them with my sponsor as we both agreed at the beginning of the year that it would be a good idea. I’m up to my 5th step which is all about confessing our wrongs to God, to ourselves, and to someone else.
When I started trying to get sober and attending AA meetings, this step was by far the most daunting to me. I wasn’t anywhere close to the state of mental health that made telling all of my secrets seem like a good idea. As I’ve written about before, I come from a family that clings tightly to presenting a good face, while secrets upon secrets live just under the skin where no one can see. I simply couldn’t see how admitting my wrongs to another person was going to make anything better.
I think I understood the psychology of being honest with oneself and acknowledging, to myself, that I had done many, many things wrong and that I had caused a lot of pain to others. I figured that it was important to understand where I was and what got me there in order to not repeat my past mistakes, and that meant getting honest with myself and acknowledging those things that I had struggled to hide away from my consciousness. I got that. I had to do that. It made sense.
It also made sense that I had to confess my wrongdoings to God. When I first attempted a fifth step, I was still a very new Christian. I knew about God’s grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love, but I had yet to feel it. It was still kind of an abstract idea to me; something that I wanted, and that I knew was out there, but I didn’t yet know how to accept for myself. Consequently, when I did my fifth step and sat down to present it to God, it went something like this: “Dear God, I have done so many things wrong. I could list them all, but you already know what they all are, because you are all-knowing. I am doing my best not to repeat those mistakes and I need your help. Thank you.” Over and out. That was it. Not quite explaining the “exact nature” of my wrongs, but it was a start. At that time, talking to God felt appealing, yet still uncomfortable and new at that time, like a pair of beautiful new shoes, pleasing to the eye, but not broken in and therefore a little pinchy to the toes. I had a feeling that at some point I would get comfortable talking to God, that I would be able to slip into it like I slip on my favorite pair of worn out black heels, but I wasn’t there yet. That was okay though, I had made a first attempt.
What didn’t make sense at the time, was why I had to tell all of my closely held secrets to another person. How exactly was that going to help me? Unless I presented my story to a therapist that was prepared to offer advice, or to a minister that was going to offer me God’s absolution, and I wasn’t going to do either of those, then what was the point? Wasn’t I just opening myself up to fear and judgment and giving myself more ammunition to continue on with my self-loathing and low self-worth? I knew deep down that if I ever told anyone everything about myself and what I had done, that I would lose my relationship with them. How could they remain in my life when they knew the real me? So, armed with those feelings and beliefs, when I sat down to do my fifth step with my first sponsor, I left a lot out. I talked about some of my bad behavior while drinking, and I talked a lot about feelings of powerlessness and unmanageability, but when I look back at that conversation, I can see that it was very, very incomplete. I told just enough that I thought my sponsor would believe that I understood that I was an alcoholic and that I wanted to get better. But I didn’t tell her the things that I thought would make her look at me with disgust and drop me like a hot potato. I was still holding on to secrets and trying to save face. It’s no wonder that I ended up drinking again shortly after that.
After I went to treatment the second time, and really started to get honest with people other than myself, I began to understand the importance of admitting my wrongs – telling my story, honestly and completely. I had a new sponsor, a new level of surrender, and I think a new willingness to do whatever it took to get better. So when I sat down to do my fifth step again, I didn’t leave anything out. Nothing. It was a long, tiring, telling of my relationship with alcohol and everything that I was using the booze to get away from. I think that conversation was a turning point for me. As I told my story, my sponsor interjected from time to time telling me how her own story was similar to mine. She related her own tales of bad behavior and insanity. She smiled and affirmed me, she quietly and without many words let me know that I was not alone. And you know what? She didn’t judge me. I never once saw a look of disgust on her face. I never once felt like she wasn’t going to like me when I got to the end of my story. And when I was done, I didn’t feel like I thought I would. I had imagined feeling embarrassed and vulnerable and maybe a little bit like one would feel if she was required to run through the halls of high school completely naked. But I didn’t. I felt good. I felt lighter. I felt like I had finally been completely honest with another person and she didn’t hate me! In fact, she hugged me and thanked me for trusting her. What a wonderful feeling.
Over the years, I have gotten so much better at admitting my wrongs. I know that I have done really thorough fifth steps, and I know the feeling that comes with being able to share my story with others. It’s so liberating. It takes a lot out of a person to try to hold on to old secrets and keep up appearances. I have found that it takes far less energy to be honest and open. And the rewards of doing that are exponentially better.
So if you are at a point in your recovery where you are going to be doing a 5th step, find someone who you trust and relate to, and put it all out there. Chances are, the person hearing your story will identify and affirm and love you unconditionally. Accept it as a gift of sobriety and Alcoholics Anonymous.