Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Searching and Fearless

When my sponsor started working with me, she told me that recovery was a process of discovery and that sometimes there was pain involved, as old wounds were opened and examined, but there would also be healing and growth.

I believed her about the healing and growth. But not about the pain.

I had always believed in the examined life. I kept a journal. For several years, I had been in the process of writing a memoir. It was one of those things I felt compelled to do, though I didn’t know why. I wanted to write it urgently, but found it difficult to find the time. I kept getting stalled.

I looked forward to my fourth step, though I expected it to be mostly an exercise of putting down what I already knew. I thought I knew myself. I knew my strengths and I knew my weaknesses. I imagined my fourth step would be a matter of creating a kind of balance sheet and examining it.

I even tried it on my own, before I had a sponsor, but I didn’t know if what I had done was “right” or “finished” any more than I knew if I had actually “worked” steps 1, 2 and 3. I realized needed a sponsor.

Turns out, there are many ways to work a fourth step. As I read and heard about different methods, I wondered what my assignment would be. I had heard that some did it by writing about their lives. I thought how wonderful that would be. Then I got my assignment.

It was this: Write down all your memories and key moments. Write what happened and how you felt about it.

I couldn’t believe it. It was the assignment I had been waiting for someone to give me all my life. Now I not only had permission to write my life story. It was an assignment. If I wanted to progress through the steps, I had to do it.

But I had to start from the beginning. I couldn’t use anything I’d already done, and I had to write everything pen to paper. No computers.

So I set out to write my life story in earnest. As I wrote, it was like reliving my life. Miraculous things started to happen. People from my past started popping up unexpectedly, out of nowhere, at just the right time in my narrative journey.

I discovered holes in my memory. Big holes. I realized I had lost a whole year of my life in which I remembered virtually nothing. The people that came back into my life helped fill in the holes.

At one point it felt overwhelming. My 30-year high school reunion was also coming up. At meetings, people talked about living in the present, but I felt stuck in my past and mired in regret. I cried a lot. I wondered if I were going crazy. I thought, I came to Al-Anon to heal and I’m falling apart.

At the same time, wonderful things happened. I began my fourth step with huge resentments. Resentments against my mother, my father, my step-father, my former mother-in-law, my ex-husband… it was a long list. But when I wrote about key events, I saw them differently.

I began to realize I carried around a certain narrative of my life. My version of what happened. But as I wrote, I saw my part. I saw where I had been naïve. I understood some things for the first time.

I saw my father and my step-father, “real” alcoholics as defined by the Big Book, as very sick people struggling with their disease. I recognized my mother for the first time as an adult child of an alcoholic and an untreated Al-Anon, who was struggling just to save herself. In addition to the bad times, what came up were all the loving things they did. In short, I saw a group of people who were doing the best they could. Me included.

By the end, I realized I wasn’t mad at anyone. I felt I had carried these grudges under false pretenses. I could let them go. And I did.

In my line of sponsorship, we work a fourth step every year. So, having recently had my second birthday, I’ll soon be getting a new fourth-step assignment from my sponsor. This time, it will be an AA Big Book-style fourth step. People who have shared about doing their inventory both ways have told me that this method revealed some things their first inventory didn’t address.

This time, I’m going into it without expectation, only curiosity and openness about the new lessons the experience may teach me.


  1. Step Four is amazing, isn't it? It took me months to really work and finish step four with the help of my sponsor. Like you say here, I too found out or faced the truth about the past and what my part was in it. Such freedom to work step four with all my heart and to open my mind and eyes.

  2. Having been in therapy for over two years before I started my fourth step, I really thought it would be pretty easy. I'd done so much family of origin work, I couldn't imagine I would learn anything new.

    My sponsor had me do my fourth step three ways. I worked out of the AA big book - even though I was doing a coda fourth step. My sponsor came from AA and still feels that the big book is the most thorough fourth step. Then I worked from Melody Beattie's book, "Codependents Guide to the twelve steps", and the codependent workbook (aka the green book.)

    Over the months (yes months) it took me to finish it, I learned so much more about myself that it really astounded me. I would email my therapist and tell her the revelations I was having... but this was no surprise to her since she has attended CoDA for years, herself.

    It really is an amazing program, but its not for whimps! I don't know anyone who's done an honest fourth step and hasn't found some pain along the way, but the phrase "no pain no gain" seems to apply. For me, the gains have been great.

  3. Shoot. I just wrote out a long response but I think it's lost.
    I'll wait a bit and see if it shows up before reposting.

  4. One of the most freeing experiences I've ever had was seeing the people of my past as people who were doing the best they could.

  5. I learned so much from my first Fourth Step a couple of years ago I started another one in January. However, I haven't made much progress on it, even though I moved it to a conspicuous place at the beginning of the "Fourth month".

  6. I'll be thinking of you doing your new inventory as I am putting away at my first one! I started the fourth step 2 months ago, but didn't do much until my sponsor said, just sit down and write... okay... I'm "almost done" lol but I think I'll take another month just in case anything else pops into mind... lol
    Thanks for sharing your feelings & revelations along the way b/c I am finding the same thing with doing mine. I feel like my eyes have been opened in many ways.
    God bless.

  7. We have such small meetings (last week it was just me and the leader). I really would like to have a sponser to help me with my steps. I have the Melody Beattie book, "Codependents Guide to the Twelve Steps" and "Paths to Recovery Alanon's Tesps, Traditions and Concepts". It can be difficult to set aside the time to read and work on the steps alone. I hope our group grows and I can find a sponser. Thanks for the info though, it helped me to get a little clearer picture of how I can work the 4th step when I get there.

  8. Opps, that should read "Al-Anon's STEPS, Traditions and Concepts".

  9. thank you for sharing about your step work and what you got out of doing the fourth step. your work is inspiring and i learn from your sharing.

    so often we think we've done things and we can put them on the shelf and move on. but thinking and doing are just as different, as doing, and then doing again later. each new step we take yields new growth. each new way we express ourselves makes a difference.