I couldn’t get sober and I couldn’t take the third step.They say, if you are having a rough time working a step, it means you didn’t take the previous one. I discovered at the International Convention for my fellowship that I was primarily struggling because though I thought I had taken the second step, I’d missed it entirely. The second step simply states,
“We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Sitting in meetings, you’d hear an old timer explain the second step like this: The first step states, “We admitted we were powerless, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” ”
“The first step states, ‘We admitted we were powerless, and that our lives had become unmanageable.’ So, first, we came. Then, we came to. Then we came to believe.”
For many addicts, God (or a higher power) is a brand new concept and so the old timers cliche says it all: We started coming to meetings, woke up, and realized that we couldn’t recover by ourselves. When an addict gets to this point, they are ready for the second step. “If I can’t fix myself, I choose to believe that something more powerful than me can fix me.” However, for many of us religious types — especially those of us in sexual recovery — there is necessary deconstruction that needs to occur.
At my fellowship’s International Conference, as I sat in the conference room at the PDX Sheraton, the 12 step seminar leader asked us to open our spiral notebooks (that we’d all been invited to bring) so that there were two blank pages open. He asked us to reinforce the pink line that ran down the left page to create two columns on the left page. At the top of the narrow one on the left he said, “In this column, I want you to create a list of all the people that were higher powers in your life as you grew up. It will probably include your parents. It might include a brother, sister, aunt or uncle. There might be coaches, pastors, babysitters or teachers on the list. Think about all the people that had power over you and impacted you growing up. They are the higher powers in your life. Don’t be afraid to add to the list as others come to mind as you write. ” My list wasn’t very long: Mom, Dad, some pastors, some coaches, and a couple of teachers.
“The second column is harder,” he said. “At this point, you may find it easier to work across the page. For each higher power, write about times that events occurred that taught you something about what your higher power was like. Were there specific things that come to mind that they did? List both what they did and what that action taught you about what a higher power must be like.”
This column was harder for me. As you’ve already read, my Mom was an angry depressive who directed her anger at my brother and me. Meanwhile, my Dad was on the road more than he was home when I was little. I knew that there were things much more important than me to him. And so my list went on and on. The more I wrote, the more I realized how much God often resembled the people who had been my higher powers growing up.
The third column lined up with the second. Where my God always abandoned me to rescue someone else who needed saving more than me, I chose to believe something different, and I wrote it down. Where I thought God was moody, angry, and disappointed with me, I opted to believe something else, and I wrote it in the third column opposite the corresponding action from the higher powers from my youth.
In the final column, our “old timer” directed us to create either a pithy phrase (affirmation) or prayer that we could look at every day to remember who our God was. I taped one copy of my right column list to my bathroom mirror and carried the other with me in my wallet. Throughout the day, I began catching myself believing in the God of my childhood. Looking back with twenty/twenty vision, He resembled an alcoholic.
Without working this step, I’d never have come to understand how wonky my view of God was. If someone argued that I thought my God was an alcoholic, I’d have laughed in their face. Nothing was further from the truth. Or was it? Working the second step is the first example I cite where it’s obvious I needed to work the steps to find faith, Jesus, and life. Following the steps led me to Him. It was after working this step that God granted me sobriety.
For more of the story try these previous posts:
I spent a total of 35 days at Keystone. Those days created necessary space for me; they gave me gifts I needed to not only survive, but start life over again. Those 35 days may not have saved me, but they sure helped.
I returned to Portland on a Sunday and began a new job working accident claims for a major insurance company. One of my former students helped me get in the door. It was a great opportunity with an excellent company.
When I arrived home, my ex, knowing she could get away with it, changed the locks on my house and left all my clothes in one of our cars, parked in my brother’s driveway. The illegality and immorality of her choice didn’t bother anyone. Afterall, I was the bastard who cheated on her. She was able to get away with whatever she wanted, and so, she chose to exercise that freedom, seemingly, as much as possible. It is sad how my lies led to her needing to lie. Sin works like that, though. Like our forefathers, the Pharisees, our righteousness becomes the seed of our sin. My wife’s “righteousness” in our marriage allowed her to sin against the sinner — me — without remorse or a second thought.
My brother and sister-in-law let me stay in their spare bedroom for a month. That was such a gift. I had no idea what was going on beneath the surface of their seemingly happy life together. It would show itself later after the elders of our church (the one that sent me out as a missionary and then shamed me from the pulpit in their own misguided pride) embarrasesed themselves and God by attempting to exorcise the demons from my brother’s house after I left.
Much later, after my brother’s demons came to light, my “non-practicing-atheistic” sponsor pointed out that probably there were demons in my brother’s house, and that they were his not mine. At the time, however, the elders couldn’t see anything because of their anger at me. As a result, they helped destroy any hope for my brother’s marriage; much, in the same way, the elders from my house church destoyed any hope for my marriage. My brother I and I still don’t speak. Neither of us trusts the other. Psychologically, he has to stay mad at me, making up reasons to do so. Since his anger isn’t safe for me, I keep my distance. We both lost our opportunity for a relationship with the only other human who could understand what it was like to grow up in our family. My disease, and his disease combined to destroy us.
My brother I and I still don’t speak. Neither of us trusts the other. Psychologically, he has to stay mad at me, making up reasons in his mind to do so. Since his anger isn’t safe, I keep my distance. We both lost our opportunity for a relationship with the only other human who could understand what it was like to grow up in our family. My disease and his disease combined to destroy us.
Even after I left my brother’s home, Mom and Dad were incredibly gracious to me. Mom’s Alzheimer’s had already stolen much of her mind, and though at times, she was aware of parts of my story, she never felt the humiliation my choices would have visited on her only a few years earlier.
I returned to Portland from Keystone with a solid recovery plan: See Dr. Shaw each week, get to 90 meetings in 90 days, call my sponsor every day, make a lot of program phone calls, keep doing step work, join a recovery small group, spend a bunch of time with my kids, and get more involved with St Matthew’s Church. I also found an apartment near my children and made overtures to my Ex about putting our marriage back together, but thankfully, she wanted nothing to do with me.
Two weeks after starting my new job, my employer sent me to Phoenix for two weeks of training. Then two weeks after returning to Portland they sent me to Tampa for another two weeks of training. They gave me a more-than-generous stipend, room, a shared rental car, and said, “Pass your training. Have fun. Drink a lot. Don’t go to jail” Though I had created a recovery plan with my sponsor, those weeks away sent me spinning back into my addiction; more wildly, making more insane and deadly choices. Though I was still calling my sponsor every day and telling him the truth of what was happening; though I was getting to meetings when able while travelling, I could not stop my sexual behaviors. I didn’t know how to act out efficiently; and was unaware of how the sex marketplace in unfamiliar cities worked and so I blew all my money on gorgeous, wanton women who were only there to take my money and came home to Portland broke from both trips,
The first two weeks in Phoenix broke something loose in me. I became intent on obtaining sex to feed my addiction thinking that “the next one could save me.” 1In meetings I’d hear, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Since I didn’t want to be insane, I kept trying new and kinkier stuff — more gorgeous women; more, more beautiful women; found different ways to meet, discover and seduce women.
In the In the months between April 2002 and August 2002, I acted out more than I had in the previous 36 years of life. I was in active rebellion against God, my family, the Church and women in general.
Though I am not proud, nor grateful for those months, I needed them. I needed to know the emptiness of the promise I sought. I needed to discover how vapid it was. Don’t let me fool you; I found hedonistic pleasure. It was glorious. It was mindblowing, and, it was vacuous. I found all of the pleasures I desired and cashed in on promises of mind-blowing sex with stunningly beautiful women and still didn’t find what I was looking for. 2
My sponsor didn’t know what to do with me. I went to a meeting or two every day. I called him every day. I was not proud of what I was doing. He watched the life drain from me as I lost hope. Finally, in August, my city hosted my 12-step fellowship’s international convention and he asked me to attend the 12-step seminar to work the steps rather than going to the breakout sessions that sounded interesting to me. It was there that I learned how to work the second step and it was learning to work that step that eventually set me free.
Every 12-step / 12-tradition fellowship has slogans to help addicts; all of whom struggle with forgetfulness. Nearly all of us forgot we were addicts, and the results were almost always disastrous — if not for us – for the ones we loved. One of the first slogans people coming to meetings are introduced to is the “HOW” of recovery. Recovery requires “Honesty, Openness, and Willingness.” Honesty corresponds to the 1st step; openness to step 2, and willingness to step 3.
We admitted we were powerless, and our lives had become unmanageable.
We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
While it seems straightforward, the first step requires a level of honesty with which most addicts struggle. There are two things to admit:
I can’t stop, and
My addiction has beaten me and will continue to do so.
Most users can acknowledge one of those two statements. The trouble is that while we admit our powerlessness one day, and then, the next, admit our unmanageability. Acknowledging them both at the same time feels impossible. It requires reaching the end of ourselves to accept that both are true. And only after we have done that can we resume our climb the stairs.
The second step is about openness — being open to something outside of ourselves that can set us free.
Neville Symington wrote a book he titled, Narcissism. The book shook the foundations of the psychoanalytic community. For Symington argued that narcissism is at the root of all pathology. That is a big statement and creates a huge paradigm shift. Symington believes that narcissism develops in infants when their needs are not met. So they turn away from something Symington labels the “Lifeforce,” and choose to rely on themselves to find relief.
Adapting his construct is helpful. It explains how choosing to turn inward and isolate leads to pathological behaviors. The choice certainly leads to addiction and death. The second step responds to our narcissism. It asks us to repent, turning back to the lifeforce, and in so doing, overcome our pathologies.
The second step is addressed in many ways in 12-step rooms. Invariably, if you stick around long enough, you will hear, “First, we came… Then we came to…. Then we came to believe.” Most addicts who grew up in the church think this is going to be the easiest step. It isn’t. On the contrary, my reformed, evangelical, fundamentally-sound, biblically-based God; created by some of history’s greatest theologians could not help me get sober. Though I tried for over a year. I drove my sponsor and friends nuts. Finally, after learning how to work the second step on paper, I disregarded my impeccably crafted, reasonable, all-powerful God who I was unable to
trust, and I got sober. I’m in good company, for I’m not the only one that gets stuck on this step. Bill Wilson addressed us in the Twelve and Twelve on pages 29-33. It is worth reading. (The link takes you directly to the short chapter on the 2nd step, and you can read for yourself what he had to say.) The second step was the hardest step for me to take. Probably, because I thought it would be the easiest. I wasn’t as “open,” as I assumed I was. It took me a long time to realize that fact.
The third step in this recovery three-step dance is, “Willingness.” If you make it this far, someone will ask you, “Are you willing to do whatever it takes to get clean and sober?” and, you’ll have to decide; for step 3 says, “We made a decision…” It doesn’t say that we “Turn our will and our lives over.” Rather, it means that we make a decision to do so. If the step said, “turned our will and our lives over,” it would become something we do once. It isn’t. Instead, we make a decision, “to continually turn our will and our lives over.” When we realize this simple truth, we start to understand why another slogan, “One day at a time,” is so important. For, it is too much to say that I will turn my will and my life over tomorrow or the next day. I can’t be sure I will want or be able to. I can only say that I’m making a decision to do so today. And, frankly, if you are like me, you have to make that decision much more than once each day. However, when I commit to doing so daily, my friends remind me of my decision, and I get to live.
It is important for those of us raised in the church to notice that the third step also has two-parts. When I grew up, right before the altar call, preachers used to beseech us to turn our lives over to Christ. Because we’ve heard about, “surrendering our lives,” so often, it almost became part of our DNA. Turning our wills over to God, however, wasn’t anything I heard in church. I’m glad because I don’t like doing it. Turning my will over became my sticking point. To be willing to do so required me going back to my second step again and again, until God became trustworthy.
I couldn’t do it alone. We are not supposed to. All these steps are “we,” steps. My sponsor used to say to me, “Remember, we don’t have to do any of this alone.” My addiction made me isolate. It was created and flowed out of shame, and shame is the destroyer of relationships. Shame pushes us further from others and deeper into isolation. We find recovery to rediscover relationships. We go to recover our relationships. And, as we do, we live into our Imago Dei. When all is said and done, we go to 12-step rooms to recover the Imago Dei.