I’ve been a part of Al-Anon for ten months now, and I am working my way through the twelve steps and recording my observations about them here. It helps to solidify my thinking to write it all out; it’s also nice to be able to go back and re-read previous entries, and note any changes in perspective (or, hopefully, progress that I’m making.) This daylog is about Step Five.

Step Five:Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

In Step Four we made an inventory of ourselves; Step Five is about finding behavioral or attitudinal patterns, the ‘exact nature’ of our character, including our wrongdoings, and facing them squarely and admitting them to ourselves as fact.

It is suggested that the person chosen to share the Step 4 inventory with not be one’s spouse, a family member, or the alcoholic; “we do not want to choose anyone who might be wounded by our version of events…we seek someone who will not criticize us, but who will be able to suggest to us any obvious omissions or give us insight into how the nature of our wrongs has affected us.” Many people choose their Al-Anon sponsors, a friend, a member of the clergy, or a counselor, someone who can be “a loving witness who can provide perspective on our spiritual journey.”1

Although the step lists admitting these thing in order to 1) God, 2) ourselves, and 3) another person, it’s much harder to pinpoint exactly when the first two occur, than the third. Certainly, at least on some level, we are aware as we take the inventory in Step 4 what the exact nature of our wrongs is, and given the omniscient quality in most people’s Higher Powers, God already knows. I guess there’s a difference, though, between knowing something and really letting yourself believe it, or in knowing that someone else knows, and coming out and telling them.

I chose to share with my sponsor. I knew when I asked her to be my sponsor that sooner or later, I was going to have to go through Step 5, and I knew she was the person I wanted to have with me on that journey. Listening to her and watching her in meetings, I had been struck by her humor, her wisdom and sense of perspective, and how completely comfortable she seemed to be in her own skin. She possessed at least some degree of the serenity I was seeking, and seemed to have boundless energy and empathy for those around her. I am eternally grateful to my sponsor for sharing with me her experience, strength, and hope, and most of all for the unconditional love I received from her.

The fact that the fifth step is only a single sentence seems strange to me, because the actions it contains span a considerable period of time. It’s like saying Rome was founded, became a great empire, and fell. For me, realizing and admitting the exact nature of my wrongs to anyone, perhaps especially myself or my Higher Power, is an ongoing process. The fact that I sat down one afternoon with my sponsor and went over my four page inventory was only a beginning.

I thought about and prepared for the fourth step inventory for more than a month before I actually wrote anything down. It took another month to schedule a day when my sponsor and I both had a big block of time in which to go over it. Four months later, I wrote a daylog about step four; now, another three months down the line, I’m finally getting around to chronicling Step Five. Certainly part of this time delay is simple avoidance; this is difficult stuff, and highly emotional.

Another issue is pride. I think I have more self-esteem and a stronger, more positive sense of self than the average bear, but perhaps my view of myself is not particularly balanced. Certainly, I’m still having trouble with the term character defect. (Elsewhere in the literature, they are referred to as character defenses; I find that easier to take.) I felt drained for a day or two after talking through the fifth step, and even though it was productive, and a good thing to have done, it was hard.

Okay, so this is what happened: we sat down one day last spring, my sponsor and I, and I read to her from my personal inventory, and we talked about it, and she helped me identify patterns of behavior and underlying strengths and character defects. I cried. She cried. We laughed. I took a lot of notes.

Our actual conversation, of course, is a very personal matter. For the record, though, and as a further exercise in admitting these things to myself, here are some of the highlights.

Although I pride myself on being a ‘responsible grownup’ (paying bills on time, being professional and reliable at work, voting regularly, that sort of thing), I’m not so great at knowing how to take care of myself emotionally. I have a short fuse, I react to things by taking them personally rather than taking a more matter-of-fact view, I have a tendency to focus on things rather than people, (things are less frustrating, more predictable, and easier to control), and it probably would work better for me if I could be more detached, more loving, more centered, less reactive, more secure.

(Among other things, my sponsor suggested I try to replace the word “should” with it probably would be better if, first when talking about myself, and eventually with others. I’m working on it.)

~Progress, not perfection~

Now, here’s the funny thing. Step 4 is about taking a personal inventory; Step 5 is about sharing it, becoming more aware of ourselves; in Step 6 we become “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character"; not until Step 7 do we “humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.” I feel like my progress through these steps is far more circular than linear; I become aware of a particular trait, start feeling that I’d be better off without it, share something to that effect in a meeting (or at least in a journal or with my Higher Power), decide that I’m ready to change and let it go, and then ask to have it removed, one trait at a time. I think that if I waited until I was sick of all of my shortcomings, and really ready to change my behavior and get rid of all of them at once, it would take forever. I’m sure all of my character defects haven’t even occurred to me yet.

A while back, in a meeting, someone said "My Higher Power has changed me", and I realized that I have been thinking to myself, 'I'm changing/ I have changed' without giving credit where credit was due. I'm new to this whole Higher Power thing, and all of Al-Anon for that matter, but I can tell you, I am very grateful for the changes that have occurred in my life in the past year.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A few months after my sponsor and I worked through Step Five, she left the country. I knew she was going—it was a planned, permanent move—and while I miss having her close by to talk with and hug, I am very thankful for the time we had together. I had talked to her about how difficult it must be to have to say goodbye to everyone, and to get rid of/find new homes for the majority of her possessions (even her dog!) in preparation for the move. I am a pack rat; I hold on to objects that have memories attached, and to anything I think I might use or need someday. The idea of getting rid of all of my stuff was pretty unimaginable.

My house is filled with things, lots and lots of things. Watching my sponsor hold yard sales and give gifts and part with almost all of her belongings had quite an impact on me. Today, writing this piece, I found a comment from her jotted on my 4th step inventory: Love / Higher Power vs. stuff as a source of security. Her words and actions percolated inside me for a quite a while.* Two months after she left, I started putting my house in order. Out went the dead, dried corsages from high school proms and the letters from pen pals I hadn’t thought about in years, along with birthday and Christmas cards with no more than a signature on them. I gave away books, clothing, furniture, souvenirs from foreign travels, half-finished art projects and supplies that I’ve been keeping, but not found a use for. I kept photographs and some letters, and maybe 10% of the odds and ends I had stored in my attic, that I had been amassing over the last 30-odd years. Other than that, I threw things out and gave things away to the Salvation Army, to my students, and to friends and neighbors.

I feel lighter now. I feel that, on all fronts, spiritually and emotionally and physically, I have taken stock of where I am and what I have, begun the process of getting rid of that which I don’t need, and tried to make changes for the better. It is an ongoing process, but I’m pleased with the results so far.


1Paths to Recovery: Al-Anon's Steps, Traditions, and Concepts, © Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc. 1997, pages 54-55. * That, and the fact that when hurricane Isabel came through I was faced with the prospect of my house sliding down the hill into a creek; there's nothing like the threat of losing everything to put things in perspective.

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