We’ve admitted defeat in step one. We are sick. We’re in trouble. We’re hurting. We’ve lied and we’ve avoided and we’ve failed.
In step two, we realize we are sick and that others have recovered. We don’t need faith or conviction or understanding. We only need the idea that alcoholism is a disease, that others have recovered: therefore recovery may be possible. We don’t need to say it IS possible, only that it COULD BE. (Step two does not say that a higher power will, must, should, or has to relieve our sufferings. Only that a higher power, a god, or an ethical shift could do such a thing. Theoretically. Theoretically, an alcoholic can recover.)
There are millions of people who have recovered with the 12 Steps, and each has a slightly different story of ‘how it’s done’. There are, certainly, a number of exercises or guidebooks or things a sponsor may have you do as part of each step. In later steps, we are given specific instructions about what to do and how to act; we can know that if we’ve done those things, we’ve “done” the step. One, two, and three don’t have dance moves attached. They are contemplative, interior, and have to do with our beliefs.
They are, in some ways, more about NOT DOING than DOING. We stop drinking, we stop making judgements and excuses. We stop trying to fight our way out and just sit still for a minute while the whole situation swamps us like a hurricane. Steps one, two, and three left me stunned. They are stunning. Just sit still. We realize our lives have become a battle, and we stop fighting.
I was an atheist, beat up, still groggy in the head, and deeply mistrustful. I wanted a certificate at the end of each step, a diploma. I was left thinking “what just happened?” when others said I’d ‘done’ a step.
Perhaps, more than a certificate, I wanted a guarantee. I knew how sick I was, and I had some clue as to how lucky I was to have made it a few weeks sober. I was terrified; I didn’t trust myself; I wanted to know that if I just did x, y, and z, I was promised sobriety.
We don’t get guarantees or lifelong sobriety. It isn’t that easy, or black and white. It scared me, but I had to accept uncertainty and just go on doing everything I could. I went to meetings, I talked to sober people, I read and I prayed and I meditated and I went to more meetings.
Later, much later, these steps appear more substantial and grave. I am able to see the implications, and the promises, in powerlessness. But it took a lot of time sober for my intellect, memory, and heart to clear. When I first did these steps, it was desperate and flailing and very very awkward: I didn’t know what I was doing.
But it was enough. It isn’t a guarantee. It’s just a chance to cease fighting and be still.
Imagine feeling that there is no one in the world with whom you can tell the truth. Imagine every spoke of the wheel that is your life is precarious, busted, held together with your teeth and duct tape; that if you rip off the tape from any one place the whole will collapse around you. Picture the strain of holding yourself – that ramshackle mask with a hangover – up in front of a world unsympathetic and dangerous.
I dreamt that strain over and over in my first months. That I was literally trying to support a dead weight body treading water all night, holding up the walls with both hands. I dreamt that a voice cut through from somewhere and said it’s ok, you can let go.
That’s what step three is.
You can let go, now.
How TO Dance
I have heard that if you ‘have problems’ with step three you haven’t done enough of one or two. Either you haven’t really accepted how out of control you were (1), or you haven’t got right with god (2).
Personally, I am still working on accepting how out of control I was, and I may never get entirely right with god. As I see it, if god is all powerful and all prescient, my getting right with him is beside the point: he’ll do what he does regardless. Getting right may make me feel better, but the balance of the cosmos could probably care less.
I was too alcoholic when I got sober to see all the ways I was out of control. Years later, I suddenly realize how bizarre some act was, or remember an event I’d somehow misplaced from my memory before.
Not doing enough of step one smacks of that idea that you haven’t hit bottom yet, that you don’t really get it.
I hit bottom 10 years before I sobered up. The day I quit drinking was, in comparison to my many faceted escapades, uneventful. I know dozens of people who hit bottom and then another bottom and it isn’t enough; I’ve known others who didn’t have many ‘consequences’ at all. The problem with bottoms is it assumes there is one; that we hit a point from which it can never get worse.
It can always get worse.
And if I needed to wait, or work, until I believed god wanted me better, I would still be waiting. I wouldn’t be sober, most likely, but I might be wondering very philosophical questions from the downside of a shot glass.
I did have ‘a problem’ with step three; but that didn’t make it work any less.
What do I need to do? I asked my sponsor, hoping for an assignment or some activity that would really change the way I thought and felt, make me sure.
You’ve already done it, she said. When I looked quizzical, she said, you’re sober, aren’t you? You’ve been sober for nearly three months. Seems to me like you tried everything you could to do it before, and couldn’t, but then tried this 12 step stuff, and you are.
That’s it, she said. You’re doing it. Step three happens when we realize something is working, and make a committment to keep going. There comes a moment in most ‘spiritual journeys’, or even lifetimes, when we suddenly realize we’re on the right path. This is what I need to do, we think, and we renew our efforts. ‘Making a decision’ meant I said yes, I’m willing to go on.
OUR WILL AND OUR LIVEs
As an alcoholic and an addict, I have a bundle of thought processes that have repeatedly landed me in trouble. I tend to catastrophize, expect the worst, find all sorts of reasons to be passive or perfectionist or self-pitying. Sobriety has taught me that what I think and feel may not have anything to do with reality.
Knowing that, I can circumvent my sick brain by having something else to check it against. The 12 steps are an ethical, stable, admirable way to approach life; I can check my own brain against their standards.
This also means that I check my reality with others, particularly my sponsor, but also with family, friends, or other mentors. I have traditions and philosophies that I respect, things that I know to be right and true.
Turning my will and my life over means I am willing to do those things, rather than act on my own.
As an alcoholic and an addict, I also tend to think I know how things will turn out or what other people are going to do. I tend to think that unless things happen a certain way, they will be ‘wrong’ or unfair or worthless.
Sobriety makes me wonder just who the hell I am to judge.
Rather than focusing on the outcomes or desired effects, I have learned to shift my attention to my efforts.
Another story: a young, recovering alcoholic needed work and didn’t have much of a resume, to say the least. He heard of a job opening and thought of applying, but quickly realized he didn’t have the requisite knowledge, skills, or credentials. He wasn’t qualified.
His sponsor laughed, and made him submit his resume. It isn’t your job to decide whether you are qualified or not. It’s your job to apply.
I’ve spent a lot of my life grieving over opportunities that went sour, relationships that faded, or things that could be wonderful, if only they were different. I’m coming to a place now where the outcomes don’t matter as much; if I know and feel that I have done my best, I sleep better at night.
As an alcoholic and an addict, I tend to create a fire so that I won’t be surprised when the thing burns, later. Step three means I don’t do that, and learn to take either fire or flood, as it comes. It’s a terribly uncomfortable, ambiguous way of being. Accepting the unknowable is something mature, wise people do, but not active alcoholics.
Being a parent means not knowing whether your children will be born healthy, or safe as kids, or successful as adults. Being an artist means not knowing, as you bring paint to canvas or publish your work with the world, what the world is going to think.
Not knowing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a kid, or try to express the beauty that is in your heart.
The literature around step three highlights willingness. Are you willing to accept not knowing, willing to go on with the remaining steps, willing to show up at another meeting and try for another 24 hours sober? We don’t have to know how to do it well, or know how to do it at all; all we have to do is be willing.
I’ve been asked, if alcoholism is a disease, than is the alcoholic responsible for his or her behaviors? Where does responsibility lie, if we’re out of control?
I’ve come to believe that we are out of control and powerless, but that we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to get sober. I am powerless over my disease, but I am also responsible for it.
I almost quit. Well, I almost quit more times than I can count but one time in particular I almost gave in. Why bother? I wanted to know. It isn’t worth it, it’s too hard. I don’t want to think about god and powerlessness and I don’t want to take a fearless moral inventory or make up for all the things I’ve done wrong in my life. I’m already lost, I’ve already blown it; why should I even try?
Because, a friend said, if there is a chance that someday you’ll touch one woman’s life with your story, you’d better fucking try.
That shut me up. It isn’t about me (poor me); I’ve got an ethical duty to get sober. Or try my damnedest.
Was I game?
Say yes and you’re already magic.
I know that step three has a heavy god part, for those it works for. “Turning it over” is turning it over to a being, a force, or a magnificence that is more capable than ourselves. “Thy will” runs strong in the literature.
I don’t know that god’s plan makes me feel any better or gives me any idea of what I ought to do; if god’s plan is god’s plan, than it doens’t matter if I pray for it or abide by it or will it or not, it’ll be.
But I do know that one of my favorite meditations has always been to go somewhere deep in the woods and imagine it all as if I weren’t there. It’s an odd, exhilerating feeling. I’ve always done this, long before I called it meditation or knew people did those things on purpose. It is entirely possible for me to feel and see the world as if I didn’t matter at all.
The woods, as I say, are a good place for it. Sit quiet for five minutes in the woods and you won’t believe all the wild things you hear and smell – things there all the time, whether you notice it or not, and you usually do not. What does that tell you of self-importance.
But I’ve learned, too, to do this on the subway, while reading classic literature, reading the news. The world, and all the precious, maddening, terrifically confusing people in it, rush and curse along their way. Terrifically. If I pay attention to that world, it’s buzzing trees and beautiful people, I find a thousand ways to participate. I’m learning to become a worker among workers, a brother among brothers, a daughter to my family and an aunt to a very little girl.
Step three is the practice of being who I am, where I am, willingly.
We were now at Step Three. Many of us said to our Maker, as we understood Him: “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!” We thought well before taking this step making sure we were ready; that we could at last abandon ourselves utterly to Him.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god, as we understood him.
If the first three steps are about contemplation, perceptions, belief and willingness, they do manage to close with a call to action. We stop fighting, and become willing to just live. We stop denying, and become willing to try.