Red light, Yellow light, Green light & Beyond

Step 9.  Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

I hear alot about “doing the 9th step” from folks early in sobriety who are either struggling with the decision of the 3rd step (letting a Higher Power do the heavy-lifting that I was not able to do with my own human power) or writing their 4th step inventories.  I did the same thing.  I suggest that the steps be done in order and joke that they are numbered for a reason, just as it was pointed out to me.  

It makes sense that I wanted to start rebuilding bridges as soon as I started to wake-up from my alcoholic fog and a lifetime of selfishness and self-centeredness.  I was awake, right?, so why wait to tell people how sorry I was?

Red light – Making amends is about setting the other person free.  It is not about making us feel better.  When I first started to wake up, I just wanted to feel better from the realization that I had hurt people.  This is an ‘I’m sorry that I feel bad’ speech, and not an amends.  I didn’t know why, how or what the whole point was to serve others by setting them free.  If we mash the gas pedal to the floor at this point so we can hurry-up and make amends, we may add to the original hurt that we caused people.

I have a sponsee who makes an unprepared ‘I’m sorry that I feel bad’ speech to his family every week.  He feels really, really bad, but I suggest that he keep his foot on the brake.  Better yet, put it in park pal.  Let’s get out of the car and walk through these first 8 steps before we do more harm than good.

Yellow light – When you have those feelings of “Oh, I must apologize so that I don’t feel icky any longer”.  Pause, and make a note of the “who and why”.  Come back to these notes in your inventories.  When, where and how to make your amends will fall into place.  When we see a yellow caution light we are supposed to slow down and use caution.  Don’t speed-up and make things worse.

Green light – As I said earlier, don’t jump to step 9 if you have not done 1-8 first, this may “injure them or others”.  But don’t let another day go by where you do not start this process.  My Dad passed away recently, 15 months after Mom’s passing .  I am grateful that I was able to make amends to my parents, in person, on two different occasions.  

During my initial amends they gave me the parental pass by saying, “Hey, don’t worry about it.  We love you and don’t want you to feel bad.”  I reported back to my sponsor telling him that something was missing.  He suggested that I try again and emphasize to them, “I don’t know how I have hurt you but it is important that you tell me.” and “Is there anything I can do to make it right?”  Mom and Dad felt free to give me a living amends to work on daily.  They asked that I be the best parent I can be to my boys, their grandchildren.  I try everyday to be the parent my boys deserve and I know that I am serving the spirit of Mom and Dad.

Graveside Amends:

Stacy was quirky girl in High School that gave this goofy boy a few life lessons long after our adolescent relationship {insert Bob Seger’s ‘Night Moves’ here} ended.  Did I mention that I was selfish and self-centered?

I was on a weekend spiritual retreat when I heard the speaker say something that I had heard a number of times, but a few days later would hit me in a very different way.  While speaking on the 9th step he said, “There is not time or distance in the world of the spirit.  If someone has passed on you can make your amends.  As long as you mean it, and feel it, and your intent is to set them free…your amends will be heard and you will know, sooner or later, what you need to do differently.”

A few days later I was stacking boxes in a dingy, scary warehouse that used to be a New England rubber factory.  In the decades since it’s intended use it was turned into warehouse and artist loft spaces.  I was stacking boxes and the thought came rushing to me (until then, I had never experienced a “lightning bolt” moment) I needed to make a graveside amends.  The grave was 900 miles away.  However, there is no time and space in the world of the spirit, so I knelt right then and there.  Silently I asked Stacy how I had harmed her, that I needed to know if I was going to change.  Silently I asked how I could make it right.  I didn’t have a Harry & Dumbledore meeting in King’s Cross Station moment, but I know my amend was sent and received.

I stand ready to make more of these graveside amends as they are revealed to me.

Step 9 is the first time we start approaching people equipped with new, spiritual ideas. Much before this was sorting out who we really are and letting God take away what we don’t need any longer.  To round-out my driving metaphor; Setting out on step 9 is like driving a new car in an unfamiliar neighborhood.  I sit forward in my seat, hold the wheel a little tighter, my head is on a swivel as I look for signs, I turn off the radio, and I mutter the directions to myself, and try to think ahead of directions given or landmarks mentioned.  Before making that first real amends, talk with your sponsor about when to stop, when to be cautious, and when to go.

It’s an inside job

It truly is an inside job and you only have to change one thing…EVERYTHING!  This is something that I used to hear in early recovery.  Every time I heard that, I felt an uneasiness inside.  I had frequented detoxes and programs in the past where I had heard something a little different.  I heard that you only had to change people, places, and things.  That sounded a little bit easier to me.  For many years I tried to change people, places and things.  Here is what I did.  I changed people.  This meant changing my phone number (for the 17th time).  I stopped calling old “friends” and drug dealers.  I would end relationships and start new ones.  I changed places.  Sometimes this meant moving back home.  Sometimes this meant moving to California.  Lastly, I changed things. I tried to avoid triggers.  This meant avoiding public restrooms, black Ford Tauruses, and the entire city of Worcester.

The big problem for me was no matter what I changed on the outside, I was still the same person on the inside.  The person I was on the inside was what was causing me so many problems.  I was always convinced that if I could just line everything up in my life perfectly (great job, great boyfriend, great apartment, ETC) then I would finally be okay.  Sometimes I was able to obtain those external things, but I could never keep them for very long.  This led me to the conclusion that I was the problem!  No matter where I went, who I hung out with or what I avoided, I was still me.  I still had flawed thinking.  I was still convinced that I was far more important than I really was.  I was angry and resentful, but afraid at the same time.  These flaws in my thinking were my real problem.  People, places, things, drugs, and alcohol were not my problem, I WAS!  What a realization that was.

Luckily, THERE IS A SOLUTION!  The solution for me was doing the twelve steps, integrating prayer and meditation into my life along with a yoga practice.  Healthy eating also plays a large role in my recovery.  This sounds like a lot, but I live such an incredible life today and I am going to tell you how it happened for me.

When I was 8 months sober, I found myself craving a drink and drug just as badly as I had when I was brand new.  I couldn’t fathom why it was happening to me because I was in the middle of my longest stretch of sobriety yet.   I found myself at AA meetings surrounded by people who seemed significantly better off than I was.  During the time I physically spent in meetings I remember feeling okay.  I was okay for the hour of the meeting, but what about the other 23 hours a day I was left with myself? While I was at a meeting one night I did this crazy thing and I got a sponsor.  I made a commitment to myself to go through the 12 steps.  I had an inkling that they were not going to work for me, but I didn’t really have anything to lose.

A powerful time during my step work came during my third step.  I remember really wanting to hand my life over to God.  It was not difficult for me to see that when I ran my life, it didn’t go well.  I always seemed to end up using, homeless and hopeless in a very short time.  I remember having longer stretches of happiness and shorter stretches of unease and discontent.  This was only a month into my beginning the steps.  I remember not thinking about drugs and alcohol as much as I had been up until that point.  That was all I really wanted in life.  I wanted to go one entire day without thinking about picking up a mind-altering substance.  When I got into my fourth step I mentally made the commitment that I was going to get through the steps.  I began to notice patterns of my behavior and thoughts.  It was so ironic to me that while listing all the people I was angry at, I was starting to see how I caused so many of the problems.  I, in many cases, set the resentment in motion.  I had lived my whole life as a victim so this was really eye opening for me!

My fifth step wasn’t as profound as I had imagined it would be, but it did feel good to release to god and my sponsor the mess I had been holding onto for my entire life.  There is an hour of meditation suggested after a fifth step.  Right before I fell asleep during that hour (Whoops!) I had a thought.  I realized that it had been some time since I thought about drinking or drugging.  I couldn’t remember if it was days or weeks, but it was time!  I was so excited and ready to keep moving forward.  Steps 6 and 7 were and still are so important in allowing me and my higher power to recognize those behaviors that aren’t working out anymore and then be rid of them!  I then was able to have some AMAZING amends experiences.  I was able to make amends to people that I never thought I would talk to again, let alone build new relationships with.  The thing was, I was learning how to live again.  I was learning how to be in healthy relationships with people.  I realized I really was changing who I was on the inside.  I liked who I was becoming.  I liked other people.  I was interested in other people and being helpful.  This was all brand new territory for me.

Steps 10,11, and 12 allow me to continue to change who I am on the inside.  I have so much more work to do on myself, and I am grateful that I have tools to keep growing.  I still get upset, afraid and even resentful, but I have tools to work it out right away and I don’t have to wait it out for a decade in extreme sickness.

Today I regularly practice these latter steps, which influence my life and those around me.  I have had that “internal rearrangement” the big book talks about.  Over the years of being in recovery I have also picked up some other habits that supplement my recovery perfectly.  I have learned that when I eat well, I feel better.  For my body this means staying away from sugar, eating fresh organic fruits and vegetables and having balanced meals.  Yoga is another example of something that greatly impacts my recovery; therefor my life.  Practicing the principles of yoga are so profound and impact my life in such a deep way, I am just going to need to write another blog to share with you all the magic it brings me.  Stay tuned.

From Victim to Victor

From Victim to Victor

When I look back at my experience through the 12 steps, I feel a sense of gratitude, accomplishment and strength. These are things I’ve never felt before in my life. The only feelings I’ve identified with before going through this work were fear, jealousy and depression. And I know I can list a whole paragraph of just those feelings, but I feel like that would end up looking like my fourth step inventory…and we are not here for that!

Another cloud I felt consumed with was this state of numbness. That was the scariest of all. NOT feeling. But isn’t that the whole point of substance abuse? By that point it had done its job. I wasn’t feeling the affects of drugs and alcohol anymore.  I lived for that! The sad irony in that last sentence reminds me of the place I’ll end up if experience relapse. It’s my responsibility to stay sober and do everything I can to make that happen.

Which brings me to my next point. I didn’t do this alone. We do this together. I simply followed other people’s suggestions. Because my substance abuse had beat me to a state of willingness, I did what others told me to do.

I remember asking my sponsor why she was so happy? It left me wondering how do I make friends? How do I trust in the decisions I have to make in general? Well, she had some of those answers and simply directed me to continue doing the work of the 12 steps, reach out to others, be helpful, and keep in contact with others in recovery. When fear came up (and sometimes still does) she would ask me how my relationship with God was lately. Was I relying on a power greater than myself to help me make those decisions I felt I had to make? Was I trusting he’s got my back no matter what? And, she would ask, have you ever meditated?” When I had no answer for her or I replied with a shrug of the shoulder, it was only then that I learned about my part in this process. The continuous actions necessary to help me like focusing on my breathing when I am anxious, centering myself, setting my intention for the day, caring about my health, and more importantly working with others new to recovery. The chain cannot stop! This is the beautiful cycle the twelve steps of recovery. One alcoholic helping another is so simple and also so productive.

I remember thinking something was really wrong with me. Actually, come to think of it, my family thought it first. I didn’t attribute any of my behavior to anything specific. It was east to just blame my parents for my problems and played the victim role for a very long time. They would send me to therapy, psychiatrists, and rehabs. The doctors would put me on anti-depressants and I would try to play the drug seeking game claiming to “need more for my anxiety,” yet they were never giving me the right meds or enough of them.

Now I can see that I was looking for help that no human aid could have given me. I was truly spiritually bankrupt. I had no interests or any ambitions for my future. It became clear that I envied others that seemed to have a purpose for this struggle called “life” that I felt I was doomed to suffer through. I mean talk about being a victim! This is how the spiritual malady, that I was unaware I had, manifested in my life. The substances I was using were my solution to this malady. It was a lesson of learning how to be compassionate towards myself, that I wasn’t just a loser or failure, and that I could get better if I took certain actions.

I had to get to a state of complete surrender and chose to give up fighting the good old fight. I made a decision one day and forced myself to go into treatment. It literally felt that way. I started to see the world and time as it really was. I observed my breaths and put one foot in front of the other. I swore by the serenity prayer (it has saved me!)

This is my experience, and I know everybody’s experiences are different but our feelings as alcoholics and addicts seem to be so similar. Which is why I love being able to get together with others that have suffered like me at some time and be able to relate with each other. We talk about what we used to be like and what we are like now. I no longer feel alone.

Another intriguing gift or promise of doing the work in the twelve steps is this psychic change that we will experience. It’s like a whole retraining of the brain. My perspective of others and myself was dramatically shifted!

It is my intention to have three years of sobriety in September. I will continue utilizing the steps for as long as these promises keep proving to be true and so far, so good. Writing out resentments and fears when I need to is helpful and I make amends for those moments when my defects of character show their ugly little faces. I keep track of balancing my life while prioritizing my sobriety and I notice and articulate my feelings then share them with those that I trust. I pay attention to myself (in a healthy way) by living a healthier life style.

All I am seeking now is peace and love and offering it to others. I realize I have one shot at life today. In the past I wasn’t eager to live; but my present state proves otherwise. Frankly, that nothing short of a miracle! I didn’t do that on my own. I have my part, but my friends in recovery, my higher power and especially the twelve steps have had equal parts. For these gifts I am truly grateful!