Every month, I dedicate a post to one of the steps of Narcotics Anonymous. These posts are by no means intended as extensive exploration of recovery. They are merely brief expression of my strengths, hopes, and experiences culled from my ongoing journey toward recovery.
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-=[ The Heart of Kindness ]=-
Step Five: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
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First, we explored what I call the “Recovery Cha Cha Cha” -- the first three steps that serve as the foundation to recovery and freedom from addiction. Step 1 () confronted me with the major contradiction in my life: how I managed to feel powerful when, in fact, I was powerless and needed help. Step 2 (click here) challenged my grandiosity. I have heard it said that addicts are egomaniacs with low self-esteem and I couldn’t put it any better than that. My low self-esteem pushed me to inflate my ego, but all I ever felt inside was emptiness and feelings of worthlessness. Step 3 () helped me see that my efforts at control were in actuality ways of sabotaging myself. Ultimately, I can only take responsibility for myself leaving the rest to my Higher Power however I defined it. Lastly, the Fourth Step (click here) gave me the gift of self-knowledge. By reviewing in detail my fears, desires, thoughts, motives, and actions, seeing how they created wreckage, I was better able to uncover the secrets.
I raised a Roman Catholic and I can still remember the ritual Saturday confessionals. We would tease our friends and cousins if they took too long in the confessional because we all knew that meant there was a lot of sinning goin’ on. LOL Still, the feeling of catharsis that always accompanied a confession was always refreshing. Always, the priest listened quietly and no matter what you said or admitted to, it was taken in stride, with no judgment. The message, at least for me anyway, is that no one is ever truly beyond redemption.
As much as I dreaded the Fourth Step, the Fifth Step was the scariest for me. Shame was acting as an obstacle against my journey to freedom. In Step five, we are asked to bare our soul to our Higher Power (as we define it), ourselves, and another human being. Reveal all, put it all out there, and take the risk of coming face to face with our shadow and dragging it out into the open.
Secrets and shame are two of the hallmarks of the disease of addiction. Many of us come from families in which addiction was a way of life. Throughout our developmental years and beyond, many of us feared outsiders would see us and our “horrible” families truthfully, so we developed coping skills that developed into strategies of denial. Step Five, people, was my first taste of true freedom. And recovery isn’t about putting down a drug or a drink -- recovery is about freedom from active addiction.
Still, I couldn’t possibly share my most shameful secrets with another human being, I thought to myself. Surely, no one has ever done the despicable things I had done. I was stuck at Step Five for sure. Eventually I came to learn an important truth, and I feel this applies to anyone, not just addicts. When we try to carry the load alone, we suffer needlessly. And in an unconscious manner, in seeking relief from that load, sometimes we will accuse even our loved ones and friends of the very character defects we are desperately attempting to conceal. Psychological relief never comes from confessing the “sins” of other people. Everybody has to come to terms with their own.
The practice of confessing, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs to another person is not new; it’s an ancient spiritual practice, in fact. And religion is by no means the sole advocate for this principle, contemporary Western psychology has long ago acknowledged the value the profound need every human being has for practical insight and knowledge of their personality flaws.
After much thought, I decided to share my Fifth Step with a Jesuit priest who was a recovering addict himself. This priest, who I will call Eddie, was one of the kindest persons I have ever met. And he was far from the stereotypical clergyman. He sometimes cussed, for example, and he smoked cigarettes. Most of all, like many truly spiritual people I have met, he had a great, evolved sense of humor.
As I began sharing my Fifth Step with father Eddie, he just listened. He was present, listening to everything and I felt there was no judgment. In fact, he kept nodding as I read off my list and sometimes sharing that he had committed some of the same acts himself. At other times, we would laugh together at some of the things on my list. Eventually, I was able to share fully, without holding back, ad all the fear and shame seemed as if it were being washed away. I felt accepted and unburdened. Most of all, I felt relieved of the “burden of self.”
The first great insight during the sharing of my Fifth Step was that I wasn’t as unique or terrible or horrible as I thought. Yes, I had committed many wrongs, but I wasn’t the only human being to commit those acts, and being held in the cradle of kindness -- in the heart of the heart of kindness -- I came to know my first taste of true freedom. The 12 Steps aren’t about formulating ideas about freedom, they compel us to act on the pract5ice of freedom. The 12 Steps are experiential exercises, action steps, toward personal and communal liberation.
Taking Step freed me from the chains of my shame and secrecy. I realized that I was a good person at heart and being freed from a repressive morality, I was able to become a moral agent in my life. Most of all, you have to understand, the Steps are about compassion, not punishment. The Steps can be the start of cultivating loving compassion toward ourselves. Personally, it was liberating to discover that my very vulnerability, that uncomfortable sensation of being exposed, is actually the bridge to deeper connections to myself and others. It’s called emotional safety, and what that means is dropping the shame and the sham and committing to being as translucent as possible. And now, all these years after my first Fifth Step, emotional safety and genuine intimacy is the norm among the circle of my dearest friends.