STEP 4 - Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Ahhhh. Step 4. This step can feel so daunting that many people stall, thinking “maybe it’s not worth it”. Dragging up ghosts from the past? Writing down things we would rather not remember? Sharing them with another person? This makes us vulnerable and demands intimacy, two terrifying concepts for most people. Especially addicts. So, Dear Reader, be forewarned. This post may not be suitable for the lily-livered but here goes.
An interesting slogan in A.A. is "We are only as sick as our secrets." I had a hard time understanding this until I met Aidan. Aidan was a member of my first home group and a lovely fellow. A big muckity muck in the world of music and quite successful, he was absolutely unable to cobble together more than a few months of sobriety. He would come in and out for years. Right when he would start to slim down and look less like he was on the verge of a serious cardiac event, he would worm his way out of A.A. and back in to addiction. His drugs of choice? Alcohol, cocaine, benzos, and Seroquel (an antipsychotic that is now widely prescribed as a sleep aid - NEVER to be mixed with booze). After he got sober for good, Aidan confided in me that sometimes in A.A. meetings he would figure out the timing as to when he was going to share, and then scurry off to the bathroom to do a line or two before his turn. "You know" he told me "to sound better". But as we know, that is not sustainable behavior in the rooms of A.A. or in life. It was obvious what he was doing. Running back to his seat just in time to wipe the coke residue from his nostrils and claim at warp speed and volume 11 "I love being sober!" In the compassionate custom of A.A. no one kicked him out. Someone just suggested that maybe he not share when zooted on coke. After that gentle warning he disappeared, reappearing six months later having been hospitalized after an accidental overdose. He overdosed on Xanax and alcohol. It states clearly on the bottle that Xanax and alcohol should never be mixed but those doctors’ warnings are for normies, right? Not for us addicts. We have a higher tolerance and can pretty much mix anything with anything, warning labels be damned - or so we think. So Aidan had almost died. He was rescued at four in the morning by his doorman in the lobby of his bougie apartment building on the Upper West Side. He has no idea why he went to the lobby but once there he collapsed, unresponsive, and was rushed to the nearest ER where they pumped his stomach and resuscitated him. It was, he acknowledged, "a wake up call”. He had had several such wake up calls previously but this one stuck. Aidan started attending A.A. meetings daily, he got a sponsor and he started working the steps.
The only problem was that Aidan had a secret. A secret so intensely shameful that he could never tell it to anyone and it was, he claimed, the reason why he could not get past the fourth step. He shared this fear with me.
Did he murder someone? Rob a bank? Run someone down drunk in his car and flee the scene? I wanted answers. No No NO, nothing like that. "No one was harmed" he said, "I don't think." Finally his sponsor, Pete, got fed up. "Enough stalling" he said. "We are doing your fourth step. We will meet at Pat's (our group’s favorite diner), you can tell me your secret and then we can move on".
Aidan agreed to meet Pete. Anxious and afraid, he arrived at Pat’s, knowing he had to share his secret but also feeling that he could not. Aidan and Pete faced each other across the shiny linoleum table. Poor Aidan was sweating like a geyser. "Ok" said Pete, "here we go." But Aidan couldn't. He felt, he told me, as if he was paralyzed. "All right, let's try this" Pete finally said, pulling out a sheet of blank paper which he ripped in two, handing half to Aidan. "I'm going to write down the worst thing I ever did on this piece of paper. My big terrible secret. The thing that had me using and abusing drugs for years as the shame of it followed me everywhere. I'll write that down, you write down your own big terrible secret and then we’ll slide the pieces across the table, look at the other’s 'confession' and that will be that. We can discuss what it says on your paper or not. I'm fine either way. The point is that now you will have shared your secret with someone else. That is the beginning of healing, of recovering."
Aidan was not happy but he agreed. "Fine" he blurted out, "gimme that" as he reached for the pen. He scrawled his secret on the piece of paper and laid it face down on the table as he had seen Pete do. “Okay” said Pete, “now we slide our 'secrets' face down across the table and read what the other has written.” Aidan and Pete slid the pieces across the smooth surface and stared at each other. A tense glaring standoff ensued, not unlike the epic five minute Clint Eastwood standoff in the film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
“I can't” said Aidan. “Please don't read that. Give it back.” He lunged across the table. "Not so fast, buddy" said Pete. "Read mine first and then we can look at yours." Aidan flipped over the piece of paper and on it was his sponsor’s secret.
I fucked a chicken
That's what it said. Nothing more, nothing less. Just that.
There was a silence and pressure at the table so acute that Aidan felt "as if we were trapped in the eye of a hurricane".
Suddenly Pete burst out laughing. "Ok, my turn" he said. Pete read Aidan’s secret, raised his eyebrows, nodded his head and ripped it up. "OK, now that's done, what do you want for breakfast?"
Aidan was stunned into silence.
"Did you? Did you really?" Aidan whispered. "Did you really have congress with a chicken?"
"What does it matter?" asked Pete. "And anyway... I'll never tell. The fact is that NOTHING you tell me will shock me. Nothing. I have heard it all and then some. That awful shameful secret you're carrying around...is it worse than fucking a defenseless chicken? It can't be. And now I know your secret so it's no longer a secret. Do you feel better?"
In the moment Aidan did not feel better. In the moment he felt grossed out and horrified that he had lacked all common sense and had picked a sponsor possibly prone to bestiality. That's what you get for being high at A.A. meetings, he thought. So they ate breakfast (at least Pete did - poor Aidan was too traumatized to eat) and talked sports and then they went their separate ways. A few days later Aidan told me about their meeting in front of Pete. I tried to act cool but when he got to the part about the chicken I screeched "NO!!!...you did not!" "Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, what does it matter?" Pete chuckled. "At least now Aidan doesn’t have to carry his secret around with him anymore. Besides, I know what it is and it's not that bad.” Aidan and Pete laughed out loud while I continued to question the physics of such a fowl encounter.
And guess what? Aidan got sober. And he has remained sober to this day. All because he was able to finally unburden himself of a secret that was going to keep him using, a secret that might eventually have killed him.
When it came to my own fourth step I was nervous. Embarrassed. Ashamed of all the selfish things I had done and all the terrible thoughts I still have. But with the help of my sponsor I was able to go into my fourth step with honesty and resolve. We all have our secrets. The ones that we believe if found out will bring us down. But they won't. They never do. And now with my sponsees I use the chicken story with great effect, telling them of its origin. And if I ever feel shameful after exposing myself and my petty little secrets to someone in or out of A.A. I can always make myself feel better with the simple freeing thought:
"At least I've never fucked a chicken."