Steps 8 and 9: Start Writing, This Is Going to Take a While
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all; and,
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
These are the steps everyone knows about. What the typical person knows is that the guy in recovery is supposed to go around to everyone and apologize for his rash action. It’s in popular culture and film and TV, portrayed not for 12-Step reasons but for other reasons in My Name Is Earl. Making amends is a setup for many sitcom episodes.
Don’t let it be a setup for you, too. Take your time getting here. I see too many people rushing to make amends. There are seven other steps for you to complete first.
A lot of men take some kind of pleasure in admitting wrongdoing and apologizing for it. It’s the same kind of guy who brags at work on Monday about how much he threw up on Saturday night. There’s an odd exhibitionist side of this step. But it’s not supposed to be for you as much as it is for other people.
It’s common for a guy to want to call up his old girlfriends first. Really, this isn’t an excuse to call the woman who told you never to call again. In the back of his mind,
there’s many a man who thinks that when she sees him with all of his shit together, she’ll screw him on the porch. That is not the ninth step, that’s an attempt to get laid. Don’t even think about approaching the exes with only an apology in tow; you’d better be ready on the spot with all the cash you owe.
In order to really do the eighth and ninth steps well, you need to thoroughly do all the previous steps. You need a firm grasp on your defects of character and an as-completes-possible moral inventory. Without having done these well, you won’t understand what your part in it all was, or how you’ve changed internally so you don’t want to live this way anymore.
You need to be really emotionally and spiritually strong at this point. Some people you encounter will still be pissed off at you. If you’re still prone to fighting or if you still have a prideful need to be right all the time, you’re not eighth- and ninth-step ready.
Next are what I think are the three most important steps, and the ones fewest people outside recovery programs know about.
Step 10: Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Step 10 talks about continuing to take a moral inventory. Hey, guess what? You’re not done yet. This step says that throughout your life, as you wise up and learn about yourself,
you’ll realize that no matter how thorough you thought your fourth step was, it wasn’t nearly done. There is a lot more in you that needs explaining. This is the “lather, rinse, repeat” (the directions on every bottle of shampoo if you’ve ever bothered to read them) step of the 12 Steps. The bad news: your step work is never done. The good news: it’s no more complicated than washing your hair. The inventory is a beast the first time you put it together, but you really complete it throughout your life as you continue in your recovery.
Step 11: Pray Faster
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
For the atheist, improving your conscious contact with God is really coming to terms with the person you are and who the world outside of you is. Truly understanding your impact on the world is the epiphany for the atheist. Internally, you will have an clear idea of your self-image, to the point of having specific goals for yourself. Externally, you will understand what futures are within your control and which ones are beyond your control. Most important, you will attain an inner peace that most people never find in one lifetime.
Where it says “through prayer and meditation,” I read, “through creation and performance,” as those are the God-actions in my life. When I’m writing at home, I’m improving my knowledge of the self. When I take the writing into public and perform it, I improve my understanding of the outside world. I can’t tell you what your God-actions will be. That’s part of your own journey.
In the late ’80s punk scene, it was common to hear people yell “play faster!” at shows. This is the “pray faster!” step. Whatever you’re doing to reconcile your spiritual well-being, do more of it as you go. You wouldn’t lift the same weights in the gym all your life; you would increase the sets, repetitions, or weight. Just the same, you should occasionally reevaluate your life, goals, and accomplishments, and how they relate to your recovery.
Step 12: Get This—You Matter!
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
I thought I had most of 12 Step figured out. The whole thing seemed pretty clear to me. After about three years, I felt good about myself and thought I had a firm grasp on all twelve steps. But it was that pesky twelfth step that was lurking in the shadows for me, and it snuck up on me not once, but twice.
The first time the importance of Step 12 snuck up on me was when I got my first sponsee. I was hanging out at my favorite meeting after it was over. I can’t remember what the topic was, but I do remember that I was feeling the euphoria that comes with the group consciousness. Without the meetings, I tend to isolate too much and it’s bad for me. A positive group experience feeds my hungry extroverted parts. Then this kid came up to me and my immediate circle of friends, and said he needed a sponsor.
Carlos was in his mid-twenties and was in the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC). He had been a gangbanger in the Central Valley before getting incarcerated.
“I need a sponsor,” he said.
I knew what his problem was. Most people don’t want to sponsor the ex-cons. They’re intimidating. They condition themselves to look scary. It takes years for them to lose this demeanor that keeps them safe while locked up. As a sponsor, you have to tell people what to do. You have to come down on them, tell them when they are fucking up, tell them that they have to do the step work.
Barnaby looked around the group. He went around in a circle and asked how many sponsees everyone had. Everyone had multiple ones. I had none.
“He’s yours,” Barnaby said.
“I’ve never done it before,” I said. I was immediately in backpedal mode. Instinctively, I wanted out of it. More responsibility? I don’t think so.
“He’s yours,” Barnaby repeated.
I looked back at Carlos. Underneath the prison tats on his face was a young man asking for help. Guys like him have a hard time asking anyone for help; the fear of showing weakness is learned early on. I knew if he had the courage and the desire to ask me for help, there was no way I could say no.
I worked with Carlos for a few weeks. Then he brought another friend of his, Mike, a scrawny white kid from San Bernardino.
“Mike needs a sponsor,” Carlos told me.
“I don’t know if I have time for another one,”I said. Then I noticed a fresh scar on Mike’s neck. “How did you get that scar?” I asked.
“I was tweaking for seven days, and wanted to kill myself, so I cut my throat open with a box cutter and took an Oxycontin. I woke up in the hospital.”
“You’re in,” I told him.
Suddenly, I had two sponsees. There was a vato and a tweaker under my care. I had to help these guys get their shit together. They’d both be released from the ARC soon, and what would they do without a good foundation?
I worked with the two of them until they graduated the ARC. While I was working with them, I realized there were a lot of people left off my resentment inventory that I needed to include. While explaining what defects of character were to them, I saw some parts of myself I didn’t like. Until I tried to take other people through the steps, I didn’t see the full effect of working them.
Right before Carlos left to go back to the Central Valley, he stopped me outside a meeting and thanked me. Maybe you’ve never been thanked by an ex-con, but they don’t throw around gratitude unless they really mean it. I saw him again,
remembered the way he used to look, with the fear now gone and replaced by hope.
It hit me that I mattered. After all this time,it took a badass vato to remind me of something I knew as a child but forgot along the way I matter. My life matters. The lives of people around me may be positively or negatively affected by my actions. There is meaning in life, but I’m going to have to create it for myself.
The second time Step 12 snuck up on me was when I secretaried my first meeting. This was another time that it was decided for me that I should do it. This time, with my experience with my sponsees in hindsight, I knew that I should readily accept the task given to me. It was at my Tuesday night men’s meeting once again.
It was time for our secretary to step down and for us to vote on another. When I say “vote,” it’s about the same way that a drill sergeant votes for the private to do push-ups. They voted me in immediately after the current secretary nominated me. I didn’t get a chance to say no. The nomination went up, followed by every single one of their hands.
Being the secretary of that meeting was a full-circle experience for me. I had just passed five years sober. I reflected on my half decade of sobriety. I thought back to that first time that I walked in to the meeting and thought everyone was a jackass. I still thought they were jackasses, but they were now my jackasses, and I was a jackass, too.
There were a lot of contributing factors to my sobriety, but the sense of community I got from those men every week was my favorite aspect of the entire program. I hadn’t felt comfortable being part of a group since I had left the church so many years ago, but I rediscovered how great the group dynamic could be. There was no way the group would let me get away with self-pity or isolation, which have been my worst character defects throughout my life.
What I wasn’t prepared for was everyone’s eye contact. Mind you, I paid attention during meetings, unlike some who zone out or text message, but even then I was looking at the backs of heads except for the secretary and the speaker. I had more than twenty years of public speaking experience, but it still didn’t prepare me for what I saw during my first meeting.
My meeting is full of guys who have done some serious prison time. Many of them are from the adult rehabilitation center down the street, freshly paroled. One of the many ways incarceration affects a man is that it changes his default facial expression; after a while, he has that thousand-yard stare.
Most people in meetings have a default look on their faces, so that they look like zombies. They don’t look happy, sad, angry, but rather barely alive. They don’t look dead . . . yet. But these guys from prison looked like they were about to kick my ass.
They didn’t mean anything by it. That’s the way you protect yourself in prison; you look like you’re about to go off at any possible moment. I sat at the desk for my first meeting and looked out at forty faces, each one looking more pissed than the last. It freaked me out, but after a few weeks I was used to it.
The lasting effect was more than I could ever have imagined. There’s something really special about each and every
man in there looking right at me when he shares. I can see the honesty, the hurt, and the victory on a weekly basis, Often, I’m the only one who can see it, as no one else looks directly at the one sharing but me. I didn’t think I had shut off from the world around me. I had considered myself an emotional and outgoing person. But as I talked to all these men on a weekly basis, it woke up an old part of me that I had shut away in a dark place for a long slumber. I was still isolating—not publicly, but internally.
Over the next year, I really opened up, not just to the men in the group, but to the world around me, to the program, and in my close personal relationships. Out in public, I felt much more of a connection to people I didn’t know. I experienced true joy at being a part of a recovery group, especially when newcomers came in the room. And for the first time ever, I was emotionally available to women I was dating.
I had accepted that I wouldn’t find a woman who would “get” me. I dated many nice women in sobriety who had interesting lives and were fun to go out with, but I never could make a deep connection. I thought it was because I was too complex or damaged or whatever. Really, though, there was a big part of me still walled off that I never brought out to anyone else.
As I brought out this side of me, my close friendships improved, and I met an awesome woman who really set me on fire. I have a lot more to offer my friends and my girlfriend now: an emotional openness and honesty.
I also made amends to my father. I went to see him over Christmas and apologized for all the stress and anxiety I had caused him when I was a teenager. Previously, I had made amends to him for specific incidents, but I had still never thought about all the weird stress I must have caused him while he worried about whether I was going to live through the weekend. I apologized to him directly, and his reaction was much less than I thought it would be. He more or less shrugged it off, thanked me, and told me it was a long time ago, and that it was all water under the bridge. I thought he would have made a big deal about it. The reason he didn’t is that he doesn’t hold grudges as tightly as I did. I wanted it to be a whole experience.
But that’s one of the times when I had to remember that making amends to other people is for them, not for me. Whenever I have a problem, I take it to the group and hear a dozen different opinions on the situation. I usually make it into a topic and throw it out to them. It’s like having a roomful of sponsors. I look forward to Tuesdays when I know that any problem I have will be dealt with on a group level. I don’t have any reason to keep my drama or problems inside.
Best of all is my sense of purpose. As an existentialist atheist, I think there is no grand plan for any one person. If there is going to be meaning in our lives, then we must create it for ourselves. I was content with my purpose as a creative being, an artist, poet, and comedian, sharing my point of view with others. But now I see the joy and inner peace that comes with helping others.
This is the gift of the twelfth step: the world is a better place for having you in it. I used to think that in the grand scheme of time and the existence of humans, it didn’t really make a difference if I lived a short drunk life or a long sober one. Now I see that it does, and it’s clear to me that though I won’t live for the species-span of all humanity, I’ll live one life, the best I can.