Working Step Four: Some Preliminary Observations for the Newcomer

Working Step Four: Some Preliminary Observations for the Newcomer

Nothing quite compares to solving the drink or drug problem.  New life has been given to those of us who have recovered.  The 12 Step program puts us in possession of a design for living that really works.  We know a new freedom and a new happiness.  We wake up every morning in a position of neutrality, safe and protected.  We haven’t even sworn off drugs and alcohol.  We don’t need to.  Instead, the obsession has been removed and no longer exists for us.  An incredible sense of freedom pervades us, fills us with gratitude, and compels us to show others how we found this release.

These blessings are unimaginably wonderful, but to get there, we have to work the 12 Steps.  And that also includes the big, scary 4th Step! 

Dr. Bob summarized the 12 Step program as “trust God; clean house; help others.”  Step 4 is where we begin cleaning house.  It individualizes a treatment plan that is personally tailored to fit our specific needs.   It’s like no other therapy or approach.  A properly done 4th Step makes harm reduction methods advocated by popular internet gurus – like counting drinks, planning sober days, trigger management, and swapping one drug for another – appear incredibly naive and childish in comparison.

In this step we go way beyond remedial measures that aren’t effective and don’t work.  We get down to the “causes and conditions” of our problem.  Drinking and drugging are symptoms of a spiritual disease.  So, we have to take a long, hard, and honest look at ourselves.  Through self-examination and reflection, we discover our character defects.  It’s a “moral inventory” about right and wrong, and good and bad.  The object is to find out what’s broken inside of us so that by working the Steps we can fix it.  We’re looking for all of the obstacles that block us from living a spiritual life.  We can’t change the people, places, and things around us.  But by changing what’s inside of us, we are amazed at how awesome life becomes on the other side.  

Because this step entails a comprehensive, in-depth look at what makes us tick, chances are that we won’t finish it in a day.  However long it takes, that’s okay.  When we’re done, we’ll know.  At a minimum, we will have “ascertained in a rough way what the trouble is [and] put our finger on the weak items in our personal inventory.”  Big Book, at 72.  By making an inventory of our grosser handicaps, we make a good beginning on discovering the obstacles in our path to getting the new attitude, the new relationship with our Creator, that sustains a lifetime of recovery. 

There are three inventories in Step 4: our (1) resentments, (2) fears, and (3) sex conduct.  Someone unfamiliar with 12 Steps may not appreciate how these three topics reveal all of the character defects that are relevant to our addiction.  Nonetheless, taken together, these three topics make an ideal telescope through which to spot where we have been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and frightened, over the course of our entire lives.  By structuring the inventories in this manner, the Big Book reflects the kind of insight that makes it so treasured, and so suited for recovery.

At first blush, we expect that newcomers are eager to begin on this inventory in light of the benefits that follow.  We realize, however, that some may feel hesitant to begin this process.

Some may fear that doing a 4th Step will make us feel bad about ourselves.  Being new to recovery, we already may feel bad enough about ourselves and would rather wrap ourselves in positive psychology.  Recovery is supposed to focus on the good things about sobriety, isn’t it?  Shouldn’t it always be uplifting?  Rather than focus on our shortcomings, our first thought is to enlarge on our character strengths and virtues.  If an inventory must be done, some of us would prefer looking at the positives, not negatives.

It so happens that there are bubble gum commenters out there who would applaud this approach.   Their idea of rehab is a colorful room surrounded by catchy, upbeat slogans.  At CORE, we are concerned with actual recovery.  An inventory of our supposed strengths is not particularly helpful here.  It’s not in the Big Book, either.    

In this step we’re defining the problem so that it can be fixed. The process may be humbling, but it’s essential to lasting recovery.  Real improvement means changing the flaws in our make-up which caused our failures.  An honest, fearless, and thorough search for these things is a logical, necessary step. It may not inflate our egos, but it gets beneath the self-deceptions and denials we used to get ourselves in such trouble to begin with.  We have to search out our character defects as if our lives depend on it – because they do.  CORE is a safe environment that surrounds us with sympathetic, caring people, making this process a lot easier.    

There also may be some who feel like we don’t have any resentments.  We’re cool with everybody, we think, and any personal differences with others are so trivial that they can be safely forgotten. 

To be frank, emotional awareness is rarely a strength for someone who is freshly detoxed and new to recovery.  Throughout our addictions, we’ve been suppressing our feelings with drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.  Some of us, for a long time.  We might pick up on other people’s emotions but, when asked what our own feelings are, we may not have an answer.  For us who have been emotionally numb for an extended time, it can be difficult to identify resentments.  Nevertheless, we have to if we are to get well.  We’ll not only name them and process them, but we’ll also be done with them for good.

This is where the recovery community at CORE can really help.  Whether a staff member, house manager, or community member who’s working the steps, there are many people at CORE who gladly will sit down with us and help us get in touch with our feelings.  Resentments are part of the human condition, and everyone who’s battled a pill or a bottle has them.  The people here will talk to us so that we can pinpoint our disagreements with somebody or something else.  With their help, we’ll begin to discover resentments lurking underneath.  

The object is not to send us into a tantrum of rage, but rather to help us explore our pasts, identify our resentments, and fully process them.  Unresolved resentments are infinitely grave for the alcoholic or addict.  They make fertile ground for the obsession to drink or drug again.  Hanging onto resentments also prevents us from undertaking the honest, objective inventory of ourselves that the Step 4 requires.

Facing this step, we cannot let our fear of the effort overwhelm us.  We may feel as if our time spent without alcohol and drugs already has changed our outlook on life.  We feel great today.  Why upset the applecart by dredging up heartbreaks from the past?  

The Big Book anticipates our feeling about this, echoing “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Big Book, p. 60.  That’s why it begs us to be both fearless and thorough.  We can’t deny or minimize the existence or seriousness of our problem.  We didn’t agree to spend a year with CORE because we’re on vacation.  Have we ever overdosed?  Been incarcerated?  Lost a career, or a home?  Lost a spouse, children, or friends?  There’s never a better time to tackle the addiction problem than now.  The time and support we need, all of it, is here, right now.  When we look around the community at CORE, there’s a reason why we who are working the steps are not in jails, institutions, or dead.  We’ve recovered, and you can too.  So let’s get to it.