Adam Guss: Phoenix Rising!

Adam Guss: Phoenix Rising!

Meet Adam Guss!  Guss – as he’s known around CORE – directs CORE’s transportation department in Branson.  He also manages one of our men’s homes.  On top of all that, Guss also is a star player on CORE’s softball team that plays in the Branson Church League. 

As we sat down with Guss and began hearing his testimony, not only were we mesmerized by his story, but we also felt the strangest sensation seize us.  In our mind’s eye, we practically could see Guss rising from the ashes.  His story plainly is about transformation and rebirth!  Given a second chance at life, he has arisen renewed and radiant.  Today, Guss soars beyond his past difficulties toward newfound heights of growth and possibilities.  

We became overwhelmed by a light bulb moment — Guss is a phoenix rising!  Or, so we hypothesized.  The only way we could make sure is by putting feathers and bird’s feet on Guss to see how he looks.  Does he look like a phoenix?  What do you think?

If Guss is or even is like a phoenix, it’s only because he has had a spiritual experience.  We must remember, however, that such experiences while very powerful often begin with great suffering.  So that’s where we’ll begin his story.  

Twenty years ago, Guss was barely out of high school when he became an addict.  Like most addicts, Guss was not exactly a party animal.  Rather, he was involved in a car accident that injured his shoulder and required surgery.  The surgery wasn’t entirely successful, so his doctors put him on pain medication until another one could be performed.  “Percs and Norco 10s,” Guss told us, that’s all it took:

I’d had two shoulder surgeries.  The first one didn’t go well, and they had to wait to go back in there.  Until then, all they could do was keep me as comfortable as possible.  That’s where my addiction to opiates took off.  By the time of the second surgery, I was finding OxyContin on the streets from other people.”

Guss kept buying Oxys until they became too expensive, so he started buying heroin.  Then he discovered methamphetamines.  Meth, Guss tells us, was a game-changer:

The first time I did meth, I felt something I’d never experienced before.  It made me feel like I could do anything I wanted.  From my mind set to my confidence, it made me feel like I could kick superman’s butt.  That’s the way I felt.

Once Guss began using meth, his life became like the ups and downs of a roller coaster ride propelled by an ever downward slope.  We spent some time talking about these details, but space considerations constrain us to compress his story into some short, pertinent observations.  For this, we’ll pick items that will be familiar to somebody who has struggled with addiction.

First, while we commonly see families at CORE who are reunited once a loved one recovers, this did not happen for Guss.  By the time he arrived to us in April of 2021, his wife already had had enough.  Marriage is for better or for worse, for richer or poorer.  The couple had seen both during their time together, but she mostly had lived with his addiction.  This had gone on for over a decade, during which time the couple’s financial [in]security rode the waves of Guss’ illness.  He candidly told us, “My wife was done.  She said she wasn’t at the time, but I could tell by the look in her eyes, by her body language.  I broke her heart too many times.”  Guss doesn’t fault his wife for going her separate way.  He still speaks highly of her and her efforts to build a new life for herself, and he wishes her nothing but the best.

Second, in order to continue his drug habit for so long, Guss tried to live a double life.  He turned his career into a cover for his drug habit.  He would either work late hours or take out of town gigs to hide his meth use.  He recalls, “I would be out of town and away from everybody, leaving on Monday and staying all week long.  So I’d be doing meth all week and then coming home.  I wouldn’t do it on weekends, or I’d just do it in moderation.  I’m living a secret life.  My whole life had been a secret.  I had a wife and a mistress – meth.”

Third, like so many addicts, Guss initially had no understanding why he couldn’t just use like everybody else.  He said, “I didn’t know anything about addiction back then.  I didn’t know how to change, because I didn’t even know I had a problem.  Everybody else did it.  Why wasn’t it okay with me?”  In time, however, Guss tried with all his might to quit.  Many, many times.  He went to detoxes, rehabs, and recovery programs.  He even came to CORE for a stay – a point which we very much want to mention here.  It drives home an important warning: none of these places by themselves, including CORE, can keep an addict sober indefinitely.  They are but human resources and, as the Big Book says, probably no human power can relieve an addiction.   Only God can.  And He will, if He is sought.

When Guss finally returned to CORE in April 2021, he was a broken man who had reached rock bottom.  As Guss offered during our interview, he didn’t even care at that point whether he lived or died.  

Our Program Manager Kevin Hunt then decided to send Guss to our Springfield program.  While he’s not aware why Kevin made that decision, Guss says that in retrospect it was “single-handedly the best thing that happened in my two years of recovery”:

I went to Bluejay, the intake house, with Nick Zahm.  He’s so strong in The Faith, and I was able to work with him one-on-one.  It gave me a chance to grow and to get out of myself.  I worked with the new guys who are doing their steps.  It’s actual recovery stuff, and I’m sharing my experience, strength, and hope with them.  So, I’m in Springfield, re-finding myself and becoming less codependent on anyone else.  I’m relying on God by now.  I know that I can do this. 

Guss thoroughly worked his recovery program and his inner phoenix began to emerge.  Guss sought God, and he recovered. Even as we spoke with him, Guss looked totally comfortable and confident with the man he’s become.  There was no swagger in his voice or manner, only a heartfelt appreciation for God’s grace and mercy shown to him:

I owe everything in my life today to God.  Without Him I’m nothing.  You know, maybe there’s a reason I’m still here.  It took years to finally get back to CORE, do the program.  As I look back on my life, I was full of myself.  But maybe God was like, Guss, you’re on your way.  It will take years, and it will be hard, but you’ll get here.  You’ll find Me.  He let me trudge through all of that, put myself through utter hell, because until I went through all that, I was never really going to get it, anyway. 

Guss also mentioned what CORE means to him personally.  He suffered a tragic loss last year when his mother died.  At that time, Guss already had been reconciled with his family, both parents and siblings.  He spent over a week at a hospital in Kansas City to keep watch over her, and further points out, “I’ve got really great friends at CORE who helped get me through it when Mom died last October.  We were on the phone every day, and I was 10 days with her at the KU Med Center before she passed.”  Guss also said “CORE has given me a safe environment in which to grow and the spiritual tools to truly find Christianity in a way I could never have done on my own.  It’s given me the opportunity to grow into the person I am today.”

When we asked Guss about his future with CORE, he just shrugged and smiled.  Right now, he says, “I’m enjoying my recovery.”  Additionally, he’s back in Branson and also has become a member of our staff (asked by Kevin Hunt himself!).  Guss is heading up our transportation department, which always has been a challenging place to serve.  Is being the director of this department doubly stressful?  Guss assures us that he’s happy and content to be there as part of the CORE team.  “So that’s where I’m at right now,” he said, “just learning this new role as a department head.  I want to get that down before I pursue anything else.”

Our last topic of discussion was CORE’s softball team, which already has begun play in the Branson Church League.  We peppered him with questions.  How many games will you win?  What about your odds of winning a championship?  How many home runs will you personally hit?  Guss seemingly leaned over to respond but then shook his head.  “You can’t put that in the newsletter!” he laughed.   

The 5th Step: Facing Our Wrongs?  Or Feeling Sorry for Ourselves?

The 5th Step: Facing Our Wrongs? Or Feeling Sorry for Ourselves?

Grandparents like to give advice, probably because they want us to make good choices.  They have lived longer than us and want to spare us the pain of making mistakes.  Any grandparent worth their salt has said, at one time or another, “there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about things.”  This is good advice.  Here at CORE, while not all of our staff are grandparents, we’re pretty much all Old-Timers.  We’ve been in recovery for a long time – long enough to give this same advice about the 5th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The step itself seems straightforward enough.  It reads:

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

As far as directions go, this one unambiguously calls for a confession of wrongdoing.  Notwithstanding, there are some in the recovery world who seem intent on publishing misinformation about it.  They can be found online, in the field, and in print.  They paint this step as an opportunity for a gripe session, or a time to get things off our chests, or even a chance to have a good cry.  

According to these gurus, we addicts and alcoholics have been holding onto our pent-up emotions for our whole lives, and we need relief.  It’s all that negativity weighing us down that prevents us from achieving our true potentials.  We need catharsis, a powerful emotional release.  So, using the 5th Step to vent about our complaints in life is just what the doctor ordered.  We’ve got to turn those frowns upside down, and we have to be fearless and thorough in the process.  But be forewarned: while we may be moved to tears, we’ll leave completely satisfied and be free to move forward.

It’s not just the recovery crowd saying these things.  We found an addiction recovery center that confidently tells its readers, “The purpose of Step 5 of the 12-Step Program is to unload all your past burdens, let them go, and start moving on from them.”  

Not to be outdone in this pity party, there’s a publication for sale that goes even further.  The author tells readers to turn their 4th and 5th Steps into something positive.  All of their talk about sadness, losses, and painful, even shameful events, should end with a so-called Reconciliation Rite.  To do this, you make a cup with your hands and think of a word that symbolizes your 5th Step.  Imagine this word resting in your cupped hands while slowly pouring it onto the floor like water.  Whereupon, the person who heard your 5th Step should say, “That which has kept you divided within yourself is gone.  You are whole.”  And you say, “That which has kept me divided within myself is gone.  I am whole.”  The ritual is completed once “you feel your feelings and meditate” for a few minutes.

All of the foregoing is very curious.  The cry-fests produced by this advice aren’t difficult to imagine, either.  We envision two people sitting privately, with one of them successively voicing his resentments against all of the people, institutions, and principles that failed him, all while cycling through the emotions found in the classic stages of grief.  For his own part, the listener intermittently interjects encouragement like “Face your pain and draw strength from it!” The whole drama ends once he instructs the sufferer to release his pain forever, or something to that effect.  They might do the Reconciliation Rite together, too, perhaps.

Sadly, it appears that newcomers are being encouraged to play the victim while doing their 5th Step.  Self-pity, however, plays no part in actual recovery.  

To the contrary, in working the 12 Steps we’re on a road to take personal responsibility for ourselves in both word and deed.  This step begins with “Admitted,” which implies we divulge matters against our otherwise selfish interests.  We’re making a confession, in fact, because the matters we discuss come straight out of our 4th Step moral inventories.  They concern “our wrongs,” not those of others.  

In fact, Step 5 is part of a progression to which we’ve already devoted considerable time and energy.  In Step 3 we asked God to be relieved of the bondage of self.  So, in Step 4 we naturally looked for our own mistakes in dealings with others – where we had been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, or frightened.  In Step 5 its time to acknowledge the exact nature of our wrongs – and out loud.  We are taking full ownership of our own mistakes, shortcomings, and misdeeds.  We can’t change until this happens.  

Our taking personal responsibility also excludes all of the ways we might deflect responsibility.  Whether making excuses, blaming others, minimizing our actions, self-justification, changing the subject, or playing the victim, such items are not proper assertions of a 5th Step, except insofar as they are to be found among our personal faults. 

So, why the popular trend to downplay and even ignore the need to take personal responsibility?  Because it seems hard, and there are newcomers who will procrastinate this step, refuse to tell certain matters while doing it, or even fail to undertake the 5th Step at all.  The Big Book recognizes the fear and hesitation about this step, saying “We think we have done well enough in admitting these things to ourselves.”  The market for recovery sees this, too, and is trying to give consumers an easier, softer way.     

Now, it is true that the prospect of telling somebody intimate details about our lives initially may seem like an embarrassing, even terrifying, undertaking.  We are making ourselves vulnerable, i.e., somebody will know our dark secrets.  Yet sharing our lives with another human being is indispensable if we are to live free.  The Big Book observes that “In actual practice, we usually find a solitary self-appraisal insufficient.”  We at CORE agree.  Any undertaking of this step must be fearless and thorough.

For one, confession to another person gives us a perspective and appreciation of our life history that we wouldn’t have otherwise.  Simply put, it makes our own wrongs more real to us.  Left to our own devices, we’re susceptible to selective attention and inherent biases.  We’re free to minimize, distort, or ignore matters that disturb us.  Stating them out loud announces that, one, this happened and, two, that I did it.  There’s no turning back from that.  We’re taking full ownership.  We’ll understand our need for change, and decide to make it happen, too.  Not coincidentally, our guilt and shame also recede upon making this commitment.

Additionally, telling our dark past to another person pierces a veil of secrecy which had separated us from everyone else, for our entire lives.  As the 12&12 observes, “There was always that mysterious barrier we could neither surmount nor understand.”  We felt it even before finding a community of recovery like CORE.  While being in a recovery community helped our isolation, it still didn’t fix it.  These people understood us, which was tremendously exciting, but until we sat down with somebody and talked with complete candor about our lives, a barrier still remained.  This step turns out to be the answer to our separateness.  It is “the beginning of true kinship with man and God” according to the 12&12.  This also is our experience at CORE.

Importantly, there also is the practical matter of maintaining sobriety itself.  The Big Book observes, and rightly so:

Time after time newcomers have tried to keep to themselves certain facts about their lives.  Trying to avoid this humbling experience, they have turned to easier methods.  Almost invariably, they got drunk.  …they never completed their housecleaning.  They took inventory all right, but hung on to some of the worst items in stock.    

This observation is now more than eighty years old, which means that today there is now more than eighty years of experience by legions of newcomers to prove it.  The 5th Step is confessional.  Trying to fulfill it by airing our grievances in life is one of the “easier methods” that the Big Book warns about.  We strongly caution the newcomer from pursuing such an approach.  

Finally, doing this step properly grants a very rare gift, of humility.  Our CEO Cary McKee recently reminded us of his own 5th Step, saying that he emerged fully understanding “who and what he truly was apart from God.”  He was humbled, understood his need for change, and realized that he needed God’s help to do this.  His heart was in the right place to work the next step, being entirely ready to have God remove all of his defects of character.

Cary recovered, and you can too.  If you still need to do your 5th Step, join him and the rest of us who have recovered.  Be fearless and thorough.  Ask God’s protection and care with complete abandon.  Find a trusted person at CORE, your sponsor or another member of our community.  This step is a powerful tool for personal growth.  It’s indispensable for living sober and being helpful to others while you build a new life for yourself.