After getting my resentments, fears, and other defects down on paper, it’s time to take my fourth step inventory to a trusted person for confession. If I found my inventory difficult to write, then the fifth step might just be impossible (thank God it’s not done in public). It’s easy to face myself on the page — I’m used to myself. There are no secrets to the subconscious, but to reveal myself to another, to say it out loud, takes on a strange and embarrassing tone. If you know who I am, what will you think of me? Will you call the cops or the nuthouse? Will you slap my back in commiseration or my wrists with handcuffs?
Playing “Truth or Dare” in childhood, I always chose “dare.” I would rather lick the soot off the back of the fireplace than tell the truth about anything.
Coming from a religion that holds confession as a sacrament, I thought I knew what was going on, until they led me into a small, brightly lit, white-walled room in rehab, the kind of room found only in psych wards or the DMV, or in here. I was introduced to my confessor, a member of A.A. Sitting eyeball to eyeball with another alcoholic woman, someone 20 years my senior, a stranger, with no dark screen between us, I thought what most women newcomers to A.A. do: You don’t know me, honey (which, by the way, was a large part of my problem). Do it now voluntarily, or pay in the future with interrogation at the police station, I imagined. Those were my options. This was the easier, softer way.
In what I date as my first real fifth step, a few years into sobriety, with an A.A. sponsor whom I had chosen, I heard myself say I was mad at everyone I’d ever known, proud of myself, and fearful of my own shadow. But I left without telling the thing that had plagued me the most. (It’s said that alcoholics are liars by nature — we’ll tell you we had eggs for breakfast when we had pancakes.) I got out the door, paused, and turned around. Like ring and run, I confessed the thing standing there on her stoop, then left.
Now another human being on the planet knew me as intimately as my shadow self.
Sometimes when Daniel comes to my bed in the middle of the night I sound monstrous, like a live drunk roused. “Go back to sleep. This is ridiculous!” I had to apologize for that this morning, and now I’m telling you. We are as sick as our secrets. When we’re honest with another person, it confirms we’ve been honest with ourselves and God.
Then there are the things I may need to admit to Daniel some day, perhaps one day, far away. There are the pet problems — literally, the pets I forgot. I let a turtle bake in the sun by accident. I didn’t check on Mousie, and it turns out he couldn’t take the cold. Doggie Number 1 — a hyper mutt — went to my brother’s farm, and we traded him in for a calm Boxer instead. What Daniel doesn’t know is that Doggie Number 1 ran away soon after.
When I picked Daniel up from school yesterday, he said, smirking, “Don’t be mad, but I have something to tell you.” He went on to say that at lunchtime he and his friend were playing with their food and the teacher didn’t see them, so he said he was “good” when it came time to fess up behavior for the “good manners” jar. Best of all, his name now in contention for “treasure box,” he was awarded treasure.
I asked him how that made him feel — to lie and be rewarded for it. He said it felt good.
What’s curious is that he confessed so easily, so urgently. Maybe that’s what felt good. After coming clean, we feel it.
Then, in that ADD way of children, Daniel asked how we get belly buttons. I reminded him how he used to live in me until he was ready, until he outgrew my skin. That’s why we let children get under our skin, how they affect us so deeply. They’ve been there before, and they know. It’s said that mothers get both the best and the worst from their children. He’s gotten the best and the worst of me, too, as I’ve expanded and exploded under his watch. He remains the best part of my story, as forgiving as God.
The fifth step is really a testament to the power of storytelling. We can save each other by witnessing our tragic and comic lives, by nodding, Yes, Yes, I did or felt or thought that too. I get it. You are stupidly human, and you are beautiful. You are loved, anyway.
Knowing that I will have to tell the truth about my warped thoughts, deeds, and feelings to another helps keep my behavior somewhat in check today — a cheap motive, but a powerful one. For me, there are no priests in robes cloaked in dark anonymity doling out Hail Marys or Our Fathers. There is one flesh and blood woman, or son, friend, or husband, sitting across from me, one who has possibly been where I’ve been and done what I’ve done, who can say, “Yes, honey, I’ve done that, too. You’re not a monster, and maybe I’ve done worse. Listen to this.” And we laugh and laugh and laugh, at ourselves, our antics, our stupid human foibles, our lies and delusions and projections and neuroses. Sometimes we just cry and get over it.
I never had to discuss the thing with my sponsor again. It was over once I’d found the words for it. (The thing had never harmed anyone but me.) Now she had it, too, sharing my load. We’re never as bad, or as good, as we thought we were. Most important, we are not alone.
Knock, knock. I forgot to tell you — the first Mousie did not go to the pet hospital for a new fur coat. That’s his replacement.