When I arrived in AA, made a commitment to a homegroup and began attending regular meetings, I also began to hear a lot about the 12 Steps. I heard, for a start, that if I wanted to recover, then I would have to take them. I heard that the purpose of the Big Book was to get me to take the Steps and to show me how, and I heard that the sole purpose of the Steps is to effect a spiritual awakening in those that take them – a spiritual awakening being the only available road to recovery for an alcoholic of my type.
But far more than any other Step (with the possible exception of Step 1) I heard about Step 4. I heard that the 'Fourth Step separates the men from the boys’ and that after taking Steps 4 and 5 I would truly begin to have a spiritual experience. I heard also about AAs who had balked at this Step (and in some case took a drink), and about others who had made heavy weather of their inventory, dragging it out over extended periods of time. And at the same time I heard members sharing about the immense sense of relief that came with completing their inventory and taking the Fifth Step. They spoke of a ‘new world coming into view’ and ‘the feeling that their alcoholic problem had been solved’. In short, the completion and sharing of a fourth step inventory seemed, for many members, to signal a real change and as such had attained the status of the significant turning point on the road to becoming recovered. Add to this the fact that the writing of an inventory involves some genuine effort and discipline, it is perhaps of little surprise that it sometimes receives such emphasis in AA.
Whilst I understand, and in essence agree with all of the above (except for heel-dragging and balking, which is entirely unnecessary) my own experience of making an inventory and taking a couple of guys through the steps suggests a little caution and perspective around this aspect of the programme may be in order.
My own sponsor made it very clear when I was new, that there are 12 steps, and that each upholds equal importance. Furthermore, each step leads on to the next: Step 4 would be groundless were it not for Step 3, and writing an inventory would be a largely fruitless endeavor were it not to be followed by Step 5. Whilst the steps vary in method and scale, they must all be taken with equal commitment and, as the 12th step suggests, we need to get all their principles into our lives. Similarly, whilst there is no denying that the fourth step requires effort, and may well be the lengthiest of the steps, it is not difficult (especially if taken under the guidance of an informed sponsor) and it is not helpful to become preoccupied with it, allowing it to build-up into a daunting hurdle. Firstly, as for some, step 4 becomes an obstacle blown out of all perspective. So much so, that their progress through the programme is impeded. And secondly, as a disproportionate and unnecessary obsession with the fourth step may lead to those that lie either side of it being relegated to a secondary status as the member becomes caught up in ‘morbid self reflection’ or begins to revel in the twisted self satisfaction of victimhood – both states that are antithetical to the objectives of the step itself.
When I came to start my inventory I was issued with some helpful guidance and my sponsor ensured that I understood the step – in both practice and in principle. My sponsor suggested I try and put in a bit of time each day, not leaving it until last thing at night. He talked about the inventory as a practical task – an action – and not an exercise in pseudo-analysis in the interests of self-knowledge. I was guided through the step 4 process in relation to the relevant section in the Big Book, the stock-taking analogy that Bill uses further emphasizing the practical, business like nature of the inventory. I was told, when detailing the nature of any given resentment, to be concise and to the point – there is no need (or benefit to be gained) in dwelling on these events, offering extended narratives and justifications. The important things with the inventory, as it was presented to me were:
– That it is genuinely fearless and thorough – leaving stuff out and keeping the worst items to ourselves can have grave consequences indeed.
-That the final column becomes the focus of the inventory – this is where we get honest about ourselves and our past, and learn to begin taking responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and behavior.
Through identifying our own character defects and getting honest about the part we have to play in our reaction to life, we can begin to stop blaming others for the way we feel and start to take responsibility for our own happiness. These are the principles upon which my sponsor placed great importance. Three, four or five columns – 7, 14 or 21 defects – these things matter little, he said. What is essential is that the principle of the step, as outlined in the book, is in place.
Sticking as best as I could to these suggestions, I found that (although I had to make some effort to get the inventory done) it to be a fairly painless process, and certainly no great trauma or trawl (for me, step 8 was the one that stung a little bit). My inventory took about three weeks to write, and when I took the fifth step, the feeling of release, of progress and the sense that I was changing was certainly there, and I knew for sure that I was on the Road to Recovery. I have to say though, that in terms of immediate and profound spiritual effect, it was step 3 that really took my breath away.
Finally, in taking the fourth step, I learned how to take the tenth – that being a vital part of daily AA living. So, step 4 is an essential and in many ways amazing experience, and for most of us it does signal a real turning point. It is not however a mountain to climb or a huge hurdle to overcome, but is one of the 12 steps we take in order to recover.
Road to Recovery, Plymouth, Jan 2009