Ten years ago today, I went to my first 12-step meeting.

How can I express what it means to have been working the steps for ten years?


I remember somebody in one of my early meetings talking about how it took her about a day to feel her feelings. To notice them, figure out what they were, and get all the way through them. I remember talking to my therapist about it, wondering why I didn't have the same problem. I thought that at any given point I could identify my feelings. You know, if "sort of... calm? I guess?" is a feeling. Or "very, very angry." That one I was pretty good at. Or "stressed out," if, again, that was a feeling. Was calm the same as happy? Maybe? I hoped so, because then I could say I was generally happy.

I had no idea. I was totally checked out a lot of the time. (Do you know, I just realized that this is the emotional/codependent equivalent of an alcoholic blackout! You know: you're walking around doing stuff, but your brain and heart are not engaged and you won't remember it later.) I could distinguish rage as a definite emotion, but I didn't know things like minor frustrations, judgments were anger, nor that I was feeling them. I wasn't real good at knowing when I was afraid; I didn't want to be afraid, because I saw it as weak, so I just ignored it or layered it with anger, which seemed more powerful. I certainly couldn't have said that stress, embarrassment, or that unwillingness to talk to strangers (or even my friends sometimes) were fear. And I don't think I ever gave a second thought to sadness, other than maybe as depression.

That's one thing the steps will do for anyone, I believe. If you know nothing at all about the steps, know this: Every twelve-step program uses the same steps, sometimes for very different problems. The reason is that the steps have nothing at all to do with alcoholism or codependency or gambling or sexual abuse, and everything to do with addressing where we have not been taking responsibility for our own power, what we can do about it, how to recognize selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear -- and let go of them, and how to find and take the next right step on our own path. Every moment of every day. That's all there is to it.


Big, enormous goals, if you try to do the self-help angle and be like "I want to work on having healthy relationships with people!" or "I want to deal with my anger issues!" (and then, you know, suck at it because where the fuck do you even start with something like that? or at least I always sucked at it!) But if you instead do the actions outlined in AA's Big Book (the absolute only way to work the steps, don't let any therapist's random-ass book full of their own made-up exercises tell you otherwise) that's where it'll get you. It's like - not to get too grandiose about it - finally having that instruction book for life, the one that everybody tells you life doesn't come with.


Today, I went to my wife's work party. It was their nine-year anniversary, so I have just over a year on them. I brought stuff to do, but I ended up talking to people the whole time and having a blast. I went to one of two phone meetings that I was recently moved to start in my current program; only one person came this time, a guy whose wife had cheated on him with his brother, his cousin, and all of his friends. I got to answer all his questions and tell him how it all works and how it can change for him. I helped my wife start decorating the house for the holidays.

Before recovery, I would have been in emotional agony that whole party, constantly thinking that I was doing this conversation thing wrong, that I shouldn't be there when my wife was on the clock, that I had said something terribly awkward and inappropriate without realizing and they all knew it and were judging me, that they didn't like my shoes or the way I was just standing there eating pie or the way that I took one of the free t-shirts off the free t-shirt pile and didn't wear it, or then the way that I did put it on and wear it around, or the way that people took me for one of their employees when I wasn't wearing the shirt, and also of course when I was.

I wouldn't have been able to help someone whose wife was cheating on them at all, of course, and I sure as hell wouldn't have enjoyed talking to a stranger. Or rather, depending, if I had a short conversation that felt like it went well, I might have gotten euphoric that it went so well and that I felt like somebody really liked me and I did so well talking to them, and then crashed soon afterward, back in the same old self-judgments.

I would sure as hell not have had a wife. I hope I wouldn't have still been with my crazy abusive ex-partner, but I almost certainly would have had a new, even more fucked-up one. Or several. Best case scenario, I would have burnt out on relationships, but I know I would have been wondering when I was going to have a real, stable one, and probably I would have gotten into some really really serious sex addiction along the way. I would still have tons of abusive people in my life, still be wondering how to set boundaries with them and what boundaries I was "allowed to have". I would probably be pretty unbearable to be around, actually, between the agonizingly low self-esteem, the unpredictable bursts of rage, and the intense need to control and fix everyone in the theory that maybe then they wouldn't abuse me. Oh god, maybe I WOULD have a wife! We would certainly not be a happy couple, I can tell you that for starters. We'd be those friends that you still hung out with in parties and group situations, but increasingly thought that you probably didn't personally want to invite anywhere, even though you might not be able to put your finger on exactly why.

(And, come to think of it, I wouldn't have decorated either; it took me like seven or eight years to finally start decorating at the beginning of the month instead of hurling everything up at the end, or not at all.)

Instead, I am happy. Regularly, reliably, almost constantly, astoundingly happy.

The Big Book, I think, has a nice way of putting it - that we will become just as God intended: happy, joyous, and free.

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