Step Two: Believe.

Step two: Came to believe that a power greater than us could restore us to sanity. 

When I started writing about Step Two, I noticed I included a lot of how I interpret this step in my piece about Step One. Damnit. Did I get it wrong? I don’t think so. I think the the first three steps are very connected, woven throughout each tool of the program. So there will be some overlap. And if I haven’t mentioned it before, I’ll say it now: This is my interpretation of the steps. I take readings from approved and non-approved Al-Anon literature, as well as my own personal experience, to make my own sense of the steps. Take what serves you and leave the rest. 

“The second step is about possibility, about hope … A little willingness can go a long way toward making hope and faith an ongoing part of our lives.” // Courage to Change p. 156

Came to believe…

When I was younger, I’d have a recurring vision of myself as an adult. I would see myself slowly closing the door of a child’s room as I peeked inside. I was a mother. And now I cannot help but see that vision as I close the door of my child’s room, peeking inside as I do. I saw it exactly as it came to be. 

I was raised to believe there is a God. I went to church, I learned how to recite prayers, I learned stories about Jesus. But none of it meant anything to me. I never felt any of it connected to me. I didn’t see how I fit in, how any kind of God could find me relevant enough to pay attention to. I never rejected the idea of a higher power. I just didn’t feel it. So I lived my life without faith, separate from the world around me. I didn’t think I needed it until I realized how alone I felt in the chaos of M’s active addiction. 

M showed me a note I wrote to him three years ago while he was in rehab. I wrote about all the things I still saw in our future – playing board games with our little one, waking up together, falling in love again – despite all the unknowns. And it happened. I saw it all. Even in the depths of the terrifying unknown, I still held onto hope for a better life to come. “Your faith made all the difference,” he said. Believe it, and it will be. 

To believe is to let go of the idea that we are separate from the world around us. To accept that we don’t know everything and we can’t fix everything. To believe is to have hope in something greater. To not know what comes next, and to know that everything will be okay, anyway. But it doesn’t just happen. It takes action, practice, willingness. We don’t just believe out of nowhere. We “came to.” We have to get ourselves there, first.

Let go. Open. 

“The journey of enlightenment is a journey of the mind from a focus on the body to a focus on spirit, from a limited sense of self to an unlimited sense of self, from a sense of separateness to a sense of unity with all things, from blame to blessing, and from fear to love.” // Marianne Williamson,  A Year of Miracles

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us… We seem to have forgotten that even when we’re utterly alone, we’re connected to one another by something greater than group membership, politics and ideology — we’re connected by love and the human spirit. No matter how separated we are by what we think and believe, we are part of the same spiritual story.” // Brené Brown,  Braving the Wilderness

…. that a power greater than ourselves….

I always liked the idea that everything is made out of the same stuff – energy. And when we die, our energy moves out of our bodies and back into the world, perhaps in another form of living thing. When I started to open up to spirituality, I realized that my idea is a commonly held belief. I would read books that explained the loving energy of the world, how we are all connected, and I’d nod in agreement – as if I already knew it, as if all this knowledge was already within me, and the writer was just awakening it. Slowly, a sense of belonging began to emerge. I wasn’t alone in my thoughts.

My Higher Power is the energy of the universe, what I believe to be love. I feel closer to that energy whenever I look at the sky. It’s so big. It’s always there. And beyond – stars and planets and solar systems and galaxies and comets and black holes and the unknown. It took 4.5 billion years for Earth to form. There are patterns and cycles everywhere. There is a process and rhythm to this universe that is so much older and bigger than any human. Our time here as humans is miniscule. But instead of this making me feel unimportant, I actually feel incredibly amazed that I am a part of something so much larger than myself. The energy that makes the stars is the same energy inside of me. We’re all connected. And there’s a bigger process happening that I cannot control. I see the beauty in this world, in small everyday moments, and I trust the universe knows what it’s doing. 

“We rush through our days in such stress and intensity, as if we were here to stay and the serious project of the world depended on us. We worry and grow anxious; we magnify trivia until they become important enough to control our lives. Yet all the time, we have forgotten that we are but temporary sojourners on the surface of a strange planet spinning slowly in the infinite night of the cosmos.” // John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong

“There has been no burst of light, no burning bush – just a gradual clearing of fog … eventually I came to believe that I wasn’t alone in the universe. There was and is a Force, a drive, an energy that can give me the means to make my life joyous and productive.” // Courage to Change p. 307

… could restore us to sanity.

“This is driving me insane.” I’ve thought these exact words as I search frantically for answers, wondering if he’s lying to me, if he’s using again. I keep thinking that knowing if he’s using or not will give me some control over the situation, like I’ll be able to get him to stop, or I’ll know what to do next. So with any trigger or suspicion, I go into questioning mode. I start looking closely at certain behaviors. I start worrying more about what I’ll do if I find something. I grasp for “truth” wherever I can find it. In the meantime, he’s clean. And instead of enjoying my time with him, I’m preparing myself for the worst. 

The word “sanity” comes from the Latin word sanitas, or health. The word has evolved over time so that today, we equate it with mental health. To be insane is to be crazy. To live in some kind of delusional world. 

In Buddhism, the Second Characteristic of Existence is Impermanence – the idea that nothing is permanent, nothing lasts, nothing is forever. 

“This insight shows us quite clearly that there’s nothing to hold on to, because, quite simply, nothing is standing still.” // Kevin Griffin, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the 12 Steps

And yet. I’d keep trying to hold on to these visions of what I thought my life and my loved ones were supposed to look like,  and to a truth that fit into my own narrative. This grasp is my attempt at control. And it’s insanity. Life happens the way it happens. It flows with a force that I can’t explain, but that I’ve just come to believe. So I practice, over and over, in letting go. 

Sanity is staying grounded in the present moment and being okay with not knowing the outcome. It’s taking time to breathe and read and say the Serenity Prayer instead of getting stuck in negative thinking. It’s focusing on progress, being grateful for what I have right now, finding peace and joy in the chaos of the everyday. Sanity is when I find out he slips and I am still able to feel calm, peace, joy. What once felt like my entire world crashing down, I now see exactly as it is – a slip. He, we, are capable of getting back up. Sanity is the ability to find peace and joy in any situation. 

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. I think at the very core of step two is simply the belief that we are not alone. We are not separate. We belong here, in this moment, exactly as it is.

Step One: Open.

A new month, a new year, a new decade. Twelve months, twelve steps. First up:

Step one. We admitted we were powerless over addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable. 

When I learned about Al-Anon, I was turned off. I was sitting in a circle of mostly mothers of addicts – a non 12-step support group for families affected by addiction. In the circle, we told our stories, swapped opinions about different treatments and rehabs, asked questions. “In Al-Anon,” one woman told me, “you can’t just discuss stuff like this. There’s no cross-talk or conversation. You’re expected to work the twelve steps of AA and get a sponsor.”

I had heard about Al-Anon before, but I didn’t realize it involved any work on my part besides telling my story. The twelve steps are for people with a problem. I didn’t have the problem – I was just trying to get my husband to stop using drugs so we could get our life back. So we could get back on track to having a happy family. What did I possibly have to work on?

What does Step One mean?

If I had to sum up the first step in one word: Open. 

I closed off to the option of Al-Anon simply because I didn’t want or think I needed to do any self work. I didn’t want to admit that I may have played a role in this mess. I was already going to therapy, anyway, to learn how to cope with how his behaviors were screwing me up – wasn’t that enough? Getting my own sponsor would require going way out of my comfort zone, and the steps included things like moral inventories and making amends and I really didn’t need to do that. 

I can’t remember what it was that got me to open back up – to let go of the idea that the darkness and loneliness and fear and sadness and confusion, the feelings of being completely stuck and lost – that all of that would go away if only he could stop using. Complete desperation, I think. When I realized I had no idea what the fuck I was doing and what to do next. When I couldn’t find help anywhere else, and no one could tell me the right answer. 

I think I took that first step before I even attended an Al-Anon meeting. I didn’t know where my husband was or what he was doing, I couldn’t stop him, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what would come next. I was so afraid of losing everything. Sobbing, I fell to my knees on the bathroom floor and asked a Higher Power for help. A Higher Power that I had rejected for so long because the idea of a male, white-haired, white-bearded, white-skinned God looking down from above and making everything all better just because I asked was pathetic to me. I had control over my own life by making choices, acting, working hard, doing all the things I was supposed to do. Right? Maybe not. I didn’t know what else to do. So I prayed. I became the stereotype that I used to roll my eyes at when they appeared in movies or TV shows – the person who “found God” after experiencing trauma. But I don’t think I found God. I found myself – connected to the universe around me. 

I didn’t actually use the exact words “I admit I am powerless over addiction and my life is unmanageable.” My prayer was more like repeating “Please help me” and “I don’t know what to do” between sobs. But the act of prayer opened my heart and my mind a bit to the idea that you know what? Maybe there is another way beyond my own way of thinking, and maybe I can go that way, instead. Maybe that path will open to me even though I’ve been ignoring it for so long. Maybe it will help even though I feel like I don’t deserve it or don’t fully believe in it. Maybe all I have to do is take that first step.

Again and again, I take that first step. 

The world is not black and white. It’s not divided into right and wrong, good and bad, strong and weak. I’ve had to loosen my grip and let go of what I thought I knew – what most people think about recovery, marriage, and family, and open up to new ways of thinking:

There is not one right way to recover. The story that we’re told about recovery in mainstream media involves rehab, twelve steps, meetings, and then, a happy ending with x days sober and counting. My husband doesn’t go to AA, and he takes medication to help him stay clean from heroin. What works for one person may not work for another, but there is a common thread – recovery is not linear. There will be slips and falls because change is hard for everyone. In Al-Anon, we have the slogan, “Progress, not perfection.” It’s what happens after we fall that matters. Keep going. 

Trust is about more than “I trust you” and “You trust me.” It’s not about someone else doing the work so he can earn my trust. Trust takes work from everyone. Even when my husband is clean, when I know how much work he has done and how far we have come, when I let go of perfection and see the progress, I still find myself in the “what-if’s.” The suspicions, the doubt, the fear creeps in, and I search frantically for answers. The searching drives me nuts, and there is nothing he can do to change my thoughts. That’s on me. 

The serenity prayer brings me back, replacing fear with love, reminding me of what I can and cannot change.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. 

In my own words: I can’t control this. I can’t control him. I can only control myself – my reactions, my attitudes, my way of thinking. Dear universe, please help me look inward to find my strength. Help me trust myself. 

Let go of my own denial. We often hear about addicts being in denial – they can’t accept their addiction for whatever reason – they don’t want to stop or they’re afraid of what will happen if they do. I’ve had to let go of denial, as well. Denial is refusing to open up to different ways of thinking. Denial of my own problems leads to blame in others, and the idea that other people have to change in order for me to be happy. If only he would stop using… This attaches my well being to someone else’s behaviors instead of my own. Step one helps me to own my feelings, my reactions, my path, my happiness, my serenity. 

Knowledge is not always power. 

“Does analyzing my situation provide any useful insights, or is it an attempt to control the uncontrollable? I have heard that knowledge is power. But sometimes my thirst can be an attempt to exercise power where I am powerless.” Courage to Change p. 285

Knowledge is certainly necessary, and can empower me to make better choices. I’ve read so much about addiction, how addiction affects the brain, different treatment methods. Educating myself has helped me understand what my husband is going through and the options available to him. We’ve analyzed our past in therapy to help understand the why’s, the triggers, how we can support each other moving forward. I’ve analyzed my own past as I create a moral inventory in step four, digging around to uncover ways of thinking that I learned from my family or past events. 

But of course, nothing is black and white. Knowledge is power… to an extent. When I find myself doubting him, wondering if he’s using or lying or hiding something, I’m taken back to the days of active addiction, when tangible truths found by searching his phone were the only truths I could hold on to, the only evidence I could throw in his face to “make” him admit his use. But they offer only temporary relief. The negative thinking still shows up even after uncovering the truth, and that’s what I have to let go in order to trust. 

By practicing step one, I can let go of the belief that having all the answers (knowing where he is, what he’s doing, if he’s clean or not) gives me some control over the situation, as if that knowledge will grant me peace and sanity. 

Powerless, not helpless. 

“Step one calls for acceptance, specifically accepting or admitting powerlessness over compulsions to use substances. This step is meant to be empowering, and for many people it is. Others find the concepts of ‘self-empowerment’ and ‘willpower’ the real driving force of change. The reality is that both are true: a person can be both powerful and powerless at the same time. Similarly, a person can accept what is and want things to change at the same time.

You have the power to help someone change, and the power to make changes yourself that will improve your situation, yet you are powerless to make another person change or do the changing for him… in any given interaction, you will not be able to control the outcome.” Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change p. 97

Admitting I’m powerless over addiction doesn’t mean I can’t help motivate change. I can’t control his behavior, but I don’t have to stand by and watch him destroy himself, either. Just as his negative behaviors can have an effect on me and change the relationship, so can my positive behaviors. When one of us changes, the relationship changes. 

I made my husband go to rehab. He admits now that he went not because he was ready, but because he thought he didn’t have a choice. I admit that I had given him an ultimatum. “Go to rehab, or this isn’t going to work,” I told him. I don’t regret this. The ultimatum didn’t have the power to make him stop – he relapsed shortly after, and then again months later. He had every intention of using again once he got out. He knew he wasn’t done. The “happily ever after” outcome that I was expecting did not happen, and in that way, I was powerless. But going to rehab still helped him move in the direction toward recovery. 

When he relapsed less than a year later, I left. Not as an ultimatum, not to make him get clean, but because it was what I wanted and needed for myself. I took some time away from the situation to be with my family out of state, and he took that time to detox on his own. I wanted him to go back to rehab – I thought it was the only way he would be able to get clean again. But only he could decide what was right for him. I let go of ownership of his recovery, I let go of any outcome, not knowing what I would come home to – a failed marriage? Or another chance? It was an act of true surrender, of opening up to an outcome that I didn’t think was possible, and trusting that it would be okay, anyway. Meanwhile, my husband detoxed at home with the help of his parents, and that was the last time he was in full-blown active addiction. He took the first step on his own, and this time, it was his choice. 

What benefits have I experienced in applying Step One?

I am open. I look inward to see what I can release, what may be holding me back, instead of trying to fix him or any situation out of my control. I have learned to accept suffering as a part of the process, a part of life. It doesn’t have to take over my life. I keep letting go and opening. I pray. 

Let go of old ways of thinking. Open up and look inward. Surrender the outcome and trust that no matter what happens, it will all be okay. 

“You don’t have to transform anything. Simply letting go of the story line is what it takes, which is not that easy. That light touch of acknowledging what we’re thinking and letting it go is the key to connecting with this wealth that we have. With all the messy stuff, no matter how messy it is, just start where you are – not tomorrow, not later, not yesterday when you were feeling better – but now. Start now, just as you are.” – Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living p. 35

 

Open

Loosen your grip. 

Relax your eyes.
See the colors
beyond black and white. 

Be fluid.
Ride the waves.
Know they will pass. 

Make space for growth.

Surrender.

 

Step four: filling empty spaces.

The calendar went around the table, and I passed it as usual, but not before pausing and looking at the next week’s topic: Step four. I had been thinking about signing up for the lead, but not on step four. Someone else who had actually worked the step could take that one.

By the end of the meeting, still no one had signed up. As I walked out the door, T called my name and asked if I would do the lead. “You would do such a great job,” she said. “I’ll sit next to you and help lead the meeting.”

My Higher Power speaks to me through the kind people I meet in Al Anon. She gave me the push I needed. Later that week, she texted me: “Thank you for offering the lead and I’ll help you along. We just share our experience, strength, and hope of step four. Don’t be concerned with having “worked” the step in some formal way. Higher Power gives us the words and those always speak to the hearts of the members. See you Tuesday and feel free to call me.”

I am so grateful to be a part of this community. Below is my first Al Anon lead.

Step four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory.

When I first signed up to do the lead for this week, I wasn’t sure about what I would talk about. I haven’t “formally” worked step four, so what could I possibly have to share that would be helpful to others? (And by “formally” working a step, I was thinking of someone who worked with a sponsor to physically write out their moral inventory.) But after encouragement from members of this group and thinking it over more, I realized that we all work the steps in different ways. There is no right or wrong way. And I have been weaving step four into my everyday life since I first came to Al Anon. I hope my story today can bring you strength and hope where you need it.

I’d like to start with a reading from Courage to Change, page 55:

Isn’t it exasperating to go to the grocery for an item, only to find the shelf empty? Fortunately, grocers can correct that situation by taking inventory to learn which shelves need replenishment.

The same is true for me. A fourth step inventory illuminates my own empty spaces, my shortcomings. This doesn’t have to be a painful or scary experience. I don’t have to pass judgment on an empty shelf, but unless I take the time to become aware of it, I won’t do anything to fill it, and the problem will continue. By taking inventory, my empty spots can be filled with the help of the remaining steps. I experience the healing power of these steps whenever the formerly hurtful circumstances recur while the pain that I once felt does not.

I believe if we don’t take action to fill our empty spaces with something positive – if we don’t replace the fear with love – resentment begins to grow there, instead.

When my husband was in active addiction, I had a lot of anger. I felt like I was doing most of the work when it came to caring for our child. On the weekdays, I’d get our son ready for daycare, drop him off, pick him up, feed him, play with him, give him a bath – while my husband slept, “worked late,” found some reason to leave the house or spend time in the garage. On the weekends, I’d wake up with our little one while my husband slept in. When I tried to wake him up, I yelled. “Wake up! I’m doing everything! This isn’t fair!” It typically didn’t end well.

As many of you know, sobriety doesn’t solve all of our problems. Our moral inventories are still there, the empty shelves waiting to filled, and no one can fill them but us. My husband got clean, and resentment grew in that angry, empty space.

I remember one Saturday morning, standing in the kitchen, the dishwasher open in front of me. I had just put all the dishes away, and the sink was full of more dishes to load. At my legs, our little one, asking when I would be done. A Sesame Street CD played in the background. Laundry tumbled in the washer downstairs. A to-do list building in my head. Upstairs, my husband’s alarm clock blaring for the last half hour. Him, in bed, sleeping, oblivious.

The anger began to wash over me – the same old thoughts of “this isn’t fair, he’s never going to change, I’m doing everything, I’m all alone, it’s all his fault.” But I didn’t want to feel angry anymore. I didn’t want to go upstairs and yell at him to wake up. I didn’t want to let him sleep and be angry the rest of the day, punishing him with my silence. I had been through all of that before, and it didn’t help. It didn’t help us move forward. The anger held us back.

I cried. The anger moved through me. It turned into sadness, confusion, a feeling of being overwhelmed and alone. I just wanted help. I just wanted him to be with us. I allowed myself to feel and accept these the feelings as mine to face. Then, I released them, and I went upstairs.

I didn’t yell. I replaced the anger with communication, and I told him I needed him. I needed help. It was all too much for me and I couldn’t handle it anymore. Would he please wake up and help me?

He responded better to that. And with love, compassion, communication, came perspective. I realized – he’s trying. He’s clean. He’s working on his issues and he’s not perfect and he needs help, too. He doesn’t want to sleep all day and miss out on his family. And so, with time, it’s getting better. We take it one day at a time. We have breakfasts together on the weekends now. We have a weekday routine in the mornings and evenings, tag-teaming the drives to and from daycare, dinner time, bath time, bed time. I don’t feel like I’m going at it alone anymore. We’re on the same page, doing it together, moving through each day with the same loving rhythm. Our son is four, and starting to feel big emotions. Rather than dismiss them, we are teaching him how to identify them, to know that they’re okay, and to release them. I suppose it’s never too early to start making your searching and fearless moral inventory, right?

As I prepared for this lead, I kept coming back to this: Step four is all about self love. It’s about loving yourself no matter what. Love yourself enough to recognize and celebrate your good qualities. Love yourself and allow yourself to feel, accept, and release the negative. Know that you are not your feelings, or thoughts, or behaviors. Self doubt and self hate have no place in your path forward. Love yourself enough to let go and let your Higher Power guide you. You are enough. Just ask your Higher Power to help you fill the empty spaces with what you already have within.

 

Lean in and pray.

The summer of 2017, M relapsed. And by relapse, I mean he went full force back into using regularly and lying to me about it. After a weeks’ long stay in rehab that past December, months of intensive outpatient and nearly a half a year of clean, hopeful progress – we were back to locked doors, missing money, refusal to open up and be fully transparent, suspicions, fights, tears.

I had coffee with my friend S that summer, someone from my old food blogging days. Although we were not the closest of friends, we could always open up to each other so easily about the deep stuff that had us wondering about the everyday world and the relationships we keep. She had moved out of state but we still got together for coffee now and then when she came back in town.Her faith in God was something that I once ignored about her. Not because it turned me off, but I realized we might never be the friends that I thought, or hoped, we might be because of this difference in values. I didn’t believe in anything. I didn’t believe that God didn’t exist, but I didn’t welcome him into my life, either. I didn’t think I needed him.

So we had coffee and caught up on writing life, motherhood, navigating adulthood. Before we started saying our goodbyes, I opened up to her about my current struggle. I had been thinking about it during the entire date, wondering how to say it – just blurt it out? My husband is a recovering addict and our marriage is hanging on by threads and I feel very alone and confused and scared and the everyday that I once celebrated so much has now become my own struggle. There is no good time in a conversation to bring it up.

But I said it briefly – M had been in rehab, and it brought me to searching for something higher. I told her I admired her own strong faith, that she could just put her life in the hands of God and knew it would be OK. I had had one brief feeling of spirituality, of believing in something larger than me, in Japan, standing before a giant sitting Buddha. Was that what I was looking for? Does God exist in different forms? Is he the image of a man, or is he the energy all around me? I didn’t know. I felt like I was chasing something and I didn’t even know what it was or if it existed.

Lean into those questions, she said. Ask him for a sign.

I hadn’t prayed in a long time. I decided to try.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. // Al-Anon Step 3

I liked the idea of praying, but a part of me felt like I didn’t have a right to do so. Because I’d rejected God for so long, how could just ask him for help now that everything is falling apart? Because I’d always judged people who found God this way – who couldn’t figure out a way to solve their problems themselves, so they just relied on God to fix it, and tell them what to do, and answer all the questions that they didn’t know how to face themselves. And if I did ask him for a sign, how would I know? Would I just be looking at everything after and thinking, is that it? Is that Him? If I did believe in God, did he have to be in the form of a man, and Jesus, or could I continue to believe that he is everything around me, that he is the energy flowing through me and my breath going in and out? Could it be what I wanted to believe, or is it another way? Is that what he would show me?

Lean into those questions. Ask him for a sign.

I didn’t know how to pray. So I wrote a letter.

Dear God,

I’ve been avoiding your name. I’ve been asking lots of questions, and searching, and buying books and not reading them, and meditating, and feeling like I’m forcing spirituality onto myself while also remaining doubtful and pushing away for fear of being a phony and a hypocrite and weak.

I want you. And I’ve been avoiding talking to you because a part of me does not want to be a person who prays. But a part of me wants to embrace prayer.

I need help.

Life is hard, and if I believe that we are all connected somehow, that the breath of life that flows through that tree that I’m looking at through the window also flows through me, that you are that life, that you are everywhere, not just some man looking down at me from the heavens above, listening to me, but that you’re wind blowing through the leaves and birds chirping and the blue, blue sky, and my son’s laughter, and the light shining through the window – then I have to be able to look to you for help.

Because you are life.

And I don’t know what it is you do – make things better? Tell me the answers? Give me a sign in the form of thunder and lightning, some clear vision that floats out of the sky, or maybe something smaller that falls into my path and just works somehow?

I realized that the one thing I haven’t done is let go.

Surrender.

To finally put my faith in you.

To stop trying to answer the questions myself and to let you tell me.

To be completely vulnerable, and to talk to you, and ask you for help, and admit that I don’t know the answers, and that if you’re everywhere and everything, then it will all be okay.

Please give me a sign. And I will be yours truly.