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.

 

Our gift from the universe.

Little m turned 4 in February, and he ended his last day of being 3 with an epic 45-minute meltdown because he didn’t want to brush his teeth. M and I chalked it up to m being sick the few days prior, thus out of routine, and a long day of birthday party-ing and after party-ing. “Maybe he’s getting out all of the 3-year-old tantrums that he never had before he turns 4,” I joked as M and I sat in our bedroom, waiting it out and listening to little m cry in the next room.

Since that night, m has had countless tantrums and whining episodes for reasons including, but not limited to: wanting to watch TV right now, having to wait too long, not wanting to get dressed, not getting to listen to Darth Vader’s theme song for the millionth time, etc. You know, normal reasons for a 4-year-old to whine.

Except m rarely whined or threw tantrums before this. He usually listened to us after a brief time out or having some space to just cry. Then after getting it out of his system, he’d come to us and say sorry or just be ready to move on. So these consistent whining episodes and tantrums were fairly new to us.

I  always tell M that our son is our gift from the universe, and not in the same way all children are gifts. By four months old, he was sleeping through the night and we didn’t have sleep issues since. He eats all his vegetables – sweet potatoes, green beans, broccoli – and loves trying new things like roasted seaweed snacks, oxtail stew, hot sauce. He doesn’t cry when he gets shots. He says please and thank you and puts his away his dishes after every meal. Every one of his babysitters has commented on how easy he is. At mommy groups, I often feel left out because everyone else is complaining about their children. I stay quiet because I don’t want to be the mom with that perfect kid.

“The universe knew we had a lot of shit to deal with,” I’d say to M. “So it gave us little m and said, ‘Look. Here’s the easiest baby in the world. He’s impossible to screw up. Just make sure he stays alive at the end of every day while you figure out your mess.'”

The moment little m was born, there was a shift in our relationship. The massive transition to parenthood was hard on us, M especially, and when placed on top of two lifetimes of not knowing how to love ourselves, we began to slowly crumble. Our son came into our lives and introduced a new kind of love, an energy so strong that it was able to hold us all together while everything else fell apart. For the most part, m made parenting easy so we could hold our family up while recovering the fallen pieces of our ourselves, our marriage, and build back our foundation.

And now, 4. M and I have reached a place where we can communicate our fears, celebrate the small wins, practice gratitude for the present moment and how far we’ve come. It is here, quite loudly, that little m is telling us he needs us – more than he ever has since his newborn days.

So we are listening. We put aside the articles and books on addiction, recovery, spirituality, marriage, and started looking for resources on child discipline.

The “counting to three and sending to time out” method had worked when m was 2, but now we are put off by the idea of sending him to be alone without addressing underlying issues. Communication has been so critical to our marriage, and we want there to be communication between all three of us. We want to find an approach that will let m know what he’s feeling is okay, and we are here for him while he struggles with difficult feelings, while not “rewarding” unacceptable behaviors by just giving him what he wants.

Not giving him what he wants. This is where I have struggled because doesn’t he want attention when he’s behaving this way? Aren’t we giving him what he wants and reinforcing his behavior by paying attention instead of sending him to his room?

I’m starting to learn that the answer is no. What he wants is more TV, or to skip brushing his teeth, or basically to just get his way. He wants control. What he needs is our attention. His whining, his crying, his meltdowns are his way of saying “I am feeling something, and I don’t understand it, and I can’t control it, and I need you to help me right now.”

Oh, sweetie. I’ve been there.

// Deborah MacNamara, How to get to the bottom of whining via Motherly

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

Let sadness in…

Release…

“Emotions are like waves … There are calm, rolling waters and there are storms that arrive and pass. In the boat, you’re together and you ride the waves. If you stay calm and present, you can navigate, and know the storms (intensely strong emotions) are a normal fact of being on the water, and they always pass.” // Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma

This too shall pass…

As I read more and more the different ways to address children’s behavior, what resonates most are the approaches that most align with what I’ve learned in my own healing process. Surprise, surprise, right? But what does surprise me is how much they align, and the incredible timing of it all.

Trust the process…

M and I had to do our own suffering, feel our own emotions and then let them go, learn how to talk about and focus on what lies beneath rather than the behavior or reaction that might be bothering us. It’s like we’ve been training for this the past few years. And now, our recovery is steering us in the right direction so that we can connect with this little human and teach him about the love, empathy and communication from which our family now grows.