"Our private commitment to sobriety must take on public life."

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Episode 87 -- February 11, 2021

Pocket Your Pride: Humility and Hope in Step Five

Many of those with mental health disorders and addiction can feel adrift with little support in a program that seems to discourage talk about emotional problems, and the therapy and medication they require. In her book, Sane, bestselling author Marya Hornbacher shows how the Twelve Steps can offer insight, spiritual sustenance, and practical guidance for those who truly must approach sanity and sobriety one day at a time.

Step Five strikes fear in the hearts of many recovering people. To complete Step Five means that we have "admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." Many try to skip it, jumping straight from Four to Six, in the sincere hope that they won't have to sit down with another person and actually say, out loud, all the stuff they've kept under lock and key for so long. Those of us with mental illness may already have a horrible sense of humiliation in our lives, brought on by our experiences, social stigma, and our own self-hatred. Sharing our history with someone else sounds like a recipe for a skyrocketing level of shame.

In this excerpt, Hornbacher shows how Step Five, tough as it is, actually helps us move further away from shame, isolation, and loneliness into the action phases of our recovery, where we are welcomed into a community of hope, encouragement, and transformation.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Why do they say the Fifth Step will make such a difference? It seems like skipping just one little Step wouldn't be such a big deal. But the Fifth Step is the one where our commitment to sobriety finds its first real test in the world. Here, sobriety becomes more than just the decision to stay off our substance of choice. With Step Five, we're changing not just how we feel about our addiction, about our mental illness, about a Higher Power, we're changing how we act. We begin to impact other people in a new way; we begin to have a new kind of relationship with them. And for that to happen, the Steps set before us this task: we must sit down with one of those people and tell our whole truth.

This is one of the Steps where the challenges to a recovering person with a mental illness are significant, because the Step goes to the core of how we see ourselves as people. And many of us with mental illness see ourselves through a complicated tangle of our own beliefs, society's stigmatizing beliefs, and our interpretations of how our lives have gone. We have conflated symptoms with personal failures, we have blamed our character for things that were actually caused by brain disease, and we have had a hell of a time sorting out who we are beyond our mental illness.

Isolation, loneliness, and shame—all of them made much worse by our mental illness—these were things that kept us tied to the bottle, to the drug, to whatever substance or behavior kept us trapped for so long. We drank for companionship, we drank to fill up the hunger we felt for closeness and intimacy, we drank to feel "normal," we drank to dull the pain our mental illness caused us in so many ways. For an addict with a mental illness, isolation is not an option. And so, we must do whatever it takes to leave that cold and isolated place.

The Fourth Step was a good place to start, but now we must take further action. Our private commitment to sobriety must take on public life. "Until we actually sit down and talk aloud about what we have so long hidden, our willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical," it says in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. That theory must become practice. While we have developed a list of the symptoms and defects that have troubled us, and begun to make a plan of action for managing our mental illness and recovering from our addiction, this list is still a list. We have not yet acquired the full honesty and humility we'll need to live a consistently healthy, sober life. The practice we are cultivating—the action—is a practice of honesty and humility in all our affairs. Honesty becomes easier when we open our stories up to another person in our Fifth Step. Taking this Step, we—many of us for the first time—allow another person to see us without the facade, and having shown our true selves and told our real stories, we gain confidence in our ability to do so day by day. Humility becomes possible when we not only recognize our challenges but discuss them with another person.

Opening up like this, no longer hiding who we are or the difficulties we face or the gifts we have to offer, we gradually become used to seeing ourselves as we truly are—neither inflated nor diminished, we become "rightsized." The person we are and the person we seem to be become the same. Only then can we find true stability in our mental health, and only then can we find serenity in recovery. Becoming rightsized is a process that involves both self-assessment and the assistance of other people in seeing who we are, where we've made mistakes, and how we can change. This is one of the reasons it's so critical that our Fifth Step involve another person. This person, chosen carefully, can give us that all-important guidance and direction that any addict in recovery needs. This is, you've often heard it said, a "we program." Together, we help each other by listening and offering our best suggestions. Together, we grow by taking direction. Our own best assessment of ourselves, our stories, our situations, and, for those of us who have mental disorders, our symptoms, is not always the most accurate. That's why we need the eyes of another sober person to help us get the clearest view and take the smartest action.

When it's time for us to take the Fifth Step, we choose our listener carefully. For some of us, our sponsor is the best choice. For others, a priest or other spiritual director is more appropriate. For those of us with mental illness, it's imperative that we find someone who understands mental illness well. At all costs, we need to avoid getting misguided advice from a well-meaning sober party who does not understand mental illness or the need for psychiatric medications. For this reason, some of us will do well to choose our therapist or psychiatrist for this important Step. There are many professionals in the fields of psychiatry and psychology who understand recovery, and they can provide excellent guidance and a perspective sensitive to the particular needs and challenges of someone with mental illness. It may take some looking to find the right person, and that's fine—just don't use it as an excuse to put off this important moment in your recovery work.

The Big Book reminds us that when the day comes to give our Fifth Step, we need to pocket our pride. Pride is one of the things that's gotten us into this mess—it's a kind of dishonesty, and it flies in the face of our lifesaving humility. Because humility gives us hope. It says in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions that humility "amounts to a clear recognition of what and who we are, followed by a sincere attempt to become what we could be."

Many of us with mental disorders feel that we live in a kind of trap—that our illness completely defines "what and who we are" and places harsh limitations on "what we could be." Because our addictions have so violently exacerbated the symptoms of our mental disorders, we've come to believe that those disorders will always define us, wreak havoc in the lives we are trying to build, and drag us down into the muck of addiction over and over, no matter what we do. Our mental disorders have come to seem like the be-all and end-all of who we are.

But they are not. With sobriety, we begin to see that our symptoms can be managed. With honesty and humility, we begin to clearly see who we are, for better and worse, and this allows us finally to see all the possibilities for who we can become. It is the Fifth Step that opens this very practical door to Step Six, where we develop the true capacity for change.

About the Author:
Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning journalist and the Pulitzer Prize—nominated author of three books. Her best-selling memoirs Madness: A Bipolar Life and Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia have become classics in their fields, and her critically acclaimed novel The Center of Winter is taught in universities all over the world. Hornbacher's work has been published in sixteen languages. She lectures regularly on writing, addiction recovery, and mental health.

© 2010 by Marya Hornbacher
All rights reserved