Step Five

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being
the exact nature of our wrongs.


Scary. Start with a story. In 1975, newly sober in AA, I picked my sponsor Jerry C., knowing I would do my first Fifth Step with him one day, partly because he was happily sober and partly because he was happily gay. One of the things I was going to have to tell him was that when I was young I'd had a brief affair with somebody who was, well, of the same sex. And that I LIKED it. And I was sure he'd be less judgmental of that than normal people, since I was the only straight guy who had ever done that in the history of the world. Damn sure something you didn't talk about with the macho guys at the bar in the 1970s.

I had written, I told you, a disjointed inventory on lots of pages of a legal pad, and some of the items were humiliating and things I'd thought I would not ever tell anybody. I was scared of doing a Fifth Step and unconsciously put it off by finding fault with my inventory. I would go to an AA meeting and say "I don't know how to do an inventory." And I'd get a lot of feedback. Never ask for advice in an open meeting cause the ones who get hold of your shirt after the meeting usually give the worst advice. Anyway, I would get advice about doing an inventory, and I would say, "Oh I've done it all wrong. Have to start over and do it right."

So, one day in August, sober six or seven months, I was working as a maintenance man in a 30-story office building in Honolulu. The elevator stopped at the wrong floor and I got off and unexpectedly saw an arched doorway with neon all around it. I hit my wallet before I realized, I'm about to check to see if I have enough money to go into that bar. I knew my sobriety was hanging by a thread and did not want to lose it. That night, at a small AA meeting, I said once more, "I don't know how to do an inventory." An oldtimer saw the look in my eyes and said, "You'd better dump what you've GOT." I called Jerry that night and was at his place in Waikiki the next morning.

On the way to Jerry's I thought my knees would not carry me. I remember thinking, This is what it must feel like to be a teenage girl on the way to get an abortion. I sat down across from Jerry and said, "I'm scared. I can 't do this." Jerry said, "Ask God to help you." So I said my old mantra "God help me," and started reading. When we came to the places where I talked about "the exact nature," Jerry would chime in cheerfully "I did that just last night!" Bastard. I thought I was so evil and special.

We talked for seven hours, long after I had run out of things to read, and I told him everything I knew about myself. And then on the way home, I remembered one more exact nature item and called him from a pay phone, and it was as complete as I knew how to make it. I never felt judgement from him in any way, then or in the next twenty-five years he lived.

A couple of things I noticed. I did not have the "presence of God" feeling, or the walking on air, during or after the Fifth Step though it seems to happen that way for some people (for me, that was to happen at Step Nine). But I felt my sobriety to be on very solid ground, felt I was a long long way from wanting a drink or drug. And the next time I went to a meeting, I felt like the chair I sat in had my name on it, that I was now a full member of the program. I realized after that first Fifth Step that I had felt like the mascot of the groups up till then ("You're doing fine, Dear, you keep coming back," the bluehairs would say), and now I was on the team. I heard someone in my home group just the other day say "Until you've done a Fourth and Fifth Step, you're just an honorary member."

Only part of that feeling of belonging was because I'd gone through the initiation rites. The bigger reason was that I'd finally told another person everything about myself - and he had not judged or rejected me -- and had begun to end the terrible isolation that had kept me running, joking, pretending, bluffing, lying and inwardly lonely and scared, for so many years.

And it bought me time till I could get abstinent and do a by-the-book Fourth Step two years later. In the nearly 30 years since I came to program, I have needed to do a Fourth and Fifth every year or two. There are occasional guilts or resentments that hang over from one time to the next and eventually go away. And then sometimes it's just that since I've cleared away the wreckage of the past I've been creating the wreckage of the present and have to deal with it too. Like the story about the student in Israel.

Flobird used to say, Give yourself a week after doing a Fifth Step before you evaluate it. I've seen the wisdom in that. Originally, I'd pictured the mind as a big open space like a barn, so that information went in and out and all got stored in the same big room. Now I see it like the catacombs - tunnels and caves and caves within caves. So if something momentous happens, it takes some time before the news spreads from nook to cranny, and the guys down there are living in different caves.. Haven't you seen it when you reacted calmly to bad news and then minutes or hours later just fell apart when it "hit you" ? So you do the Fifth Step, and one of the guys hears it and hollers down the tunnel to the next one "Hey, she told them about the German shepherd!" "She told them WHAT!?" and the news passes from one cave to the next, and within a week everybody down there knows all the secrets are gone and have no more power. But it might take a week.


In the first years of AA, before AA had a name, recovery started in a much more accelerated way than it does in any of the 12-step programs nowadays. A person coming off what they hoped was their last binge, would be visited perhaps in jail or hospital or at home by a couple of AA members, who would ask if he/she were ready to go to any lengths to overcome drinking. If the answer was yes, the person would typically be hospitalized for a little while to detox, and detoxed down to zero without being put on other drugs. And members would work with him/her all the way through Step Eight, and by the time they left the hospital they were ready to begin making the rounds and doing Step Nine. So the progress from the beginning through the housecleaning steps was a matter of days or weeks, followed by intensive service to others.

The AA Big Book, talking about reasons for taking Step Five, says plainly, "The best reason first: If we skip this vital step, we may not overcome drinking." And the AA Twelve & Twelve, written after dozen or so years of experience, said "Some people are unable to stay sober at all, others will relapse periodically until they really clean house." These truths apply to overeaters big time.

The guys down inside there, the ones who get hold of the steering wheel now and then, don't like the idea of putting all the secrets out into the light. The ego-deflation that happens in Steps Five and Nine is considerable. All sorts of objections and devices pop up. One woman who came to AA about the time I did, said at a step study meeting one night, "I don't see why you would have to rehash all those little nit-picky details [it was sex we were talking about]. It would make you crazy." And I watched for the next ten years as her life stayed unmanageable and painful. Another guy who was also Class of '75, joked that when it was time to do his Fifth Step he was going to pay a Japanese tourist who didn't speak English, to sit there and listen to it. He didn't last more than a year, as I remember. A friend I lived with briefly in Oklahoma City, was one of those AA heroes who sounded very good when he spoke at meetings, put things cleverly and made people laugh, and he had lots of sponsorees. But curiously, when it came time for a sponsoree to do a Fifth Step, he would send them to me or to my sponsor. My sponsor and I speculated that it could only be because he had not done an inventory himself and was afraid to visit those dark places. A year later, the friend drank and died at 41.

In the piece on Step Four I wrote about how I started my second inventory when I felt I was about to lose my new-found abstinence. That Fourth and Fifth step gave me solid abstinence for years afterward. The connection between my having secrets that I am afraid for anybody to know, and my addictive drinking and eating, has been made more and more clear to me as I've come to spend a lot of my time with a peaceful mind and am sensitive to things that make my peace of mind go away. And watching addicts, alcoholics and overeaters over the years, recover and NOT recover, has confirmed my own experience.

I was talking to a family member the other night, and I say at the outset that her personal life and character are exemplary except maybe for a quiet superiority, in many ways a person I admire. I was telling her about our Fifth Step and how bonding it was and how honored I'd felt to have a longtime friend do one with me recently, and I said, "Maybe you guys do something like that too?" She is VERY southern Evangelical. And I know it's an integral part of Catholic practice so maybe other Christians do it too? She said "No, I can give everything to Jesus and I don't have to tell it to another person." A passage in the Twelve and Twelve jumped into my mind: "Though we may at first be startled to realize that God knows all about us, we are apt to get used to that quite quickly." And down the page it says, "Going it alone in spiritual matters is dangerous."

Not to be critical of our friends in religion, nor of our friends in therapy, it seems to me that we have the best features of both of them. Religion - painting with a very broad brush here - religion deals with the relationship between us and the energy of the universe and at its best puts us in touch with a power that does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. But religion sometimes allows or encourages us to keep too many secrets, and those secrets keep us in the shadows hiding parts of ourselves. Psychotherapy at its best helps us dig out the festering root causes of what 's wrong with us and get on a new footing. But it sometimes encourages us to depend on our rational minds and self-knowledge to deal with life problems that are too big for us to manage. Some branches of therapy and religion have filled in these deficiencies and are world-class recovery modalities in themselves. And it's the magic of the Twelve-Step programs that we freely combine the spiritual stuff with the housecleaning tools. It 's not evident at first look that these two worlds would be as interdependent as they are, but we learn it's so as we go through the process.


I'm afraid this discussion of Step Five has been even more free-associating and disjointed than usual. It's been an unusual week and I'm writing at the last minute as always. But I want to talk about the joy of HEARING Fifth Steps, cause most discussion of Step Five whether in writing or at meetings, is about the person whose inventory it is.

I have sponsored women a lot. Often they are women who have such histories and lifestyles that they scare program women away or think they would. Prostitution, prison, the insane life of heavy intravenous drug use, childhood sex with adults in the family, worse. And in hearing Fifth Steps from many women, here, and in Hawaii and in Israel, I feel like I have been privileged to enter the thought and feeling processes of half the world I had been conditioned to misunderstand. Women are like me in ways I didn't know, and they are unlike me in ways I didn't know. And some of the Mars-Venus talk turns out to be pretty much on target. It's like coming to feel comfortable with the whole human race instead of half of it.

Hearing Fifth Steps in general, from anybody, is marvelous. In almost every instance, what I hear is the good intentions of a good person whose life has gone off the tracks because of defects run wild. When I was in grad school in Hawaii, a man from the East Coast flew all the way out there - as far as you could fly and still be in the English-speaking world - and asked quietly around the AA groups if they knew anybody who would be close-mouthed and not judgmental. I don't know if it was a compliment or not, but they pointed him to me and we set up a time for a Fifth Step. He proceeded to tell me about things there is no statute of limitations on and you go to jail for a long time [think Michael Jackson], and he flew back East. From time to time, I'd get a postcard from him with no return address saying how well he was doing. At some point he even told me his last name. I felt honored to be trusted by somebody when the person I'd been only a few years before could not be trusted with anything.

I co-sponsored a woman in Hawaii, prostitute/heroin addict/bulimic, along with a substance abuse professional and a nun/social worker. I was supposed to be her food sponsor. And as we got to know each other well and talked a lot, I realized that the other two people did not believe in her and were never going to let her do the steps - one of them said as much later on - just wanted to keep her employed and off the street. And I was only a few years in program and didn't feel confident to go against the professionals. But as time went on, and she relapsed over and over and seemed to long for cleanness and freedom and I knew I had her trust, one day I told her, "We're cutting them loose. We're going to do the steps." And we did. Her inventory was the most passionate, intimate, detailed and thorough one I can remember. I could just feel the hurt of having carried all that inside her for so long. And she recovered, really got abstinent and clean, just a different person. It makes me feel warm all over to think how she changed.

These stories call up a dozen other ones - it's been a wonderful journey, and these Fifth Steps have been some of the high points. So the last thing I'll say is, don't ever think it's an imposition to ask someone to hear a Fifth Step cause it may do as much good for the person who hears it as it does for you.


I'm writing this knowing that some of you have already fifth-stepped the inventory you wrote last week - some of the questions are about before, and some are about after. Just answer in a way that works for you and leave some out if they don't fit.

1. Whether this is your first time or not, are/were you afraid?

2. Is there a secret feeling that you are giving up your special-ness, that after this you may be just one of the Bozos on the Bus?

3. Do/did you have the feeling that this is only an exercise, probably won't work?

4. How did you choose the person to do the Fifth Step with?

5. What did it feel like at the moment before you told your worst secret?

6. What did it feel like the moment after? Out of body? Scared of rejection?

7. Do you have a sense that you left anything out that you should have told?

8. Did your partner respond to you, tell you things about him/herself that put you at ease?

9. Were you surprised at your partner's reaction, or lack of reaction, or acceptance of what you told him/her?

10. Even though you were sharing an inventory you had already written, do you feel you learned/discovered things about yourself during the Fifth Step?

11. Did something happen inside you during the Fifth Step or after, that feels like something in you has changed?

12. Do you feel that a sense of isolation is gone? A sense of belonging to the program, or to the human race?

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