It’s a little embarrassing that I’ve spent eight years in a 12-step program and not done a fourth step. Twelve-steppers talk about it (“made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”) with a particular pride and dread. It’s a rite of passage; an occasion to sigh, shake your head, and look noble for your honesty and courage — not unlike the successful dieter who gets to complain (subtext: brag) that nothing fits. I’ve
never really felt like a member of the tribe until I began what the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous says is an accounting of the “flaws in our make-up which caused our failure.”
There are dozens of approaches to the project, some of them scathing. “Have we ever abused animals?” one eating disorders version asks. “Have we ever taken anyone’s life because of our anger, fear, carelessness, or another reason?”
I never fail to wonder who the hell the pooh-bahs of our programs think we are.
Did they come up with these helpful questions by following the FBI’s psychopathology of serial killers? If someone belongs in Sing Sing or Tutwiler, don’t you think s/he knows if and why s/he pulled the trigger?
Luckily, my sponsor has given me a set of gentle instructions for starting my inventory. I’m listing every major event I can remember in two documents for the feelings (negative or positive) associated with the incident.
I’ve written about ten pages so far, taking me into seventh grade. I’m finding the process revealing.
My reactions to negative events — not being allowed in a secret club when I was four because I didn’t have a watch and a credit card — have told me nothing new. I season my two cups of salad with shame, sweeten my one cup of yogurt with self-loathing, and am liberal with the use of guilt and the convictions of my unlovableness in my half cup of oatmeal.
What has been revelatory are the feelings I had around my very early, good memories. Of family events — riding in the motorboat, getting my first bikes, skating with my brother, Jim — I listed exhilaration, freedom, independence. What a little madcap I was at heart, hanging on as Jim pulled the neighborhood kids faster and faster in a spiral of lash-the-whip, jouncing over white caps as my father deviled us across the vast prairie of lake to pick wild cherries on Cedar Island.
If I were to match up pictures of me with these memories, I’d see a girl with curly dark hair and a slightly askew smile, growing — but not starting out — chubbier each year. My hair is straight now, but caught off guard my smile still slants, and lately I’m getting chubbier each year. What happened to the wild child? I last indulged my love of speed a few summers ago on Coney Island’s Cyclone, but I doubt I’d fit the seats this summer. My independence is tethered to Master Card, the IRS, and in recent months, an allowance from my parents.
Still. The hoyden Francie whose voice was too loud and who followed any pied piper with an adventure in his pocket must lurk here somewhere, and maybe that hop-
on-my-bike-and-go-swimming, “faster, faster,” screaming kid is a missing component in the thinitude I had once and am trying to reclaim.
The other feeling that surfaces is the security of belonging. I sat between my parents in the boat; I was one of Jim’s gang for an afternoon; my father taught me to ride a bike and he was in the recovery room after my tonsillectomy, cooing me awake with assurances that I was okay. Safe inclusion was a fleeting feeling or it wouldn’t surface as occasion-making. The lack of it turned food into company as my family went its maturing ways, giving me the only approximation I could conjure of the comfort and safety of Daddy’s voice reaching into my ether-fog. It gave me oblivion from dwelling on my missing family.
I look at the phrases that keep popping up in my inventory — included, chosen, safe, loved, happy to have attention — and I’m a little ashamed that I still wallow. It’s stupid. All I have to do is walk out my front door and wait five minutes. All I have to do is call my sponsor or therapist or fellow 12-steppers. There are more dogs to be walked if I need money, and a book advance is coming. Whether I belong and am safe is my choice now, and if I act on that fact and ferret out the wild child I was, this ee-loss is going to go down a whole lot happier.