Peeling away the layers of the onion. A common phrase heard in recovery rooms and plastered all over self-help books. Stripping away the surface layers, getting to the core of the problem. After almost 5 years of sobriety (God willing I’ll hit that milestone on May 28th) and peeling many, many layers of the onion, I have started to wonder when I’ll ever finish peeling. Or IF I’ll ever finish peeling.

In order to achieve and maintain sobriety, you have to take a hard look at the things that led you to drink in the first place. Some of these are obvious. Some come after peeling back layers of the onion. Just like when you peel a real onion, peeling the metaphorical onion can lead to tears.

It’s hard work. And usually not fun. There are things that we all wish we could forget. And sometimes we do forget them. For a while. And then they start bubbling up to the surface. We peel back the layers to reveal them. Often painful memories. But with the peeling comes growth. Working through the layers and getting to the root of things may be painful, but it can facilitate a great deal of personal growth and betterment.

It seems like my journey into sobriety and recovery has been nothing but peeling away the layers of the onion.   The peeling goes hand in hand with working the twelve steps. Starting out with Step One, “Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable,” we throw away the crutches of the booze and rip off the surface band-aids with one fell swoop. It is the ultimate first peel of the onion and waving of the white flag. But there are often deep scars underneath the bandages. And yes, you guessed it, the more we peel and unravel the bandages, the deeper and deeper we get.

The peeling continues with Step 4 when we make a “fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves”. That’s some serious peeling. Taking a look deep inside yourself and recording both your character defects and your personal assets. Often it’s the listing of the assets that is more difficult for people. Why do most of us find it easier to point out our faults rather than shine the light on our strengths? Human nature?

In Step 5 we get to share the peeling process. We admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Ouch. This part feels pretty damn raw. It feels like we are completely exposing ourselves and it is the ultimate in vulnerability.   After doing Steps 4 and 5, I thought I was done with my peeling. But no! There’s more. Much more. In Step 8, we make a list of all the people we had harmed during our drinking days and become willing to make amends to them all. Again, ouch. Not exactly a fun exercise. This step takes more soul-searching and memory bank withdrawls.

Step Nine is where we actually make the amends. I’m on this step now. So if you’ve been waiting for an apology from me since I got sober, get ready. And if you don’t get one, it means that perhaps I haven’t peeled back enough layers of the onion to remember what I may have done to you that merits an apology.

Step Ten is even more peeling. We continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong, promptly admit it.   Just when you thought you had all the fun taking personal inventory back in Step 4, you get to do it again.   Digging deeper. Peeling more layers away. But the exercise leads to a great deal of freedom. Promptly admitting we are wrong about something allows us to learn from our mistakes and move on quickly. And to grow.

In Step 11 (“sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”), our peeling of the layers of the onion brings us closer to the God of our understanding.   We are reminded to pray for help and to meditate in order to connect with our Higher Power, both allowing us to dig deeper to get to the core of the onion.

According to Step 12, “having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Does the spiritual awakening come once we have peeled away all the layers of the onion? Have we reached the core and lightened our load? 
Are we done??   No. I’m not sure we are ever done. The key word in Step 10 is “continue.” And we can go right back to any step we need to at any time.   In Step 7, we “humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” This is something we can do on a daily basis. I know I have a long list of shortcomings. But I also have a long list of assets. As I mentioned, let’s not just beat us up for our character defects, but give ourselves a pat on the back for our strengths when we do all this work.

So I believe the onion is pretty damn big, and that it takes a great deal of hard work to get to the core.   But it is possible to get there. And maybe, just maybe, what you find at the core isn’t so bad. Or if it is, hopefully you have built up your strength through all this hard work and have found solace in your prayer and meditation to handle it. And if you have had a spiritual awakening, you’re in even better shape.

Peeling the layers of the onion and working the steps aren’t easy tasks. But they are so worth it. We get rid of what we no longer need. We get rid of the guilt. We let go. We allow the good stuff to come in. Peel away the layers and open your heart and your mind. So how big is the damn onion? As big as your life is.

“Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time and sometimes you weep.” – Carl Sandburg