I remember watching Abbott and Costello on the weekends with my brothers when we were kids. I still laugh when I think about the “Slowly I Turned…” vaudeville sketch they did. The routine features a man dramatically relating the tale of getting revenge on his enemy. He becomes so riled up in telling the story that he attacks the innocent listener (Costello). The man seems to regain his composure until someone once again says something that triggers another outburst and attack.

Strangely, this sums up how I feel about working my twelve steps in recovery. I make progress, step by step, and then WHAM! – something arms the cunning disease with more ammo to attack me. Especially when it comes to the fourth step. Step Four in the Twelve Step program in which I participate says we are to have “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”. Many of you know what I mean when I say this is much easier said than done. This is where we need to pull up our big girl panties (or big boy boxers) and take a serious look at our shortcomings and character defects (which we humbly ask to be removed in Step Seven).

It’s taken me nearly 35 months of sobriety to get to my fourth step. Well, actually, I’ve gotten to it. I just haven’t gotten past it. So I sat down the other night and started writing. And writing. And going through my memories and writing more. Wow. Looking back at it now, I can’t believe that I didn’t see all the red flags about my alcoholism. Or even just a few of them. I guess it’s true when they say you won’t see it until you are ready.

I think everyone could benefit from doing the fourth step. A chance to take a look at the skeletons in one’s closet, air them out, and then bury them for good. Alcoholic or not, everyone has regrets. Everyone has traits that they would like to improve upon or change. Some try to ignore the past. Some beat themselves up over it. Some carry the guilt, remorse and shame around with them as heavy baggage. The hard part comes from stepping up (ha) and finding the courage to actually make the change or unpack the baggage and put it down, once and for all. Step Four can take you down and dark and scary road. Coming out on the other side, into the sunlight, takes some hard work but it’s well worth it.

I’m not saying that it’s as easy as deciding to make the change and simply letting go of the burden of past mistakes. It’s extremely difficult. As we look back, and take our “searching and fearless moral inventory”, sometimes things bubble up to the surface from deep down that we had forgotten or subconsciously repressed. Layers of the onion begin to peel off. As open as I am with my struggle with alcoholism, in the hope that I can help others, there are things that I could never imagine sharing. But according to Step Five, we have to admit to “God, to ourselves, and to one other human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” The one other human being can be anyone you choose—friend, sponsor, therapist, clergy, etc. No, the basketball that you draw a face on and call “Joe” doesn’t count.

Unfortunately, Step Four can be too tough for many alcoholics or addicts to tackle. The skeletons in the closet are more like tenacious zombies that are not ready to be put to rest. And some don’t understand that while God forgives their past regressions, they have to forgive themselves before they can move on. Later in the Twelve Steps, we come to the part where we have to make amends to those whom we have harmed. In many cases, some of these can not be made, whether it’s because the person is no longer alive, unable to be reached, or when making the amends would “injure them or others”.

I’m not proud of some of the things I’ve done. And looking back through years of therapy, I can see more clearly some of my character defects, especially the insecurity and low self esteem, that led to much of the regretful behavior. But I feel that the best thing I can do, the most helpful “step” in the right direction, is to make a living amends. To make an attempt every day to to the next right thing and live my life in a way that atones for past mistakes. To be present with my kids and my husband, to be a better friend to those who bless me with their friendship and to make the choice every day to take the next step down the right path.

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” — Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life