How I Took the Third Step
It was only when I realized how impossible it was to run the show that I realized I could let go of the reins.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
When I first read this step on the peeling poster that flanked the dimly lit Alano Club basement, I thought it sounded creepy. In fact, when I first came into the rooms, I thought most of the steps sounded like bizarre and humiliating cult-ish rituals. It wasn’t until I had actually gone through all 12 that I could see the value within each one. The experience I have had is only my own, and I know just from listening in meetings that the third step and all the others are done in ways that differ from what I was taught. Kneeling in public places, simply starting on the fourth step, making lists, a daily decision—I’ve heard many different, personal varieties of step three tossed around in meetings. My limited knowledge of this particular step is a conglomeration of personal experience, subjective opinion, tidbits that I’ve heard in meetings or in passing, and several years of sobriety, step work, sponsorship and reflection (often toeing the line between reflection and self-obsession). Some of the steps, like four and nine, are straightforward: write down your resentments; list the cause and effects; figure out where you were selfish; find those people; make things right. Easily organized and categorized in my alcoholic, anxious mind, these steps came much more intuitively to me.
However, the phrase “actor who wants to run the whole show” was the first thing that really resonated with me upon my initial reading of the Big Book. Like the phrases “Once you’ve become a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again,” “My best thinking got me here,” and “When I drink, I break out in handcuffs,” this is a phrase that seems to be understood by many people in AA. It signifies the desperate, frenzied way in which we try to force the world to conform to our addictive minds’ whims and demands. It signifies the rage that bubbled inside me when my English teacher punished me for taking too-frequent bathroom breaks by refusing to let me go. I snorted Adderall to get through the day; I needed those breaks. I concluded that she could go fuck herself if she was going to be stingy with class time. That every other student was frequently denied bathroom privileges never occurred to me; I didn’t realize class time was precious due to how few hours a week she was given to attempt to fill our underdeveloped, public school minds with Thoreau, Emerson, and critical thinking. What mattered was what I needed, and who or what needed to change or get out of the way in order for me to get it. “If only people would do as [I] wished, the show would be great,” was my eternal complaint—my beef with the rest of the world that fueled countless long nights of shoulder-tapping and puking in public parks.
Was it God’s will for me to go to a meeting in lieu of Intro to Sociology when I felt like buying a jug of Carlos Rossi?
When I got sober, I knew I belonged in AA because I heard people in meetings describe these feelings, along with others that I’d never been willing to look in the eye long enough to able to articulate: the invisible glass wall separating me from everybody else that only total obliteration would remove; feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin when I wasn’t sober, before I’d ever even had a drink; feeling that the pain of everyday life would literally kill me if I couldn’t blot it out with drugs or alcohol (or food or weight loss or relationships or shopping). I identified with other alcoholics much more than I did with the writings in the Big Book—that is, until I read the chapter How It Works.
Upon reading the following descriptions of the actor, who is “forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery” and who “begins to think life doesn’t treat him right,” I knew that I had a special connection with this chapter. My lack of identity outside of my drug and alcohol use allowed me to feel even more connected to the allegory about the actor, which was why I believed that I desperately needed to work the third step perfectly, lest I continue trying to stage the show and ultimately drink over my petty resentments and frustrations. My sponsor told me that step three was about letting go and acting on my Higher Power’s will, rather than my own. The only direction she gave me was to memorize the Third Step prayer and repeat it every day for two weeks. I used the prayer obsessively, as a precursor to every right turn and bathroom break. Each morning as I stared down the cereal bar in my dorm cafeteria, wondering whether God wanted me to eat granola or eggs for breakfast, my self-distrust grew exponentially.
Practically every time I blinked, I worried that I was acting on my own will, not God’s. Was it God’s will for me to go to a meeting in lieu of Intro to Sociology when I felt like buying a jug of Carlos Rossi? Did God want me to chain smoke, to call my sponsor, or to pray when I felt stressed? I questioned everything that felt natural. My innate insecurity already prevented me from trusting my own instincts so being told that I needed to stay in God’s will caused my fear of myself run absolutely rampant. The irony is that the section of How It Works that discusses Step Three warns alcoholics that we are “driven by a hundred forms of fear” and promises that the step’s execution will allow us to “face life successfully.” So why, then, when I was trying to practice the very step that was supposed to remove helpless alcoholics from being driven by problems firmly rooted in self was my life so controlled by it?
The more I over-analyzed my decision-making, the more it seemed like I was taking control back and trying to arrange the ballet and the scenery. Only this time, I was trying to control God—to make sure He was the one running the show—which was an exercise in futility. The problem with Step Three is that thinking too much about what it means to turn one’s will over becomes a crazy-making cycle of mental masturbation and frustration: comparing Marlboro 27’s to Camel Lights; using your last five dollars to buy those cigarettes versus spending them on eggs and bread; two meetings in a day versus eating syrup-soaked waffles and calling it fellowship and so on. I know I didn’t stop until someone got annoyed enough by hearing me whine about the complexities of step three in meetings to tell me that it was just about deciding to do the next right thing, or something along those lines.
It seemed that the next right thing was to work the rest of the steps. Maybe that’s why step three comes directly before launching into a series of painstakingly honest and self-sacrificing action steps—because who in their right mind would want to write a list of every person they’d ever hurt, or every grudge they’d ever held? We have to let go of the decision-making reigns to become willing to take the crazy, cult-ish, life-saving steps.
God doesn’t care about what classes I register for the fall or what I eat for breakfast; at least, my God doesn’t. My Higher Power’s main concern is that I do what I need to do to remain healthy and happy without hurting others. This means that I am free to make my own decisions as long as I attempt to align them with my ideal. That’s the beautiful thing about having a God of my own understanding. Nobody else can tell me what my God wants from me. This might seem implied in the “God as we understood him” bit of the third step, but it took several months of intense inner turmoil for me to come to this realization. It makes sense to me that so many people leave the program before they have any chance to reap its benefits; all of the God talk can be suffocatingly ambiguous and it is only through experience and persistence that we can move past the initial dumbfoundedness that the words “God, I offer myself to thee” seem to automatically stir up.