Truth or Consequences: How I'm Learning to Practice Rigorous Honesty in Recovery

By Maria Newsom 11/08/19

Hard to overlook taking a can of black beans from a church pantry on the same day I spend $74 on hair care, when I bother writing out my nightly inventory. 

woman's reflection in a mirror
I haven’t gained as much ground as I’d hoped on “rigorous” honesty. Photo by Roberto Delgado Webb on Unsplash

Riding on the back of my dad’s Honda in western New York when I was a teen, we stopped by a cornfield and stole a few ears for supper. The kernels were tough (actually inedible). Turns out it was feed corn. That memory stuck, along with its moral: stealing ain’t worth it. It never turns out like you’d hoped, and you never get off scot-free... 

In my first year of recovery I pilfered fistfuls of Sugar in the Raw packets from Starbucks (I don’t take sugar in my coffee). This bad behavior went into my nightly inventory for months, but I still stole those sweet square pillows any chance I got. I wrote about it, talked it over with my sponsor, but it didn’t stop. 

Eventually, as a newly single head-of-household, I connected thieving to my fear of not being able to provide for myself and my two sons. And this awareness helped me to see I had a choice: fear or faith. I could stay in scared survivor mode, working those sticky fingers at Starbucks, or instead, start shelling out for sugar at the supermarket for William’s breakfast strawberries, while still believing I’d manage to pay the July/August combined electric bill on an apartment climate that artificially supports both cool and warm zones (for humans and equatorial pet lizards respectively.) And while I still sometimes make the un-sober choice at the cream and sugar station, I’ve gotten my haul down to two packets; the amount, I reason, every customer is entitled to, whether or not they use sweetener. 

While some of the promises outlined in the chapter “Into Action”in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous are, indeed, starting to materialize (I AM “intuitively” able to “handle situations” that previously “baffled” the hell out of me), others remain misty. I won’t say I’m panicky, but “fear of economic insecurity” does remain a vaporous dread...

Absolute Honesty - Aiming for The "Great Ideal"

Originally, the third tradition went like this: “The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking.” That’s how it was written, until Bill Wilson was persuaded to axe the “honest” by other sober drunks, concerned that word might scare some rummies away. I agree, it’s a tricky adjective. In a letter from 1966, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous writes:

“Only God can know what absolute honesty is. Therefore, each of us has to conceive what this great ideal may be—to the best of our ability.”

Hmm… leave it up to each delusional drunk to define the term, know right from wrong, truth from fiction? Problematic. But Bill knew that alcoholics--maybe more than normies--need regular reality checks. That’s why accountability to other sober alcoholics is embedded in the steps, and it’s why fellowship with others, also aiming for this “great ideal,” is important, if not critical, to long-term sobriety. And the fourth and fifth steps, taken in tandem, are two flea bombs to the infested sofa of the dishonest alcoholic mind. At least they worked this way for me, driving to the surface a teeming nest of selfish, self-serving behavior, driven by false beliefs of incompetence and unlovability. 

Writing for The Grapevine, Bill W. admits: 

“Fallible as we all are, and will be in this life, it would be presumption to suppose that we could ever really achieve absolute honesty. The best we can do is strive for a better quality of honesty.” 

Yes, it’s “Progress, not Perfection,” an overworked AA cliché that still works for me. 

Tenth Step...

As I just celebrated my sixth sober anniversary, I’m self-assessing, looking for evidence of change. For 2,229 days now, I’ve been striving for this “better quality of honesty.” But am I any less of an opportunist, a conniving cheapskate looking to get over? After all, I am still wheeling over to the express check-out line with well over ten items. I do still abuse mascara testers at Sephora with no intention to buy, slather hand cream samplers up past my elbows, and spritz enough cologne to reek as bad as that OKC coffee date who pinched my calf and finished my almond pastry. Last time I was at the dermatologist’s, I scooped all the free ointments for scaly skin conditions I don’t have, and just last week in the health food store, I sampled the salsa and chips, both coming and going. I justified that snacking by lying to myself that someday, I would actually buy that breaking-bank bag of corn chips. I even tethered my teenager to the tasting station to graze while I shoveled spicy cashews in the bulk section. A few missed my baggie and met my palm instead. For as long as I’ve been around the rooms, I haven’t gained as much ground as I’d hoped on “rigorous” honesty. I’m less afraid, yes, but I’m still a tightwad. What’s been sorta acceptable ‘til now is finally starting to really bother me, six years later; little acts of looting are getting under my sober skin.

So tonight I put this question to the cleansed face in the mirror: What does recovery from shifty and self-serving look like, entering year seven?

“Well for one thing,” my reflection replies through toothpaste paw prints, “you can pay better attention to what you’re actually doing, and the results you’re getting from these actions. Are you still boxing fellow commuters into tight parking spots and returning to your bumper the next morning to find profane love notes under your wiper? How about cutting the line at the Lincoln Tunnel? You are definitely still guilty there…”

My mirror image is not getting off her soap box. “What about those five dead minutes between applying your serum and moisturizer? Wouldn’t it be a good look to jot a 10th step review then? Remember those?” I do. Hard to overlook taking a can of black beans from a church pantry on the same day I spend $74 on hair care, when I bother writing out my nightly inventory. 

“Then there’s meditation,” my two-dimensional me adds. And she’s right. Sanity is somewhat restored when I light incense, hit the gong, and sit for ten minutes. Sometimes I fall asleep. Doesn’t matter, still helps. 

“Oh and call your sponsor.” Because my spiritual growth is inversely proportional to my enthusiasm towards any particular action, the single best move I can make is to remain accountable to another sober alcoholic: to recommit to running anything eyebrow-raising by my sponsor.

Today it’s less about how many sobriety coins I’ve collected, and more about whether or not I’m dropping the suggested donation in the collection plate. (I can damn well afford the two bucks). I tell myself that “tasting” 12 grapes in the produce section before deciding on red over green is old behavior that won’t ever again find sea legs on this sober ship. Same goes for wheedling out of traffic violations or fighting late fees. But I’m lying. Only today, the Con Ed customer support chick waived all late fees for one lame reason: I’d somehow “overlooked” the whopping summer billing summaries to my inbox. 

And five years ago, my son reached 44 inches, the legal height to pay full fare on New York City public transit. Yet I still make the seventh-grader duck the turnstile while I glide my MetroCard just once. I won’t say “no, never,” but I don’t see this behavior resolving until William sprouts facial hair. Why? Because I’m cheap and manipulative—always angling to get something for nothing. AA is a program of change, but some defects die hard.

Recognizing Progress

It has gotten better in other important ways though. Post-divorce romantic relations are above board and approaching sane. And thanks in part to my sponsor, who flagged flaws in my interactions with others that serve no one, my wuzband and I now communicate, commiserate, and reciprocate in rearing adolescent males under separate cover; our co-parenting game is tight. 

These are the payoffs for continuously striving for this “better quality of honesty” —better relations with others when I keep my inner-cheater, the little girl who collected loose change from her mother’s purse to buy cola slushies from the corner store, and who grew to collect new boyfriends before losing old ones, in check; a conscience that’s becoming clearer than the bathroom mirror. That feels good.

But here’s why rigorous honesty is life-or-death to my long-term sobriety—and it’s not the petty larceny— because sure, I can probably carry on for a while stashing stray Oreos in my overalls after the 5:30 meeting instead of leaving them for the 7:30 drunks. It’s because these minor infractions lead to major ramifications. It’s the excessive texting on company time that leads to the O’Douls, that leads to the oyster stout, or the laughing gas for the routine filling that leads to the first bloody Mary—light on Absolut—that leads, absolutely, to the first drunk. Because this is what it’s really about, right? Tricking myself straight into the insanity of the first drink. 

My BS detector needs its batteries changed more than just when Daylight Savings Time rolls around... 

The most honest and most important action I can take on a daily basis is to follow through on my primary purpose: to stay honest, to stay sober, and to help another alcoholic. 

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Maria is an amicably-divorced single mom of two adolescent males, a teaching assistant in a Brooklyn middle school by day, and a freelance writer at night. She's grateful for her sobriety, her sons, and happy occasions like seeing her work published in The Fix. Maria contributes to and The Good Men Project, and she also publishes through Medium. An archive of these stories, as well as her sober blog "happy hour," and her mommy blog "mush," along with casually-measured recipes, live at