A long time ago when I first visited the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, I learned a term, “Character Defects.” This term was a part of Step Five, which read, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character,” the defects being things like Jealousy, Self-pity, Fear, Laziness or Negative Thinking. At first, I was excited to do this step and have God remove all those terrible things that have caused me to not only drink but to harm those I loved the most and to make bad decisions in both my personal and professional life. Who doesn’t want to be rid of Jealousy or Self-pity or Greed or Guilt? Sign me up! And I tried. I sat with my first sponsor and told him all my deepest secrets and identified where Character Defects were at play. But I didn’t feel more liberated or, in fact, freed from my defects. The problem was two-fold: one, that I didn’t believe in God, and two, that I also didn’t feel comfortable agreeing that I was so defective.
But because of my history—of having been relinquished at birth—believing that I was defective unfortunately aligned with my general self-assessment. After all, if I weren’t defective to begin with, wouldn’t my biological mother have kept me?
I owe some of my sobriety to Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a place where I stabilized and learned a lot about myself. I learned there to share with people and to listen to others and how to stop digging a deeper hole. It’s a place that was home for a while. But, at the same time, it was also a place that didn’t serve a person like me because of my early trauma and the negative beliefs I had about myself. I didn’t need confirmation that there was something very wrong with me, yet that’s what the message seemed to be. So I struggled for a long time, I struggled with trying to stay sober while believing that I was defective while also trying to build myself up and trust myself. I was at war with myself even when it seemed that peace had reigned in my life. I kept thinking too, “If I am in fact defective – if there is in fact something wrong with me – because there must be because I was relinquished at birth, and everybody knows there’s something wrong with me — then loving myself, and allowing others to love me, is either the greatest act of insanity ever, or it’s the most courageous ever.”
It took me a little while to understand that it wasn’t me who was insane, but it was the framework where I tried to fit my traumatized self into that was insane. It was not for me. I needed a place where my self-worth would not be picked apart by pointing out constantly that the fact that I felt guilt or sadness about my situation wasn’t exactly a sin of Self-pity or worse, Immoral Thinking. Those ideals were so out of line with how I started to see the world that the meetings became stressful, and I no longer felt at home. I searched for places where there was less emphasis on all of that within a community of recovery and found that to some extent in secular meetings. I remember going to a meeting once and one of the members reading out-loud the step and then taking the book and throwing it across the room. She declared, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with me and I have no character defects. I am perfect.” She was a woman with long-term sobriety, and she led a beautiful life. I felt inspired by the scene and thought to myself that loving myself and allowing others to love me is not insane at all, it’s actually the most spirited (word chosen very intentionally!) act ever!
Today I truly know myself. I’ve done a lot of work and I’ve undergone a lot of personal growth. This initially happened gradually in the rooms of AA, first traditional and then secular, and then out of the rooms when I no longer found them to be serving – that is, safe for – my development. This is not to criticize those places; I think AA is extremely helpful for many individuals, but for this guy, the constant focus on what was wrong with me was harmful and almost as bad as me picking up a bottle. I needed something different, somewhere where I was appreciated and where I couldn’t be summed up by my “Character Defects.” If there’s one AA adage I do like it’s the one that says, “Progress not Perfection.” For me progress meant liberating myself from feeling guilty and ashamed of who I was and trying to constantly dig holes in my psyche and endlessly analyzing every questionable behavior that supposedly proved I was terribly flawed.
Maybe I am not flawed at all(?) I am like everyone else: I get angry and I get impatient, and I have bad days and good days. But I am not the sum of my “bad” qualities. I am whole and it took me a very long time to get to this place – and I absolutely treasure it with my entire being. I don’t want to take myself apart anymore, I don’t want to confess my sins and my faults to another human being and/or to ask anyone or anything that I don’t believe in to relieve me of my humanity.
I do want to add that I think it’s a good thing to write down some of those things early in recovery because it helps us to see what sort of things trigger us and what we react to in ways that cause self-harm. For some it will be jealousy, for others it might be feelings of greed. It’s always good to know where we ignite harmful behavior. But for many the solution is not to beat your chest and ask for forgiveness and beg some deity to remove that which is human. The solution is to accept that we’re all here on a journey that never ends, and that journey is simply learning how to lead a meaningful life. I wish that for all of you.