An interview with Aaron Shepard
Aaron Shepard is the program coordinator at the Plymouth House, a Twelve Step-model addiction treatment center in Plymouth, New Hampshire, where he was a guest in March 2002. The Plymouth House uses a Big Book model of Step work and inventory. We interviewed Aaron about his experience of Big Book inventory and his experience in helping others through this exercise.
STEPS: When it came time for you to write inventory, what did your sponsor tell you?
Aaron: He unveiled it slowly to me as he did with most of the Steps. He met with me and said, “This is the next thing to do.” He also showed me how to use prayer in inventory. Coming into the Plymouth House, I wasn’t religious at all; I had gone to Sunday school a few times as a kid. My sponsor clued me in to the fact that if I was having a hard time praying, then inventory was a place where I could get some results.
He explained that the fourth column would give me a new perspective–a new brain, as we call it. It would provide me with a place to act differently from. A cleaner, purer place than I was in then. It’s about creating a space in the mind so the person can do something new or different. He also said I would feel differently about a lot of things I wrote about.
STEPS: How did you feel about having to write inventory?
Aaron: I was terrified to read it. And writing inventory produced really uncomfortable feelings. I felt like a worm crawling through an apple. I also had a physical response to it: I walked around with my head hanging low, not wanting to talk to anybody. I was nervous about some of the things on my inventory, not because I was such a bad guy so much as that I felt so petty.
Most of what was on my resentment inventory was really petty stuff. “She didn’t call me.” “She got five dollars and I didn’t.” “I wanted to go to Disneyland and they didn’t take me.” These things revealed that I was very different from what I tried to appear to be, from what I wanted people to believe was the truth.
What I didn’t understand, going into inventory, was that God would remove things that I could see and that I couldn’t see. Its like Alka-Seltzer. After the bubbles come up, it just looks like a glass of water. I changed over time in ways I didn’t foresee, and I put no thought into it. I just became disinterested in things unconsciously. One of those things was “stuff.” I became less attached to possessions. I own less stuff now. I had no idea that inventory would lead to that. One fear that I didn’t realize I had, and that got taken away, was the fear of looking like a fool. When I work with others I don’t have to be afraid of their judgments.
STEPS: What was a typical writing session like for you?
Aaron: I always started with lots of good intentions. Then I’d get frustrated and stand up. I couldn’t write for very long, 20 minutes at a time at most. Then I jammed it all into a couple of days because I knew that I had to be finished. I would try to look at my selfishness, and I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t figure it out. I’d walk away and pray, go do something else and think about it, and when I came back I could see it.
Writing inventory taught me how to pray. It taught me a real utilitarian use of prayer. There is a task in front of me, so I pray, “God, please help me do that,” and then I get direct results from praying. In my Third Step I changed, but I couldn’t see the results; I had to have other people tell me that I had changed. But in my Fourth Step I could see my own results.
STEPS: How did it feel to be finished?
Aaron: It was a mixed blessing. I was afraid that I was not thorough enough. My thought was, If I don’t do this right, I’m going to be in trouble. But it also felt good to be finished. Finishing something was rare for me. Being alcoholic, I typically start something and then leave it unfinished.
I wasn’t sure that I was ready to read–as a typical alcoholic I always second-guess myself–but I was going to do it. My sponsor was there and he said it was time, so we just did it. At the time I was pretty much in a constant state of prayer without knowing it.
In my Fifth Step, I discovered that there was a shift in me that I couldn’t have produced on my own. I wasn’t sure I had done well enough on my inventory. When I read it, it was as if someone else had written it. But I changed in relation to people. They were still doing the same things, but I felt differently in relation to them. Which really speaks to something in the Steps. Things happen that I couldn’t even have dreamed of.
After reading my inventory, I didn’t feel alone anymore, which made being sober much easier. The act of having somebody witness my inventory made me feel that somebody knew me. My sponsor didn’t say, “You’re not that much of an addict.” But he didn’t look at me like I was a weirdo, either. Part of it was an internal feeling, and part external. Internally I felt I wasn’t alone anymore, and having my sponsor there grounded that feeling for me.
STEPS: What happened after you read your inventory?
Aaron: I meditated alone for an hour. I was really indulgent with that hour. I meditated on whether I had done it thoroughly. It’s part of the nature of who I am that I’m never quite sure of myself. But I felt something that said, “You have done OK.” I realized that I was having my own experience. There was no one there to tell if I had done this or not. If I went to sleep during that hour, nobody would know, but I would know.
I just wanted to get it right. My sponsor pointed out a prayer in the Big Book, and I said that Seventh Step prayer literally standing up, lying down, out loud to myself–any way I could think of. I had seen this stuff in my inventory, and I wanted to be rid of it. I knew I had to be rid of it if I was going to get anywhere.
The next morning, for the first time in my life my first thought was about others in a way that was not motivated by self-interest. It blew my mind, because I had never thought that way before. I thought, I need to help people, and not because I needed something from them or because I’m supposed to.
My next thought was, I’ll go be a missionary. I didn’t talk about that, because it was crazy. I thought I was insane, because I had never thought that way before. At the time, I had no idea that the Plymouth House was a place where I could help people. Now I work here, but I do still think about being a missionary at times.
I came out of my Seventh Step sure that I would do Eight and Nine, which was amazing because that was the stuff that really scared me. After inventory, it was just the next thing to do. I could also see that I needed to do Eight and Nine because after Seven I couldn’t really help you. I could help you write, but I couldn’t help you do what came next, which was really to go and clean up the world. Inventory was necessary for amends; if I didn’t write inventory, I couldn’t make amends. Up to Step Seven, it’s just about me. But after Seven it’s about other people. I see the real truth about myself in Step Nine by going to people I’ve hurt, letting them tell me how I’ve hurt them, and then comparing what they tell me to how I thought I had hurt them.
Inventory got me through that process. When I called one person I needed to make amends to, she told me, “Call me back when you’re serious.” I had to work to be sure that I was really serious about making amends, and the only way I knew to do that was through inventory. Also during that time my fiancee left me, and I had to use the inventory process because of that.
One thing that happened after inventory was that I didn’t cop resentments anymore. Nobody could have done anything to piss me off. Somebody could kick me in the knee, and I would have said, “It’s all right. He’s a sick man.” That state of mind lasted for a whole month.
I find that I have more fear since writing inventory. I didn’t have that many fears when I first did it, and my sponsor said, “More will be revealed.” He was right. I tend to have more fears now and less resentment. It’s about fifty-fifty, where before it was only maybe twenty-percent fear. On my Fourth Step inventory, my resentments started at eight and nine years old. There were some things revealed that were important to think about in terms of how I’ve lived my life.
STEPS: How did writing inventory change your relationship with God?
Aaron: I had tangible results from Steps Four through Seven. Praying became part of my daily life. I had to pray so much when writing that I ended up praying when not writing. Also, there was a shift in my prayer from “God, help me” to “God, thank you.” I knew that God was there for me when I needed him most. I felt protected. When I have trouble in personal relationships I know I can pray through them. I also started praying more for other people.
STEPS: What is it like for you as a sponsor listening to other people’s inventory?
Aaron: Well, the typical length is about three-and-a-half to four hours of straight reading, and I just pray. If I know it’s going to be really long, I get supplies: coffee and water. I try to listen, which for me is a task in prayer and meditation, because I’m really trying to absorb these things and people can tell if I’m listening or not. I don’t say much. People can tell if you are present. I ask God to be there with me, with both of us. My role is to bear witness.
Actually, I forget most of it. It goes in and it goes out. Afterward I can pray it away. Mostly I get a sense of the other person, a flavor of who they are. I’ve really learned not to make assumptions about other people, because you never know who you are dealing with. I’ve worked with people who I thought would never be able to write inventory, and they have totally surprised me. You learn that when you assume, you are not really sure, and that’s part of my selfishness.
Hearing inventory is also another way to learn about my own selfishness. I’ve had the experience of hearing something on someone else’s inventory and realizing that it applies to me too. I also hear things that are shocking. When that happens I try not to react. But there are times when someone expects a reaction, a nod or a moan or something. People expect a response, and I do my best to understand what they need.
With a couple of people recently, what they needed was to laugh. They were laughing and I was laughing. Some of this is really funny. It is usually funny/sad or funny/tragic. Something we learn in this process is that we’ve got to not take ourselves so seriously. We can be really petty, and it’s important to look at that.
STEPS: Do you ever give people suggestions if you feel they haven’t been thorough in what they’ve written?
Aaron: I might ask them to consider something if they are really off the track. If I think, Who did they work with? Did I do that? I might say something like, “Consider looking at it this way.” But I don’t do this very often unless they want me to. If they’ve really tried and they can’t see it and it would be helpful for me to suggest something, then I do. I’m not here to do someone else’s work for them; if they haven’t tried, then saying something might ruin their chances of getting it later.
When I’m working with someone, I try not to impose my version of this process on them. I want something to happen for them that happened for me, which is for them to have their own experience. I’m done holding someone’s hand when we reach the Fourth Step. If they come to me with a question about selfishness, I ask, “Did you pray before you came to me?” It’s a good time to start to break away from the sponsor/sponsee relationship. Writing inventory was when I started to have my own experience. I went to the Big Book for answers, and it was the first time I’d had my own experience of the Big Book. Before that, my experience of the Big Book was always through my sponsor explaining it to me.
STEPS: Do you ever feel you need to prod people to get them to finish their writing?
Aaron: It’s equal to people’s experience. Everyone has a different experience with the Steps. Some people experience a change in themselves in just writing inventory. Others change in Steps Six and Seven, and still others don’t change at all until they get through their amends. Part of being a sponsor is getting people to trust you when you say they will feel different when they are finished.
Some people I prod, and some I don’t. With some, it would be a big mistake to prod them. It’s about learning to sense what people need, and about making mistakes as a sponsor and learning from those mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve joked when I should have been serious, and I’ve been serious when I should have joked. In part, this is a process of learning how to talk with people and to put myself in their shoes. I started to look at things from another person’s perspective in Step Four. I got some more of that in Step Nine, and really got it in Twelve, which makes all the previous Steps more powerful. I can see how they build to the point where I can do this work.
The Steps are not about checking things off a list. They are more about having an experience than about trying to accomplish anything. If someone has only ten resentments, he can still have an experience. It’s about what you put into those ten resentments. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to use the Steps as a trick to stay sober rather than to change, which is the more difficult thing.
STEPS: What do people generally learn from writing resentment inventory?
Aaron: They come to understand what motivates them, and selfishness is a part of that. Ultimately, the thing is to be able to forgive people. When I can see the specifics of my own selfishness, then I can forgive someone who did this or that. Also, I can forgive people even if I had a very small role in creating the resentment.
My wife was killed when a man hit her with his car. When I wrote my Fourth Step, I didn’t get much about my own selfishness in relating to him. But when I saw him five months later, I felt like that event had happened to somebody else. I had no animosity toward him whatsoever. I immediately started thinking, God, what it must feel like to have done that! And I started to assume that he must have made an honest mistake. Maybe he was distracted. Maybe he had to scratch his nose, you know? I felt pity for him.
Fear inventory is a little different. Fear gets wrapped up in selfishness to the point where I can’t tell sometimes which one came first. Did the selfishness make me afraid, or did my fear make me selfish? For example, if I’m afraid to be alone, then I’m likely to stay with a woman far longer than is good for her, and that is inherently selfish. Whereas if I’m being selfish, it seems I have a lot of reasons to be afraid.
My fears are mostly fears of acting differently. Writing inventory and getting to the bottom of fears lets me think, I can do this.
STEPS: What about sex inventory?
Aaron: When I wrote sex inventory it was the first time I took a hard look at my intimate life through the lens of selfishness. I thought my alcoholism didn’t have anything to do with that area of my life. In writing inventory, I was able to see who I’d like to be sexually, sort of an idealized version of who I could be.
I changed in relation to my sex life and even in my thought life. I used to spend time in my thoughts. I had a fantasy life, and after writing sex inventory I found that I didn’t want anything to do with that anymore. I wanted a physical monogamy, and I wanted monogamy of thinking as well. That’s another thing that I didn’t know would come out of this, that I couldn’t have predicted. And if I could have predicted it, I’m not sure I would have wanted to go through with the inventory process. I didn’t think some of these things that got removed or changed were a problem. But you can’t pick and choose.
STEPS: We’ve been talking a lot about selfishness. I think that might bother some people. What would you say to people who think that all this talk of selfishness is shaming?
Aaron: What I’ve seen is that if we don’t take full responsibility for ourselves, we won’t get better. In order to do that, I’ve got to look at my selfishness. Looking at selfishness can give me something that I can take action on, rather than beating myself up or feeling miserable. Steps Six and Seven seem to take away some of that shame. I felt terrible in writing. I felt I was shown who I was. Then I could say, “OK. That is who I was. Now that can change. I can do something about that.”
STEPS: And what about people who have experienced some abuse? How do you address that in the inventory process?
Aaron: I try to get them to look at what they’ve done with that abuse in their own lives. Usually, I talk about some abuse that I’ve experienced in my life and show how I’ve come to see it. I may not have the same experience of abuse that they have, but my dad beat me and it didn’t make any sense. I was just a kid, and no kid deserves that. But so many years go by, and then I’m 28 and I’m using my history of abuse as an excuse to manipulate my wife. It may sound extreme, but I used my history to get people to let me get away with things. As an addict, it allowed me to lie to myself, saying that I can behave however I want to because I’ve been hurt.
STEPS: What about listing some good things along with the bad things?
Aaron: My view on that is that if my good qualities were sufficient to save me from my alcoholism, then I wouldn’t have to write inventory. I’m a good dog owner, but that doesn’t save me from anything. It’s not enough.
I try to look at my selfishness in the sense that I am a person who is capable of doing these things, and not that I am inherently a bad person. The process of getting at the core of our identity is not always a straight line.
But we have to take responsibility for our own capacity for selfishness. Besides, if you ask me to write about my good qualities, then I can guarantee you that that’s all I’m going to write about. And I’ll sprinkle a few bad things in to make you think I’ve done the work.
I’ve been through a lot of different kinds of self-analysis. I’ve been to talk therapy. I’ve been through more Freudian stuff, dream analysis, that type of thing. I’ve written past histories, life stories. I’ve been in group therapies. I’ve done some really strange group things. I was at one place where they tell you that you have a “big one” and a “little one,” and your mother failed you, so the therapist is your new mommy. Then you sit in a circle and scream at each other. Bizarre stuff.
In all of that work, I could still hide from the truth. I can’t hide as easily in Big Book inventory. If I’m talking to you, there is a good chance I can lie to you, and more important, I can lie to myself. If I have to write down the facts and I know I have to read them to someone I respect and who I want to respect me, then I can’t really fake it.
One last point. I think it’s important to read inventory to someone that you have a real relationship with, not some guy you won’t see again. I still have a relationship with my sponsor. I work with him now, and there are times when I still need to read inventory to him. I read to other people, too, but there are some things that I take only to him. We are friends and colleagues, but there are still moments when I seek his help. And that was especially true when I was in the early stages of working with others. We can be friends, but sometimes I need him to be my sponsor again, and he is willing to do that for me.
For more information about the Plymouth House, visit their web site at www.theplymouthhouse.com or call toll free 1-800-428-8459.