It Works If You Work It



My dad didn’t talk much about his father’s violent side. He didn’t have to talk about it for me to know. He wore the abuse like a deep cut, whose efforts to heal had worked long and hard to compensate, like growing tissue that is thick and tough in an effort to hide any vulnerability.

We knew all about it because any question that I might have asked about my grandfather caused his face to tighten and nose to scrunch up as if he’d just smelled something rotten. His answers were curt.

There was one story that involved his dad that he would tell me over and over again. This story was painted with details, marking the importance of this memory. Daddy and his brother Dewey often worked in the fields of a farm where my grandfather was a sharecropper. Sometimes, they worked with the crops; either plowing or pulling a disc behind two ornery mules. On this day, they were hard at work helping to clear the fence rows of weeds and vines that threated to overtake the fence.

It had been a very long day of strenuous work when they saw my grandfather, Henry heading in their direction.

“I dreaded seeing him coming.” Daddy said.

“Why?” I always asked.

“Because if he was there at the end of the day, he had come to get our pay. He only came to get it when he had run out of money to drink. If we could get done before he showed up, we’d run the money straight home to Mama,” he’d say.

“I’ve come to collect our pay,” Henry said.

“I’m planning on taking that to Mama,” my dad said.

“I’ll decide what we do with that money,” he said.

“Dad, I told Mama that I would be sure and bring it right home for groceries,” he said.

I couldn’t imagine being sixteen years old, working full time in the fields and having to worry about how we’d pay for groceries. I never had those worries. I also never worried about being smacked around by my father. I didn’t have to. It stopped with my dad.

“I knew he was not gonna let it go; not when he was drinking and for some reason, that day, I didn’t either.” He said.

“About that time, he reared back to hit me and I caught ahold of his hand, stopping it in midair. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Dad, you are never gonna hit me again. If you do, I’ll walk off this farm and never come back,’ ” he said. His dad never hit him again.

He made a decision that day. I doubt he realized it at the time. But, that day, he took whatever power that he’d been using to sneak around and get the money before his dad could drink it up and used it to take care of himself.

He probably didn’t see his action as admitting powerlessness over his dad or his drinking—but as I began to work the steps of my own program, looking long and hard at step one, ‘the biggie,’ to me, I began to look for examples of powerlessness and I realized that this story that mattered to him was one terrific example.

I’ve come to see step one, of my twelve-step program,

We admitted that we are powerless over alcohol (or alcoholic, work problem, husband/wife, anything really) –that our lives had become unmanageable.

Is a lot like the first plot point in any story.

Step one is primarily where a decision is made. This decision moves the story in a new direction. The story is stuck until the protagonist can reach this point. When I look at step one in this way, I am encouraged to see the value in working this step.

Several weeks ago, in my twelve-step program, someone asked, “What does it mean to ‘work the steps?’ “

Her question got me to thinking. What does it really mean? Surely it is more than just answering the questions in a workbook. The books and workbooks are good. But, what do they actually do?

So, I got out my books and workbooks and began to look at my step work with fresh eyes. On an intellectual level, I can easily say, “Of course, I am powerless.” But, the questions force me to look beneath my words. Do my actions corroborate my words? Do my feelings line up with both my words and my actions?

Have I simply parroted what I think that I should say? Are the words empty rhetoric? Am I totally clueless to the lies that I tell myself? Working step one helps me to untangle my created web in search for the truth.

In the beginning, I ignored my intuition regarding my addicted loved ones. If I spoke my fears out loud, they might just be true. If I gave them ‘the benefit of a doubt’, they might start doing the “right” things, or what I refer to as, “the gospel according to Jean,”.

I think this is called denial.

If I helped them by paying their bills, smoothing over messes made, that was love, right? If I called to check on them, then they would remember and do the right thing, because I’m checking and that is love, right? For me, working step one, uncovered my use of “love” as an excuse to hang onto my “illusion of control.”

I strive to be a good Catholic (whatever that means) and for me, the bottom line, according to St. John, is that ‘God is Love.’ So, if my higher power is love, then I should try to live in his image and likeness…no?

Can you follow my trail?

These are the reasons that it is so important to ‘work the steps.’ While I was doing some of my step work, this Lenten season, I picked up a book by C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves: The Much Beloved Exploration of the Nature of Love” and while reading the introduction, there was a statement that literally reached up from the page and smacked me right across the face.

Lewis felt that he must balance St. John’s statement that God is love with a quote from the author M. Denis de Rougement’s remark, “love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god,” which Lewis re-states as, “begins to be a demon, the moment he begins to be a god.”

As I read that statement, the Band-Aid was ripped off, taking a little skin with it. You see, Lewis also mentioned that image and likeness did not mean ‘same.’ These statements revealed to me that I had indeed tried to be my very own higher power.

“It doesn’t matter who your higher power is, as long as it’s not you.” I’ve heard this statement many times in my program. Lewis comments fully illustrated what the members of my group were trying to tell me.

I attended my group meetings for many years before I could truly say that I had admitted powerlessness. Even so, the years were not fruitless. I gave up bits and pieces of “control” along the way. But, if I am truthful, I would guess that it took close to five years for me to cry uncle.

For me it seems important to note that “I gave” up control. My higher power doesn’t force anything. I didn’t want it anymore. It was too hard. Like a one legged duck trying to swim to shore, I was ready to receive help.

The questions help me to look at my life in ways that I never had before. I couldn’t believe how much I failed to see. But, there is another component that is strongly encouraged when working the steps, find a sponsor who can be by your side as you work the steps.

This person/sponsor helps most notably in two ways. First of all, they have a different perspective. Secondly, they have probably been just where you find yourself to be. Don’t worry.

The first time that I worked with a sponsor I did the reading and answered the questions in the workbook and then sent it home with her to review. I felt pretty good about it. I thought that I was truthful and an ‘open book.’ But, it came back to me littered with sticky notes.

The notes had all sorts of questions on them like, “whose voice do you hear in your head, when you call yourself lazy?” And “this question is about you, not us.”

These questions weren’t painful. They didn’t shame or blame. They merely shined a light on the use of my own words. These questions revealed what I was really thinking to myself.

The important thing to note about a sponsor is that they have gone before you; wielding a machete through their own path, understanding the lengths that our ego’s will go to to protect us from our “real or true selves” and they are able to spot those things that we can’t see that we are saying to ourselves and the world.

Step One is huge. There is no shift in the action of your life’s direction until you hand off your imaginary power.

That day back in 1938, in the middle of a farm where my grandfather was a sharecropper. I’m sure that my dad didn’t know that with his action, he had accepted powerlessness over his dad. But, for those of us who have come to accept it and know the extent of our decision, you understand the relief and feeling of power that is found in relinquishing it to a power greater than yourself.

You see, when you stop your preoccupation with the actions of another that is when you are freed up enough to realize that you can take care of yourself. That is where your power lies. What a concept. It is as simple and as hard as that.

They mean it when they tell you that, “It works if you work it.” Now get out there and get busy!






About The Author

Jean Heaton

I am a daughter, sister, aunt, mother and probably most notoriously, ‘the Vet’s wife’.


  1. ML B | 10th Feb 16

    I don’t agree with all you write about 12 step programs, but you do write about it eloquently! The sponsor aspect of it bothered me, but then I’m biased toward seeking help from “professionals”. The people I met in 12 step programs seemed just as confused as me!

    The important thing however, is getting to know ourselves, our motivations, and finding a spiritual center, and the path is different for all of us.

    • Jean Heaton | 10th Feb 16


      What I write is my experience. It is what I have seen. We certainly all have very different perspectives. I have sought the help of a professional counselor for over five years now. I don’t know what I would have done without him. But, my sponsor has been instrumental in being an objective mentor.

      You are so correct that the path is different for us all.

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