This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.

Step 5. Admit to our Group, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

If loneliness is your problem, confession may be a solution. There's nothing like holding secrets to shut you off from others. Leading an open life in which there is no deception or deliberate lying takes practice and courage. On the other hand, although honesty is vital, impulsive confessions can be harmful. You need to be very careful about what to admit or confess as well as to whom you make the confession, but it needs to be done.

Confession has been used for centuries in religious practice, and the purpose there is to be open with God. This is done by way of someone sanctified by the church to hear confession. Confessing to a trusted person produces a great feeling of relief and sometimes the warmth of social approval. Other than producing a feeling of guilt relief, little else may be accomplished although good advice is often forthcoming from a cleric or counselor. The church penalties are often light, confessions are repeated as needed and little about life is changed. So, at the beginning of this discussion, let's be clear: as used in Step Five, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs in the recovery process has little to do with religion and everything to do with learning a new way of life. If you've had a secret addictive life in the past, it will be hard to learn the habits of openness.

What to confess

As a general rule, you will need to be able to discuss freely those things directly related to addiction that you have been keeping to yourself in order to protect the addiction. You admit to an understanding person or audience what you have been doing to protect and promote your addiction or addictions.

There are probably many things in the past you regret or feel you have done that are wrong, but in a self-help recovery group it is a good plan to stick with addiction related wrongs. Because of an alcohol, drug or gambling addiction, did you steal, commit crimes, become unfaithful to a spouse, or cheat on taxes? Subject to some cautions in the next paragraph, these are the things you need to share with a group of recovering addicts. They will understand since many of them have done the same kinds of things.

What not to confess

Do not admit to crimes for which you could still be prosecuted; that's a subject to discuss with a lawyer. Telling such things to a recovery room does not fix the problem if you have unfinished business with the law. Do not admit to dishonest actions or wrongs committed in the past that have nothing to do with addiction. Maybe you stole candy from a store when you were a kid. A lot of people did that, and unless you sold to it buy drugs it just wastes the group's time talking about such things. Be careful in confessing thought crimes such as, "I'd really like to kill that boss of mine some day." There is no problem in talking about negative thoughts and feelings, but avoid specific items that could be seen as threats.

Unless you are in a group that works on sex and love addiction, it is probably not necessary to admit to marital infidelity unless, to repeat myself, this is somehow directly related to your addiction. Save that for marriage counseling if need be.

Avoid any temptation to wallow in guilt. This is not a contest to see who was the worst offender. Stick to the facts, plain and simple.

When to confess

I suggest you follow your sponsor's advice about when to tell your story. Some groups encourage a person to start telling their story at their first meeting, and I think this is unwise. Admit to having a problem if asked in the group, but don't start saying much more than that until you feel comfortable in the group and have a sponsor. Take time to plan what you want to say. Follow some notes on cards if that helps and avoid the temptation to get into areas unrelated to your addiction(s).

Where to confess

Review what you plan to say with a trusted sponsor before you cover Step 8 in front of the group. If necessary, remind the group that there is to be no recording or note taking, and that what is said in the room must not be repeated to anyone outside the group.

To Whom to confess

Wrongs committed in service to an addiction can be described to your group. Other kinds of misdeeds can be admitted to a professional counselor and sometimes, when appropriate, to an attorney. The goal here is personal therapy. Remember that the place to admit to any crime for which you might yet be prosecuted is in your attorney's office. Resist any impulse to go to the nearest police station and admit crimes without an attorney. This is not good for recovery and you might regret that for years to come. In talking with a professional counselor you usually have an ear you can trust to keep your counsel and a person who can help with your personal growth, but even here it is legally binding on a counselor to report to the authorities any harm or damage you may be planning to commit against another person. So, give up any plans for violent revenge and learn to forgive enemies. Forgiveness is an important part of recovery.

Here are some discussion or writing ideas for exploring Step Five on your own:

  • What is an open life and how might such a life help with long-term recovery?
  • An addict recalls times when he was a school yard bully and now feels badly about that. Where can he/she best discuss this?
  • Let's say Henry sold a few drugs or other illegal merchandise and used the money for gambling. Where should this be discussed?
  • Henry was also a pimp for several women. He regrets this and wants to discuss it. Where should he bring this up?
  • A member of your twelve step group uses every chance he can to talk about all the bad things an addiction led him to do. How do you deal with this?
  • You once robbed a convenience store and were never caught. Is it important that you deal with this old crime, and how do you go about doing so?
  • How far do you think you can really go in living a completely open life?