The Fourth Ring
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I pressed the phone to my ear so hard that it hurt my skull, the physical pain a temporary distraction.
The third ring spiked my anxiety into a full blown panic. On the fourth ring I heard the all too familiar metallic click. Richard’s recorded voice scratched in my ear as the answering machine played the cassette tape.
“Hello, this is Richard.”
Richard is my 12-step sponsor. He’s supposed to be there for me. He’s not home. Again.
“Please leave a message. Thank you!”
The “Thank you!” ended on a cheerful note and made me want to punch Richard in the nose. The all too quick electronic beep prodded me to speak.
“Richard, this is Kevin. Again. Can you call me back, please? I’m really hurting. I don’t want to drink or drug, but I need to talk. I don’t know what to do.”
When Richard first moved to Schenectady and agreed to be my sponsor he seemed to always be home, listening for hours as I cried over some newly discovered amends I needed to make, or babbled on about a random resentment I’d unearthed. Many were serious. Some nearly sent me over the edge. A few took more than one phone call, like my slow understanding that the molestation and rape I had endured as a child was not normal. That those assaults had left me emotionally deformed, rendered me spiritually stilted.
Whether my perceived crisis was real or, just as often, less than critical, Richard patiently listened, gently coaxed me toward my own answers, and never, ever dismissed me as the broken and immature man I was.
Richard always coaxed through inquiry.
“Is that a feeling or a fact?” allowed me to pause and reflect.
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” could send me into a fit of suicidal thoughts.
The ever handy “What’s the next sober thing to do?” was one of the more palatable queries.
I began to rely on his questions to steady my shaking body and focus my thoughts. That stability developed into a deeper trust, first of Richard, then slowly, and with great hesitation, of my own intuition.
When I called he would answer on the first or second ring. I would pour my heart out, always relieved, and slightly surprised, as the electronic signals of the phone reorganized my shame, fear, grief and confusion into new feelings of contentment and peace, even joy. I became accustomed to his voice, calm and gentle and warm, and to trust in that warmth and constancy.
As his life filled with new sponsees, new meetings and a new job, Richard became less available and slower to respond. After I’d left a sometimes desperate sounding message I had no option than to wait. As the hours passed, something new began to emerge in the space between that fourth ring and his return call.
The questions he had posed in our past conversations would bubble up in my thoughts. One echoed louder in my mind more often than all the others.
“When something like this happened in the past, what worked for you?”
Richard had provided me the questions, and the opportunity, to create a few successful episodes in my life. A track record is something you can count on, and Richard had developed a solid list of successes in guiding me through the twelve steps, navigating the emotional curves without taking a drink or drug one day at a time.
Now it was my turn. I could learn to reflect on what had worked and rely on myself. How did I get through the hurt and pain and fear? How can I do it again?
As I began to move forward in my recovery, I could see a pattern of success, and that track record of success both lifted me up and unnerved me. In the time after each fourth ring I would find a new clue. When he wasn’t there to pick up the phone, I miraculously survived, and even thrived. As I built up my own track record of asking and answering those simple questions, I gained confidence that I could build on.
My old perspective believed that if Richard answered immediately I would survive, and if he didn’t I might die, or even worse drink and drug and live. Now my world order had inverted. If he picked up on the first ring, I knew that I probably badly needed the help. If I made it to that fourth ring, I would likely find my way through the ordeal on my own. I would leave a message and hang up the phone with a new and growing sense of peace and confidence.
It gave me time to ask the questions and recognize that I was building my own track record, first of simply staying away from the drugs and alcohol, then of building a new foundation of spiritual principles that I found through working the twelve steps.
The fourth ring also gave me time to realize that tucked into these questions was the thread of a spiritual presence, a through-line to this new chapter of my life that I could not fully attribute to Richard nor my own track record.
My track record of recovery and spiritual sobriety is directly proportional to the depth that I accept my higher power into my life. My best criteria for measuring progress is in attributing my success to the true and constant track record of my higher power. With every moral inventory I wrote, each defect of character I tackled, and my willingness to make amends, my Higher Power was consistently present and accounted for in every aspect of my life.