How to Go About Making Amends When in Recovery from Addiction
Going through treatment and into recovery for addiction is an incredible journey that you have already taken. Congratulations on your continued dedication and perseverance! During your treatment and early recovery, you’ve learned the value of support from fellow members in 12-step group meetings. You’ve come to realize that successful recovery means following all the steps. Two of these are critical and they both involve making amends. But it’s not as easy as you think. And making amends isn’t about you at all. It’s an attempt to make restoration for the wreckage your addiction has caused others.
The question you probably have right now is: How do I go about it? First, let’s look at what making amends isn’t – and what it is.
Not an Apology
When you brush up against someone in line or invade their personal space by accident, the polite thing to say is “I’m sorry.” That is an apology. When you say to someone, “Hey, while I was on drugs I stole $300 from the money you keep in your credenza and I want you to know I’m sorry,” that’s an apology. It’s not making amends.
The concept of making amends is really quite simple. If you broke or damaged something, you restore, replace or pay for it. If you cannot physically do this, because to do so may hurt someone else or restoration is impossible, you can make amends in a symbolic way.
Now that you know what making amends is, don’t think you can just rush right out and take care of business. In other words, use the time to thoroughly think through what it is that you need to do. Again, it’s not what you initially think, and it does involve giving the matter a lot more consideration.
Understanding Steps Eight and Nine
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) originated the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and it’s these basic principles that most other 12-step support fellowships have adapted. Whether the organization is Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, etc., doesn’t matter. The steps are very nearly identical. The only difference is the substitution of a word or two pertinent to the type of addiction or addictive behavior. Therefore, the references in this article will all be to the Alcoholics Anonymous steps.
Step Eight reads: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
Sounds easy enough, and pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? When you sit down to compile your list, however, you’ll find that there are some areas you’d rather not think about because they may be too painful, or you can’t imagine how you can make amends in to that person or for that situation, or any number of other reasons. AA counsels that Step Eight and Step Nine are “concerned with personal relations.” So, it’s more about taking a rigorous approach to looking at your past and being able to admit your wrongdoing to others. It’s recognizing when you tell yourself lies about what happened, or how you conveniently “forget” certain incidents where you caused harm or hurt to others.
One word of caution: Before you begin to compile your list for Step Eight, or work through Step Nine, only do so with the guidance of your counselor or 12-step sponsor. These individuals know the process, have worked it themselves, and can help you avoid the pitfalls that could derail your sobriety or recovery.
Your sponsor or counselor will help you compartmentalize your list of individuals you have harmed. This makes it easier for you to tackle – since you’ve most likely been continually harming those you care about for years, along with casual acquaintances and strangers. In fact, the most difficult relationships to list will probably be your loved ones. The amount of personal turmoil, emotional and physical wreckage is usually greatest at home, and it’s this area that causes those in recovery the most trouble. How can you go about making amends, for example, if you’ve destroyed your relationships with your family and aren’t even allowed to speak with or see them anymore?
Nevertheless, put everyone on your list. Start with the names of your loved ones, and, if you can, write down how you harmed them. Don’t think about how you’ll make the amends at this point. Just start listing. Next, widen your circle of relationships to include the friends and coworkers you have hurt. Again, be specific. If it’s money you stole, write down the amount. If you wrecked your brother’s car and never owned up to it, put that down. If you cheated with your boss’s wife, add that to your list. Now start writing down every incident that you can remember where you hurt someone else – stealing money from the church collection plate or the tip jar at the coffee shop, fraudulent acts, embezzling money, violence or abuse toward others – everything.
If it helps, and if your sponsor or counselor recommends it, start with the reverse. List the hurts you’ve done to strangers first. Or, write down the names and hurts as you recall them, but remember to compartmentalize them. This will be easier later when you need to complete Step Nine.
The AA Twelve Steps advise that the obstacles to completing Step Eight include “reluctance to forgive; nonadmission of wrongs to others; purposeful forgetting.” By being thorough and doing an exhaustive list of others you have harmed, also avoid making judgments. It’s best to be as objective and detached as possible when making your list. Try to look at this as an exercise that requires completeness – not moral judgments.
Don’t think of yourself or your own feelings. This step, like the next one, is not about you. But, as AA advises, it is “the beginning of the end of isolation.”
Step Nine reads: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
You might think that since you already have your list, now’s the time to plunge ahead and tick them off one by one. Again, exercise caution and be guided by the advice from your counselor or sponsor. Rushing out to get these items taken care of implies an impatience and lack of understanding of the process of making amends. AA cautions that persons seeking to complete Step Nine have a “tranquil mind,” since that is the “first requisite for good judgment.” Why do you need good judgment? Consider the following scenario.
During your time in treatment, you learned how to take personal inventory and how to accept that what you did in the throes of your addiction was hurtful to yourself and to others. You felt shame and regret over your actions and felt you couldn’t possibly be forgiven. Now that you’re in recovery and have your list of those to whom you need to make amends, you naturally want to receive that forgiveness. By dumping it all out there, so to speak, you think you’ll be let off the hook. Let’s say you cheated on your spouse or partner while you were drunk or high or gambling. Maybe it happened more than once or maybe you have a compulsive sexual addiction in addition to alcohol or substance abuse. The worst thing you could do is blurt out your sexual indiscretion to your partner. Who will this help? It certainly wouldn’t help your partner. You’d only be trying to wipe this off your conscience. But that’s not making amends.
AA advises those seeking to make amends to exercise prudence, good timing and to have courage. You need to take “calculated chances,” but not at the expense of others. If your idea of making amends causes further hurt to others, it’s just the opposite of making amends. You need to use discretion. AA further says that “readiness to take consequences of our past and to take responsibility for the well-being of others is [the] spirit of Step Nine.”
Types of Amends
There are different kinds of amends that you can make.
• Direct amends include paying back the money you’ve stolen from an individual, replacing, fixing, or paying for the item you broke or damaged (your brother’s car that you wrecked, from the earlier example).
• But sometimes, direct amends are not possible. You may have killed someone in an automobile accident while you were drunk. Besides serving jail time as a result of a felony conviction, if such resulted, recovery counselors say that you could make indirect amends. How? You could sign up to be an organ donor. Therefore, while you couldn’t restore the life you’ve taken, you can help give the gift of life to another or others upon your death.
• Living amends involve changing your behavior to live differently. According to recovery counselors, while you were in the midst of your addiction and for some time after, various aspects of your life became closed off. As a result, you now find yourself avoiding certain persons you’ve harmed, or stopped going to places or doing things as you once did because of something you did while you were consumed by your addiction. By changing your negative behavior to more positive behavior, you will be opening up your life to new possibilities. You will strive to make “living amends” by being the best person you can be from this day forward. Every day brings a new commitment and a new chance for redemption.
How Long the Process Takes
This is a question you shouldn’t concern yourself with. The process of making amends will vary from one individual to another. It has less to do with how long it takes and more to do with how thoroughly and honestly you approach the steps. For some in recovery, the process may be completed rather quickly, while, for others, the process may never be finished. How could this be?
First of all, we’re human, and humans make mistakes. Even with embracing a new life of purpose, striving to be the best we can be, there will be times when we hurt others. While it may no longer be as a result of something we’ve done in the past, we are a product of our experiences – all of them, past, present, and future. By opening ourselves up to living a new life, we recognize that we could stumble onto a realization of some past hurt, or a current relationship may reignite a past indiscretion. As recovering addicts seeking to live by the Twelve Steps and Twelve Principles, we need to take whatever action is appropriate to make amends – whenever and wherever they occur.
In fact, although you didn’t know it at the time, when you first joined a 12-step organization and told your family you were going to embrace the process, you took the first steps toward making amends. They didn’t know – nor did you – all of what this would entail. What’s important is that you took the step, and it was a big one.
Look Toward the Future
Being in recovery is the beginning of the kind of future you wish to create. Do not limit yourself or feel bound in any way. Learning a new way of life may mean changing jobs, residences, moving to another state, becoming a more spiritual person, going back to school to finish or obtain a degree, learn a trade, finding joy in new hobbies or recreational pursuits. It may be many of these things. In fact, your future can be whatever you want to make it. With the discipline and practice of doing your Twelve Steps, and becoming more immersed and knowledgeable about the Twelve Traditions, you will have more self-confidence, self-esteem and enthusiasm for what lies ahead. You will begin to look outside yourself and your own situation and lean more toward helping others – as you have been helped. In the process, you are enriching your life beyond measure.
Remember, making amends and giving to others the best part of ourselves is one of the best things we can do in recovery.