I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Who the heck wants to read about amends? Nobody! I don’t even really want to write about them, but I’m going to trust, and ask you to trust, that taking a good look will reveal their beauty.
So here’s the quandary. You may hear people in the rooms kicking around the question: “Who are amends for? Me or the other person?” I recall about a dozen years ago hearing a woman announce with contempt, “I’m not making this amends for her! I’m doing it for me!” Something sounded wrong in that, but I wasn’t sure what.
Sure, the steps are our pathway to freedom. But they work because they’re a pathway to change, not self-help. Didn’t we try every way of helping ourselves when we were drinking, doing whatever our monkey-brains thought would work best? And what happened? As I seem to recall, most of us ended up alone and fucking miserable. The fact is, self-help refers to motivational adjustments to an otherwise successful model of living, such as, “I’m going to exercise more!” or “I’m going to procrastinate less!” not, “I’m going to quit submerging my entire existence in a cesspool of self-disgust caused by senselessly poisoning myself on a daily basis!”
So, no. We don’t need self help. What we need is a transformation, a psychic change beyond anything we could engineer ourselves that redirects our energy toward maximum usefulness to god and our fellows. If Step 3 led us to stake the best 4th step inventory we could, if we’ve read it to a sponsor who’s made clear our faulty thinking, then something has shifted in us. In Steps 6 and 7, we opened to asking god to render us better human beings. Now we revisit our past in this new light.
When my sponsor asked me to generate compassion toward those I’d resented, it felt like she was asking for some crazy move of spiritual gymnastics. But really, all I had to do is acknowledge that I’ve fucked up many times myself, out of fear and pitfalls in thinking. Let’s say I was trying to protect my beloved A when I accidentally nudged B into the boiling oil. “Doh!” Or in reaching after that prized X, I forgot I was supposed to hold Y and let it fall into the mile-deep chasm. “Shit!” Maybe I heard the enticing, faint calls of J through the tall grass and, in stepping toward them, crushed underfoot the tiny, delicate K. “Oh, no! Poor K~!!”
Such botched moves fill at least 75% of my addiction memoir; they’re the stuff of which all our deepest conflicts are made. That’s why my double backward flip in the pike position comes about as I accept that you, like me, were doing only the best you could. Now watch this move in slo-mo: I decide to cut you the same slack I wish others might cut me – the slack to be human. It may take me days or years to get there, but eventually, your wrongs become moot. The focus closes in on the behavior I exhibited toward you. Would I want those wrongs carved on my tombstone? Do I want to carry them until then?
Remember, though, that 9 comes after 8, and “became ready” refers to more than just working up nerve. In early sobriety, I thought I was working Step 9 by writing impulsive letters to my ex’s and telling them way more than they needed to know. By contrast, when I worked Step 8 in earnest, my sponsor wrested my ways of thinking from old to new. For each person on my list, she crossed out and scribbled notes all over the accounts of harms I thought I’d caused, eliminating 75% of what I’d thought was the issue. Each time she had me…
1) highlight ONLY those behaviors and attitudes the person was well aware of, to avoid causing further harm
2) boil down the harms via the rubric of selfish, dishonest, thoughtless/inconsiderate
3) come up with one specific example to illustrate each
I was not to apologize. Rather, I was to articulate the behavior I’d shown and the ways it was wrong, and to ask what I might do to set it right. She said, “It’s like you left a turd lying somewhere in this person’s life. You swoop in, say, ‘I believe that’s mine!’, scoop up the turd, and ask if you got it all.”
Amends don’t mean you become buddy-roos with the person. And some may continue to lob fireballs at you, requiring you to maintain a safe distance. But when I’ve sat down with people from my past and owned, often with my voice shaking, my very human fuck-ups, I’ve witnessed in almost every one of them the blossoming grace of compassion. Many have spontaneously confessed fuck-ups of their own. And sometimes, in the pool of truth we shared for those moments, I would behold in them a dignity and beauty to which our old conflict had blinded me.
The 9th step means taking our new way of life out into the world and trusting god in a free fall. As I once heard it put: “I make amends to restore that person’s faith in basic human decency. And when I do that, I restore my own.”