Rarely do AA newcomers like the sound of steps 8 & 9, where we contemplate the harm we’ve done others and do what we can to set things right. I know I certainly didn’t plan on completing them early on.
My siblings, who don’t identify as alcoholic, believe I’ve been brainwashed by AA. Maybe I have – but it was a washing much needed! Today I simply do not question the wisdom of the 12 steps, and I seek constantly to apply their principles to my life. That’s why I recently sent off an amends letter for harm I did almost 30 years ago.
I married at 26 – drunk as I spoke my vows amid a total void of emotion – aside from the guilt of realizing I couldn’t feel. We were outdoors on a sunny day, and I made myself cry because I wanted the hundred people in attendance to believe I was deeply moved. The groom had been the object of my sexual obsession toward the end of college. For over a year his mere presence – or even the thought of him – had spiked my dopamine better than cocaine: he’d been a living drug. But as we said our vows, I knew his effect had worn off. He’d been demoted to close friend and source of security. I appreciated him for that, but love – genuine intimacy – had somehow dropped out of my emotional vocabulary.
As newlyweds we moved to Brookline, MA, so he could attend business school. I drank. I was supposedly a writer, since I’d won a big prize in grad school. I had no friends, no job, no reason for existing – so my compulsive behaviors (described in my book) and drinking simply took over. The panic attacks I’d experienced in New York City returned with a vengeance. God, what a nightmare! – that sense of dying amid the obliterating jumble of an indifferent now. Valium and booze were my only respite.
To rescue myself, I developed a new obsession – a girl, the most popular aerobics instructor at the gym where I’d started work. Now I had a fresh stash of euphoria to chase after. There was no physical infidelity because we were both straight – the girl and I – and intensely homophobic. All I knew was that I wanted to be around her constantly and to reel her into my life as a new fix, a new paradise. She gave me a little gift – a small metal figure seated on a toilet made from wire, nuts, and washers – that went missing. I don’t know what drew me to look in the garbage outside, but wrapped in a bunch of paper in a bag within a bag I found it… bent and broken to pieces.
As I looked at it, I registered the magnitude of my husband’s pain and rage. But with zero compassion – only anticipation that I could show this weird relic to my new friend. And I did. I got it out of the garbage a second time. “Whoa!” she marveled. “He’s fucked up!” – meaning my husband. Later, after she’d followed me back to the west coast, we became partners. It would take another six years for me to repeat the cycle – to betray her for a new host.
Flash forward a dozen years or so to 2000. By this time I’m five years sober, working through my last amends. I want to fly out to Boston to see my ex-husband, own my wrongs, and pretty much beg forgiveness – but my sponsor pauses. She has me go see the rabbi who married us (my husband was Jewish) and ask his advice. The rabbi ruminated for so long, I worried he’d fallen asleep. Then he spoke: “You’ve changed little in appearance. I think seeing you would cause him pain. Stay out of his life. Pray that he receive all the love and happiness you couldn’t give him.” When I objected, trying to explain step 9, he reared up powerfully: “This amends would be more for you than for him! He has a new wife! Let him be!”
So I did.
Flash forward again, now to the spring of 2015. As some of you know, I learned that my boyfriend of 9 years, whom I knew to be drinking, had been carrying on an affair with a girl from work five years older than his daughter – for several years. I saw their texts. I ended our relationship. This caused me a great deal of pain.
Now we’re up to about two weeks ago. In the midst of decluttering my house, chucking piles of once crucial papers into the recycling, I came across some old photos of my husband and me. Look at us! So young! So… innocent! His energy, his humor and kindness – they flooded back to me. Sitting there on the floor with remnants of my life scattered about, I felt the grief and regret wash over me like a tsunami. By the light of my own pain, I ventured down those hallways of memory, myself now in his place. I saw as never before what I’d done, who I’d been. And amid that mourning came clear direction from my higher power: The rabbi’s advice has expired. The right thing to do has changed.
Am I brainwashed? Maybe so. But it took me only days to write a letter, tears nearly shorting out my laptop. I sent it to my sponsor, and with her adjustments, copied it out by hand – again awash in tears. I owned everything. I told him I’d not been human – that addiction had turned me into a gaping black hole of selfish need. I told him there was nothing in my life that I regretted more – that I would always, always, regret having abused his trust. And I wrote that he was wonderful.
I mailed it a week ago with a kiss and a prayer. I’ve not heard back, but the results are out of my hands – not even my business! What I know is that I’ve done my best to do the right thing. That’s how I live now. I seek insight through prayer and talking with the people I trust most. And then I act.
In return, I get to hold my head up… and live sober another day. That’s how it works.