Tag Archives: Amends

Inner and/vs. Outer Change

When I was new to AA, some of the 12 steps struck me as filler to make an even dozen. Being smarter than anyone else in the world, I could see that just 6 steps would’ve done the trick: 3, 5, 7, 9, 10 & 12. These steps all tell us to do something. The others deal with internal shifts that, it seemed to me, could be made instantaneously.

As usual, I was totally wrong.

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous who, in 1938, created the 12 steps understood that spiritual change is no overnight matter, and that actions carried out with no internal change are meaningless. Rather, the steps are about collaborating with a higher power to gradually transform who we are, how we perceive our place in the world, and how we treat others. It’s a metamorphosis that lasts all our lives.

For example, Step 9 involves action: we make amends to those we have harmed, but without an internal Step 8, we can inadvertently inflict more harm. Someone recently asked me to look over a draft of a 9th step amends letter that — I found — was actually a more-about-me letter. It opened, not with well wishes for the recipient or acknowledgement that hearing from one who hurt them years ago might come as a surprise, but what was up with the writer: “I’ve been thinking about….” After a quick note that “I am not proud of the way I…,” the writer summarized what she was doing to heal herself. The next paragraph explained the family of origin stuff from which she needed to heal. In closing, she urged the recipient to celebrate family events together with her for the sake of their adult children.

Now for you reading this, it’s probably not rocket science to see that the letter was self-centered. The goal of the 9th step is to repair harms we did to others. The first part of doing so is to speak the truth about what happened. But what if we still can’t see the truth because we’re still trapped in our self-centered view of the world?

To the writer of this letter, the fact that she was even daring to contact this person and acknowledge that she struggled with emotional issues seemed an amends. I know because 24 years ago, just a few months into sobriety, I sent an identically selfish letter to someone I’d hurt in much the same way.

Neither of us had taken time to work through Step 8 — the inner process of “became willing to make amends.” We assumed that “willing” meant only mustering the gumption to dive in. But part of willing is becoming able.  If I claim, for example, that I am willing to recite the Gettysburg address from memory, and I jump right in saying, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers…” but then run out of steam after a few lines, was I ever really willing to recite it? Doesn’t that willingness entail respect for the content, for the work involved in learning it fully?

By the same token, Step 8 means we become willing to re-see our past behavior through the new lens god has helped us craft via Steps 1 through 7. We put ourselves in the place of the person we harmed, and we break down exactly what we did wrong.  Years after sending that half-baked “amends” letter, when I actually reached Step 8, my kickbutt sponsor had me write the words selfish, dishonest, and thoughtless as three headings under which to categorize my actions with a given person. If and only if the person knew of these harms, when I met with them or wrote them a letter, I said, “I was selfish when I chose to…. I was dishonest when I…,” etc.  At the end, I had to ask them what, if anything, I’d omitted and what, if anything, I could do to set things right.  Last week, I tried to steer the letter writer in that same direction.

God is not stoked for us to beat up on ourselves. God doesn’t want us to grovel. But god is huge on honesty — HUGE! — because god is all about the truth. To be more precise, god is the truth, the foundation of all that is. But honesty with ourselves is no easy matter!  It’s a frontier, a journey of removing delusion after delusion, because we’re born self-centered and, experiencing life subjectively, grow up with a foundational conviction that “it’s all about me.”

To reprogram that operating system even a little requires god’s help. As the Big Book says, “Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help” (p. 62).

Keno and Cos

Keno and Cos, 2011

When my son was little, I used to try to teach him about self-centeredness by having our dog say (he talks like Patrick from SpongeBob), “It’s such a waste of food when you guys eat, because things only taste good when I eat them!”  My son would get so upset arguing with Cosmo (well, me), trying to explain that he, too, tasted things! “No you don’t,” Cosmo’s voice would counter. “It never tastes when you eat. Not even a little!”

In some ways, my old “amends letter” and this new one were coming from Cosmo’s mindset: “Dear person: All these things were going on (for me) when I deceived you for as long as possible before jettisoning you for someone else.  You should figure out how it felt to be me, and have compassion, and that will change your perspective of how it was to be you, so I’ll be helping you.”

No.  God’s truth is far more simple: “There is a right way to treat people, and there’s a wrong way — and I did wrong. I deeply regret those selfish choices, but I no longer live that way.  I am here in a new spirit to ask what reparations I can make.”

Boom! Powered by god’s love, we can step out of Cosmo’s me-world. All the internal steps are essential to right action.  How can we admit or ask god to remove character defects that we can’t see or are still practicing? The most powerful prayers are always requests for guidance: “Help me see where I am bullshitting myself.  Help me see more as you see.”






Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 9, Twelve Steps


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.  prayerStay 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.



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Step 9: Mending the Past

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.

Angry-WomanSo 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.  CAM00400What 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.”

doveAmends 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.”



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