Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
In many ways, Step 9 may very well be the most intense of the Steps, for we are now going to face those we have harmed, which is bound to bring up some tough feelings for both us as well as the object of our amends. Some people may choose not to face us at all. Some might want to retaliate verbally, perhaps even physically. Institutions we have stolen from such as stores or banks may want to arrest us. In this Step, we are asked to be truly vulnerable. We are to come with total honesty and total humility. When we approach those we have harmed with this frame of mind, often people cannot help but react positively or be somewhat moved by our approach. There are no guarantees, but the more contrite and sincere we are, the better the odds.
When I sought out those on my amends list, despite having extreme feelings of fear and self-consciousness in anticipation of approaching certain people and institutions, they went surprisingly well. However, it was fallacy to think that success in my amends was defined by people patting me on the back, which became clear to me the day I went to see an old friend who refused to even come to the door and look at me. That’s when I realized it was no longer about me and walking through my petty feelings of self-consciousness. Now it was real and palpable, and this is what the amends are really about – them, not us. The best amends are not the ones where people let us off the hook and pat us on the back, but rather those that truly humble us.
I left my old friend’s house dejected, and as I drove away it hit me. I was smothered by tremendous sadness as I began to feel the deep pain I had caused my friend, but this experience of true empathy was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. It may have been the first time in my life that I felt truly humbled, and it was then that I finally understood the power behind everything we say, think and do. There is no acting in a vacuum. My personal lens of self-absorption and narcissism shattered right then and there. The effects of what we do can be profound and long-lasting. How careful we must be so that we don’t leave emotional scars inside those we supposedly care about, scars that may continue to haunt or reopen year after year.
This is not a joke. This is serious stuff, and if we have committed ourselves to this process, we must make these amends and put things right… or else. Let me assure you that bad things will happen if we ignore the messes we’ve made. On the flip side, courageously making our amends can literally alter the course of our fate. This is a mystical and spiritual process because actions such as the amends give us the opportunity and the power to heal people, which is pretty cool if you ask me.
The recovered staff where I went to treatment were quite serious about this Step, partially because guests often went home before beginning the amends process. We were taken through the first 7 Steps and then sent home to complete 8 and 9, and to continue 10, 11 and 12 for the rest of our lives. They told us that having the guts to make our amends is what separates the men from boys and the women from the girls. Why? Because this is precisely what it means to grow up and become an adult. It is the epitome of being accountable and taking responsibility for ourselves. I was a boy going into the amends and a man coming out, feeling materially different as a person after each one, so pray, gather your strength and go to it.
Many of us will want to meet up with our sponsor before embarking on this Step. Some like to review each amends to discuss when, where and how to best approach the person or institution. I personally don’t find this to be necessary. I was given a sponsor when I left treatment, and while he was a decent enough guy, I met up with him once for recovery related stuff and that was that.
Remember, we don’t have sponsors to tell us what to do but to simply guide us from their own experience. Our sponsor only exists to answer Step-related questions or to use as a sounding board in moments of confusion, but not to hold our hands. The truth is that we have all the answers we need inside. If need be, step back and pray repeatedly. When we have access to the ultimate source of wisdom, God, who needs a sponsor? Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have a solid, supportive guide throughout this process, but it is crucial to take ownership of our recovery by grabbing the reigns, making our own decisions and trying to figure things out on our own. We should be on autopilot at this point, propelled by a new spiritual fire within. If not, there is probably something wrong with our program or with the work we’ve done. Did we leave something out intentionally? Have we not been entirely honest or willing to go to any lengths?
One thing you can take to the bank is that ALL of your amends must be made. There is no sense in repeatedly organizing them to figure out which ones are more important. They are all equally important so don’t procrastinate. Get out there and start crossing names off of your list. And if you coincidentally see someone on your list while grocery shopping, trust me, it’s no coincidence. God has put you in their path and handed you an opportunity to get better, so jump on it. The only amends we do not make are ones that would cause more harm than good, although we must not use that as an excuse to avoid ones that must be made. Nobody else knows what’s in our hearts, so it is we alone who bear the responsibility of being honest with ourselves about this. We must be true to ourselves or we will ultimately fail. What is the sense in embarking on this process if we are not going to be open, pure, and do the best we can? At the same time, there is no need to beat yourself up about how honest you are being, for becoming honest itself is a process. Each action helps to peel away more rot and more bullshit, so it’s not like we’re either 100% honest or 100% not honest. As we move forward, we will reach new degrees and new depths of honesty.
When we pray, listen and think a little bit (or stop thinking), our gut will speak to us and we will know if an amends will cause more harm then good. The trick is to think only of the other person and not of our own needs, desires or ambitions to grow spiritually. This Step is about giving back. We do not make these amends to clear our conscience; we make them for the object of our amends, to return what we have taken. If as a byproduct of our amends, we find peace or relief or growth, that’s wonderful, but that shouldn’t be our intention…
…We must now distinguish between the different kinds of amends: contractual amends and living amends. The need for a contractual amends implies we have violated some contract, whether personal, financial, legal, social or moral. These are usually isolated events, and even though there may be some repeated violations, they generally necessitate a one-time sincere amends. Contrast these to our living amends, which go on forever. An example of a contractual amends could be something you may have done to a friend, boss or colleague, a store you may have stolen from, or creditors you may have screwed.
Bear in mind, if you owe someone money, don’t go empty-handed. I once had a sponsee who went to make a financial amends with no money to pay the person back. You don’t want to do that. Wait until you have it all, or at least a good portion of it. Think about it. Sure the person you owe will be glad you showed up to admit your wrong, but I’m pretty sure what they really want is their money back. Same goes for a store or creditor. Greater than the satisfaction of witnessing our moral turnaround is the closure of getting paid back. So do not go make amends to a creditor unless you are 100% willing and able to pay them back or commit to a payment plan.
Contractual amends are the easy ones, if there is such a thing, but our living amends is where the real work takes place, for these are the people we have stolen from the most. Our parents, wives, husbands, children, siblings and friends have been keelhauled through the hellish sea of addiction, and they deserve what they have given in return. At the same time, they have their own flaws. They most likely resent us and know how to push our buttons. Despite the emotional challenges, we must gather our strength, rise above it all and make our amends stoically. But what do our amends to loved ones look like? How do they differ?
Our parents, siblings, spouses and children have little interest in being sat down to endure some rehearsed soliloquy of remorse. They have all heard it a million times and in a million different ways, only to be stabbed in the back, or more appropriately, stabbed in the heart. They deserve a good, loving, responsive, helpful person who is committed to taking care of themselves and those around him or her. They don’t want someone who has simply achieved physical sobriety. They want us to stop behaving and thinking like a selfish addict. They want someone who is aware of the damage and heartache they caused and who has now begun to genuinely care. They simply want us to change and show through repeated action that we are better people and that we care. They want the person they deserved all these years but who we stole from them.
A one-time amends is not really appropriate for our close loved ones. As well, they may not be in any sort of condition to say the things they want to say when we approach them. Perhaps the wound is still too raw and painful for our loved ones to talk about the living hell we put them through, and if that be the case, we step back, work on ourselves, continue to get better, and then if and when they want to let it out, we give them the freedom to do so on their terms. They may want to express their feelings months or even years from now, and who are we to dictate when they get their time on stage? It is our duty to listen to them when they want to be heard, not when it’s convenient for us to listen. Let me tell you from direct experience that my wife and my mom definitely did not want to hear it. Why would they? They are sick of the incessant talking and having to endure all of the nonsense that came out of my mouth, as they should be. All they want is for me to love them properly, remain steadfast in my growth, and be the son and the husband they expect and deserve.
God can either be a distant concept or an actual experience, and it is through right action that we make that shift and close the gap. Many teens and adults alike have a problem with God because it has been reduced to a social construct – a detached belief system or simple academic concept. God has become intellectual. We are taught about the divine via sermon or in class on a chalkboard, but there is no real experience on the inside. So the idea behind enlarging our spiritual lives through action is to show people ways in which they can actually feel the power of God and expand His presence within. If spiritual power is harnessed through meditation, prayer, public speaking or service and we feel that glow of warmth inside, we will know how worth it this path really is, but if there is no detectable payoff from this journey, who is going to be interested?
I remember working at a recovery high school years ago and taking a few kids outside during the after-school program to guide them through a short, structured meditation. When we finished, opened our eyes and came to, they looked at me and said, “Holy Shit, I feel, like, high right now.” No, I wasn’t trying to get them high, but I was trying to give them a real tool they could use to change the space they were in, to change their inner experience. Many of us don’t really feel or get close to God by reading about Him or having someone lecture us about Him. We draw closer to God by doing things that bring us closer. Make sense?
How about making a living amends to oneself? Codependents and others alike may need to spend some time nourishing themselves. Addiction and alcoholism is the codependent’s bridge to insanity, and having been preoccupied for so long, it becomes quite easy to neglect oneself. I hate to say it, but some codependents come to depend on the illness of an addict in order to continue avoiding their own problems. With an active tornado circling you, it is not only easier to deny your own physical, mental and emotional sickness, but it is easier to avoid dealing with it. Addiction and the associated pain can give codependents a perfect reason to ignore what lies within and to blame their suffering on the idea that they are victims. I realize this may sound harsh, and by no means do we abscond the addict or alcoholic from their profoundly selfish and harmful behavior, but we are all ultimately responsible for ourselves. If anger, resentment, grief and other maladaptive behaviors have piled up inside, the addict or alcoholic getting better will not magically remove any of it. That you must do on your own by facing your demons and taking your own set of spiritual/emotional actions.
The bottom line is that anybody can make an amends for harm they may have caused or mistakes they have made. It is a powerful act and one of humility, graciousness, faith and courage. It asks us to swallow our pride and walk through our fear, insecurity and self-consciousness. This is how we evolve spiritually, change as people and become free inside. If you are not some kind of psychopath, wronging others should leave us with an emotional wound. We carry that burden with us as it creates havoc both physically and emotionally. Righting our wrongs is an act of cleansing and ensures we do not leave behind some toxic stain. We also have the responsibility to remove any scars we may have left in others. What we do creates a psychic imprint, and left unattended, these imprints will cause negative ripple effects and come back to haunt self and others. Each and every one of us is responsible for the fabric of our existence, for the health and harmony of the energy that makes up our entire world. What we do matters, so don’t ever stop caring.
In my memoir, I wrote about the remarkable effect these amends had on me. Just as the Big Book suggested, about halfway through my amends, I came home one night and as I sat down on my couch, a great relief came over me and once again that spiritual force rushed through my entire being. I felt fearless and confident, and from that point on, neither the future nor the past was to be a problem for me. I had not only begun the toughest part of this process, but I had sailed through the ups and downs of early recovery. I pushed through the loss of my initial pink cloud and had walked through the same suffering and depression that used to stop me dead in my tracks and get me to drink or use and cower from reality. I had evened out, and was now firmly planted on the ground. I was recovered.
If you think your amends are petty and ridiculous because you haven’t done what we addicts have done, think again, because it is all relative. Remember, the more action we take, the better we will feel. The degree of inner relief is directly proportional to what we do and how often, so let’s push ourselves even when we don’t think it will do anything, and especially when we don’t feel like it or want to. So go out from here, and regardless of how old or petty or fleeting your harmful actions may have been, face them courageously and then let go and move on. Take your newfound strength and character and feel free to bask in the serenity it brings you.
*When we have humbly and courageously gone out and made all of our contractual amends as well as begun our living amends to our loved ones, we have begun our 9th Step. Our living amends go on forever, and as such, this 9th Step goes on forever and is never really complete. For the purpose of moving on, when we have crossed out all the names on our list, we can move forward and begin to help guide others through this process, as suggested in the 12th Step.