Addictions Anonymous, 21: Setting Things Right
This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.
8. Made a list of all persons we harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 8 calls for some
serious writing, but for now that's all it calls for. In this step,
however, we see again that bothersome word willing. What is it
that gets in the way of being willing to make amends? It's probably
emotions such as pride, arrogance, fear, shame, and denial of past
misdeeds. These feelings make the task more difficult than it needs to
be because many people have a hard time admitting to past mistakes. So,
becoming willing can be a complicated adventure in self-control and
self-understanding. I think it's a bit like stage fright; if you get up
to speak in a group you may feel a touch of fear or even some panic. If
you start with a simple sentence to tell your audience about your
feelings, it suddenly becomes a lot easier. Talk about your feelings
with someone you trust, and then get on with it.
You may have done
very little harm to others, or you may have caused major damage to many
people. You may have forgotten some of the people who suffered in one
way or another from your pursuit of an addiction. In any case, this is
probably not a list you can just sit down and write out in one evening.
It all starts with a review of your life, at least from the time you
first started an addiction. Over time you will begin to remember
people, places and things and that will help you complete the list. You
can even just ask others how they feel about your past behavior, but
don't argue, defend or rationalize. Just listen to them to see if you
have some amends to make in each case.
The most important
thing to keep in mind is that you will not be doing amends for those
you have wronged and offended; you are doing it selfishly for you. When
you make amends to those you have harmed in any way, you are practicing
important elements of personality change including humility,
willingness, compassion and simple kindness. These are characteristics
that will promote abstinence and build a happier life. In this sense,
then, the longer your list of harmed people the more chances you get to
be a different, better person. Do it for you and you may help others.
If you admit and pay for past mistakes often enough and it becomes
easier with each effort.
On your list, do not neglect or leave out those who have moved away or died. Step Eight says all the persons you
harmed, not just the ones who are still around nor the ones you happen
to like. Well, how do you make amends to a dead person? It could be
anything from placing a flower on a grave to writing a letter to the
dead person's survivors. You will find a way. Many recovering addicts
do write letters to the dead, and this helps.
At this point I am reminded to suggest that you not
use a telephone to say, "I'm sorry." That's the easy way out. Make a
personal visit whenever possible, or at least write a thoughtful note.
A phone call can be intrusive and is at your convenience on your own
selfish time. A note or letter lets the person read and re-read what
you have to say on his or her own time. It can make a big difference in
how your amends are received.
If money in involved
in making amends, it may be impossible to repay it all, but you can
make at least a symbolic offer. I recall a gambler who stole over
$100,000 from his employer. He went before a judge when he finished his
treatment and the judge ordered him to repay the whole amount giving
him five years to do that. Jail was the alternative. As far as I ever
heard, the gambler was working, abstaining and making his payments.
important thing to keep in mind: be prepared for hostility. Hopefully,
repaying money, saying "I'm sorry" and offering friendship will be
accepted gracefully, but you may not always get a positive response.
One fellow told me he took a check to a lady to whom he'd owed money to
for years. Her anger was such that she ripped up his check and spat at
Fortunately, he didn't argue or try to convince her he was sincere. He
just said again that he was sorry, and he left. He knew that she had
every right to her anger and worried only that the anger he had created
would torment her for a long time. He did not feel his making of amends
had failed. Far from it, he realized he had learned a lesson in human
nature. They don't have to like or accept your amends. They don't even
owe you any gratitude.
There are a number of
the kinds of harm an addict might cause over time including physical,
financial, emotional, intellectual and simple neglect. I can provide a
few suggestions, examples I saw in practice as a therapist, but you
should review each of these possibilities for all the important people
in your life, past and present. Each case is different.
Physical: Bar fights, child abuse, spousal abuse, unprotected sex, needle sharing, torture, etc.
Selling the property of others, failure to repay debts, escaping debt
through bankruptcy, check forgery, stealing money, robbery, arson, etc.
Playing a blame game, withholding attention and love, threats of
violence or abandonment, demeaning others to put them on the defensive,
Withholding important information, using information in an abusive way,
pretending to know more than others, keeping others in the dark or away
from education, using information to trap others, spying on others, etc.
Avoiding family responsibility, abandoning spouse and children,
ignoring people until you need their help, allowing indigent parents to
fend for themselves, etc.
If you committed
illegal acts that harmed others, as most such acts do, you must be very
careful about your amends. If the behavior has been dealt with legally,
you may need to make some amends to the offended party or parties. It
can be expensive, but the help of an attorney may be necessary. Never
impulsively admit to any past crime that has gone undetected. Let your
attorney be you guide, but don't let legal problems get you off the
hook. In the worst case, amends can be made anonymously.
Many addicts learn to
shut themselves off from their own feelings and become so detached that
the harm they are doing just doesn't register. Hurting others becomes
an accepted way of life in the service of an addiction. Making real
amends can reverse this emotional isolation and allow you to again
experience genuine and appropriate emotions. Eventually, making amends
for past errors does come to an end, and you will feel good about
yourself and move on.
· Make a short list of ways in which making any of your amends might harm someone.
· Are there others that you might harm in trying to make amends to certain individuals?
· If you have any unresolved legal problems, what are your plans for resolving them?