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Amends are more than apologies

Addiction creates moral wreckage. People who become addicted to alcohol or other
drugs might lie, cheat, or steal in order to get and use their chemical of choice. Often
what's left behind is a trail of shattered relationships.

In this situation, apologies won't do. Alcoholics Anonymous calls for amends instead. These are mentioned specifically in Steps Eight and Nine of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Amends are first of all an attempt at restitution. Instead of making apologies, this is "making right the wrongs." "An amend has to do with restoring justice as much as possible," says John MacDougall, D.Min., director of Spiritual Guidance for Hazelden Adult Services in Center City. "The idea is to restore in a direct way that which we have broken or damaged--or to make restoration in a symbolic way if we can't do it directly."

MacDougall offers a simple example: "Say that I borrowed 20 dollars from you and never paid you back. If I go up to you and say, 'Gee, I'm sorry I borrowed your 20 dollars and spent it on drugs,' that would be an apology. Making amends is giving your money back."

Turning to the Big Book

With this basic distinction in mind, people in recovery can turn to Alcoholics Anonymous, often called the "Big Book." Pages 76-84 of this text offer detailed instructions for making amends.

One key point is that making amends is not to become a forum for criticizing others or arguing about the past. Rather, the aim is to "sweep off our side of the street"--to focus on the damage created by our own actions and how we intend to make restitution. For many people, this immediately raises a question: How do I accomplish this with people I hate, fear, or would otherwise prefer to avoid?

The Big Book acknowledges this concern. Some of the people to whom we owe amends might react bitterly. They might ask us to pay off debts. They might throw us out of their home or even call the police.

However, the most difficult amends can be the most helpful to long-term sobriety. "Remember," states the text, "it was agreed at the beginning we would go to any lengths for victory over alcohol." When we restore justice to the people we've wronged the most, our biggest fears and resentments begin to fall away.

We can also pray to a Higher Power for the willingness and courage to make amends. Nowhere does the Big Book state that amends have to be made all at once. Instead, this is a gradual process. We take it one person at a time, one day at a time.

Four powerful lists

The authors of A Program for You: A Guide to the Big Book's Design for Living suggest that you create four lists of amends to make. These include:

After making your lists, move into action. Make amends to each person on your Now List. Then tackle your Sooner or Later List. Starting with the easier amends gives you a direct taste of Step Nine's benefits. In turn, this increases your willingness to contact the people on your Maybe and Never lists.

There's a story about a person in AA who asked his sponsor if he could make his amends by mail. "Yes," his sponsor replied, "if you harmed people by mail." The point is that direct amends are often the most powerful. Taking the trouble to arrange a face-to-face meeting demonstrates that we're going all out to make amends. Seeing people in person can also awaken their compassion and lead to forgiveness on the spot.

We may find that in-person meetings with some people are simply not an option. In these cases, says the Big Book, it's fine to make a phone call or send a letter.

Avoiding further injury

Whether our amends are direct or indirect, our aim is avoiding further harm to people. This calls for great sensitivity and guidance from a sponsor.

"For example," says MacDougall, "you don't run home and say to your spouse: 'Gee honey, I had a wonderful time at Hazelden. I learned all about rigorous honesty, so I want to tell you about this affair I had five years ago.' That's clearing your conscience at the expense of someone else. A better amend is to stop having affairs and bring your time and attention back home, where it belongs."

Another pitfall is going overboard on amends. "This happens with people who want to contact every person for whom they didn't open a door or pick up a bag of groceries," says Fred Holmquist, director of The Lodge Program, a Twelve Step immersion program at Hazelden. "A sponsor can restore the balance by spurring people on to make amends and reigning them in when needed."

Surrendering the outcomes

As we make amends, says the Big Book, miracles await us. Some people will receive us graciously. Others may even acknowledge their shortcomings and apologize. Feuds that have simmered for decades can end in a single encounter. If someone does throw us out, however, we can simply surrender this result. What counts most for sobriety is our willingness to make amends. If people cannot accept our intention, that is their problem--not ours.

"Willingness is the golden thread that runs throughout the Twelve Steps," says Betty Davis-Reynolds, program coordinator for The Lodge Program. "If we approach someone and they want nothing to do with us, then we have to honor that. Our willingness to make the amend is all that's required."

And of course the "willingness to change" our behaviors is a necessary precursor or companion to making amends, adds Al Tighe, supervisor of Continuing Care Services at Hazelden. "If I'm not working Steps 6 and 7 and engage in a transformation of attitude, then how can I make amends which promise that I will change," he says. "Without 6 and 7, any amends made are rather hollow."

We may discover that some wrongs can never be set right, or that direct amends are simply impossible. Perhaps a person to whom we owe amends has died. Others may have no known address or phone number. Again, we surrender these outcomes, knowing that we've done everything we can.

Changing for a lifetime

According to the Big Book, we start to experience the promised benefits of recovery even "before we are half way through" the process of making amends. While this is wonderful, it can create a temptation to put off the tougher amends on our list.

"I joke that there's a large rest area on the interstate of happy destiny full of illegal AA campers," says Holmquist. "That rest area is Step Nine. When we let up on the spiritual program and rest on our laurels, we're headed for trouble."

The solution lies in remembering that the Twelve Steps represent a permanent way of life--one based on daily inventories, daily amends, and conscious contact with a Higher Power.

"The best amends are to make restoration wherever it's possible and then to live differently so that we're not accumulating fresh insults," MacDougall says. "Sometimes the damage can't be repaired in a single action. A lot of amends can only be accomplished through continued right living each day."

Resources for working Steps Eight and Nine

The Dan Anderson Renewal Center offers programs year-round at Hazelden's Center City campus in Minnesota. Several of these programs can assist you with the process of making amends. Options include intensive Big Book studies offered by The Lodge Program and Personalized Twelve Step Retreats provided by Renewal Center staff. Weekly continuing care programs are also available at each Hazelden location. More information is available by phone at 800-257-7810.

The following publications can also help you discover the power of making amends: Alcoholics Anonymous, ed. 4 (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services); Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services); A Program for You: A Guide to the Big Book's Design for Living (Hazelden); Step Eight: Preparing for Change (Hazelden); Step Nine: Repairing the Past (Hazelden)' and The 7 Points of Alcoholics Anonymous (Hazelden).

--by Doug Toft

Published in The Voice, Summer 2007

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