"We can't blame others and live within the spirit of the Ninth Step. We are concerned only with our side of the street, not their side of the street."

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Episode 169 -- November 24, 2021

Repairing Relationships: Making Amends in Early Recovery

In his book Twelve Step Sponsorship: How It Works, author and sponsor Hamilton B. writes for both sponsors and sponsees, helping people at any stage of recovery understand and apply the guidance of the Twelve Steps and make the most of the sponsor relationship. In this excerpt, he explores the hard but rewarding practice of face-to-face relationship repair that is at the heart of the Ninth Step, "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

Making amends is more than offering an apology. Amends are about repair—about fixing what we broke and repaying what we stole or borrowed—and in the process clearing away more and more of the wreckage of our past. As Hamilton B. admits, amends can be painful to do—and humbling—but the discomforts and sacrifices involved in this process are part of our growth in recovery. The only way past Step Nine is through it.

We might think that this face-to-face moment with the people we've hurt ought to be reciprocal—that we're owed something from those to whom we're making amends. This excerpt makes it clear that that's not the point of Step Nine. Our business is to worry about our own actions and attend to our side of the street.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Of Step Nine, Alcoholics Anonymous (often called the AA Big Book) says, "We attempt to sweep away the debris which has accumulated out of our effort to live on self-will and run the show ourselves." Our new beginning is based on a new set of principles—on God's will for us rather than on our own. In Step Nine, we determine the exact amends we need to make. Then we make them.

The Nature of Amends

Step Nine focuses on the specific amends we need to make for the injuries we have caused others in the past. Another word for amends is "reparation." It means an action taken to repair something. A reparation provides some form of compensation or repayment to a person who has suffered a loss or injury as a result of our actions. Reparation is an appropriate word for what we are trying to do. It is not enough just to apologize if anything more can be done.

The AA Big Book says, "Although these reparations take innumerable forms, there are some general principles which we find guiding. Reminding ourselves that we have decided to go to any lengths to find a spiritual experience, we ask that we be given strength and direction to do the right thing, no matter what the personal consequences may be. We may lose our position or reputation or face jail, but we are willing. We have to be. We must not shrink at anything."

We need to be willing to do whatever it takes to make things right, even if it involves great personal sacrifice and dire consequences, as long as it does not injure someone else. The AA Big Book is clear on the necessity of this commitment. In today's society in which it is so often acceptable to blame others rather than to accept the consequences of our own behavior, the actions called for in this Step may seem harsh. Most of us want to escape the fear and suffering that Step Nine creates. We hope to avoid making painful amends by pleading some reason for the harm we've caused other than our own character defects. Or we look for some excuse to avoid the consequences. But there is no "easier, softer way" that works. Some amends may mean great personal sacrifice. We make them anyway.

Making Direct Amends

Step Nine uses the term "direct amends" to emphasize that the amends—the reparations—must be made directly to the person harmed "wherever possible." The power of the Step lies in facing the person we have wronged as well as in confronting the wrongs themselves and in trying to correct them. The pain of this Step and the ego-deflation it brings come directly from this confrontation. We cannot, therefore, make an "indirect" amend by, for example, giving money to a charity as long as a direct amend is possible and appropriate.

But when is a direct amend appropriate? Whenever it can be made without injuring another person, whether it is the person harmed or an innocent third party. In choosing not to make a direct amend, our only reason must be that it would result in harm to another person. As the AA book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (known as the Twelve and Twelve) says, "The only exceptions we will make will be cases where our disclosure would cause actual harm." Bill Wilson writes, "We cannot buy our own peace of mind at the expense of others." On the other hand, we cannot avoid an amend just because it would result in pain, suffering, or any other negative consequence to ourselves alone. "For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine."

Some amends are straightforward. If we skipped out on our debts, we repay them. If we stole money, we repay that, too, even if we have to borrow the funds to do it. If we damaged a car, we repair it. If we ruined somebody's reputation by telling lies, we go to those whom we told the lies to and tell the truth even if it ruins our own reputation. It is better to build a new reputation than to drink or use again. If we caused anguish, then we ask ourselves how we can best make reparations for it. Whatever we did, we make reparations as long as it does not harm another person.

"There may be some wrongs we can never fully right," says the AA Big Book. "We don't worry about them if we can honestly say to ourselves that we would right them if we could." Even in these cases, however, we try to repair the damage, however indirect or incomplete the reparation may be. Some kind of action is required. Even if the person we harmed is dead, we can do something to make amends for the injury we caused. Some kind of amend is required even if we can't completely repair the damage.

The determination of whether or not to make a direct amend is made in consultation with our sponsor. The AA Twelve and Twelve describes four potential classes of amends: "There will be those who ought to be dealt with just as soon as we become reasonably confident that we can maintain our sobriety. There will be those to whom we can make only partial restitution, lest complete disclosures do them or others more harm than good. There will be other cases where action ought to be deferred, and still others in which by the very nature of the situation we shall never be able to make direct personal contact at all."

The nature of each amend, including whether or not it should be direct, is determined through sponsee/sponsor consultation and prayer.

Our Side of the Street

In making amends, it is easy to want to blame the other person rather than face our own character defects. We can't blame others and live within the spirit of the Ninth Step. We are concerned only with our side of the street, not their side of the street. Regardless of what they have done, we hold ourselves accountable for our contribution to the problem. Otherwise, we cannot be free.

The AA Big Book describes how to make amends to someone we dislike or whom we would prefer to blame for our troubles. It states, "We go to him in a helpful and forgiving spirit, confessing our former ill feeling and expressing our regret. Under no circumstances do we criticize such a person or argue.... We are there to sweep off our side of the street, realizing that nothing worthwhile can be accomplished until we do so, never trying to tell him what he should do. His faults are not discussed. We stick to our own."

The purpose of working the Ninth Step is to right what we have done wrong. It makes no difference whether or not the injured party accepts our amend and our apology (although it's more pleasant when they do). It doesn't matter how they react insofar as this Step is concerned. Nor do they have to forgive us for us to be forgiven. Our forgiveness does not depend upon them. All we can do is the right thing. How they react to our effort is a matter between them and their Higher Power.

© 1996 by Hamilton B.
All rights reserved