When I first set foot in an AA room, there was plenty to be intimidated by, but none of it scared me right back out the door. (Please don’t mistake that for bravery—I was simply shell-shocked by sobriety.) The coffee, the lingo and the housekeeping routines—they all seemed perfectly normal to me in the same way that maybe sitting next to a Muppet from the creepy Genesis “Land of Confusion” video would have. The sight of an empty semi-circle of chairs, each one with my name on it, felt welcoming instead of terrifying. The whole “God thing” didn’t weigh down on me as a golden excuse to avoid AA the way it did for other drinkers. The sheer number of slogans (“first things first,” “let go and let God,” “it’s not a drinking problem—it’s a thinking problem”) didn’t even gnaw at me.
No, it was the amends.
I didn’t know when or where they factored in, but I knew they factored into the recovery process somewhere. I knew at some point, I’d have to apologize for what I’d done. You don’t end up in an AA room without feeling some shred of remorse or pang of responsibility. Something went wrong—somewhere, the wheels came off. I’d eventually have to own up to all the lying, shortcuts and general self-destruction that got me there. And trust me when I tell you that sobriety brought me a new set of eyes to my past. I was as horrified as I was distraught by what I’d been capable of and by what I thought I could get away with, thanks to the bottle.
I didn’t grow up in a household where “I’m sorry” was thrown around a lot, but I quickly learned that making amends in recovery isn’t about calling up someone and saying “Hey, man, I’m really sorry I hit on your wife at that Christmas party.” No, the amends process, like anything in recovery (if you’re doing it right), is deceptively complex. When I finally found a sponsor, he agreed that, yes, amends were part of the process. I really wanted to set my past right—and amends seemed like the best way to do it. But they came further down the line. Step Nine, actually. As it turned out, I was super-excited to clear problems off my doorstep. All I wanted to do was apologize to people for all the madness, anxiety, confusion, worry and distress I had caused over the past few years because of my drunkenness.
And that, according to my sponsor, is exactly why it’s not the first step. It’s not about me.
Instead, we methodically worked our way through the steps, never once putting a timeline to anything. There wasn’t a chalkboard somewhere saying By November, you’ll be on Step Five. Whenever I got somewhere, I got there. But I kept my eye on the amends part. I knew it was coming. I quietly wrote names down in a notebook when they flashed into my brain. Making amends is about making things right again—it’s about taking ownership of the past and your part it in. It’s about me taking responsibility now because back then I was gloriously incapable of it. Since I was hurricaning from one bad decision to another, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the laundry list of people I’d have to face. And I couldn’t skip through this part, either.
As much as I just wanted to feel better, I fought back the urge to contact them immediately; I simply put them on the list and moved on. By the time I formally reached step nine, I had 33 names on it. Some of them loomed large (every time I saw “Mom & Dad,” my stomach twisted), while others were almost incidental and quaint. I’d surrounded myself with so many supporting characters in my alcoholism that they’d all but scattered to the wind. I was guessing that I may have been forgotten, which would probably make things a little easier.
I started low on the list, but with a methodical plan. I knew how I wanted to approach my past. I Facebook messaged people I sort-of recognized from their thumbnail photos and fired off long missives to them. Occasionally, I got the wrong person: “Sorry, bro. I’m not the Tim you’re looking for. Hope you find him.” But I kept at it. Most of the time, though, I connected. A visceral thrill went through me when I saw “Seen at 7:31 a.m.” underneath the message. There, I thought. That’s it. That’s all I needed. I needed no further communication. Occasionally, I received it—genuinely kind messages returning mine, saying that they were happy I was getting the help I needed—but for the most part, radio silence. Just as I’d wanted it. I just wanted to put good energy in the air. Nothing more.
But using Facebook was kind of cheating. For all the good I felt it did, it was too easy. I used LinkedIn and, in one random case, the messaging platform in Words with Friends to do some amends work. Then I started writing handwritten notes to people: former employers, professors whose classes I barely attended thanks to hangovers, people whose lives I needlessly complicated. I wrote draft after draft. I asked around for addresses. I fired cards off into the universe, never expecting anything in return. But occasionally, I’d get something back. It was surreal, seeing the curlicues of their handwriting and thoughts. I was appreciative, but I moved on.
In the end, I received several hand-written notes, a couple of scattered Facebook friend requests and more than a few heartfelt emails in return. None of them necessary. Most of what I received was nothing—as it should be. All except one email that came out of the blue. By now, I was conditioned to be fearless with my apologies. People seemed to appreciate being remembered—especially the fact that you remembered somehow fucking them over. And then a horrible response boomeranged back to me: You took the time to write me an email, so I’ll do the same to you. Writing a message doesn’t magically make things better, it began. My blood ran cold. All the help on the planet won’t help you. You’re an addict, and you’ll never change.
This person was right, I suppose, but I stared at the words like I’d just learned my son had died on some far-off shore in World War II. This wasn’t how the process was supposed to go. But still, I sat there with the email for a while—I could feel the words burning off the screen. Then, I saved it and moved on with my life. I deserved it, I decided. That person wasn’t ready to forgive and perhaps they never will be. That’s (again) not the point of trying to set things right. That email belongs in my inbox. I’d completely lost sight of what the amends process is about.
I love crossing things off lists, so step nine couldn’t be a more perfect exercise for me. Except I wasn’t crossing anything off; I wasn’t putting anything to bed. No, with each pen stroke, I was resurrecting a painful past. I have to be careful to remember that making amends isn’t about making me feel better—it’s about trying to put some balance back out in the universe. And with each note I’ve written, sketched or emailed, it’s really about me guaranteeing that same universe I won’t make of my mistakes again.
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