Amends – AA’s Secret Sauce

The ninth step, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Amends – The AA Context

Reasonably straightforward. Harmed people? Well, AA says you make a list of them, then clean up the perceived harm. You either do it, or you don’t. Plus, the much-beloved “promises” are linked to this step. “Before you are halfway through,” all those great things will happen for you.

Step nine is an action step. And, it can be the most time consuming one with all the hunting down of folks and getting time with them to make amends.  So, a good idea to get started ASAP. Then, keep going until finished. Yet, many in AA never make it this far. Why?

I think this is because amends are hard. Amends is not a simple “hey sorry” exercise. Instead, for AAs (or those doing the steps), amends go well beyond that. An amend requires careful consideration and reflection (often with a sponsor) to actions that might have happened years ago in a cloudy past. And then, coming up with a proposed plan to trying to make the wrong right with people you haven’t seen for years. This whole step, when done well, can have deep ripples in families, friendships, and work relations.

Amends also provide a chance to make sure that when you finally make it right, your understanding of “it” is correct. Are your recollections accurate? Does your perception of the harm synch with the harmed? Was there anything left out? Memory, especially when charged with emotions like guilt and shame, often have a life of their own not empirically verifiable.

Hence when making the action of making amends, giving the amended party a chance to chime can make it more significant. The amends’ comments can add meaningful details that might be wrong or overwrought.  So, paying close attention to what they say and how they say it is essential. Get this right, and this may provide a once-in-a-lifetime chance to wipe the slate clean forever.

Profound – On Both Sides

My experience with the ninth step was a profound one. Making amends was the most profound activity I’ve done in AA or maybe in my life.

Every amends I made was memorable—each amends I can recall with vivid detail more than thirty years later. I think the vividness is because making direct amends was something I had never done before. I suspect this is true for most in AA.

Sure, I said, “I’m sorry” before. Mostly when saying it was convenient, comfortable, or to my advantage.  I have also offered up a few “hail marys” in my day after confession in the catholic church. That always seemed like a fantastic deal. Steal money from dad, say a few prayers. Then, I was free to do it again. AA amends was something different from all that.

So different that recently I spoke with a friend I had made amends to over thirty years ago. I asked him about it for the first time since that day. “Did you, by any chance, remember me making what AA calls amends to you?” He replied, “Remember? I’ll never forget,” adding, “Until the day I die!” Wow!

I share this not to point out a remarkable amend I made (it wasn’t). Instead, I want to highlight how unique I think this making AA amends business is to the world out there. Because it is so uncommon, amends have the potential to be transformative to both parties involved.

Restitution

In Dr. Bob’s original six-steps, the amends step was initially called “restitution.” Today, restitution is applied in legal jargon, as nearly all states have some element of restitution baked into their court verdicts for various crimes. It is not uncommon to sentence criminals with some form or direct payback to their victims.

What is different about the AA amends is vital to understand. First, it is voluntary. Making amends is done freely. A court does not mandate amends. Second, amends are direct and have a face-to-face element. The court sentences repayment, but often the payment is indirect (to a third party). Third, AAs make direct amends to people who have died in the form of letters (or another vehicle). Repayment (if money is involved) can be made to an organization. Finally, most legal restitution is limited by the “ability to pay.” In AA, the idea is to work out long-time payback, aka “living amends” that satisfy the damage that could have been emotional rather than financial. And financial amends, for AAs, it is the effort that is critical. Paying something is better than nothing.

Also, amends are self-directed and not court-directed. Underlying both restitution and amends is the principle of “making right,” aka “justice. All this is to say that amends is much more than the restitution the courts adjudicate.

For all these reasons, amends sit at the top of the AA action-mountain in terms of effort and impact. Making things right is no easy task, and making amends well requires courage. But, if you want to stop drinking digging deep and finding that inner strength to do them is well worth it.

My Experience

When I was drunk, I would lie in bed, thinking about some of the mistakes I had made in my life – the harm I had caused others. During my first AA meeting, I heard someone speak of “cleaning up the past,” and I immediately knew within my inner self that was something I must do. Making amends might calm the restlessness. So, when it came time to make amends, I was ready and eager to get on with them. Working closely with my sponsor, I rehearsed what I would say, what I would offer to make it right, and then I would listen to what the other party had to say. I stacked my calendar with many amends on my days off from work.

At first, these seemed awkward. But, soon, making amends became more comfortable, and I started feeling lighter deep down inside. I was feeling relief. Finding out I was getting free of the guilt I had carried for years was motivating to keep going. I honestly thought I could “start again” with people this time on the right foot. I didn’t need to lie in bed, feeling a failure for stealing quarters from my dad’s money jar for years anymore. All that baggage washed away once I sat across from him, admitted it, and offered to make it right.

Conclusion

If you want to be free from alcohol, AA suggests you do the steps, including this challenging ninth step. Yet, I often scratch my head, wondering why people either stop midway through the action or never even get to it in the first place.  On the other side of this step is freedom, sobriety, and I think a more significant potential for personal achievement and happiness. This lack of effort and follow-through is baffling.

So, if you haven’t’ done this step, do it!  If you’re in AA and not working any steps, start now by getting a sponsor? The steps are AA. If you’re in AA and don’t have a sponsor, you might want to rethink that strategy. There are many eager to help you on your road to a life without alcohol. It will be your best life!

AA, the steps, and all the hubris of meetings and personalities can be tricky – they are not for everyone. But, if sobriety is your goal, AA is still the best choice out there. Good luck.

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