A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step 9

Sunrise Detox Photo

This is the ninth in a series of posts in which we hope to acquaint our readers with some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend. There are a variety of other programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.

Step 9 reads: Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

The principle behind Step 9 is Justice.

Step 9 is scary; there’s no getting around it. The idea of confronting someone and trying to say and do things to right a wrong that may have had years to fester is downright terrifying. But so was the idea of quitting alcohol and other drugs, and we managed that. The Ninth Step is our last big hurdle. The steps that come after are the maintenance steps, the ones that keep us honest. Step 9 is the one that makes us honest.

In combination with Step 8, Nine requires scrupulous self-honesty. When we make amends, we do not make excuses. We are telling the other person that we did wrong, we know we did wrong, and that we are willing to do what we can to right the wrong. Period. We don’t say, “I did it because….” We say, “I did it, I’m sorry, and here’s what I’m going to do to try to make it up to you.”

During Step 9 we stay in close communication with our sponsor.  We need to be careful that we don’t do stupid things with the mistaken notion that they have to be done, or that they are the only way to handle a situation. We don’t approach someone who has been happily married for thirty years and apologize for an affair we had with their spouse. That doesn’t heal, it hurts. Equally, we needn’t do things that would harm us, such as confess to serious crimes. In such cases, we proceed carefully. It may be necessary to make amends in such a way that we satisfy our own conscience without injuring ourselves. “Except when to do so would injure them or others” includes us. 

Amends can include many things: money or other things stolen, loans not repaid, time stolen from employers, and other material things. But the most important are the personal ones: reputations damaged by lies, date rape, family obligations not met, associates and family embarrassed, people let down, and — especially in the case of children — promises unkept. In many cases, we will not be able to right the wrong, but we at least admit to it and make it clear that we regret it, without excuses. We don’t rush. It has been a long time, and if we take a few months to get it right, it’s just fine. We need to get these things straight in our own head before we attempt to speak of them to others.

More often than not, folks will accept our amends with open arms. They may tell us to forget it. They may tell us that they didn’t even remember it. They may tell us that our sobriety is enough payback (not an uncommon reaction). Occasionally — rarely — the people whom we approach will not accept our amends. We express our regret, let them have their say, and then do what we can. If we are rejected, that is an expression of the other person’s anger and resentment. It is not about us, and it is none of our business. We’ve done what we could.

Sometimes we find that we need to make amends to people who are no longer available. We may not know their whereabouts, they may be dead, or they may simply refuse to see us. If that is the case, we don’t simply blow off the obligation. We do something concrete, such as a donation to a charity, that will help heal our own hearts. We do that because, in the final analysis, that’s what the Ninth Step is about: it is about us, about knowing that, finally, we did the right thing. That we’re okay.

It is the most freeing of the steps, and our biggest step into our new life.

Something Similar — Straight Talk About Going Home

The comedian Dave Gardner used to remark, “Folks are always saying, ‘Let’s do this again!’  But friends, you can’t do anything again!  You can do something similar!”

I think about Gardner's bit of wisdom when I hear people in early recovery talking about returning to their families and friends and “making it up to them.”  (This also brings to mind the idea of pushing toothpaste back into the tube.)  We say these things with the idea that we will be able to return things to the way they were “before” — if there ever really was a before.

Credit: closetartist – flickr

That’s a lovely idea, but it’s not the way reality works.  We can’t recreate the past in the present.  We can’t  make others feel the way we want them to feel, or make them forget the things we’d like them to forget.  If we return to our friends and families thinking that those things will happen, we are most likely setting ourselves up for terrific, ongoing disappointment and stress.

Stress often triggers relapse.

I’m not trying to shoot down anyone’s hopes and dreams here.  What I want to do is give people in early recovery a realistic view of the past, and what can be done about it.

 First of all, we need to understand that our perception of what happened is not the same as that of our loved ones, and that their perception is what counts.  We can’t change the feelings involved, either: the resentments, the memories of promises not kept, opportunities missed and so forth, and a lot of anger.  We can’t “do it again,” because the people are different now, and we can’t fix them.

If we expect to be welcomed with open arms and step right back into the role of father, mother, son or whatever, without any friction — well, it ain’t gonna happen.  People take on different roles when there is an addict in the family, and sometimes they don’t care to give the power up.  I mean, c’mon!  What reason is there for them to think that we won’t blow it again?  We need to convince them by our actions, because our word became meaningless a long time ago.

When we accept these facts, we are a good part of the way to where we need to be.  All we can do is show them that we are different now, one day at a time.  We need to be willing to accept their right to feel as they do.  We need to demonstrate our reliability, our honesty, and our commitment to sobriety.  We need to be able to admit to ourselves that the forgiveness will have to be earned.  We also need to realize that time is on our side.  These people want to trust us, believe in us, love us again.  We just can’t choose when it will happen.

You see, they’re scared to death.  They’ve heard innumerable promises.  We need to start keeping them.  They’ve had myriad disappointments.  We need to do our best not to disappoint them.  They’ve relied on us in the past, and we didn’t perform.  We need to show that we are reliable.  We'd like to be respected again, and we have to earn that, too.  They love us, but we need to behave in such a way that they won’t be afraid to show that love.

When we say the Serenity Prayer, we ask for “courage to change the things I can” and “wisdom to know the difference.”  We can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves.  We need the wisdom and patience to keep on doing that until others can see that we have changed, and until they begin to believe that we will remain the person that we are becoming.  Even when that happens, we won’t be able to do it all over again and get it right.

But we can do something similar.