Steps 8 and 9 in the 12-step programs talk about “…making a list of all persons we had harmed…” in step 8, and “…making direct amends, wherever possible…” in step 9. This is confusing for many addicts in their early recovery. Sponsors who have worked through these steps and have maintained abstinence for many years are just as puzzled and confused about what constitutes an “amends.”
Because they frequently apologized for their words, behaviors, attitudes, and addictions in the past, many are prone to look at amends as another round of apologies they need to make to those they have harmed. This is not in the nature of these steps, nor is it what the founders of the 12-step movement intended to pass along to those who were to follow. If apologies meant anything to those who have been burned by the selfishness and inconsideration of active addiction, it would have worked when first performed by the chronic addict. Of course they never did anything about the behaviors that were being apologized for. They continued to lie, cheat, steal, and forget about everyone and everything in their path, except the procuring and using and behaviors necessary to maintain their addiction.
Since apologies are not what is meant by these steps, just what is an “amends” anyway? According to Dictionary.com, amend can mean a) to alter, modify, rephrase, or add to or subtract from (a motion, bill, constitution, etc.) by formal procedure; b) to change for the better; improve; c) to remove or correct faults. So it is seen that nowhere in these definitions is the word apology listed. So it is important to understand the language of recovery and make sure that what is being taught is what is truly being learned. By changing for the better, as listed in b), it is thought that this is the best definition for purposes of amending ones’ addicted behaviors. Therefore, if an addict is guilty of lying to his wife and children, boss, parents, friends and other family members, perhaps his best way of amending that behavior is to practice telling the truth to them under any and all circumstances. Other amends will involve paying back stolen money and taking time to spend with neglected family members and friends who are hurt by the neglect of selfish addicts.
Many addicts will defend themselves by saying they only hurt themselves in active addiction. This is just not the case. Even living on a deserted island, there is universal ramification for every behavior. If they drove while under the influence, they owe amends for that by not doing that particular behavior any longer. If they worked anywhere, for anyone, they impacted their bosses, their coworkers, their subordinates, and everyone who did business with that agency by virtue of the fact that they were illegally involved in some form of behavior that was injurious to themselves and potentially those around them. If they had parents, spouses, children, or any familial relationships whatsoever, their relationships were damaged by the residual effects of addiction. Therefore, it is almost impossible to find an addict whose behavior harmed no one.
Making amends is difficult to think about for all addicts. They create imagined monsters which seldom materialize while making amends. Making the effort to rectify old behaviors is much less difficult than it is in the mind of an addict. Few who have performed these steps are heard to share that what was necessary to clean up their messes is too outrageous. Most feel that they have walked away from the process clean and free.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.