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Making Amends Was Everything I Least Expected

I thought I knew exactly how my Ninth Step in AA would unfold. Instead, over a decade later, I’m still trying to make sense of people's unpredictable reactions.

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The hardest word via Shutterstock

By Anna David

03/14/13

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I heard about how sober people made amends long before I got sober. Somehow, the idea that alcoholics and addicts went around apologizing for their past misdeeds lodged itself in my psyche at a time when I had yet to say the Serenity Prayer.

That doesn’t mean I understood the concept. For instance, if you’d asked me then if apologizing and making amends were the same thing, I’d have sworn that they were. I had no experience, yet, of making things right with someone I’d wronged—let alone making things right in a way that might stop me repeating whatever it was I’d done in the first place.

By the time I got to my Ninth Step, I’d picked up a few things. Probably the most important one was that I didn’t have to play the victim anymore. My Fourth and Fifth steps had showed me that I had played a major part in all my resentments—a realization that I found liberating. Steps Six, Seven and Eight had gotten me ready to make my amends. And while I was certainly nervous about getting started on what I then thought of as my apology tour, I was also excited.

I was promised miracles and they came—but never how or when I expected them.

I figured I’d knock out the “easy” ones first: one to Lauren and another to Peter, both former party pals. In each case I’d done something gossipy and mean-spirited but not atrocious, so I figured these amends would be simple. These people weren’t, after all, family members who were likely to make the experience traumatizing, or exes whom I dreaded to contact at all. They were just people I’d once spent a lot of time around but didn’t really have anything in common with anymore. Easy, right?

I called Lauren first (this was in the days before Caller ID or the demise of landlines):

“Lauren? Hey, it’s Anna.”

Long pause.

“Hey, Anna.”

“So listen. I’m calling because—“

“Oh, God, don’t tell me this is one of those ‘amends’ type of calls. I just—”

“Please let me—”

“Look, I heard you’re sober and that’s great. But this just isn’t something I’m up for.”

Click.

I sat there listening to the dial tone. In all the amends scenarios I’d mentally concocted, having someone—let alone the first person I reached out to—not be willing to hear what I had to say had never occurred to me. I’d read in the Big Book that we had to be willing to go to people we feared might throw us out of their offices, but I’d never read anything about how to handle the people who wouldn’t even take the call to set up the meeting. Still, what could I do—call her back, tell her it was about something else and sneak an amends in? My sponsor told me to move on, so I did.

To Peter. Who, well, never called me back. I didn’t realize he wasn’t ever planning to call me back until a week or so after I’d left a voicemail, when our mutual friend told me. “He doesn’t like to revisit the past,” the friend explained. “He said you don’t need to apologize for anything.”

This wasn’t how I’d imagined it going. I’d heard other people share about how they’d suddenly find themselves running into the very person they’d been planning to make amends to that day. Why was the opposite happening to me?

But I moved on. I had to. And I continued to find the process nothing like I expected it to be.

In general, it seemed like the people I thought weren’t going to be amenable to even meeting up welcomed me warmly. Those I thought would forgive me right away, meanwhile, were dismissive or indifferent. But one thing remained predictable: The amends that I was so terrified to make that I shook with terror or sobs at the thought were always the most rewarding of all.

Take, for instance, the ex I’d never gotten over. I called him up one evening when I was about five years sober and told him how sorry I was for destroying our relationship, for every cruel thing I’d uttered and each horrible mistake I’d made when we were together. But rather than lay into me as I expected, he said he was glad to hear from me, that it helped him make sense of his past, that he was happy I was sober and doing well. But, he added, I was blaming myself too much; he’d played just as big a part in what had gone wrong between us as I had. The conversation was more honest, painful and beautiful than any we’d had the entire time we lived together. I hung up feeling about 20 pounds lighter. I was finally free of an idea I hadn’t even realized I’d been clinging to—that I’d been a monster, and he my innocent victim.

Then there was the time I met up with a friend I’d known since I was 12 but had fallen out with in my twenties. We went on a hike and I told her how sorry I was for the way I’d behaved the last time we’d spoken, five or so years earlier. It turned out she was in a 12-step program too—so she actually made amends to me right after I made them to her. By the time we got to the bottom of the canyon, we’d re-launched our friendship—on new, healthier terms. Over a decade later, we talk nearly every day.

I was promised miracles and they came—but never how or when I expected them.

Take my financial amends. The first debt that I owed was to my college roommate, for the time I’d borrowed her car in sophomore year and then acted surprised when I saw the dent. I explained to her that I’d actually crashed into something when drunk and lied to her, and that I wanted to reimburse her for the damages. But she wouldn’t hear of it.

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