the difference between a simple apology and a complete amends is
in whatever form it might take.
I have issues with AA and its philosophy as it stands now. Nothing unique, same issues that people who have issues with AA have. But I've always had a deep respect for the teaching of Dr. Bob, Bill W, Joe Hawk, etc. To me they taught the 'real' AA and not the tweeked version seen at most AA meetings these days. They taught the program, not the human interpretation bs and I was lucky enough to learn the program from someone who is an old-timer, if you will.
There are many recovery related blogs who claim to be 12 step but are so far from the real 12 step essence that I've read only a few posts and moved on until I found Mr. SponsorPants. You were the voice of reason to me. My immediate response to your posts was one of understanding and gratitude that you seemed to speak my language.
And then you vanished. Not a word. Gone. I thought the worst.
Then the worst thing happened. My [sibling], a single parent, a loving member of our family passed away unexpectedly. I replay, in my head, all the things they are missing, or have missed, since dieing.
I'm just now emerging from the fog and yesterday again, I thought of you and if perhaps something tragic had happened to you and if your family is feeling the same way I feel. So I checked Mr. SponsorPants and viola, there you are...
I was happy to see you back until I found your first post, post disappearance. I can't tell you the anger I felt and still do. Are you kidding me? My bullshit detector is still in overdrive. You wrote everyday without fail and if you missed a day you'd post remotely or give an explanation. You answered emails promptly and then nothing and your reason is you just didn't check. I don't believe you and what is more disturbing is all the AA enablers commenting without once saying, BULLSHIT.
Your reasons are you reasons Mr. SP. It's none of anyone's business why you did what you did and explained it away the way you did but know this, I can no longer read your posts (cause I've tried) with the same respect and sense of understanding that I used to. I really thought you were better than all that. What a shame...
I'm very sorry for your family's loss. In a life full of hard things and a world full of frightening headlines the unexpected death of a close family member -- one who leaves behind children -- especially a single parent... is true tragedy and something that forever changes the people involved.
There have been a few emails which have come my way that expressed similar anger and disappointment over my unannounced blogging absence. The reason that I have printed yours here (with, as always, any identifying details edited or blurred to the best of my ability) is the same reason I print any email, ultimately: To serve as the starting point in a discussion of solutions to things many of us face as we get and stay sober -- and to offer whatever I can from my experience which might help.
And, in much of what you say, you are right. It was self involved and lazy and careless of me. Whether it's the mark of being an alcoholic (which smacks of both accurate explanation and rather slick excuse) or just the kind of man I can be, this is definitely not the first time in my life where I have been casual in my regard for others and caused people hurt -- and though I'd hope it will be the last I fear that is an unlikely thing. As I said before, would that I had a more dramatic reason than the feeble truth I must own. I can say that within me my ego and my self-esteem see-saw sickeningly back and forth around this. Although I've experienced powerful and humbling feedback while writing this blog in both the comments section and in emails -- feedback which I have been moved and incredibly grateful for -- it honest-to-god did not occur to me, as I ran out of momentum and then procrastinated about putting fingers to keyboard again, that my absence would be hurtful to anyone in the way some people have expressed that it has.
Certainly as an alcoholic people-pleaser who, when he got sober, was able to view having low self esteem as progress from having no self esteem, the idea that anyone, anywhere, is upset with me can push some buttons. The inward-darkness: Guilt (I did something bad. Again.) Shame. (Thus I am a bad and permanently damaged person.) And the outward, lashing-out darkness: Defensiveness: (It's you not me!) and Anger: (Fuck you!) All of which is deeply disingenuous and none of which serves us or is true.
I am inching slowly towards something grandiose and egotistical with each paragraph and that's not why I posted your email.
Among my sponsors over the years I have had two who, while they were clean and sober, struggled mightily with sexual addiction, sometimes succumbing to that aspect of the ism and creating terrible collateral damage in their lives and the lives of their families and partners. I have also had two sponsors who were afflicted with terrible eating disorders and damaged their health from that disease well into their sobriety, and who, while acting out in that regard were able to give me some good guidance in working the 12 Steps but were not completely reliable or honest about some things as they struggled. I myself, as I wrote... oh, somewhere in here... "borrowed" from not one but TWO AA treasuries in my sobriety. (Amends have been made, for the record. Deeply humbling public amends of both the practical and spiritual kind.) In short, for great reasons or petty, with good explanations or poor ones, people will let you down. Most don't mean to, but most do. I assure you, I am not, as you say "better than all that..." I (and anyone who works the 12 Steps), have made amazing progress in every area of my life -- and you can trust me with a lot -- but I guarantee I will continue to fuck it up royally; though now I like to think only occasionally. What I can guarantee is I'm not alone in that. People are messy and sober alcoholics in AA are far from exempt.
In my humble opinion, to use the foibles and failures of others in sobriety as a means to quarrel with AA is not too far from wondering if a vial of antibiotics is no good because the doctor who prescribed them committed Medicare fraud.
AA's 12 Steps embody a plan of acting on spiritual principles which have worked in many ways for many people and cultures since perhaps man first became self aware. Owning and admitting a problem, asking for help, being willing to follow direction, looking within, identifying one's own part in problems, working on improving the elements in one's nature which do not serve, admitting wrong doing and making restitution, seeking an elevated mind through elevated thought and meditation... AA didn't invent -- and never claimed to invent -- any of this. As you know, what Bill and Dr. Bob did (you've got me on Joe Hawk, I have no clue who he is, though he's got a hella cooler name than I do) is practically (or Divinely) luck into laying out a plan of action along those spiritual lines which spoke to alcoholics in a way other methods previously perhaps did not. The immediate result of which was the ability to refrain from drinking and the larger result of which was a spiritual experience -- or, if you prefer, a profound internal (often gradual) transformation.
Your issues -- the "usual issues" -- with AA -- or perhaps it is more accurate to say with the people in AA -- though I understand them, I do not embrace them. I respect them, and your hurt and your anger, but the 12 Steps are not vulnerable to what may or may not be happening in Meetings. They are deceptively simple but pretty bullet proof (if almost a hundred years of addicts can't break 'em I think we're good). Nor are they a fragile, ephemeral plan for spiritual awakening, as their principles and suggested actions can even be viewed through a completely non-spiritual lens and still offer practical healing and help. (I was moved to write this once in response to that line of discussion.)
You and your family have suffered a terrible loss and my experience with the death of loved ones -- even when it is somewhat expected -- is that it is a gradual process cycling through those famous stages many times. You may think it is more bullshit on my part but I am sensitive to that in your email and in what I'm trying to express here.
But I find this whole "AA in the good old days was the real AA and what we have today is some watered down 'human interpretation' thing" to be utter crap. Yes, there are a ton of 12 Step Meetings which are filled with pounds of nonsense. Rooms held hostage to people playing the victim or the expert. Rooms where someone's special bias or ignorance colors the format and the sharing. But I suspect, knowing alcoholics, that there were as many, if not maybe more, "back in the day" as there are today. Of course we have no way of knowing, but I offer for anyone's consideration that the reason the 12 Traditions ever came into being was because back in those "good old days" the AA meetings all over the country were fragmented, prejudiced things making up their own rules, excluding whomever they didn't like or believe, getting off track (what we call our Primary Purpose today)... Yet while there may be that metric ton of sloppy anarchic nonsense out there in 12 Step rooms there is also, without doubt, proven by the ongoing recovery of many thousands of people, some wonderous and powerful healing going on.
Meetings, and sharing, have evolved as people's understanding of addiction and psychology and the impact of family of origin and biology and mental illness... and... and... and ... has evolved. Yes, the Program is in the Book. I stick pretty damn close to the Big Book when it comes to charting my service and my sobriety (and thus my life). But if you believe nothing else I've ever written or write here now, if you call bullshit then fair enough, be that as it may, I urge you to try and view the nonsense -- what you perceive as dilution -- in meetings with some compassion. Foolish people, yes, but at least coming together in an attempt to get better and maybe help others. That is perhaps not such a bad place for someone with anger in their gut and raw grief in their heart to hang out for a while.
Both my experience and my observation is that an AA meeting can offer, inter-mingled with the patience-trying foolishness, solutions or comfort we didn't know we needed. Be disappointed in me, in AA, in whatever, but I hope you don't sit in that disappointment alone. 12 Step meetings, therapy, grief support groups ... most alcoholics, when deeply hurt, withdraw. I hope you don't do that.
Nothing here is meant or said with disrespectful intent, C. I've re-written this maybe five times now. I keep combing through it looking for my ego, anger, defensiveness, passive/aggressive phrases... it's too long an essay for a blog, probably, and still I smell my ego all over the damn thing.
But after writing as much Mr. SponsorPants as I have -- even with the break (ooops! I think there's that passive/aggression again) -- I've learned that eventually, if I was moved to write it, to let it stand and let it go and maybe someone out there will get something from it, and if not, well, all this writing kept my hands off the bag of chips in the cupboard which has been calling to me since I got home from work.
For what it's worth, whether you think it's bullshit or not, I'm grateful you wrote, C.
"... I started writing 'thank you' on all of the checks I wrote. All the checks I was writing to make amends. And then all the checks I wrote to pay my bills. 'Thank you for the terms to pay this off' or 'Thank you for providing me with electricity or ... I don't know, just... thank you. 'Thank you for extending me credit.' Eventually -- not right away, but over time -- it really helped me see that the way I thought about my amends, or what I owed, or what I was paying for, was upside down in some subtle ways. I was still struggling with feelings of entitlement and privilege and, well, plain old resentment. But writing 'thank you' ... it's so funny, how it all comes back to gratitude, and how that changes everything, isn't it."
Mr. Sponsor pants,
A character on a television show I just watched (thanks, internet!) had gotten sober and gone to AA "offscreen." (He is a very minor character on the show.)
The running gag in this episode was his attempt to "do his Step 9" with people at work. He would apologize with grave sincerity for ridiculously trivial things, or tell people things they didn't need to or want to hear, the apology apparently constituting the sum total of his Step 9: "I need to say I'm sorry for my recovery." (Though to be fair, later in the episode, he briefly mentioned accepting the consequences of his actions).
I will be the very first to admit I am likely a little sensitive to how AA and the 12 Steps are generally portrayed in modern film and television. Over the course of this show's run 12 Step things have snuck in around the edges, so a producer or head writer or some such is probably in one 12 Step Program or another.
But I did find myself wanting to shout at the screen for a minute.
"It's not about apologizing! It's about making things right! It's about restitution! It's not about forcing your amends process onto anyone who doesn't want it!"
As I said, it was a minor character, and so I understand they had limited time in any given scene to explain what he was doing on the way to setting up a punchline.
And I can even believe that it was a well intentioned inclusion in the story... but dear god that makes me nuts sometimes. I would wager that, right after the whole "it's a religious program" thing, believing that Step 9 is just about saying "I'm sorry" is the most common misconception regarding all things 12 Step.
It's not just about saying "I'm sorry" -- though certainly that's often one appropriate thing to be done. It's about righting the wrong, balancing the ledger, owning the damage we did in whatever form and making whatever restitution we can.
And it's not so we can be "good" people -- that's just sort of an accidental, occasional result. It's so we are relieved of the things like guilt or arrogance or shame or denial which, left inside us, fester and poison us.
An apology can offer relief from a guilty conscience, that's certainly true; but an amends offers freedom from sickness, and heals a tormented spirit.
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
Maybe you'll know the origins of this AA suggestion? I'm referring to the general 'scripting' for making an amends. I was taught that in making an amends I should ask "what can do to make this right?" I've looked and not really seen that in the Big Book or the 12 and 12. Am I not seeing it or what? Is this how you do it?
Thanks for not just this question, but all the wonderful emails you've sent me.
Here's what I was taught to say and how I was told to conduct myself when making an amends:
If appropriate, explain how the amends is related to my staying sober. The book "Alcoholics Anonymous" -- AA's Big Book -- cautions against emphasizing this element of the amends process, or bringing the "spiritual aspect" into it too soon -- or at all. Wisely it points out (to paraphrase), that someone we ripped off or abused is going to have little patience with us if we play at being a Blues Brother and declare, "I'm on a mission from God." An amends, in and of itself, does not require an admission of being in AA -- though certainly sometimes -- even often -- in some form or another it's the right thing to do.
Next I apologize for what I did, that is, I own my part, "my side of the street." (Much time is given in the AA literature to determining if you should make amends to someone at all, and while it is a worthwhile discussion it is also a lengthy one, so to keep to the spirit of your question here I will only quote the 9th Step in part and say "Made direct amends ... except when to do so would injure them or others" is the bottom line we always work from.)
I then offer whatever restitution might be appropriate or that I am capable of. (In the Big Book the example used is a man behind on his alimony sending a payment with a letter of apology, rather than just a letter.)
Then I ask if there's anything else I can do to make it right, and (here's the hard part), I shut up and let the other person have their day in court. This can be difficult and scary, but I have found it's the most powerful element, as it takes real humility and willingness to make such an offer, even when we're nervous or reluctant to do so. It's the actions that count. And it makes certain that if my recollection of what I did is incomplete I will have fully cleaned my side of the street by allowing the person I wronged to add whatever they might recall that I (accidentally! I swear!) forgot.
And at this juncture immediately of course the "what if's" start. "What if they say to make it right I have to [insert ridiculous, impossible or inappropriate thing here]?" Each case is different, but I have almost never heard of someone facing the ridiculous or impossible this way. The 9th Step is also where the literature describes that we aren't "servile or scraping" and "as God's people we bow before no one." If that were to happen I believe you would recognize it as such -- we know in our hearts when, however difficult, what someone says is an appropriate request to make something right, versus someone taking advantage of our offer. If you're truly afraid you'll be confused or bamboozled, then bring someone with you -- your sponsor even. Nothing says we have to walk through this (or anything in our sobriety) alone. But such a situation is, again, rare, and unlikely for most amends. You can "what if" yourself into a panic -- that's why it's a great idea to consult with either your sponsor or any other AA's you feel might offer good experience on this before even contacting the person you are going to make amends to. No doubt just because I haven't heard of it happening doesn't mean it's never happened, but in general I have found that the people we screwed over, while maybe never numbered among our greatest fans, are more about restitution than revenge.
So now that we've got that all outlined, I can address the heart of your question, and that is, no, I don't know of anyplace in the literature that the "what can I do to make it right" is specifically stated. For me that suggestion comes from the general, collected wisdom of the fellowship of AA -- the distillation of people's sober experience, passed along via shares and sponsors through the years; a channel of helpful information I value as much as I do anything we have in print.
I hasten to add, even if the 9th Step process, with a "what can I do to make it right?" was very specifically scripted someplace in the literature, I am certain it would be balanced by reason. People can be dogmatic and rigid. AA literature is not. All of the suggestions AA makes in writing are mitigated with things like, "the wording was, of course, quite optional, so long as we expressed the idea" (from the 3rd Step in the Big Book) or "... there is no pat answer which can fit all such dilemmas." (from Step 9 in the 12&12). So even if it were specifically scripted in such a fashion, the spirit of AA literature, no matter what the topic, always leaves room for common sense and for differences in what is right for each situation.
Two things I always remember when it comes to amends:
1. "A remorseful mumbling that we are sorry won't fill the bill at all." (Big Book, pg. 83, in the discussion about Step 9.) Prior to AA my life was a long, pathetic litany of "sorry sorry sorry." An amends is much bigger than an apology. It is about restitution. It's about making things right. It's about changing our behavior so that we don't repeat the offenses we're cleaning up.
2. You don't have to make any amends you're not willing to make. Of course, if you're not willing, then you're not on Step 9 anyway.
You're on Step 8.
Hope that helped.
For a book I credit with laying out a road map which transformed my life, there are a few paragraphs that, for whatever reason, drive me nuts.
"The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil. We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough. He is like the farmer who came up out of his cyclone cellar to find his home ruined. To his wife, he remarked, "Don't see anything the matter here, Ma. Ain't it grand the wind stopped blowin'?" -- "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book) Chapter 6, 'Into Action,' pg. 82
Oh, if only they hadn't said the word "Ma" in talking to his wife. That, followed so closely by "ain't," is just ... most modern readers get lost in either eye rolling or giggles.
I'm not being critical of the Big Book for using language which was commonplace in their region and their time. That's like judging Shakespeare for not having Hamlet say "Should I chill, or should I just kill myself? That's what I'm obsessing over." instead of "To be, or not to be. That is the question." Language changes. And there are many places where I find the way the Big Book puts something to be not just illustrative, but moving.
For example, I will always love:
"It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worth while." -- Big Book, Ch. 5, 'How it Works' pg. 66
How evocative, how apt, how brilliant is both the point and the way it's made. Truly, "squander" in this context gives one pause to think back on all the times when we could have been enjoying life, but instead were lost in our heads, gnashing our teeth and rehashing old fights, or worse, making speeches during imaginary new ones. (A personal favorite of mine. I always know I'm not on the beam when I am in the middle of a huge fight -- that never happened.)
There's nothing "wrong" with the way The Big Book is written, but the point in my 3rd least favorite paragraph on pg. 82 is so important, so critical, and the storm analogy is so perfect (not like in my least favorite paragraph, where the analogy really hijacks the point they're trying to make), that it's a damn shame the antiquated phrases in use here have the double whammy of being particularly old/hokey.
Take the corn-pone dialog away for a moment and (maybe when they were writing this they'd just come back from seeing "The Wizard of Oz" and had Uncle Henry and Auntie Em in their heads -- if I'm not mistaken, the timing lines up on that. But I've already done a Wizard of Oz rant) what this paragraph is really talking about is amends -- and in my humble opinion is the jumping off point for the idea of Living Amends.
"We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough."
I believe that what the Big Book is expressing here is that just getting sober, just not drinking, does not even come close to balancing the scales for all the horrible toxic behavior we pulled when we drank. The people close to us may be so relieved that we've finally stopped getting worse that we may get a bit of a pass from them on things past -- but if we do, we can't take it. We have to make the rest of it right -- not just because it's the right thing to do -- and it is -- but because if we don't we'll drink again.
(Some alcoholics will use newfound sobriety as a way to subtly blackmail people into not holding them accountable, since if we get too upset we might drink again -- which is bullshit, in this context. Kind of like the resentment fueled con: "I'll show you! I'll hurt me! Then you'll be sorry!" Using someone's love for us as a way to punish them is one of the oldest alcoholic tricks. We're not bad people getting good, we're sick people getting well... but that's a very fine distinction, on occasion.)
Just because the storm of our active alcoholism has passed -- just because those winds have stopped blowing (and there's a full-of-hot-air joke in there somewhere) -- that's only the start of making things right. In no way is it enough on its own.
To me, that's what the paragraph is suggesting, "aint's" and "Ma's" and all.