During active addiction, we become essentially incapable of weighing the consequences of our actions. Addiction is a disease of obsession and compulsion, and somewhere along the way, we completely lose the power of choice. Willpower becomes obsolete the more our neuropathways change, and we begin behaving in ways we never thought possible. We stoop to levels we never imagined ourselves capable of stooping to. We lie to our best friends, steal from our mothers, manipulate our employers, and put ourselves through unspeakable mental and physical torment. Some (those who lack firsthand experience) may believe that addiction is naught more but a matter of weak moral standing – an excuse that criminals use to obtain undeserved pity and less severe legal consequences. What individuals such as these all too often overlook is the fact that recovering addicts and alcoholics do not use the disease model of addiction to write off their past mistakes. They do not quit drinking and using drugs and think to themselves, “Wow, I’m sure glad all of that is over! Time to rebuild my own life and forget everyone I’ve hurt along the way!”
Early Recovery and Apologies
In fact, quite the opposite is true. The first thing that most newly sober individuals want to do is call up everyone they’ve ever hurt and beg for forgiveness. Most of us who wind up in residential, inpatient treatment are coming directly from the lowest place we’ve ever found ourselves. I personally burned the vast majority of my remaining bridges to the ground right before I went away. The first thing I wanted to do when I got out of inpatient treatment was call up all of my friends and family members and say, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry for burning so many bridges! I’m sorry for being so horrible! I’m sober now! Look at me, I’m sober now!”
I knew I had been horrible, yes – I had a loose grasp on that. I knew that I had been causing my loved ones an immense amount of pain for a very long time. I understood that. Yet, when I took an honest and searching look at my own motives, I wanted to apologize in order to put my mind at ease. I wanted to hear my loved ones forgive me – to tell me that it was okay, and that everything was going to be alright. Over the course of my active addiction, my sense of self-esteem had been completely devastated. When I drank to excess, I could successfully numb-out that deep-seated feeling of self-loathing and worthlessness. As soon as I sobered up, I was overwhelmed by that feeling in all of its rawness and authenticity. How could I lessen it? What could I do to make it go away? Maybe if my loved ones forgave me I could live with myself. Maybe, just maybe.
I Just Want to Feel Better
And so I called up my friends and I said, “I’m sorry,” and I didn’t receive the response I was hoping to get. And I couldn’t wrap my head around why. I was sober now. I was trying. Why wasn’t everyone willing to forgive and forget? The truth is, I had no idea the true extent of the damage I had done. I was still utterly stuck in a selfish and self-seeking mindset. Nothing had changed; I had simply stopped drinking. I began working through the 12 steps, and came to realize that there is a big difference between an apology and an amends. I had been making apologies almost constantly, over the entire course of my active addiction. Saying sorry was easy to do – I had perfected the art of empty confessions. I had mastered manipulation and exacted every victimized explanation. My ‘sorry’ had come to mean nothing. No one wanted to hear what I had to say. I had said it all before.
What Is an Amends?
I came to recognize that amends in themselves have very little to do with words and intentions, and everything to do with changing long-term behavioral patterns. I can apologize every day for stealing, but if I continue to steal in spite of my promises not to, my words will quickly come to bear no meaning. If I stop stealing for a year, make the conscious decision to stop stealing forever, and return to the people I have stolen from to take responsibility and repay them… then that could be considered an amends. An amends is changing the way you behave and committing to staying changed, all while doing what you can to personally repair any past damages. ‘Amends’ is an action word. It has to do with authentic growth and a shedding of self-seeking motives. The process begins where it does in the steps for a reason. As much as you want to, try not to get ahead of yourself. Everything will happen in the timeframe it is meant to.
Try not to rush to apologize before you have given yourself a chance to make any significant changes. Focus on making yourself feel better through hard work and estimable acts. Those who are meant to be a part of your life will still be around when you are ready to make a genuine and heartfelt amends. Recovery is a beautiful journey of self-discovery – don’t rush the process!