I love lists. As an extremely Type-A person, I make them constantly. There is something about literally writing down and numbering that makes a daunting task feel so much more manageable.
In fact, I never met a list I didn’t like. Until reading Step 8. “We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
I found it less-than-thrilling to make a literal list of people I’d hurt and mistakes I’d made. A list didn’t make these tasks feel more manageable. Instead, it made them feel more fear-inducing. But maybe that was the point.
Burning bridges during drinking
If you asked me before getting sober, I would have said that apologies and amends were synonymous. Two years later, I no longer feel that way.
During my drinking days I made many apologies. I truly believed I meant them in those moments of shame, after a night of regretful actions made at the hands of alcohol. What I didn’t realize about my apologies was that I never meant them enough to change my habits. I was sorry, but not quite sorry enough to stop drinking.
Little by little over the course of my love affair with alcohol, my apologies became less meaningful and more repetitive. It came to the point that I wasn’t sure I should even bother with them anymore. So eventually I didn’t. Instead, I just began avoiding the people to whom I owed the apologies. It worked out well enough, until I realized I had burned almost every bridge in my life.
A few months later, I entered rehab. I remember so clearly the day I checked in and was handed an AA Big Book. It felt so surreal, and I was convinced this couldn’t really be my life. I had yet to realize that so many rational, sane sentences are written in that book, sentences that would change my life, sentences including the steps.
Being introduced to Step 8
Once admitting I was powerless over alcohol and becoming active in the program, I realized that I would have to confront the victims of my actions if I wanted to move forward with my life. But when referring to this peace offering in the 12-Step program, I noticed it wasn’t the word “apology” that was used. Instead, it was the word “amends” – a word that sounded so much more daunting, so much more intense.
Step 8 in the Big Book reads, “First, we take a look backward and try to discover where we have been at fault; next we make a vigorous attempt to repair the damage we have done; and third, having thus cleaned away the debris of the past, we consider how, with our newfound knowledge of ourselves, we may develop the best possible relations with every human being we know.”
In other words, step 8 is really three steps in one.
For example, rather than a quick text message reading “Hey, I’m sorry for that one time I drunkenly punched you,” (when I probably wasn’t sorry), it meant actually speaking to the person who had been harmed, looking into their eyes, and doing what was possible to make up for my harmful actions. Obviously I couldn’t un-punch someone, but I could hear them out about their views on the situation and ask what I could do to make it better. I could apologize for them, rather than for myself – and that, I believe, is the difference between making an apology and making amends.
Putting Step 8 into action
Luckily for me, I got sober pretty young – at 20 years old – so my list of amends was not too lengthy. However, this didn’t make it any less scary. There’s something terrifying about putting yourself out there and being vulnerable, yet knowing perfectly well someone can reject you and your attempt at amends.
For the most part, my amends were well-received and I was forgiven. However, this did not mean that my relationships immediately returned to normal. It took work to build trust and honestly where before there had been little.
In my two years of sobriety, I have learned that Step 8 is an ongoing process, one I may never really finish or be able to check off my list. But maybe that’s the beauty of it. Rather than a task on a list, Step 8 is a way of living. It doesn’t mean perfection, but rather owning our mistakes and doing what we can to right them.
Step 8 isn’t something that is meant to ever be “finished.” It is an ever-lasting process and learning experience.