“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins…”
Like a tornado, I stormed through life, leaving behind total destruction. Broken relationships, fractured friendships, severed connections….
As overdramatic as that sounds, part of me wonders if it isn’t dramatic enough.
When I was drinking, I had no sense of accountability. I had no understanding of how my actions impacted others. And when you can’t see how your actions impact others…there is no limit to the potential destruction.
After I stopped drinking, the wreckage was all around me. I could see it in the eyes of my family and my friends as they looked at me. They loved me, and that would never change. But in their eyes, I could see how much I had hurt them. Each of them.
When I was drinking, everything was about me. Of course, I didn’t see it that way; to me, I was just trying to survive. I was trying to numb my emotions while at the same time trying to feel more. I was desperately seeking a relationship that mattered to me while isolating myself and destroying any relationship that got too close because there was too much that could go wrong.
But when I stopped drinking and looked at those still around me, I saw just how much I had put them through. And I also saw who wasn’t there – there are just some things that a person can’t take.
I had an incredible sponsor at AA who, frankly, didn’t have any time for bullshit. That made him the best sponsor I could ever have asked for. At one of our first meetings to discuss the twelve steps, he said to me:
“I don’t wish alcoholism on anyone. Every time someone comes in here, trying to figure it out, I pray that we’ll discover they aren’t actually an alcoholic and can go have a normal life. But, that being said, I wish every person in this world could go through the steps to have a better understanding of themselves, their relationships, and how their actions impact others.”
Then he went on:
“Each person will have a different step that is especially challenging. But, for every person who wants to stay in the program and maintain recovery, Step 4 is the most important step. And then when you’ve completed step 4, step 5 is the most important. And then step 6. And then step 7. And then step 8 and 9.”
For reference the steps are as follows:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God (or how we understand our higher power).
- Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God (or our higher power), to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God (our higher power) remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked God (our higher power) to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our higher power, praying only for knowledge of their will and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Each step took time. Each step was painful. Slowly I unraveled the tangled knot of harm I had caused – the damage I had done to my family and my friends and in other relationships, taking advantage of them, putting blame on them rather than accepting responsibility for my own actions.
Each step helped me to see how broken I was. Each step helped me to see how broken so many of my relationships were. And each step showed me how my own actions had often caused that brokenness.
Over the last four years, with the help of my sponsor and other AA mentors, I have made amends to many of the individuals I wronged, confessing to them the ways that I caused them harm or created conflict or broke their trust or manipulated them.
I wish I could tell you that it was easy and that every relationship healed immediately and was wonderful. I wish I could tell you even that everyone agreed to meet with me – but there were some who said it would be better if they didn’t see me.
I’d love to tell you about individual amends and specific relationships that were reconciled or about a time when reconciliation wasn’t possible. But in doing so I would no longer be sharing just my own story but a story that is intimately connected with someone else’s personal life. That person’s story and experience is not mine to share.
And that adds to the complexity of this process. But it also highlights an important distinction: that it’s necessary for me to own up to my own actions but not at the expense of someone else or at the risk of causing additional harm.
There is one thing that must be made abundantly clear: What we come to understand in the program is that not all relationships should be reconciled. Not all amends should be made. In step 9, we should make amends wherever possible, except when doing so would injure, harm, or create worse conflict with them, yourself, or others. My sponsor helped me see that there were some relationships and friendships in my past life to which it would not be safe to return. It could lead to greater harm for the other person(s) or, if the relationship reconciled, it could put my own sobriety in danger.
So I have made amends wherever possible and where it was safe to do so. And what I can tell you is that I have gained more insights from these moments than from almost any other experience. I have learned more about my actions, my behavior, myself. I have learned more about responsibility and accountability. I have learned more about vulnerability. I have learned more about grace.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins…”
The truth is that so many of us, alcoholic/addict or not, have trouble admitting when we make mistakes. As someone who is a perfectionist as well as an alcoholic, I never ever want to make a mistake, and I certainly never want to admit to it.
But that is what is asked of us, almost every Sunday…to admit that we have messed up. To admit that we have made mistakes, hurt others, forgotten about others, cared more about ourselves than others, cared less about ourselves than we should, harmed ourselves. In other words, to make amends with God.
If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins…
As an alcoholic and a Christian, I know that we cannot conflate the forgiveness of humans and the forgiveness of God. When we lay ourselves bare to another person, there is no guarantee of forgiveness.
But this is when my faith becomes essential to my sobriety – because, when we lay ourselves bare before God, confessing all of our sins and laying down all of our shit, God forgives us.
Every damn time, God forgives us.
When we make amends with God, God hears everything we have to say and leaves space for us to say even more.
Making amends does not fix everything or erase every harmful thing we’ve done. But it affords us the opportunity to make things right with some of those we have wronged. It gives us greater understanding of our actions as we strive to live with the greatest care and love toward others in each day that follows.
I don’t know what it is you’ve done or what harm you may have caused, whether to others or yourself. But, beloved, know that, no matter what you’ve done, God’s forgiveness is for you.
This does not exempt us from the changes that we need to make. It does not erase what we’ve done. But God’s forgiveness is for you.
I say this to you because I needed to hear it from someone else. When the weight of all I had done was crushing down on me, it was hearing that grace that gave me the strength to continue. To continue on this journey of recovery. To continue in my faith. To continue to make amends. To deepen my relationships with others. To deepen my relationship with God.
Even if you’re not yet ready to make amends with the person you’ve hurt, God can hold that burden with us. God hears the thoughts and prayers on our hearts, the things said and left unsaid. And God forgives us.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
By the grace of God, you are forgiven.
 (Edited for inclusive language) Bill Wilson, Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: 4th Edition, (New York: AA World Services, 2001), 59-60.