Thoughts on Amends and Forgiveness

This is about learning to live comfortably sober.

If we are going to stay sober for the long haul, most of us have to find a way to live happily and comfortably in this world without alcohol, drugs, or anything else to take the edge off of life itself. So what’s the magic trick? How exactly can we learn to live peacefully with ourselves?

When we have been haunted so long by regret, shame, and anger, it’s almost impossible to fathom a life free of these poisons. But our long-term sobriety pretty much depends on it. For if we can’t find a way to get and stay comfortable in our own skin, we will eventually need to seek relief in the ways we always had – drinking, getting high, acting out.

So here is the paradox I propose:

In order to move forward in this life in any meaningful way, we must first go backward. Instead of turning our backs on the past, we go towards it.

We return to the scenes that caused so much pain and anguish and clean them up to the best of our abilities.

Surprisingly, cleaning up our own part of a messy situation is enough to bring us some peace. It offers an unexpected respite from the relentless noise of the past. We’ve done our part, and the rest is water under the bridge. The unexpected benefit of “amends” is that in cleaning up our part, somehow we manage to access the formerly elusive tonic of forgiveness. I clean up my part with you, and suddenly your part doesn’t burn me quite as hard.

To illustrate:

By the time I arrived in a 12-step program, most of my relationships were damaged beyond repair. Every time I thought of my family, I felt the hot sting of resentment in my throat. I arrived at the conclusion that if I was going to move forward in this new, sober life, I should probably write them off. Their shortcomings were too big to forgive. They were “toxic,” I thought.

Interestingly, my sponsor thought otherwise. She had seen the inexplicable healing that so often happened in families when people entered recovery. She told me to go out to visit my parents every week, rain or shine. To focus on what I could bring, instead of what I could get out of each exchange. She encouraged me to try letting them off the hook for everything they did or didn’t do during this period, and just focus on being a good daughter.

I can see how, dear reader, you might be ready to exit this blog post—

I agree. It’s a tall order.

But, the magic ingredient in all of this was desperation. I did not want to drink again. I didn’t want to use again. And most of all, I desperately wanted a life free of pain and misery.

So I tried it.

I’m humbled to report that it worked. I got to have a relationship with my parents that I would not have believed possible. I got to enjoy them, and show up, and feel like I was part of something. More than anything, I somehow found peace in these relationships. They weren’t perfect, but somehow, all of a sudden, their imperfections didn’t kill me in quite the same ways.

By the time I reached Step 9 in my 12 step program, and made a more formal “amend” to my parents – I went to them and honestly admitted where I had been wrong in the past – our relationship had already changed so much that this seemed almost like a formality. I had been living the amend. After all, this word simply means to change. But it’s like an amendment to the constitution—it doesn’t wipe out all that came before, it just adds on to it. I gave our story together a new ending.

The most beautiful part of this step, and this process, is the way in which we get back the world and the world gets us.

With each year I drank, my world got smaller. There were more and more places I couldn’t go, people I couldn’t see, and places I felt unwelcome. As I began to clean up my past, I suddenly got little strips of land back. That neighborhood I didn’t want to visit suddenly became an option again. It suddenly felt possible to go wherever I wanted, with no fear of what would happen or who I would see. How’s that for freedom?

If you haven’t done this work yet, I’m excited for you. A whole new world awaits. You’ll sleep again at night. Your past won’t haunt you. You’ll laugh at the horrors of days gone by, because you’ll be free of them.


It’s not the end. It’s the beginning.

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