When someone is struggling with substance abuse, their disease affects not only themselves but also everyone around them. Addiction negatively impacts family dynamics by distorting the substance user’s thoughts, causing them to believe they need alcohol or drugs for survival and behave in ways that aren’t aligned with their true values. The person may withdraw from those closest to them, be quick to lash out, or even steal from family and friends. When a person gets sober, it can be difficult to process the pain they have caused their loved ones. Making amends, however, can help repair strained relationships while also reinforcing recovery.
What is “Making Amends” and Why is it Important?
Making amends is about acknowledging and correcting the harm you have inflicted on your family or friends during active addiction. It is more than just saying “sorry” to someone. You must demonstrate with actions, not just words, your remorse, and how you aim to fix the broken relationships. The process can bring significant benefits such as freedom from guilt or shame, regained trust, and increased self-esteem. But making amends is not only about doing good for yourself; it’s also about doing good for others too. When initiating conversations with your loved ones, it’s important to listen to and validate their feelings so that both parties can begin to forgive and heal from past disagreements or even trauma. Just as the process can help you gain a sense of closure and start fresh, it can also help others do the same.
When Do You Start Making Amends in Recovery?
For the amends process to be successful, you first need to focus on healing yourself, then be willing to forgive yourself and others. The concept of making amends originates from AA’s 12 Step program, which provides a framework for individuals to build a long-lasting, sustainable recovery. The initial 7 Steps are about inward self-reflection and transformation, while Steps 8 and 9 focus on fixing interpersonal relationships. Step 8 is confronting your mistakes and making a list of people you have hurt with your negative actions. Step 9 is about meeting with those people to actively redress the wrongs. The 12 Step program is beneficial in helping people smoothly transition to each new stage in their recovery.
Mountainside Director of Recovery Experience Patrick McCarthy, who has two decades of sobriety, says, “There’s a reason Step 9 comes later in the program. It was at this point that the previous steps had changed me. When I made amends to the people on my list, they truly saw a different person standing in front of them — one that was honest and accountable.”
What Are the Different Types of Amends You Can Make?
There is not one standard way to go about making amends and repairing a connection with someone. When you feel ready, take time to think about each person and the extent of the damage done. This will guide you in determining the best type of amend to begin rebuilding trust with those you have harmed.
Direct amends involves meeting the individual in person to correct your wrongdoings. Your goal is to show you reflected on your mistakes, are truly sorry for the pain caused, and are ready to translate words into actions. Avoid general statements like, “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done.” Be specific with your apology and include concrete plans to restore the relationship. The other person will better appreciate your sincerity, feel more understood, and thus be more receptive to the apology.
Perhaps while you were in active addiction, you betrayed your loved one by stealing money from them. Now is your chance to apologize for that behavior and repay them. Make a direct, financial amend by setting up recurring payments until you have repaid everything you owe. If money is tight, discuss with your sponsor other possible methods of compensation and how to better manage your finances in recovery. One example could be to help the person with errands and chores around their house.
There may be situations where the damage caused by your active addiction is irreparable. In these circumstances, you can make an indirect amend to rectify the wrong in the best way possible. Giving back to the community and helping others is a common way to make an indirect amend when you are in recovery.
For example, if you were driving under the influence, crashed your car, and injured your friend, your friend may have severed all ties with you and refuse to meet and relive the trauma. To repent, volunteer your time to educate teens on the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In some cases, it may be impossible to make direct amends because you can’t locate someone or they have passed away. An indirect, symbolic amend could be a great way to honor that individual. Consider donating to a charity that the person was passionate about or set time aside to reflect and pray for that someone who is no longer living.
Unlike direct and indirect amends, living amends are not aimed at repairing ties with anyone specifically. They must be looked at from a broader perspective. Living amends is the part of your recovery where you must “walk your talk” by incorporating positive, healthy habits into your new lifestyle. These amends affirm your commitment to sobriety and focus on how you’ll become a better person moving forward.
For instance, if you were always short-tempered or quick to fight with others, then commit to better controlling those strong emotions by taking an anger management course to learn stress reduction and coping techniques. Perhaps you often let down your friends and family by not fulfilling promises. Going forward, only accept invitations you can fully commit to and add events and reminders to your calendar to stay organized.
How Long Will Making Your Amends Take?
Making all your amends won’t happen overnight. The time it will take depends on many factors such as your comfort level, the number of people hurt, and the severity of the damage caused. Just like your substance use disorder, your process of making amends in recovery will also be unique.
Sometimes, the list of people who you’ve wronged can seem endless and be overwhelming to even start tackling. Start slow, and remember, you can go at your own pace. There is no set timeframe you must abide by when reconciling with your loved ones. In fact, your family’s healing process will look different from yours. One conversation might not be enough to repair the damage. You may need to attend family therapy sessions together over time to fully patch up those strained relationships. What is most important is that you start the process of forgiveness — of you forgiving yourself and of your loved ones forgiving you.
Should others be unreceptive or outcomes aren’t as planned, don’t blame yourself. You can’t control the behavior of others. What you can control is how you’ll continue to make positive changes and live an authentic life free from substances.