ONE of the deeply disturbing things about the Twelve Steps, taken as a whole, is that they never let an alcoholic off the hook, though sometimes they may appear to temporarily.
Take the so-called “house-cleaning” steps, for instance. You’ve been through the wretchedness of Steps Four through Seven, and then Step Eight comes along and offers a little breather. “Became willing to make amends,” it says. Well, that doesn’t take much effort, you just sit on your duff and become. No action is required. Then all of a sudden whammo, Step Nine: “Made direct amends. . .”
This Step has always been very unsettling to me, and still is. Not only was I supposed to make amends, but it was to be done directly. No pious change of inner attitude alone would suffice; there also had to be a direct confrontation. For a time I squirmed and weasled, trying to use “except when to do so” as an escape clause. Every time I came close to facing up to the real demand of the Step, I rationalized that any restorative action would “injure” somebody, and let it slide.
Finally this evasion became so ridiculous I couldn’t kid even myself with it any more. Sooner or later the nasty business would have to be done. Pride would have to be swallowed, humiliation would have to be risked, amends would have to be made to the very people it was hardest to face, often those least understanding of the illness I had witlessly contracted. That was Step Nine. I could put it off, but could never quite duck the fact that the Step would never be properly taken until I had actually done some of these humbling things.
While writing this I looked out my window and saw a bird light on our porch railing. Then he took off, hurling himself on the breeze, trusting in the powers the Creator gave him to overcome, instant to instant, gravity and the tricks of the wind. When finally I came really to terms with the Step it was something like that, blindly throwing myself into situations that at first appeared to be blind alleys of humiliation, and trusting to God to give me the locomotion to carry me out again.
But how I twisted and argued and rationalized before getting down to cases! I even pulled out the one about how the main purpose of this program was to keep sober for a day, and you’d better not complicate it with all this other stuff, like making amends, or you risked getting drunk! “Yes,” explained the voices of experience that hover around all AAs, waiting to be listened to, “AA’s prime purpose is sobriety.” But drinking, they had found, had a connection with thinking. Keeping out from behind the wheel such berserk drivers as anger and resentment was part of maintaining daily sobriety. Anger was a cover-up for fear; fear was the companion of insecurity; insecurity was the certain result of an unjustifiable pride–and the specific medicine for pride was the act of humility.
Frankly, I’ve never done very well with Step Nine. I’ve done just barely well enough, evidently, to maintain consecutive daily periods of sobriety. In keeping with the spirit of this series, and in the AA tradition of sharing experience, I’ll set down one or two of the high points of my efforts in this direction.
First of all there’s the case of my first wife, Kate (not her real name; non-alcoholics deserve anonymity too!). Kate was put through several of the hottest back rooms of hell because of my drinking. We had two kids and of course they, poor innocents, could not escape. All right, comes the AA miracle and I sober up and the time comes for me to make amends. And then what happens? Kate goes berserk on hate! All the resentment she’d choked back through all those years now spills over in a destructive flood, sweeping before it every token of restitution or apology, smashing the family. Her recent record, however, does not wipe out my old one. That would only be the ancient eye for an eye. I still had to make amends–directly–but how ? One day one of the children, who had played over to me on several occasions some of their mother’s abuse, began to criticize Kate. I found myself defending her instead of, as was usual, myself. The youngster looked at me in wonder. It put an end to the tug-of-war for the children’s loyalties. Slowly Kate began to respond in kind, and the lessening of tension in the children was noticeable.
I don’t offer this as an example of the right way to make a direct amend. It was indirect and partial, a token. I only report it as the best I could do. It was good enough, apparently, that so far I’ve been allowed my daily sobriety.
There’s another case in my story, the case of my mother, much more typical of the business-like working of Step Nine as I have come to understand it. For years I watched from a distance as my mother got older, and lonelier, and sicker, and I was always too drunk or “busy” to be of much help. Mind you, I don’t approve of children burying themselves alive for the convenience of aging parents–I don’t mean that. But I hadn’t been doing even the minimum, decent things: writing, calling up, visiting occasionally, dropping the word of cheer, all the little things that let lonely people know that there is at least one person on earth interested enough to inquire.
Finally she was stricken with a critical illness. I was jolted into a realization that somebody had to act. I acted, and in doing so realized that my opportunity–maybe my last one–to make amends had arrived. This was when I threw myself on God’s resources as the bird threw himself on the wind. I couldn’t afford what I was doing, the money would just have to be there when it was needed. . .and it was. I couldn’t spare the time for the hours of leisurely chatting that helped so much, my work would somehow just have to get done. . .and it did get done. At last I began to have the feeling that in this instance I was meeting the demand of Step Nine–making direct amends.
It doesn’t seem to me that it is possible to make really adequate amends, really to “make up for” the past. I know it risks presumption to guess what’s on the mind of God, but maybe it’s all right to describe the kind of deal it appears to me that He’s offering me. It’s as if I owed a man a hundred dollars and couldn’t pay it, and he said if I’d pay five, and pay it face to face, he’d write off the other ninety-five which I’d never be able to get up anyway, and call it square. We can’t really make up for the past in the sense of balancing the books. But evidently the deal is that if we do the best we can, and do it directly, we’re all square. These two instances–one of them a qualified failure and one a modified success–kind of sum up what I’ve learned from the many, many Step Nine attempts I’ve made.
My deepest feeling is for the wonderful bargain you get. You pay five and you get ninety-five as a free gift. For I feel profoundly that whenever I’ve made the direct effort, disregarding financial or emotional cost, I’ve been richer. Something has been set straight somewhere that I thought could never be made right. Somewhere, somehow we’re all breathing easier when these things are done.