I was 19, I was moving to the East Coast, and I had a laundry list of things I needed to get done: rent a van, pack boxes, return my library books and make amends to Safeway.
I’d gone to the grocery store in the middle of the night, piling tofu dogs, coffee and Cookie Crunch into the cart and placing a three-gallon water bottle in the undercarriage. I’d paid for my ghastly college-age junk food and walked out of the store. When I got to my car, I realized the cashier had forgotten to ring up my water; I hadn’t paid for it. Shrugging it off, I got in and drove away.
It left me with a nagging guilt. At that time, I believed my sobriety and my very life depended on promptly admitting when I was wrong. It’s an AA parable: “Those who continue to harm others are quite sure to drink. And for us to drink is to die.”
I couldn’t just go on with my life having stolen a bottle of water from Safeway—I was at risk of having no life at all! So three days before Moving Day, I walked into Safeway and asked to see the manager.
“I’m the manager, Miss. How can I help you?” Said the jovial red-headed Tallest Man in North America.
Stretching my neck to look up at him, I immediately felt stupid. What I did was dumb and the fact that it bothered me was even dumber. But my life was in jeopardy.
“I put a water bottle under my cart and it wasn’t rung up and I didn’t pay for it,” I prattled.
“Well,” the manager smiled. “That water bottle costs 50 cents. If you give me 50 cents we’ll call it even.”
I’d been stroking two quarters in my pocket as he said this. I had exact change! A miracle! The coins, warmed by my sweaty palm, were swiftly handed to him. Karma corrected!
“Thank you,” I said, darting away.
I’d been in AA for six years by that time. I’d been sober since I was barely 13 years old. I was told I was the youngest member of AA. It was the late 1980s, near the height of the 12-step movement, and I was taken to meetings in a big white van driven by a therapist who told me I was a “full-blown alcoholic,” just like she’d been.
So I joined AA, even though I had drunk maybe half a dozen times in my life. I quipped that I was an alcoholic prodigy.
“There are no victims over 18,” is a well-worn AA cliché. In that regard, I figured I was simply mature for my age. When I got to AA, I was wracked with guilt of largely imaginary origins. And the way to alleviate this phantom, crippling remorse was to work Steps Eight and Nine. In short: Make amends.
I was looking for redemption. I became sure that if I didn’t pay penance for every fumble, fault or misdeed, I’d be struck drunk and therefore dead. It’s an easy recipe for spiritual paranoia.
Step Eight reads: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
And Step Nine: “Made direct amends to such people, wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
Making amends is powerful. The Steps are said to induce a spiritual awakening and to practitioners the idea is, God will keep you sated sans alcohol.
This yearning for redemption is as ubiquitous as the idea of love. Confession, atonement and redemption are universal themes. It’s a new year, a new beginning—a rebirth. In Judaism, there’s Yom Kippur. In Islam it’s called Tawba. “Ask your lord for forgiveness, then turn back to him,” reads the Koran. Christians worship a god who’s said to have died specifically to atone for their sins—all they have to do is ask! And let’s not forget Karma, a fundamental concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism and Starbuckism.
When you’ve been on the fringes of the human experience, it can feel like joining the rest of the species for the first time.
When I was “new” I hadn’t met anyone who’d personally done Step Eight. I heard people in meetings say it terrified them, which piqued my curiosity. So my attraction to those Steps was the same draw I had to heavy metal: It freaked people out, therefore, I liked it.
I was an emotionally abused, neglected and abandoned 13-year-old. Thinking I was culpable for my own abuse made me feel like I was in control, like I had a choice and had simply chosen the wrong path. This is a very common trait among abused children, or in my case the daughter of a narcissistic-personality-disorder-ignoring mother. I’d heard alcoholics say how they felt dead inside when they got to AA—I related.
In retrospect my first Eighth Step with my sponsor was pitiful. My biggest harm was calling my mother a bitch. I was living in a group home at the time and wrote down that’d I’d given staff an attitude over a chore. Also when I was five, I confessed, I’d killed my brother’s pet worm. I conflated “harms done” with “things I felt bad about.” I felt bad about a lot of things. I’d also roughed-housed with my brother when I was four and he was three. He ended up with a scar on his cheek. Something that happened before I was in kindergarten.
As for my Ninth Step, I apologized to the staff and she didn’t recall the incident but hugged me and told me that she loved me anyway. I told my mother I was sorry and it fell on deaf ears. She didn’t believe me. I’d have to try harder, be more diligent. More patient. My mother, actually, never forgave anything. But according to AA, God would, no problem.
The Ninth Step “promises” are often read in meetings. It’s a page from the “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, pontificating on this journey of “making right the wrong.”
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”
Slightly maudlin? Yes. Totally appealing? Absolutely.
There’s an elation after making amends. Even something as seemingly trivial as forgetting to pay for a carton of water, after having faced it, made me feel lighter. I no longer had that dumb thing weighing on me. In my crowded neurotic mind, there was one less thing to worry about. I felt like I’d exhibited bravery, didn’t run away and had faced what I had done.
I spent 24 years sober in AA, during which time I sponsored anyone who asked me. Actually, I did anything for AA or my fellow alcoholics if it were asked of me. I was a bit of a Big Book Thumper and a bit of a snot about it. In retrospect I was probably insufferable, but I believed in the program and lived by its principles to the best of my ability.
I took people through the Steps, including Eight and Nine, and their application made a lot more sense in grown-up lives. One woman I sponsored made an anonymous donation of art supplies to a school because the store she’d always stolen from was now closed. Another paid for a hit-and-run she’d done while drinking. Countless others made up with estranged family and friends.
These scenes made them stand up a little straighter, smile a little wider. Their families came back, their lives were renewed. It was profoundly moving to witness.
Two years ago I did some soul-searching (and then some drinking), and realized that relating to the feelings of people at AA meetings isn’t a reliable or reasonable diagnostic tool. I’m not alcoholic. I’d never actually been drunk before I got to AA.
So how do I feel about Steps Eight and Nine now—now that I realize I don’t meet any of the legitimate diagnostic criteria of what’s now called “alcohol use disorder?”
Oddly enough, I think of them like I’ve come to see alcohol: It’s not for everybody. Some shouldn’t do it. Most can benefit from it in some way. Do I think making amends can be a potent and uplifting experience? Yes. Do I think there are some instances where it can be misused? Sure. Do I think it’s for everyone and a cure-all? No. Nothing is. And anyone who says differently lacks credibility.
You’re probably waiting for me to denounce the 12 Steps and debunk the concept of making amends. Since I’ve come out of the non-alcoholic closet I’ve been contacted by two schools in the AA debate: One is mad at me for being public and fears I will drive people to drink and according to them that could be fatal. The others are AA-haters who largely have a conspiratorial view of AA as a slick and strategic cult.
My wish is to make both of those groups annoyed with me; it’ll help with a rational and science-based dialogue. The only thing I want to condemn is the combination of myopia and certainty.
I think making amends, AA and chemical dependency are all very complicated. And when there’s fear involved, people want to grasp at easy answers, herd mentality and pithy bumper stickers. Our convictions should be scrutinized and our sacred cows should be slaughtered—that’s how medicine progresses and people get helped. Steps Eight and Nine are about identifying where we were wrong in the past and trying to do better next time; in the treatment and identification of alcoholism—it’s an idea whose time has come.
Tina Dupuy is a nationally syndicated columnist whose work has appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic and Newsday. She’s the host of the new podcast called Cultish. You can follow her on Twitter: @TinaDupuy