Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Sober Life: On Amends Gone “Wrong”

Yesterday was my Dad’s birthday. He woulda been 72…

Daddy in 1946, age 7.

Soon I will pay my respects to my father-in-law.

As I prepare for this journey, been thinking about the process of amends. There will be one person there whom I haven’t seen since I got sober—but to whom I’ve made amends. Twice.

Here is the story of an amends gone “wrong”…

The first time I made amends to this person, I wrote a letter very soon after my detox. The attempt was ego-driven but I couldn’t see that, because I wasn’t yet really sober. I was clean but not clear-headed, and not well plugged in to spiritual power. I wanted to know that I was sober, instead of just doing the small things (not picking up, going to meetings, speaking at meetings) that would make me more and more sober. I wanted to believe I was ready to tackle the ten Augean stables, when I probably should have been starting with scrubbing out small spots on a shirt.

I was also crazy codependent from having been brought up in an alcoholic family. I was responding to insistence from somebody in my life who was indignant that I’d been clean a whole two weeks and hadn’t yet made amends to this person. I needed to please everybody. I Needed To Do It Right and Do It Now.

So I wrote the letter, and I read it to my sponsor. I remember doing it around Thanksgiving 2008. I was chuffed. I was Doing The Program.

It turned out later that my sponsor wasn’t sober either. She’d been using. A few months later she went to rehab… So the amends was written by an unsober person, who was directed by an unsober person.

I sent the letter off and it made the recipient angry. The person responded with an angry letter.

However: the letter contained a couple of invitations for me to respond. It contained precisely two observations coupled with statements like, “I want to hear what you think of this.” So obviously I’d put this person in turmoil—I’d caused harm, the opposite of what Step 9 requires—but I’d engaged the person. They were asking me to talk back. Which I thought was kind of a miracle—I hadn’t been able to engage them (I’d written a letter in the first place because this person was unreachable by phone or email; they wouldn’t pick up or return my calls; I couldn’t make an appointment to see them in person).

So I prayed, and prayed, and I felt a hand on my back pushing me to write back. I didn’t want to, but it felt like I needed to. I took counsel from a few people I trusted who I knew damn well were sober. And, as usual, I got contrary advice:

  • Step 9 is not for the other person, it’s for you—it’s to clean up your side of the street.
  • Step 9 is not for you, it’s for the other person—it’s to free them of your garbage.

Writing the second amends letter was one of the most agonizing acts I’ve taken in recovery. I discovered it was so agonizing because I cared about the person. … I knew Doing Nothing was a choice, but in this case, since the person had asked me questions, and since I’d left the person in turmoil, I felt morally obligated to promptly mitigate the hurt I’d caused and to respond to the questions.

So I did, to the best of my ability. Somebody suggested I write a hand-written letter, and make it as brief as I could. That sounded right. The first letter was three typed single-spaced pages; the second letter was one-and-a-half handwritten sheets.

And the things that I did differently were:

  • I talked only about my own behavior, answering the questions they’d posed in non-accusatory ways
  • I acknowledged that I heard the other person’s feelings
  • I asked if there were anything else they wanted to say
  • I said I wanted to know how they thought I could make things better

After I sent it, I didn’t know whether I’d done it for myself or for the other person. I did it because I’d felt strong direction to take this action. … Since then I haven’t heard a word out of the person. I’ve been repeatedly directed to stay out of this person’s life, and to pray for them.

But I will see them next week. Which is a lot different from praying for them.

More contrary advice about amends

I’ve heard:

  • Sometimes the best you can do is make Living Amends—just changing your behavior day by day and living clean. This is the true meaning of steps 10-12.
  • Nowhere in the book do you find it mentions “living amends”—they don’t exist. You make amends according to Step 9 and that’s the end of it.

These statements, coupled with prefaces like “I’m X and my sobriety date is January 1, 1981” or whatever date in the past century, are powerful for the newcomer. So what am I to believe?

After two-and-a-half years of wandering these rooms, and one year of being sober, I guess what I “believe” is less important than what I do. What I do today first is not pick up. If I pick up, I can’t depend on anything else… The rest of what I do, if I’m on my game, is what comes to me in prayer and meditation, coupled with direction from my sponsor. This last is important… Having once had a sponsor who had trouble staying sober has taught me compassion for all alcoholics and addicts, including myself when I relapsed.

One thing among many things my first sponsor said to me that is so valuable: God gets to use everything. There are no “mistakes.” Other people have said this, too. So I’ve been thinking maybe everything happened with these amends as it should have. Maybe God is using it anyhow.

My Al-Anon sponsor called the other day. I asked her: have you ever fucked up an amends? She laughed. I’ve asked her this before and I already knew the answer. … She reminds me I’m a human being, fallible, raised in a difficult and sick family, and I need to have compassion for myself and others.

Catholic Flagellants

Medieval flagellants, whipping themselves to practice "mortification of the flesh" as penance for their wrongdoings and harms.

I have another sponsor who has been sober for a long time. She tells me: stop using the word “should.” And put away the lash.


  1. What a great post – it actually gave me goosebumps. I kind of love all the paradoxes of the program (e.g. this is a selfish program / selfishness and self-centeredness are our primary problem). I think it’s kind of like the Tao – it doesn’t always seem to make sense in a logical way, but it’s really beautiful and somehow it works.

  2. guinevere

    January 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    “it doesn’t always seem to make sense in a logical way, but it’s really beautiful and somehow it works”… Yes! exactly… It works if we DO THE BEST WE CAN AT THE TIME. … thank you. good to see you… how are you doing? –G

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