Steps 8 and 9 in the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous progression call on us to identify those we have harmed and then to make “direct amends” to them – unless it would cause them more pain. I have spent much of my energy since 2004 trying to figure out how this works.
Some recovering drunks I know insist it’s not as simple as apologizing, and that really figuring it all out includes the blunt lesson that while alcohol may have made us insufferable, there are always other issues that brought insufferable within easy reach. Staying sober is just a start.
My spiral was quick and long-lived. It began the first time I binged on pilfered alcohol, behaved insufferably at a large holiday party, and wound up on the bathroom floor in a drooling stupor. That was New Year’s Eve in 1969 and I had just turned 13; it continued until I was 48. There were intermittent periods of adjustment and control – but the spiral always returned, and there were always people I hurt.
The spiral continued after 9th Grade “graduation,” when I raided the liquor cabinet of the adult host of the class party, drank way too much, and later sat on a large plate glass table that promptly shattered, sending me into fits of laughter.
It continued the many times I snuck off my boarding school campus after lights out to drink vodka tonics and play pool for hours in a quiet back-door Rhode Island bar, until I staggered back up the hill for a few hours of sleep and to suffer mightily through morning classes at the school my parents sacrificed to send me to.
It continued when, after covering a historical reenactment for a Long Island newspaper, I stopped at a bar, overstayed my welcome – got cut off and kicked out – poured myself into my car, and regained my awareness only as I hurtled up a hilly road at 50 or 60 miles an hour, headed for a set of headlights.
There was a heartbreaking time I horribly overdid it while my first two daughters slept loudly in the next room of the rickety apartment I had taken after I walked out on my wife. It was the night before Father’s Day 1997, and the next morning my daughters woke me far too early with their signature breakfast of buttered white bread and sliced carrots, which I was unable to eat through my blazing nausea. Each time they looked away, I stuffed more of the meal into my pajama pockets, and felt worse.
It continued when anger and drinking drove me to my car late at night, while my children – by now all three daughters – slept upstairs. I raced around the mercifully deserted streets of the West End of Hartford, cursing out the window and power-shifting through intersections around Farmington Avenue, whether the lights were green or red.
Anger, resentment, discontentment, frustration, sadness, boredom, excitement, recklessness, carelessness – it never mattered what drove me to being drunk and insufferable; the drinking was all that mattered – for decades. Since 2004, I have worked to learn, a little at a time, how I might rebuild what I did not permanently destroy or disfigure.
I am learning to make the amends I desperately need to: to my parents, to my former partners, to my children. My reckless behavior and bad decisions have caused them all deep pain, have changed their lives – and have tainted how some of them relate to themselves and others. I have altered what level of trust some of them can manage, what kind of anger and frustration and depression they carry with them, how they cope with life’s predictable and spontaneous challenges.
On this Father’s Day, I would like to give gifts, rather than receive them. To my parents, to my former partners, to my children, to those I have harmed – known and unknown to me – I give my work on Steps 8 and 9.
I apologize for all the chaos I have brought into your lives. I honor the lives you lead and the substantial accomplishments you have managed in spite of the pain I caused you.
And whether it might be part of Step 8 or Step 9 or all the steps merged together, I promise to spend my life – my sober, subdued, more thoughtful life – making amends to all of you by doing my best to rebuild my families and my own life by being honest and honorable and thoughtful and helpful, and by focusing on your needs before mine.
Given all the damage I have brought to bear, it’s a tall order. I don’t know just what to predict, but I don’t see anything else that matters nearly as much.
“For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.” (Corinthians)
Happy Father’s Day, everyone.