I am in the hospitality trade. Where I work now, we host many functions – tour groups, weddings, post-convention get togethers, corporate gigs, holiday parties and a slew of other special events. That is on top of several dining outlets that we have in the building. At this time of year, we do more of the corporate stuff. The other day was no different. I was in charge of one party, a buffet, and didn’t notice the group name. I usually don’t look at the client identity – I am just in charge of feeding folks, not billing them or schmoozing them. But I ran into one person who was part of the group, the convener (liaison) and it was someone I knew from the industry. I then realized that the group was from a place that I used to work. The convener said to me “I am sure you will recognize a few people,” and winked at me. Curious, I made my way to the function and low and behold, I recognized a whole slew of folks – people that I used to work with, people I had passed in musty hallways and others that I knew the face, but not the name.
Now, please note that that this old workplace was a place in which I was in full-on, DEFCON 5, no-holds-barred, caged match alcoholism. I was surrounded by people who I resented, hated, mistrusted, lied to, manipulated, embarrassed, cheated from, judged, and feared. I was a shell of myself at the time, and could barely function. I loathed them, and yet desperately sought their approval. I pushed them away and yet wanted to be with them, to be a part of, accepted. I did everything to people please and control things, yet sought respect. I was a con, a liar and a fraud.
So, when these same people came spilling into the room where I stood, and was amidst them as they paraded past, what happened? Hugs. Handshakes. A lot of surprised glances. Waves of recognition. Some “Wow you look great, Paul!” comments. Laughs. Smiles.
You see, there is only one reason why I was able to be present and solid and grounded and centered in this situation. There is one reason why I could look at these same people I harmed and not shy away or fling myself into a vortex spiral of shame, regret and guilt. There is one reason why I could happily mosey on down to greet and enjoy the company of people that I could never enjoy the company of before. And that reason is amends.
Making amends is one of the steps in 12-step recovery. One doesn’t need to be in a 12-step recovery program to make amends, but it’s recommended that one seeks counsel before getting all My Name is Earl on the township. In AA, we are brought to that point through some work where we identify the self-destructive patterns we have had in our lives, and then share them with a confidante, and then ask our Higher Power to remove or lessen these shortcomings of ours. And the apex of the willingness to live a life unencumbered by the weight of our own history is going out of our little comfy igloos of isolation and knocking on doors. Racking clicks on the odometer. Making cold calls to cool hearts in hopes of warming relations.
So what are amends?
It might be easier to describe what amends are not. Amends are not just apologies. They are not opportunities to place blame on someone else. They are not half-hearted attempts to reconcile. They are not a chance to drag up the past and argue about it. They are not flimsy attempts at having someone ask for your forgiveness. They are not chances to get the girl or the boy back. They are not a place to air grievances. They are not emotional negotiations. And clearly they are not for causing more harm. Although it does happen now and then.
To make amends: To repair a relationship; to make up; to make reparations or redress.
Reparation: the action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged.
Redress: remedy or set right (an undesirable or unfair situation).
Nowhere in these definitions are apologies mentioned. And there is one reason why we just don’t march into someone’s office or den (do people still have dens?) and just say “Sorry I stole and drank all your tequila that one day, urinated on your Aunt Mae’s ashes urn, kicked the kid’s bunny rabbit and sucker punched the grandfather clock before throwing up in your Lexus.” It’s because they’ve heard it all before, that sorry thing. They stopped believing us. And with good reason.
My whole sad sorry life was a series of sad sorry’s after another. My convoy of conciliatory comments were mere false utterances meant to buy me time. To pacify the masses. To drizzle soothing and calming oil on choppy Atlantic seas. My sorry’s weren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on. “Sorry” passed my lips as many times as alcohol did. I was a serial apologist, even for things I wasn’t responsible for. Just in case. Play with some house money. There are so many times one can say sorry about the same things. It loses currency the more it’s played out. Sure it may come out sounding like a million dollar bill, but it takes one trillion dollars to buy a loaf of bread. Or a feasible reason not to sleep on the couch. Or get fired.
So when making amends, “sorry” is out of the lexicon. I might actually apologize without using the word “sorry”, but that’s just the croûton on the salad. What sets an amend apart from just apologizing is that it goes deeper. If I wreck your fence, I just don’t say “Sorry Bill, didn’t mean to run over your white picket” (do people still have white picket fences?) and leave poor Bill holding the shattered wood. I mend the fence. I make an amend.
And so when I approach someone who I have harmed in the past, I sit them down and tell them why I am making the amend. I tell them that I have harmed them and I tell them specifically what I did to them. If I owe them money, I bring a cheque. I then ask if there is anything I have left out, or if there is anything else I need to know. And then I shut up. And I might get an earful. I might get tears. I might get nothing. And then the meat and potatoes – I ask them if there is anything I can do to make things right. And I listen. And unless it’s illegal or immoral, I do it. End of sentence.
This step scared the living daylights out of me (do people still have living daylights?) when I thought about it early on in my recovery, but as I moved through the work, I found myself bolstered more and more by my progress, by my faith, by my ability to rely on the Creator to be there with me. Because when I make an amend, there are the three of us in that place. I am never alone on these wheely dealies. I’ve got the ultimate Wing Man. And here’s the deal with amends – it doesn’t matter how the person reacts, we are still clean on the matter. If they scream and holler, if they toss us out of the office, if they storm out of the cafe, if they hang up the phone…then we’ve done our Rock ‘N’ Roll duty. Mission accomplished.
As they say in 12-step recover, we “clean up our side of the street”. We don’t take responsibility for how the other person reacts. How they react is none of my business. I am taking responsibility for me and my actions and my trying to make reparation and redress. You see, in the end I am trying to free myself from the burdens of these old ways and harms of mine. I am freeing myself from the shackles of regret and remorse. I am taking the action of putting my life in order by embarking on a path of healing. And it’s amazing how many times we help others heal. It’s absolutely Ab Fab the way things turn out when we come to another person in complete and utter honesty and without cap in hand. We don’t come begging and we don’t cower before others. We come with head held high.
The final, final thing about amends is the aftermath. The ultimate reason in making my amends to someone is to mend my old behaviour. If I stole from you, tell you I stole from you, pay you back and you tell me that things are good with us, that’s great. But the meat and potatoes, the real takeaway is this: don’t steal again. From anyone. Ever. See how that works? I made my peace with that person, I owned up to my actions and have vowed now not to do that action again. Or else I am wasting my time. And you know what – the next time I think about removing something that isn’t mine to begin with, I will think about that amend. And if I still do it, I need to make yet another amend. Until I learn. And it’s in the learning that my behaviour changes. And I feel freer.
I have some wonderful stories of amends of my own, and have heard countless utterly fascinating ones from others. I do believe there is a time and place for each amend, and all amends require a bit of discussion with someone who is familiar with the process. Sometimes I found that I thought I needed to make an amend when really I didn’t (does Billy from Grade 5 need to hear you feel bad about pushing him in the mud that muggy day at recess?) And there are times I found myself needing to make an amend when I thought I didn’t (dang!) But in the end, how do I know if I need to make that amend? Simple. I listen to my heart and that little tiny voice that likes to tell me the right thing to do. I listen carefully, in silence, in meditation, in dreams, in mindfulness. And sometimes it’s the stern loving voice of my counsel telling me to get off my ass and knock on that door.
Sigh. Knock. Nerves. Prayer. Talk. Joy. Freedom.
People will often mention “living amends” – that is, the mere fact that they are not drinking absolves them of making certain amends, or any amends at all. Or if there is no real other way to make an amend. In my case, where I endangered my own son in my drinking and driving incident, I wouldn’t make a formal amend to him. But what I do is make sure that I am ever present and available to my boys at all times. That I am there emotionally for them, that I am there when they need me. That I am the best dad that I can be. That is my amend there. But often people will justify not getting out there and putting themselves out there by using the umbrella of “Well, I don’t drink any more, so that’s that. Everyone should be happy”. And while that may be true in some instances (the cashier from PayLess probably is okay without you making amends for being snarky or bitchy one day), there are times it is suitable to sit face-to-face and lay it out.
There are countless and imaginative and divinely inspired ways we make amends – too many to recount here, but it’s been interesting at times helping other people with their amends, especially for specific instances. What if the person is dead already? What if I can’t find the person? What if it’s something that will make things worse? What about the person who did more harm to us than we did them? What about the person we absolutely hate? What if coming clean will mean prison time? What if my amend will implicate someone criminally? There’s an app for that. An app-roach, that is. Tons of questions, and they all have answers. They all do. I have had to make several amends like this myself and/or help others with theirs.
In the end, this is not about making nice, but about making right. You may still lose the love of your life, or you might face jail time, or you might find yourself broke paying everyone back, or you may spend years hunting people down or you may be highly inconvenienced making amends…and that’s okay. No really, it’s okay. Because no matter what, you will find freedom. You will find that you no longer need to look over your shoulder, or shudder when the phone rings or get anxious when there is a knock at the door or when the inbox ding from your computer chimes. You will find freedom in knowing that you’ve done your part. That you’ve extended yourself out there to someone else. That you’re putting the past to bed for good and all.
This process may take years, and that’s okay too. I have stalled at times. I am in my last few amends, and it’s time I really got to them. They stick on my conscious like Post-It notes which means they clutter my soul and spirit. Which means I need a good Molly Maid clean on them and get my ass off the couch and knocking away on doors. These are on the Creator’s time, and not mine, but I still need to do the leg work. And it can be tough. But faith and perseverance, in the guise of courage, ploughs the road for us on these things and gives us clearance to clear the path further. And we are clear to land. We are safe. We are pushed outside our comfort zones and reaping the rewards of it.
It was a great joy the other day to meet these people, these ex-colleagues of mine, in the eye, press flesh on flesh and smile with true joy and love and camaraderie. To laugh out loud and be right in the moment, to be clear, be mindful and be respectful. And most of all, be free to be me in spite of my old me…or maybe because of my old me bringing me to this new me. Reaching out not only helps me in my journey of serenity, but often times it helps that other person heal too, because we never really know the damage that we’ve done until we come back to it.
Let the healing begin…reach out.