Because active addiction means being chronically under the influence of a substance, people often act in ways they later regret. This is one reason making amends is part of the steps in AA and NA. But even if a 12-step fellowship isn’t the route you take, making amends can be an important part of recovery.
I haven’t used a 12-step program, but over my years in sobriety I have reached out to several people I harmed in active addiction. But not right away—making amends takes a level of sober self-awareness that takes time to gain. This is probably why in AA and NA, it doesn’t start until the 8th step. You need time to fully understand your behaviors and their impacts.
Ask yourself some questions before reaching out to apologize. Would hearing from you cause the person more pain? Or would receiving an apology help them heal? Of course, you can never predict how someone is going to react—but you can use the self-awareness you’ve built to have a sense of your effect on people. If you don’t think your apology will be welcome, it won’t be helpful to the person or to you.
When you are making amends, be specific and honest. A vague apology can fall flat. If you don’t remember exact details due to your substance use, it’s okay to say that. In at least one apology, I was clear that I’d blacked out a lot of the details of why the person was mad. They still forgave me.
Make sure to actively listen to the person’s response. Even if you’ve planned what you’re going to say—which is understandable—you should be flexible if the conversation goes in an unexpected direction. Keep in mind that the person might not forgive you; this is their right, but it doesn’t mean you can’t forgive yourself.
It may seem like much of this is out of your control; you may decide you shouldn’t contact some people and others might not forgive you. But making amends isn’t only direct apologies. At least in my opinion, it is more broadly about living in alignment with your stated values.
If you apologize for a behavior, people want to see that you’ve stopped engaging in it. You can live by this, even if you haven’t apologized to anyone specifically. This means that if you have pinpointed harmful ways you’ve acted in the past, do the work to not repeat them. That could involve therapy to help you understand the underlying causes that led you to use substances, which helps explain your behaviors while under the influence.
When I was about four years sober, I reached out to apologize to—and forgive—someone who I still believe wronged me in many ways. The story I had told myself in active addiction, and in the first couple years of sobriety, was that they were a terrible person who had messed up my life.
But around four years, I started to understand the ways I had also acted harmfully, and that I had purposefully withheld forgiveness. I don’t believe that anyone owes it to someone who has harmed them to either forgive or apologize, but in my case, it felt important.
This was the result of years of therapy and work in sobriety to get out of the black-and-white thinking that they were wrong and I was right. Forgiveness is as much a process as making amends, and neither are linear. For instance, you might forgive one day and later realize you are still not over certain things, and that’s okay. But it has been freeing to work towards both.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. TruHealing Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you build self-awareness and healthy coping skills. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.