ACCORDING to the Big Book, cofounder Doctor Bob was the first AA member to have a slip. Coming off a roaring bender, he saw that he would have to face his problems squarely: "One morning he took the bull by the horns and set out to tell those he feared what his trouble had been. Stepping into his car, he made the rounds of people he had hurt. He trembled as he went about, for this might mean ruin, particularly to a person in his line of business."
Far from bringing ruin. Doctor Bob's bold action marked a new beginning, bringing great personal happiness and opportunities for service in the fifteen years remaining to him. He was, as the Grapevine noted after his death, a person who had truly become reconciled with his fellowman.
Doctor Bob also showed how the Ninth Step should be handled. He was a physician and often had to face hard decisions in his own work with patients, sometimes advising them of their need for risky, painful surgery. He knew that it was useless to put such matters off or try to avoid them altogether, so he faced the self-surgery of amends-making with acceptance and determination to do the job thoroughly.
The result? As the account in the Big Book continues: "At midnight he came home exhausted, but very happy. He has not had a drink since. He now means a great deal to his community, and the major liabilities of thirty years of hard drinking have been repaired in four."
Additional payoffs for this AA co-founder in taking the Ninth Step were sobriety and happiness, and the experience of other AA members generally has been along the same line: If we want to enjoy sobriety with happiness, we ought to clear up the past. While it is undoubtedly true that some people manage to avoid drinking without making amends, it is unlikely that many attain real happiness until they do so. And without happiness, who lives well in the present or faces the future with hope?
In Doctor Bob's ease, most of his initial amends-making seemed to involve contacting people in person and extending apologies or offers to remedy certain problems. We do not know the nature of his wrongs, or whether his efforts were received graciously by everyone he visited. It is also possible that in some cases a mere verbal apology could not have repaired all the damage. The important thing is that he made amends directly and pushed aside fear and pride to get the job done. When it was finished, he had a feeling of great relief, as if a great burden had been removed.
"Direct" is the key word in this Step. There are times, I'm afraid, when many of us are hopeful that indirect amends will suffice, sparing us the pain and supposed humiliation of approaching people in person and telling them of our wrongs. This is evasion and will never give us a true sense of breaking with the wrongdoings of the past. It indicates that we are still trying to defend something that isn't worth defending, hanging on to conduct that we ought to abandon. And the usual reasons for sidestepping direct amends arc pride and fear.
The questions arise: "What harmful actions should I have in mind when I take the Ninth Step? Which persons should I approach?" We should include here--if we have completed the Eighth Step--any action where we were wrong even in part and any persons who were harmed by this action.
Does this include bartenders whom we may have insulted? Many AA members point out that bartenders and tavern owners are well paid to accept insults, and therefore no amends-making is required. Actually, a brief apology should be extended in most of these cases, as a matter of courtesy. But barroom insults, as a rule, do not cause lasting harm. "Harmed," as it is used in the Eighth Step and implied in the Ninth, means: caused other persons to suffer physical injury, emotional pain, financial loss, or other damage through actions or neglect on our part.
Because money is so important to many of us, financial harm should head the list. Making amends ought to include paying debts or visiting creditors whom we have been avoiding. But it is not enough to visit a creditor with only an apology and a promise to pay; these must be followed up with actual cash payments as soon as possible. Only in this way are we showing sincerity of purpose and true financial responsibility.
A more difficult problem faces the person who has been guilty of undetected crime, such as embezzlement or pilfering. Direct amends in a case like this could bring injury, such as disgrace and impoverishment to his family. The problem should be handled through prayer and meditation, along with personal discussion with a trusted friend. Perhaps a way of making amends in an indirect manner--suitable, for once, in this situation--will appear. Fortunately, the member has an excellent way of determining whether the method is the correct one for his needs. It is this: If the action removes his own sense of shame and guilt, giving him a feeling of peace and relief, it has probably been the correct one.
I would hardly know how to begin advising the person whose actions resulted in more serious crimes--for example, an individual who caused a death through a still-unsolved hit-and-run accident. I think it is doubtful, however, that any lasting peace or self-forgiveness could ever come about without some kind of open admission.
I have heard much discussion about the clause "except when to do so would injure them or others." It seems plain to me that an obvious case would he the husband who cheated on his wife, but would hurt her a second time by telling her of his escapades. There are probably other occasions when a frank disclosure would turn out to be more harmful than helpful. The AA principle to follow would always be in the direction of being hard and uncompromising in dealing with ourselves, but considerate and discreet where others are involved. There is a great deal of common sense in the AA program, despite the fact that we often seem to be swimming against the title of general behavior in our principles and actions. We do not, merely for the sake of an obscure principle, always tell the whole truth at all costs. And the Ninth Step seems to make that plain.
Perhaps we can make up for the limitation through a more subtle method of making amends, one that seems to be accepted by a large number of AA members. This is the method of making amends by living in the right way and meeting one's own obligations and responsibilities. Quite often, this can be more important to certain people than any amount of personal apologies or expressions of regret. Such amends are actually direct, because they have a direct effect on the lives of others.
A friend of mine, for example, neglected his family for the first few years of his marriage. It was too late to save his marriage by the time he arrived in AA, but it was not too late to give his children as much assistance as possible at critical stages in their lives. What could he more direct than this?
Another friend was in trouble with the law repeatedly, spending almost sixteen years in prison. But his parents had the joy of seeing him recover before they passed on, and their joy erased much of the pain and disgrace he had once brought them. And if his defiant course once placed a burden on society, he has more than made direct amends to society as well, through his work in helping others who have been similarly defiant.
Finally, there is always the thought of what might have been if only we had not neglected a responsibility or failed to take advantage of an opportunity. In more than a few cases, alcoholics ought to make amends to themselves, for they were the chief victims of their own harmful thoughts and actions. Even here, direct amends are often possible. I feel strongly that my own night-school education over the past few years, leading to a high-school diploma and then to graduation from our local community college, is in this category. If any alcoholic feels that sins of omission or commission denied him some supposed good in life, he should ask himself whether it really is too late to make it up to himself. The only barrier, in many cases, is not age at all; often, it is only a mixture of fear and laziness.
By taking the Ninth Step in all its various forms, we pay off any debt we may have to the past. Alcoholics Anonymous is a program of renewal and rebirth, and we have no business hanging on to things that are going to mar today's happiness, If fear is keeping us from making amends, we should destroy fear long enough to do the job. If pride is the deterrent, we should rise above it for the occasion. If laziness is involved, we should gather all the energy we can find and deliberately order laziness to stand aside while we do what needs to he done.
When we have paid the great price--taken "the bull by the horns." as Doctor Bob did--we will find that the action has opened up a whole new world for us, one that we could never find on the old basis. And while we make amends directly to others, the real, lasting benefits come to us. This should certainly he reason enough for facing up to the Ninth Step.
M. D. B.