Cleaning up one’s past is an important part of any recovery. Addicts are, almost inevitably, people who have lied, cheated and/or stolen when they were active in their addiction. It’s an ugly symptom of an even uglier disease. When we get sober, the way we behaved when we were drinking and using can plague us. Making amends is an important way of freeing ourselves from being haunted by our past actions. It’s a way to make things right both for ourselves and the people we affected.

Many people associate the concept of amends with the 12 steps, but I believe it’s essential to any program of recovery. Frankly, I believe it’s an essential part of being human. We will all make mistakes sometimes. We will all behave poorly. We are all imperfect.

Forgiveness seems like it would be an essential part of the amends process, but that’s actually quite far from the truth. Getting sober does not mean we deserve to be forgiven. I’m fortunate that when I went to speak to the majority of the people to whom I owed amends, and asked them how I could rectify the situation, they simply asked that I stay sober. In the cases where I hoped to have an ongoing friendship or relationship with someone, they were open to that — again, as long as I stayed sober. I did not deserve this level of generosity, but I’m incredibly grateful for it.

The Unforgiven

There is one big exception to this happily ever after: my ex-boyfriend, Adam.* To be clear, I was such a jerk to him it borders on the unprintable. I lied about my drinking and when my lies became thinner and more erratic, I accused him of being the crazy one. I tried to make him believe he was paranoid and untrusting when he was completely accurate in his assessment of the situation. I spun an angry, drunken, crazy web of lies, and then tried to trap him there like a fly, afraid that if he got out he would see the truth. Of course, when my lies got too weighty the whole operation came tumbling down. We tried to stay together after I got out of treatment, but too much damage had been done.
The loss I feel when I think about Adam isn’t one of romantic longing. I think he and I both moved on in that department years ago. It’s an equally selfish feeling, though: I want him in my life. There was a time I loved him as a partner and I still love him as a friend. For years we lived in different states but now we both live in California (albeit in different parts). Still, our relative proximity makes it seem like a friendship with him is close enough to touch.

Adam has accepted the amends I made about the way I behaved, but he has no desire to be friends with me. And I don’t blame him. I don’t know if I would want to be friends with me after all that deception and heartache, either. Many people think that making amends — acknowledging what you did wrong and trying to rectify the situation — is the same thing as asking forgiveness. It’s not. If you apologize to the store owner you stole from and pay him back, he still has every right to be angry that you stole from his store. Anyone you make amends with may, in fact, never forgive you. We make amends to try to alleviate any harm done to the other party and also as a commitment to ourselves and our new, honest, way of life.

I know I’m lucky that there’s only one loss from my drinking days that I am responsible for creating. But it stings my heart every time I think about the friendship that Adam and I could have, were it not for my drinking (and all the lying that came along with my drinking). Unlike I would have done pre-sobriety, though, I don’t try to numb the sting away. I let myself carry that small pocket of pain in my heart. I don’t try to soothe myself with the knowledge that the threat of losing him was part of my willingness to seek treatment (though it was). Instead, I take a moment to truly feel the absence of such a wonderful person in my life. I let that soak in without the anesthetizing effects of alcohol. I think about how easily that ache could be amplified if I drink again, how many other people I would lose.

When you are not forgiven, you are simply not forgiven. As much as we might want to, we can’t change the facts. But my favorite part of the amends process is the concept of living amends: the notion that when you can’t right the past, the best thing you can do is proceed on the right path in the future. Spend some time on that slow, dusty path of honesty. Once you do, you may find that you have begun to forgive yourself.

*Name has been changed