“We will not regret, nor wish to shut the door on it.”
This was a tough blog to write. I want to thread the needle; I want to relate some solid help from 12-step recovery sources without angering some of my faithful readers who become angry with any mention of 12 step recovery.
So you’ve been warned.
I know 12-step recovery isn’t for everyone. Some people tell of bad experiences with 12-step groups. And I know millions of people have been helped by these groups, too. So take what you like from this blog entry, leave the rest, and if you read something helpful, I’ll be happy. If not, try again next week because my topics fluctuate.
I talk to many recovering addicts who voice regrets about their past. The stories vary; the patients’ main theme is regret for behavior during active addiction. I understand those feelings, and feel tempted to tell patients how to deal with these feelings… but I don’t say anything, for fear that I’ll sound too “preachy.” Who am I to tell someone that they can examine past regrets, learn from previous mistakes, make amends when needed, and face the future with a clean slate? Isn’t that a conversation for a priest, imam, rabbi, or pastor?
Yes, it is. And yet, this person is in my office. Many times my patients tell me they feel unworthy to join or rejoin a religious community, and feel judged by such groups. Some of my patients’ perceptions could be colored by their own shame, but I fear many of them are accurate in their perceptions. Addiction is still regarded as a sin by some religious groups. Other groups know addiction isn’t a sin but a disease, which can cause us to do and say things we regret, which are contrary to our values
Twelve step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have mechanisms for dealing with past regrets and ruptured relationships. These groups didn’t invent anything new. They use the same approach as other spiritual and religious groups, which are also sound psychological advice. However, the twelve steps provide a handy framework for handling regrets.
First, in Step 4, the recovering person assesses past behavior, called a “moral inventory” in recovery parlance. That inventory is shared with themselves (ending denial), another trusted person, and the god of their understanding. Patterns of behavior emerge, giving information to be used in steps 6 and 7, where the person becomes willing to give up old behavior and ask the god of their understanding for help with this.
In step 8, the recovering person lists the people he has harmed while in active addiction. With the aid of a sponsor or trusted spiritual advisor, in Step 9 the recovering person makes plans for how best to make up for past behavior.
Amends can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry,” to someone for past bad behavior, or amends can be more extended, like resolving to be fully emotionally present for loved ones.
Sometimes direct amends aren’t possible, if the person has moved away, died, or unable to be located. A more general amends can be made instead. For example, if a person shoplifted to support their addiction, it may be impossible to remember where and what was stolen. Part of the amends process is not to repeat the old behavior, but a more general amends may involve volunteering in the same community to help society in some way, like donating to a food bank or giving time to help a child in need.
If the recovering person feels guilty about stealing money, amends may include apologizing for the past behavior, and making a plan of re-payment. For example, I know a person in recovery now for over 16 years who sends a check for $25 each month to a governmental agency to whom he owned money after a criminal conviction. He may never get the full amount paid off, but he’s taking action to fix what he broke.
Addiction taught harsh lessons that came at exorbitant prices, so we should learn from past mistakes. Recovering people can move forward by planning amends for past actions, but also should consult a sponsor or spiritual guide for help. For example, if an addict stole money from a drug dealer, it should not be paid back, especially if it puts the recovering addict at risk. In some situations, the best amends may mean having no contact with the other person.
Some recovering addicts have long lists of bad behavior to make amends for, and other recovering addicts’ lists may contain only a few people. Many addicts harmed only their immediate family, by not being completely emotionally available to their spouses or children during their addiction. Some recovering people feel just as bad about that as others feel about committing armed robbery for drug money.
The point of amends isn’t how bad the behavior was, but how the recovering person feels, and how he can leave behind guilt and shame and move forward.
Addiction, like some other diseases, affects behavior. Rather than living with regrets, recovery means facing regrets, learning from them, fixing what we can, and then moving on. It doesn’t matter what you call it: making amends, cleaning your side of the street, getting right with the god of your understanding, or some other term.