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Last night, I met with one of my Sponsees after a CoDA meeting. On the phone, she’d said she has some questions about step eight, and from her tone I gathered that she was struggling with something.
We settled into the old-but-comfortable couch in a back room of the Alano Club where we our meetings are held. I noted the furrowed lines between her eyebrows.
She talked a little about the work she’d been doing as she produced a small stack of papers. On the top sheet was a list of names. Some were highlighted. One name - that of her ex-husband - had a big question mark next to it.
She drummed her index finger on the question mark and said, "I can’t do this. I’ve been anguishing over it for weeks."
I said, “This step is not supposed to be painful. It can be scary, but if it's bringing up this kind of intensity, there’s a good reason."
We talked about her ex. He's an alcoholic. He was emotionally abusive, extremely controlling, and sometimes shaming during their long marriage. He’d cheated on her. He had a history of saying things to their children (who are now all adults) in order to sway them away from her.
And, she'd made some mistakes. She was trying to come to terms with them. "I'm really over him. I mean, what I really ought to do is thank him because if he hadn't been who he was and done what he did, I never would have become who I am, today."
"That's great. I think gratitude is the opposite of anger. Progressing that far is a big deal."
"But... do I have to make amends to him?"
"You don't have to do anything. This is your program."
"Yes... but I feel like... I don't know. I should do something. I can't just let this go."
She can't let it go. That seemed to be the important part. That's what I felt we needed to work on.
"Okay... let's remember to take this one step at a time. Right now, that means working on step eight. This step only asks us to make a list of everyone we've harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. You don't have to be willing when you put the name on the page. Becoming willing is part of the process."
There was still doubt on her face.
I went on. "In the next step, we're asked to 'make direct amends whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.' Whenever possible. That tells you that sometimes it isn't possible."
The tight line of her mouth began to relax. "How do you know if it's not possible or if you're just avoiding what you should do?"
"Well, it says not to make amends if it would be harmful to anyone. YOU are included in 'anyone'. If it is going to be harmful to you to make direct amends to your ex-husband, than it is not what you should do."
She looked right in my eyes, as if searching.
I made a conscious effort to hold her gaze, feeling a connection. This kind of connection still intimidates me, a little bit. In the past, I was terrified in moments of closeness because of my own history. Just in the last year, a door has been opening within me. Intimacy – elusive, longed-for and feared – is slowly coming into my life. Eye contact is a piece of that. I’ve been testing it out in my sessions with C, sometimes daring to make eye-contact even in very emotional moments. It can feel very intense, but I'm learning that intensity is not always a bad thing.
I said, “Sometimes we feel bad about our part in things, even when the other person has hurt us more than we’ve hurt them. Some of the people on your list may stay for a long time. Some may stay there forever. We can only do what we can do. We work towards becoming willing, but when it isn't possible to make direct amends, we can make them indirectly."
Her relief was palpable.
"So, in this instance, how might you make indirect amends?"
“Well, admitting it to myself is a start. Admitting it to God? Letting it go? Making sure I don't do it again?”
I smiled. “You’ve just summed up steps four through seven."
As I've come to understand them, the steps are all about ownership. Throught the steps, we come to own what’s ours. We own our pasts as we write our fourth step. In step five, we share what we’ve written with another person, which brings it all home in a new way. It’s much harder to pretend the past doesn’t exist when someone else knows.
From there, we move into owning our faults with God – first just by admitting them, and then by turning them over, and finally in asking for help as we move forward so we won’t make the same mistakes again in steps six and seven.
Steps eight and nine are the final stage of ownership. We own our mistakes with those people who were directly affected by them - with those we’ve harmed. It can be the scariest part of owning our humanness. It is also the most rewarding and entirely necessary if we want to be all we can be.
It’s only in removing all the debris of our pasts that we can be ready to move into the last few steps, which are (in my opinion) about intimacy with ourselves and with God. Like any other relationship, it isn’t possible to have true intimacy without complete honesty.
I said, “Sometimes what we need is a ritual of some kind to help signify the transition from one state to another. For instance, I have a friend to whom I feel I owe amends, but she passed away twenty years ago. Logically, I know that is a long time to hold on to my guilt. It's obviously not hurting her, anymore. Like resentments, the guilt we hold onto only hurts us. It doesn't affect the other person. That's why making amends is really about us and not about the people to whom we make them. If we are making them for other people, we really aren't getting the most out of it."
"As far as this friend of mine goes, I’ve written out what I feel bad about, I’ve shared it, I’ve meditated on it, but it’s still there. I can't completely let it go. I need to do something. I've been thinking about how to make indirect amends to her for more than a year and I've finally decided to plant a tree in her honor. It’s something she would love, and I believe it would symbolically help me move out of the past. It's like walking through a door. The tree would remind me that I've let it go and am now on the other side.”
She made a note next to the question mark, and then folded the pages. As she thanked me and hugged me, I felt a great sense of gratitude.
It was very helpful to crystallize my understanding of this step by sharing it with someone else. It's also wonderful to feel as if I had the right words to help her find her way through. The connections I've made with her and others who attend my CoDA meetings have enriched my life in ways that were totally unexpected and are too numerous to count.
One other thing we talked about, last night, was how different it is coming to meetings now than it was in the beginning. At first, every meeting seems to hold an abundance of growth. After a while, it's harder to see progress.
I think this is because we come into the program with a deep hole. Gradually, we fill it in with shovels full of strength and experience. Over time, it becomes a mound. I'm still climbing up onto the progress of each shovel I empty, it's just harder to notice them from up here on this mountain.
The view is spectacular.