People have said from time to time that with Step Five they felt the presence of God, were walking on air afterwards, were free at last. Not so with me. By the time I encountered the steps, I had lost my second family because of drinking, had gone through a small fortune my parents could have used to enhance their own lives and then Iíd not finished my education, had been given faculty and management positions and abused the trust people had put in me, had abused friendships and had finally shamed myself and everybody else by becoming a drunk/drug addict living outdoors... Step Five bought me time, kept me sober and abstinent for a long time, but it was not until I faced the people I had wronged, had let down, in Step Nine that I felt life-changing things happening to me.
When I came into AA in Honolulu in 1975 they were talking about two recent Ninth Steps that were notable, and in a way that was my first impression of the process even before I read the literature. There were good and bad elements in these two examples, but they both say loud and clear, "I am willing to go to any lengths."
The first example was of an Algerian guy who had deserted from the army there, a capital offense, and somehow made his way west all the way to Hawaiíi where he got sober. His idea of doing Step Nine was to fly back to Algeria and say "Here I am, shoot me!" And he did, but they didnít. The Algerians were so impressed with his bravery and honesty that they put him in a good civil service position, and we assume he lived happily ever after.
Then there was Claude M. who had been the town drunk in Juneau, Alaska. He felt a good amend would be to go back there, take whatever job the city would offer him whether animal control or trash collection, and do the job well and be a good citizen. Well, he was so talented and such a good citizen that before long they prevailed on him to run for mayor. And he became the mayor of Juneau.
So, before ever picking up the Big Book or the 12 & 12, or even going to a step meeting, I learned at Wailana Coffee Shop after the meetings 1) that one must be willing to go to any length in making an amend, and 2) that it would turn out well and youíd live happily ever after. Those lessons required some fine-tuning as we will see below.
Iím afraid I had more than a little of the Algerian guy in me. I was wanted by the sheriff back in Texas, but not in the sense that he was going to arrest me ≠ they had planned to do away with me because of my civil rights work and because I was living with a black woman. And when Iíd found out through a sympathetic court clerk how they were planning to do that, and which day, Iíd run away to Hawaiíi and changed my name and they hadnít found me. Now, a mere three years after that, I wanted to go back and make some kind of grand gesture, donít know exactly what, that might well have gotten me killed and dumped into a swamp.
This is the most extreme illustration of how little balance and judgment I had, but it was a general pattern. The AA literature talks of those who feel theyíve done no wrong except a little drinking, and of those who are drowning in guilt and remorse. I was the second type. I thought the amends step should be at the very first of the list. Good sponsors and heroes in program talked some sense into me about the sheriff affair, but I did charge off to Texas, quietly, and visit family and let them know I was trying to change. One night I drove my momís car over to the house of a man whose marriage Iíd broken up, only to find the neighborhood had been bulldozed for commercial buildings. It began to dawn on me even at that moment that maybe the timing of these meetings was out of my hands and maybe for the better. Once I returned to Hawaiíi my sponsors had a lot to say about working the steps in order, timing, having the right motivation... I had a lot more grand gesture in me than humility. At that time my idea of an amend to my first wife would have been to hit the lottery, hand her a few tens of thousands and tell her where to shove it.
By the time Iíd done my first inventory and Fifth Step and had gone over my Eight Step list with my sponsor sitting by the Ala Wai, the grand gesture idea had melted away and instead I felt remorse and shame for the harms I had done others and terror at the idea of facing them. Humiliation came before humility as the 12 & 12 says.
The guy with the wife, we talked calmly on the phone a few years later and both said kind things and forgiveness happened. Turned out he had gone the same route I had and had suffered a lot of the same consequences but wasnít sober yet.
Two meetings that came of that session by the Ala Wai are still fresh in my mind. They were straightforward and needed to be done right now. The week of my last drink was kaleidoscopic and I hadnít shown up for my part-time maintenance job at the Polynesian Singles Apartments in Waikiki, a snake pit with three bars on the premises. And the manager, a gorgeous person, had fired me, angrily told me to take my tools home. I did take my tools home, and some of hers too, as was my way. Now, like Rachelís parentsí bones in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the tools had haunted me for the first year of my sobriety as they sat there in their brown Safeway bag in my living room. Iíd known from the first week that I would have to return them and simply could not face the humiliation of giving them back. I gathered all my courage, climbed the stairs in the old converted hotel and knocked on her door hoping she would not be home. I waited. Whew. Good. Sheís not here. Iíll leave the tools and a note. Shit. She answered the door. I blurted out, "Iím returning your tools that I took, and I didnít take them by mistake." She was so astonished she could not even respond, accepted the tools and got rid of me as quickly as possible.
The second meeting was with a Chinese/Hawaiíian man whoíd been my boss ≠ he was a property manager and I was a maintenance man ≠ during the last years of my drinking. Many times Iíd taken tools home, or gone across the street to K-Mart and bought a skillet, written "hammer" on the receipt and turned it in for reimbursement. Al listened to my rather detailed confession and said "We KNEW you were stealing but we wanted to keep you and didnít know what to do about it." Then he brightened up and said, "You know, your coming in here and telling me all this just confirms all the good things I always thought about you."
There were some more meetings along this line. Though I offered to try to pay them back at some time in the future, the universal response was "Weíre glad youíre on the right track now, thatís what matters." They might as well have said "Go thy way and sin no more."
Something began to happen to me as a result of these early amends. The walking-on-air feeling certainly followed ≠ and the feeling that the drink/drug problem had been removed [and it works this way with food too] ≠ but it was something more subtle. I was aware that I did not want to steal or lie any more because it was so DAMNED humiliating to face the person and make it right. But one day I woke up and found I did not WANT something that wasnít mine, that I didnít want to put a person above me by telling them a lie and having to remember it. I canít explain why lying does that, but it works that way for me. It was in the amends process that I began to be amended, at the character level.
One thing thatís very important, and itís Step Eight stuff, is readiness. There are amends that seemingly canít be made but you look into your heart and say "I am ready to make this amend the moment it becomes possible." I have one of those, to a Peace Corps friend Jerry D. who I know I hurt by an arrogant cold remark the very last time we talked, and it was about 1966, still makes my heart hurt to remember it. And I havenít been able to find him, even with Internet searches. I would pour my heart out and tell him how wrong I was, even after all these years, if he crossed my path one day.
And there was somebody else who came up on one of my inventories. A few days after my father died, one of the most intense short periods in my life, and I was drunk around the clock, my sonís friend stayed over one night. The two of them picked on the second son and made him cry, and I way way overreacted. I went off on the two older kids, and the friend, Kevin, had possibly not seen adults get out of control like this, and he was terrified and threw up. Many years later, here I am doing a fourth step and I remember how ashamed and sorry I felt about this incident. I thought I would make an amend if I knew his name and where he was, but I didnít even know his last name any more. Well one day I was visiting Texas and drove by a street named Easy Street where Kevinís family had lived, and his last name jumped into my mind.
My knees felt physically weak when I realized it might be possible to contact him. I drove to my momís house, looked up his name and indeed he lived on Easy Street in the house that had belonged to his parents. I called him, told him who I was, talked about the incident and how sorry I felt about it. He was grown now, a young police officer, and had no recollection of the incident OR who I was but wished me a good recovery in a cordial way ≠ as one would be polite to a total stranger who was a little off like the Ancient Mariner ≠ and I was left with a strange feeling about the whole thing. AND I had picked up the phone and done the thing I was taught to do, sometimes just knowing that is enough.
One more. At the time I ran away from the law in East Texas in 1971, Iíd taken out a Republic National Bank MasterCard. I ran up $632 in charges on it and never looked back. Now fast forward to 1989, now nearly fifteen years sober and in my first good-paying job at the State Dept. Some of these old financial amends had just dragged and I hadnít taken care of them. I wrote a check for $632 to the Republic National Bank in Dallas and put it in the mail. A little like pulling my own teeth. A good while later, the check came back to me, sent by another bank with the message that the Republic National Bank had died and gone to heaven, and there was not even a trace of an entity that would have the authority to receive a payment from me. So forget it, hereís your check.
I called my sponsor Johnnie and said "EEHEE, I get to keep the six hundred dollars now, right?" I donít know about you, but I always have something I can do with six hundred dollars. Johnnie said, "This is where you make amends to SUCH people. You take that money and see that it goes to a place where it will do some good, and donít let them know you are Ďgivingí it to them." At the time I was PTA president of a bilingual elementary school in a poor neighborhood in Arlington VA. I went to the principal and told him, "I have some money that is not mine, and I have been told to give it to a good cause. I know you know the families here and you will be the best person to see that this money goes to the right place." And something happened in my heart I canít explain, I became different by doing that.
There are a few more things that I think of as amends, things that were arranged for me and handed to me as tasks to complete so that I could become whole. That means a couple more stories.
For me as a Jew, these things fall under the heading of Tikkun which literally means "repair," but it is repair in a soul-sense.
As Iíve told you, I had a sense of shame and sadness about not having followed through with my education when my parents had generously turned loose of money they could have used to enhance their own lives. About a year and a half into the AA program, after Iíd lost and regained all my weight and couldnít get back to OA and was in the menís halfway house, was one of my lifetime low points. Ralph, the director of the house, asked me if Iíd like to help him with his commercial beekeeping business and I agreed, just to have something interesting to do, even though I saw it was a pretty small operation. Sometime into the deal, I caught the bus out to his house one day and saw a twelve-pack of beer in the fridge with a couple of cans missing. Ralph was drinking.
In a short time, Ralph came up with a proposal that we would present a false package to the bank saying that I was putting in $5,000 of my own money and asking them to lend me another $5,000 to buy his business for what they would think was $10,000 ≠ it included a truck, tools, beehives, a lease with the Navy on good bee pasture at Barberís Point NAS. I was not about to do that. But I called my mom and told her, "This guy needs some money to drink on and I think I can buy this business for $3,000." My mom shrewdly said "Offer him $2,000 and Iíll come up with the money." He took the $2,000 and I started to learn how to think like a person in commercial agriculture. I went to the School of Tropical Agriculture at UH and took a course in commercial beekeeping. And I built the business up and loved doing it, and sold it for a good many times what Iíd paid for it, and PAID HER BACK. That was probably the first time Iíd done that in my life. And then a few years later, I let her help me get back into graduate study and this time I finished my PhD.
Today when my mom and I look into each otherís eyes, there is a depth and a shared history and a feeling of integrity on both sides. It didnít come from a single act of making a Ninth Step amend ≠ in fact, she was uncomfortable when I tried to do that ≠ but rather from my becoming the person of integrity my old folks had always thought me to be.
Another thing that brought me a feeling of shame when I thought about it was how Iíd let my students down on my last teaching job, from which Iíd finally been fired for drinking/drugs/getting involved with my teaching assistant who I later married, not showing up for classes, there were probably more reasons too... It was a little black college, Jarvis Christian College, and poor, and they paid me generously and deserved more than that from me. Iíd had the thought from time to time that I would like a chance to make that right by DOING it right, trying it again but putting my best into it this time.
Fast forward ≠ Iíd gotten fired from Jarvis Christian in 1971 and it was in 1998 after we moved down to Texas that a professor I was talking to at the local junior college told me to go over to Texas College, a poor black college in Tyler, and ask if I could see their new computer lab and tell them he had sent me. I followed the lead, not planning to ask about a job but just to follow a lead. They saw by the questions I asked that I was pretty strong in educational technology, and they offered me a teaching position along with IT work. The next year I was IT director of the college. It all ended with me getting crossways with this big werewolf of a president and storming off in a huff, things donít have to end well all the time and they sure donít where my temperament is concerned. But I did spend a year and a half giving that little college and my students the best I had and seeing them benefit a lot from it.
Many years earlier, 1976 and newly sober, I had gone to the president of that same college, who had been my department chair when I taught at Jarvis, and had a talk with him and made what I called an amend. But the real amend was to go BACK there as a faculty member and show up every day and give them something back.
This is the last one, I promise. There was nothing I felt more ashamed about than my having left my four kids half-grown and let them grow up without me, and then losing my second wife and stepson even though it was her choice and not mine. I wondered how I would ever make it up to them. It didnít occur to me that the making up didnít need to happen for THEM after they were now grown, but I might be given a chance to make it up in another way. So, after I was already a grandfather and my first batch of kids were on their life paths, Seth came along with his handicap and I was given the chance of a lifetime, there is nothing sweeter, a chance to give my best to an undertaking I had failed at before. And Iíve done a credible job.
So when they talk about timing of amends, itís deeper that what it would seem on its face. There are those meetings that happen unexpectedly but which turn out later to have been exactly right. And then too, once your heart begins to change, once you start to seek to be in harmony with the forces of the universe, opportunities start to show up, opportunities to do something right that you failed badly at before. A clear head and a clean heart put you in a place where you can recognize those opportunities.
The AA Big Book has a couple of paragraphs, Iím going to quote them below, that some groups read and call "The Promises." Actually, those promises show up in the last two paragraphs under Step Nine. It has been my experience exactly, that Step Nine is the place where the big earth-moving changes started to happen with me.
Here are the promises, and Iíll tell you before I cite them that when it says "... we were amazed before we were halfway through," I found that to be so true that I stopped for a good while, being amazed and halfway through. You donít have to stop.
"If we are painstaking about this phase of our development [Step Nine they mean], we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
"Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them."
STEP NINE ~ QUESTIONS
1. Having read the stories and thoughts above, does it strike you that there are amends you need to make that should be made NOW and there is no reason to put them off? Why don't you talk to your sponsor about making one or two of them and then say your prayers and DO IT before you continue with these questions.
2. How did it go? How was it received? Was it different from what you' d imagined it would be?
3. Do you carry a sense of shame about your failure in some area, especially a feeling that you've let other people down in a big way?
4. Are you open to the idea that you might be given an opportunity to erase that failure by "taking the course over and making an A in it?" Not necessarily with the same people.
5. What do you think about the idea that God as you understand God might give you the power, change you, in such a way that you could be the person you never were and make the life-amend by doing something that mattered, in a way that you could not do it before?
6. Money. It was easier to say I was wrong, face people, than it was to give them the goddamn money. Can you give them the goddamn money? How does it feel?
7. Essay question. Have you made an amend, either in the sense of a personal meeting where things are discussed, or in the sense of some of the long-term life-changes that make things right in a big way, that you would like to tell us about? One that stands out as being especially meaningful to you? It might help others get ready to do the same thing.