Making Amends: How to Repair the Damage Caused by Active Addiction

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When someone is struggling with substance abuse, their disease affects not only themselves but also everyone around them. Addiction negatively impacts family dynamics by distorting the substance user’s thoughts, causing them to believe they need alcohol or drugs for survival, and behaving in ways that aren’t aligned with their true values. The person may withdraw from those closest to them, be quick to lash out, or even steal from family and friends. When a person gets sober, it can be difficult to process the pain they have caused their loved ones. Making amends, however, can help repair strained relationships while also reinforcing recovery.

What Is “Making Amends” and Why Is it Important?

Making amends is about acknowledging and correcting the harm you have inflicted on your family or friends during active addiction. It is more than just saying “sorry” to someone. You must demonstrate your remorse with actions, not just words, and how you aim to fix the broken relationship. The process can bring significant benefits such as freedom from guilt or shame, regained trust, and increased self-esteem—but making amends is not only about doing good for yourself; it’s also about doing good for others.

When initiating conversations with your loved ones, it’s important to listen to and validate their feelings so that both parties can begin to forgive and heal from past disagreements or even trauma. Just as the process can help you gain a sense of closure and start fresh, it can also help others do the same.

When Do You Start Making Amends in Recovery?

For the amends process to be successful, you first need to focus on healing yourself, and then be willing to forgive yourself and others. The concept of making amends originates from the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which provides a framework for individuals to build a long-lasting, sustainable recovery.

The initial 7 steps are about inward self-reflection and transformation, while steps 8 and 9 focus on fixing interpersonal relationships. Step 8 is confronting your mistakes and making a list of people you have hurt with your negative actions. Step 9 is about meeting with those people to actively redress the wrongs. The 12 steps are beneficial in helping people smoothly transition to each new stage in their recovery.

Addictions expert Patrick McCarthy, CAC, who has two decades of sobriety, says, “There’s a reason step 9 comes later in the program [of Alcoholics Anonymous]. It was at this point that the previous steps had changed me. When I made amends to the people on my list, they truly saw a different person standing in front of them — one that was honest and accountable.”

What Are the Different Types of Amends You Can Make?

There is not one standard way to go about making amends and repairing a connection with someone, especially after years of substance abuse. When you feel ready, take time to think about each person and the extent of the damage done. This will guide you in determining the best type of amends to begin rebuilding trust with those you have harmed.

It is also best to have your sponsor or spiritual advisor guide you through this part of the 12 steps. There are certain instances where making amends may not be safe or may cause more harm than good. Sometimes, you may not receive an expected response, and you may not be forgiven. In all of these circumstances, your AA or NA sponsor and your support network are crucial aspects during the amends process.

Direct Amends

Direct amends involve meeting the individual in person to correct your wrongdoings. Your goal is to show you reflected on your mistakes, are truly sorry for the pain caused, and are ready to translate words into actions. Avoid general statements like, “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done.” Be specific with your apology and include concrete plans to restore the relationship. The other person will better appreciate your sincerity, feel more understood, and thus be more receptive to the apology.

Perhaps while you were in active addiction, you betrayed your loved one by stealing money from them. Now is your chance to apologize for that behavior and repay them. Make a direct, financial amend by setting up recurring payments until you have repaid everything you owe. If money is tight, discuss with your sponsor other possible methods of compensation and how to better manage your finances in recovery. One example could be to help the person with errands and chores around their house.

Indirect Amends

There may be situations where the damage caused by your active addiction is irreparable and making amends is not possible. In these circumstances, you can make an indirect amend to rectify the wrong in the best way possible. Giving back to the community and helping others is a common way to make an indirect amend when you are in recovery.

For example, if you were driving under the influence, crashed your car, and injured your friend, your friend may have severed all ties with you and refuse to meet and relive the trauma. Instead, you can volunteer your time to educate teens on the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In some cases, it may be impossible to make direct amends because you can’t locate someone or they have passed away. An indirect, symbolic amend could be a great way to honor that individual. Consider donating to a charity the person was passionate about or drafting a letter to the person to say what you would have, had you been given the opportunity to make amends in person.

Indirect amends can also be made for creditors and debts. If you have unpaid loans or defaulted credit cards, financial amends need to be dealt with as well. Even though you may not know your creditors personally, these amends are part of your 8th and 9th steps. Talk with your sponsor about setting up a timeframe for financial amends.

Living Amends

Unlike direct and indirect amends, living amends are not aimed at repairing ties with anyone specifically. You have to look at them from a broader perspective. Living amends is the part of your recovery where you must “walk your talk” by incorporating positive, healthy habits into your new sober lifestyle. These amends affirm your commitment to sobriety and focus on how you’ll become a better person moving forward.

Steps 8 and 9 are later in the 12 steps because you begin to learn how to have a spiritual connection, learn about and correct your mistakes (character defects), and have begun to be of service before you move onto the amends stage. Steps 10, 11, and 12 are considered the “maintenance steps” once amends have been made, and these steps focus on continuing to take personal inventory, trusting in God, and helping others.

Living amends show others your continued dedication not only to sobriety, but also to working on yourself and your character defects. For example, if you are quick to anger or have trouble following through with promises, these are areas you can continue to work on in sobriety. Your loved ones will not only notice your sobriety but also the personal progress you have made. These are living amends.

How Long Will Making Your Amends Take?

Making your amends won’t happen overnight. The time it will take depends on many factors, such as your comfort level, the number of people hurt, and the severity of the damage caused. Just like your substance use in active addiction, your process of making amends in recovery will also be unique.

Sometimes, the list of people who you’ve wronged can seem endless and overwhelming.  Ask your sponsor’s advice, start slow, and remember—you can go at your own pace. There is no set timeframe you must abide by when reconciling with your loved ones. It’s actually not recommended to make amends in early recovery, as they may not be received well. After you’ve completed steps 1 through 7, you’ll know when it’s the right time to make amends.

Also, your family’s healing process will look different from yours. One conversation might not be enough to repair the damage. You may need to attend family therapy sessions together over time to fully patch up those strained relationships.

What is most important is that you start the process of forgiveness—of you forgiving yourself and of your loved ones forgiving you.

Should others be unreceptive or outcomes aren’t as planned, don’t blame yourself. You can’t control the behavior of others. What you can control is how you’ll continue to make positive changes and live a life free from substance use. Remember the serenity prayer, and call your sponsor.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.

Helpful Tips

  • Begin the process of making amends after you have a sustained period of sobriety and both parties are in a calm, clear mental state.
  • It’s easy to say that “All my amends will hurt someone. I just won’t do it.” It’s highly doubtful that that’s the case. Use good judgment and don’t mistake your discomfort for their discomfort.
  • For support, consult with your sponsor or mentor to come up with meaningful approaches to making your amends.