I’m a chronic apologizer. I’m also a (former) chronic binge drinker. The two pathologies used to complement each other well. When I was drinking, I had a lot to be sorry about — for making out with my friend’s crush in college, for getting drunk at my own birthday party and running away, for stealing things, breaking things, spilling drinks and generally creating chaos wherever I went. I was so sorry. But then I would do it all over again.
This was my daily routine: wake up, feel sick, feel dread, take an Advil, chug Gatorade, text or call an apology to everyone I could think of who might be mad at me, drink coffee.
I was a blackout drinker, so I often failed to remember the details of my transgressions, and my friends would have to remind me. Sometimes they were angry. Sometimes they would tell me not to worry, I hadn’t done anything wrong. But I still felt wracked with guilt over my imagined wrongs.
When I first got sober with the help of a 12-step program, I was anxious to complete step nine: “We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” I wanted to rush through the other steps as quickly as possible so my redemption could begin. I’ll be free of guilt! I thought. Clean slate!
The reality was more complicated. The first seven steps took me a year, as my sponsor urged me to take things slowly. For step eight, she had me write a list of “those I had harmed,” not only with my drinking, but with my behavior or “character defects.” It was a long list. I included everyone from my exes to my fifth-grade teacher, who fell victim to some of my early acts of rebellion.
We narrowed it down to people I could realistically make amends to. Mr. Crosby, for example, was left off the list. To him, I would make a living amends, which means being kinder to authority figures in general. I’ve stuck to this, for the most part.
I made my first in-person amends to a former roommate for stealing his food, being late on rent and slacking on household responsibilities. They weren’t crimes, but had left our relationship strained and awkward ever since I moved out.
The amends process was much scarier than I had expected. I’m quippy and jovial in casual conversation. But for my amends, I needed to be genuine and vulnerable. It was terrifying. My hands shook and my words came out in a soft, barely audible whisper.
I’d apologized to my former roommate hundreds of times in the past, but this was different. This time I was promising to change. When I was done, he shrugged, thanked me, and then changed the subject to the guy he was dating. The shift between us may have been imperceptible, but to me it felt massive. I felt light and free.
I made 10 formal amends in total, some in person, some by email, and some over the phone. Each filled me with fear, followed by a surge of relief when it was over. An ex-boyfriend was the hardest. I’d lied, cheated and thrown a few drinks in his face. Recalling these acts flooded me with shame, forcing us both to relive what I’d put him through. But as I took responsibility for my actions, something softened in his face. I could see he had forgiven me. Through that realization, I began to forgive myself.
As a New Yorker, I am usually surrounded by people and as a result am constantly navigating personal boundaries. I bump into someone on the subway, take too long in the shower, reach for the wrong coffee order at Starbucks. Sorry! I chirp, dozens of times a day. My first instinct is always to apologize. It’s how I’ve learned to establish submission and a method of avoiding conflict.
But as I get older, and approach my sixth year sober, I hold back more with my apologies. When I truly hurt someone — by ending a relationship, or snapping at a family member, or truly hogging the shower — I apologize the way I have learned to: genuinely, honestly, with a promise that I will try to change my behavior. My slate will never be entirely clean, but I don’t have to wake up every day full of shame and guilt, followed by a string of apologies. I can just skip that part, and go straight for the coffee.