Somewhere along the long and winding road to recovering from an addiction, you’ll probably want to make things right with the people you’ve hurt. After all, addiction, no matter what you’re addicted to, leaves damaged relationships in its wake. When you’re solidly in recovery, it’s a good idea to begin to repair lost trust and heal the pain your actions inflicted.
Making amends is a critical part of any recovery process, experts say, and for good reason. “Taking responsibility for your mistakes helps repair relationships and helps you move forward and regain a little self-respect,” says Tom Horvath, PhD, a clinical psychologist and owner/president of Practical Recovery, a non-12 step drug rehab and alcohol treatment program in San Diego. “It allows you to return to full standing in the human community.”
So what does it mean to make amends? “At its heart,” explains psychologist Chris Ebberwein, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, in Wichita, “making amends means taking ownership for causing hurt, and then doing something to correct or heal it. Making amends puts to rest the temptation to be stuck in self-blame or to blame others,” he adds. “It allows the recovering person to move ahead toward correcting mistakes that were made and healing old hurts.”
There are better and worse ways to approach this process. For starters, timing makes a difference, which is why making amends is not among the first steps in 12 step programs. “The priority in early recovery should be maintaining abstinence, not making amends,” explains Barbara L. Wood, PhD, a psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in the treatment of addiction and is the author of Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home. “Many people in early recovery struggle with intense shame because they don’t yet understand that they have a medical disorder,” she says. “Focusing on the damage they have perpetrated in the context of that disorder can trigger an unmanageable urge to use again. Amends can be made later, when neurological damage inflicted by excessive substance use heals and people can view themselves with greater perspective and tolerate strong feelings without such a high risk of relapse.”
When the appropriate time comes to make amends, it’s important to take the right approach. While an apology may be part of the package, making amends goes beyond simply saying you’re sorry; it involves doing something about the mistakes you’ve made or making it up to people you’ve hurt. Here are five guidelines for what to do, and what not to do, as you make amends:
Take stock of the damage you’ve caused. It helps to make a list of the people you’ve upset so that you can decide exactly how to make amends to each person and truly change your ways, Ebberwein says. “Your effort to make amends will fall short and deepen mistrust if you actively continue to hurt people because you’re unaware” of the impact of your misbehavior.
Express your desire to repair the damage. With each person, you want to make amends to, “ask for a time to talk so you can have the conversation in private,” Ebberwein suggests. Explain what you’re trying to do and why you want to make up for the hurt you’ve inflicted; then, be prepared to listen to the other person’s thoughts and feelings, no matter how painful they may be to hear.
Admit your mistakes. “People need to hear that you recognize the problems you have and that you’re taking responsibility for your behavior,” Horvath says. Owning up to your mistakes and apologizing for them will allow most relationships the chance to begin to heal. “It can help both parties for the offender to specifically ask for forgiveness,” Ebberwein adds. “You might say something like, ‘I really am sorry for what I’ve done. If there is a way I can make it up to you, I want to try. Please forgive me.’”
Find an appropriate way to remedy things. In some cases, an apology is in order. In others, it may be better to replace property you stole or damaged or repay money you took to finance your substance abuse or gambling addiction. Granted, sometimes you can’t fix the damage. For example, if you drove while drunk and killed someone, you may need to be more creative in how you make amends. You could volunteer for an organization that’s dedicated to ending drunk driving, speak to communities about the dangers of driving under the influence or become an organ donor in memory of the life lost. In other instances, the reparation could mean devoting time and attention to someone who was left alone while you were engaged in addiction, Ebberwein says. If the best course of action isn’t obvious, don’t be afraid to ask, “What can I do to begin to make this up to you?”
Be patient about regaining people’s trust. It’s not unusual for people who are recovering from an addiction to think that now that they’re turning the corner, other people should trust them right away. That’s a mistake, says Horvath. “It’s going to take people a significant amount of time to trust you again,” he says. “So don’t be upset that people are cautious or tentative about trusting you. It’s what you would do if the tables were turned.” Adds Ebberwein, “The recovering person has some control over making amends, but not over its impact on others.” So, give others the time and proof they need to trust in you again— and think of this as another chapter in your recovery story.