My first eighth step list held the names of every person I’d ever known and imagined I’d hurt, from a first grade friend to a grocery store cashier to strangers I vaguely remembered. Thank God for wise sponsors who whittled it down to close family members, the ones I was trying to evade, the ones who had really felt harmed. My parents got the brunt of me, while the ex-drinking buddies didn’t; neither did the boyfriend from eighth grade, nor the one-night stands. With the shortened list in hand, I discussed the specific harms and what I needed to do. Having acquired some willingness already, I then had to face others, a daunting thought, especially since I grew up Catholic in a confessional booth. I wished for the dark screen of anonymity and for the forgiveness doled out in Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
From the beginning of sobriety, I was taught by good sponsors to show up, both to my commitments (meetings, a job, school), and also to my relationships. I needed to fulfill my most important roles — the ones earlier sabotaged — as a daughter, sister, and aunt. Often all I had to give was my presence (if invited), to take a seat at family functions, cook, clean up, take an active interest in others. To be a part of the solution, not the problem. It took several years to grow up, to take care of myself, to have enough left over to contribute.
In A.A., we call them living amends — finally learning to be a good daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. The ninth step is where I figured out how to do this, and it’s a lot more than simply (albeit unbelievably) living sober. It’s about putting others first, being of service, and supporting myself. It’s no longer about being needy, irresponsible, and dramatic, or demanding too much time, attention, and love. No more sucking all the air out of the room.
It takes people time to trust, and that gave me time to get better at living sober. Eventually all my babysitting, my presence at softball games, and my good gifts registered. As my nieces grew into their teens, I was there, genuinely interested in them, amazed by what a normal teenager can become if she’s not drunk. I’m in the family album — from the youngest niece who almost didn’t survive to the middle whose birth I witnessed to the oldest so bright. I recall the awkward years of glasses and pimples to budding beauty and prom dresses. I was there for valedictory speeches, college graduation parties (toasted with water), trips overseas, spring breaks, concerts, and Sweet 16 parties. I cared for my sister’s children. I became a citizen of the world again, doing what I should have been doing all along. True freedom is doing what we ought to do because we want to do it.
Becoming a mother taught me more about how deeply I’d harmed my own mother. With Mom facing dementia, the last few years especially have been my turn to host the holidays, to give in different ways. I was once the belligerent daughter who ran away, and now I can’t run anymore. My mother needs me now and deserves all that I can give. This is how amends are lived — sometimes it’s not how we’d choose. It’s so much easier to write a check and cross another name off the list.
Sometimes I want to shrug off the responsibilities that a sober life has given me. I want others to step up and care. But their duty is none of my business — my life isn’t even any of my business today. God did not call others to care for my mother, or my son. He called me. I will keep showing up, and try to pass the love on.
Growing up in a household with an older drunk brother, I’ve witnessed and suffered through the pain caused by alcoholics. When I became a mother myself, I felt a crushing sense of fear for my own son. What we put our families through is too much, and we sicken them in the process — they get the consequences of our behavior, the fear, the financial burden, the worry, and desperation. A.A.’s sister organization, Al-Anon, for the family and friends of alcoholics, testifies to the pain. Many Al-Anons end up in jail, institutions, and underground, holding our hands.
I hold my mother’s hand now wherever we go, living my amends with her by my side. Lessons in humility continue for a lifetime. She is the link to my sordid past. I’m fortunate to have had family left in my life when I got sober, when so many others had long gone; the ones who knew us when serve as reminders of our rent selves. We are mended, made whole, stitched together now, humbled yet not humiliated. I’m allowed to stand tall, making good on promises, willing to forgive and be forgiven, receiving the promises of the ninth step: “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” I have a sober lifetime now of good memories, no longer the blackout regrets of before. Life has been restored.
And, if we are not forgiven by some persons we have undone, I find comfort in what Milton wrote: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” I’ve learned it’s a mother’s job. My mother waited for me to return. Now I wait on her. I have a lifetime of waiting ahead of me, waiting to see in what ways Daniel will leave me. I hope to stomach it with courage and love, and I look forward to his return.