I find myself yet again in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m not really “like them” – we all say – I am more of a binge drinker than a chronic alcoholic. A couple of times a year, I might go on a big binge, and everything will go horribly wrong for some reason. Then I’ll restrict myself to “only wine” and everything will go horribly wrong for some reason. It’s probably better that I just don’t drink. It’s unfair. It’s not what I wanted.
It’s a hard program, as anyone who has stuck with it will tell you. Stopping drinking is the easy part, especially if you don’t need medical help to do so. You just don’t buy alcohol, don’t spend time in places where it is served, and don’t associate with other people who are drinking, and it will take care of itself. But looking at everything about you – aside from biology – that makes you want to drink until it destroys you and those around you…that’s the hard part. Who wants to do that? Who wants to cry in front of strangers and read a list of their personality flaws and the horrible things they did to others? It’s much easier to just not go to bars, but continue being a mess of a person.
Many in the funeral profession are alcoholics. I don’t know why. The job stress could be to blame; I spend nearly every day with a murdered youth. It gets to you. And many funeral directors are old men who remember when it was customary to have a couple martinis on lunch, and never really got rid of that mentality. But the job, while possibly a contributing factor, is not to blame. If it were only the job, we would all have a few shots after work and call it good. But some of us don’t stop there. Some of us don’t stop the next morning.
I won’t list the Twelve Steps here, except for Steps 8 and 9, the ones that scare many newcomers away: “We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. We made direct amends to all people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
“All persons we had harmed” means just that. Not just people we harmed with our drinking: everyone. Everyone we ever harmed at any point in our lives. Even if it was years ago. Even if you think it wasn’t that big of a deal or if they should have gotten over it by now. Even if they hurt you first, or hurt you worse. Everyone.
Direct amends means, if possible, you see them face-to-face and admit exactly what you did and why, as well as what you will do to right the situation and see that it doesn’t happen again with that person or with anyone else. If we stole money, we don’t just say “Sorry,” we pay it back. If we have stolen an insurmountable sum, we pay back what we can and we try to make up the rest in time or labor. Maybe you stole thousands from a charity or something and you can’t pay it all, so you volunteer at the charity, or you gives rides and do chores for people served by the charity.
With one caveat: “Except when to do so would injure them or others.” There are some things better left unsaid. Each situation is different, and with the help of an objective third party, you work out exactly what to do in that situation. I knew someone who had slept with all her sisters’ husbands. No way should she tell them. That would cause further harm to her sisters. She instead spent time in a treatment center for her sexually impulsive behavior and never again was alone in a room with a married man.
I knew a convicted rapist who spent his weekends volunteering at a women’s shelter, in positions that would not put him in contact with women. He did yard work and cleaned floors, for several years. It didn’t make up for the harm he caused, but it was something he could do.
I was instructed to follow some sort of format that was virtually guaranteed to be uncomfortable for me, because it would force me to LOOK AT MYSELF – what was the action I was sorry for? Describe the ways I am aware I caused harm to the person – not my specific action, but its aftermath. For example, if I stole money, I didn’t just take a numerical sum. I may have started a chain reaction – maybe they couldn’t pay their phone bill and they missed a call for a job interview and then didn’t get another call for a month. Maybe they blamed someone else for the missing money so I inadvertently caused a fight in their family. Maybe they were close to me and I violated their trust and they have taken their trust issues – that I caused – into a relationship and that person was also affected. One harmful action will always have several repercussions. Why did I do it – meaning, what personality trait or character defect of mine led me to decide on that action and not something else? What have I been doing to work on my character? What specific thing am I going to do to right the situation I caused?
There was a huge difference in me telling someone “Sorry about all the ways I messed up” vs. “I am sorry that I trashed your apartment when we were roommates. I know it was especially wrong of me because I was a friend of yours that you trusted with your space, and I ruined that trust. I did this because I’ve always had a hard time making friends and the only way I really know how is by making people think I’m funny so they will want to be around me more, and I had knocked something over and the other roommates were all laughing, and I was just glad they seemed to like me, so I escalated the behavior. I could have stopped or left at any time but I was only concerned with earning their approval. Of course I will pay you something for the damages, but I also wanted you to know that I am no longer associated with the kind of people who would laugh at something like that, and I’ve learned ways to attract people who like my company for its own sake and not just because it’s funny to them.”
No wonder no one wants to do this. It sucks. I wish I could have just sent a check or something. (Yes, I did that above. I caused $6000 of damages to the space of someone who took me in off the street when I was seventeen.) Payment arrangements are easy. Telling someone you break things because you suck at making friends is embarrassing. Looking at certain parts of yourself…well, that’s why many of us drink.
I had done some of this amends process several years ago, and there was one woman to whom I wasn’t sure how to make the amends. I had to shelve that one for years because I couldn’t find her. She had been a principal at one of my schools, a school where I got expelled because they were tired of suspending me every week and just said you know what, screw this, this child is beyond help. She had tried to reach me and help me in so many ways and I, being in 7th grade, didn’t appreciate or want any of it. She took me shopping on the weekends with her own money to buy me things like shoes that my mom couldn’t afford. I had signed up for skating lessons that she also paid for, and bought skates for, and arranged transportation for, so that I might have an outlet for my frustrations. I was often “sentenced” to spending my weekends at the school helping the janitor, since I frequently destroyed property, and the principal would take me out for lunch and we would just talk. Not about my problems, not about school, but about anything. Music, pets, hobbies…she was trying to get to know me so she could find out how to help.
My amends to this woman consisted mainly of letting her know that what she was doing did eventually sink in. Many teachers go above and beyond for an individual student and their efforts are often met with scorn. I wanted her to know it finally sank in, and nearly a decade later, we met by chance. I was working in my first funeral home job and she came in to look at cemetery plots for her husband. I didn’t recognize her at first, but when I read the obituary, I realized it was her. I sent her a card letting her know that I remembered everything she had done for an angry 12-year-old that she could have easily ignored, or kicked out of school sooner. She ended up going with another funeral home, but came in to tell me my words meant a lot to her. Amends were complete. If I had not become a funeral director, I might not have gotten the chance to say what needed to be said.
And today, after another murdered child, I have a young person who died on his birthday. Birthday deaths are virtually all alcohol-related. I hope he at least was having a good time in good company. My drinking ceased to be fun long ago.