Step No. 9: 'I'm sorry'

MAX HARROLD, The Gazette

For ex-addict, a way to heal Making amends is crucial for Sarah's recovery

When youth protection officials took Sarah's 18-month-old daughter away from her in 2005 because of her heavy drug and alcohol use, Sarah cursed her sister for telling them about her habit.

"I told my sister I would stab her to death and I hoped her (unborn) baby would die, too," Sarah, 27, recalled recently.

But about a year after her tirade, Sarah apologized to her sister as part of Step 9 of the 12-step recovery process of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Despite its ranking, the ninth step - generally known as making amends - is crucial to an addict's long-term recovery and the healing needed so friends and relatives can give that person another chance.

Apologizing for lying and stealing to pay for drugs and alcohol can take a lifetime, said Sarah, who spoke on condition her last name not be used, in keeping with AA's tradition of members' anonymity in the media.

She is still owning up for her behaviour, 21/2 years after becoming sober, by writing letters, calling old friends and sending messages acquaintances on Facebook, the social networking website.

Even when there is no forgiveness, a sincere apology does pay off some of the karmic debt, Sarah says.

Step 9 "is like a train carrying away all that junk," she said. "It helps me clean my side of the street so I can move on." Growing up in Montreal's west end with a father who is still hooked on heroin and a mother who still drinks heavily, Sarah and her sister were shuttled in their teenage years from their divorced parents' homes to foster care and to relatives.

Sarah spent many nights wasted in Notre Dame de Grāce Park, smoking marijuana and drinking.

N.D.G. Park is her ground zero, she says.

But Sarah travelled far and wide before coming back to Montreal and confronting her past.

At 17, she left for New York City, where she prostituted herself to get high. She tricked and worked as a stripper to pay for her fixes for three years, travelling across the United States with two other women and their pimp.

"Boston, Chicago, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas - all over," Sarah said. "All over." By the time she came back to Montreal, she was hooked on crystal methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant also known as speed.

The drug was hard to get in Montreal in 2001, so Sarah went back to using cocaine and kept drinking. It was around then Sarah stole bank cards from her mother, "surface-cleaned" homes in an hour when she was being paid to clean them thoroughly (but took the money left for her anyway), and stole $16,000 from the convenience store where she worked.

Sarah made several attempts to sober up. She persuaded a judge to let her serve much of her sentence for the convenience store theft in house arrest and on probation. But it was another lie.

"It was great," Sarah said. "I got my drug dealer to come to my house. I exchanged sexual favours for drugs." Her first daughter was born in 2004. Sarah was nearly three months' pregnant with her second daughter in November 2005 when two youth protection officials showed up at her door.

"I was high at the time," Sarah said. "They came in and there was dirty laundry everywhere and no food in the cupboards. They quickly took my daughter away." Two months later, Sarah went into a rehabilitation clinic. She joined AA and admitted she was powerless over alcohol and that her life was unmanageable - the first of AA's 12 steps.

Making amends could occur only after Sarah accepted her higher spiritual power - in the words of AA - and when she was ready to face up to her past, she said.

"If I kept all that stuff inside me it would eventually eat me up and I would start to use again," she said.

Making amends must be sincere and not a means of justifying her actions, Sarah added.

Sorry can be said a thousand times. I said it all the time when I was using (and) just to get what I wanted. I don't explain that I was a drug addict. People get that. What's important is the apology." Despite her rough life, Sarah now feels empowered.

"I'm here for a purpose," she said. "To be a good mother, carry the message of AA and do God's will as I understand it." She's careful to explain that AA's emphasis on spirituality does not condone any particular organized religion.

She sees her father occasionally and does not blame him for her childhood drug use, pointing out she made her own decisions. "He did the best he could with what he had," Sarah said.

Sarah has made 12 major verbal apologies and eight on Facebook.

"Some people respond by having an open heart and it triggers an emotion to share back," she said.

Others ignore her apologies or react negatively.

"I've been blocked by three people on Facebook," Sarah said. "You can't have any expectations of what the response will be." She has a sister whom didn't talk to until nine months ago.

"I had cut her out of my life," said the sister, 26, who agreed to be interviewed as long as her name was not used.

It was only because Sarah was so persistent in wanting to reconnect and see her nephew that she accepted.

"I don't have much family because they hurt me so much," her sister added. "So having her in my life is important." Sarah, who is studying to become an addiction counsellor, has two other people to whom she wants to make amends: her daughters, age 4 and 2, who are too young to understand why.

"What I do for my kids is I'm there for them every day," she said.

She knows a slip-up could mean a loss of custody.

"One day I will tell them what choices I made. Hopefully, that will help them to make better ones on their journeys."

The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

1. Admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practise these principles in all our affairs.

Alcoholics Anonymous

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© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008

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