John’s Recovery: Step Nine

By John B.

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

My Step 9: Make appropriate amends based on a sense of calculated fairness, common sense, and the well being of all concerned.

As I stated in Step 8, I was a reluctant participant in the Wilsonian amendment process. I was staying sober one day at a time, attending two or three meetings a week, and had developed some authentic, sober, personal relationships. The combination of these three lifestyle changes constituted the making of amends to myself and I felt good about the early results. Hopelessness was being replaced by a confident optimism that I could actually stay sober; fear of failure was the weakest it had ever been. Up to this point I had been relying on what most people in recovery call “living amends” and my commitment to change for the better was helping to repair almost every meaningful personal relationship in my life. Notice the use of the word “almost” – I made one critical error and I want to address that before I explain why I thought Mr. Wilson’s approach to Step 9 was useless.

From the beginning my marriage to Helen was periodically harmed by my immature selfishness and an arrogant disregard for her judgement concerning decisions that would have significant impact on our lives. In 1978, after several years of teaching and coaching, I browbeat her into conceding that a sensible career change for me was to buy a restaurant and bar in rural Indiana. Less than two years later I was in treatment for alcoholism. Helen kept teaching and suffered through four more years of periodic binges. I was an insufferable drunk and the business might as well have been listed as a non-profit charity, but I was able to plea bargain one more chance after my last binge which ended on August 4, 1984.

That began my stream of continuous sobriety, but did not lead to a consistently amicable marriage. We separated after I had been sober for seven years, engaged in some marriage counseling, and I moved back in. Our marriage began to get smoother after the bar was sold and I became a certified addictions counselor with a reliable income. We have now been married 53 years. I actually discussed this part of our lives with Helen when I was trying to figure out what to write for Step 9. Wow! Was I really that bad? Then she added, “You have never been more supportive than you’ve been since we’ve moved to Georgia.” As we say, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

Now – What was it that pushed me away from Wilson’s explanation of how to address amends? First of all the the wording of the step itself is ambiguous. Make direct amends wherever possible. Who decides that? Don’t make any amends if someone will be harmed. Who decides that? You may not see much difference in my wording of this step, but I think the terms “calculated fairness” and “common sense” add an element of rationality to the process.

The examples spelled out in the Big Book chapter, “Into action” were of no use to me, and I would think to no one with blood flowing to their brain. One of the examples was a direct contradiction to the last part of the step, “except when to do so would injure them or others.” On page 79, Wilson writes this, “We may lose our position or reputation or face jail, but we are willing. We have to be. We must not shrink at anything.” Here’s where fairness and common sense can come into play. Would it not make more sense to use our recovery to strengthen our position, rebuild our reputation, and put together long term right living to reduce or possibly eliminate incarceration? My judgement is that it was easy for Wilson to write this hard-ass statement; he had no job to lose and he was not facing any criminal charges.

In later years he engages in some self-correction on this very position. In the 12 and 12, he issues this cautionary statement, “Are we going to be so rigidly righteous about making amends that we don’t care what happens to the family and home.” In the Big Book (1939), we had been told that it would be necessary to risk everything. In the 12 and 12 (1953), we are told there may be some need for caution. Most of us would opt for caution. Fourteen years of experience obviously pushed Wilson in that direction also.

A blatantly self-serving example posing as an amend is found on page eighty of the Big Book. Tortured by his conscience, a man restarts church attendance and on his first Sunday back stood before the congregation and confessed how years before his dishonesty had publicly shamed and ultimately ruined a business competitor. His confession was widely accepted by the congregation and he went on to be a highly respected member of the community. There was no mention of any attempt to make an amend or make any effort at restitution to the man who had been ruined. Sounds self-serving to me.

More bafflement was to follow. Further on in this same chapter Wilson addresses how one might handle infidelity if necessary to admit lack of faithfulness. He offers this weird description of the possible amend: “Our design for living is not a one way street. It is as good for the wife as it is for the husband. If we can forget [the infidelity] so can she.” (Big Book, p. 81). Let me offer a hypothetical reverse of this suggestion. Imagine if you can, how most men would react to this comment from his wife; “Yes dear, it is true. I have been sleeping around a little bit, but only with one or two guys. It’s over so I don’t see why we can’t jointly forget about it.” How this absurd example survived the final reading prior to going to print is beyond my understanding.

Here’s one more example that illustrates why the Big Book doesn’t deserve to be elevated to the level of “the source of all wisdom” like many AA elders claim. In an essay in The Language of the Heart, dated June, 1958, Wilson describes his progress with Step 11 as a case of “arrested development” and then admits that Step 9 “has fallen into much the same bracket.” In 1938 he wrote, “We must not shrink at anything” when making amends. Twenty years later he was still trying to figure out how to do it himself.

Here’s how I gradually came to view Step 9. I stayed committed to a course of action I hoped would prove I was serious about staying sober.  This meant behaving in ways that rarely required the use of the words, I’m sorry. In my case, any use of those words would probably be met with disbelief and a hearty scoff anyway. I made amends  based on what was necessary relative to my own circumstances. Nothing more, nothing less, and always with the advice my sponsor had previously gave me firmly in mind: The primary purpose of all this step work was for me to stay sober.


For a PDF of all his Steps, click here: John’s Recovery: The 12 Steps.


John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.


“There are many versions of the 12-Step program of recovery. In fact, there are about as many versions as there are alcoholics in AA who use the program to get sober and to maintain their sobriety.”

The Little Book


10 Responses

  1. Richard K. says:

    I have been reading Our Great Responsibility. Great read. Has a lot to do with the topic. Especially the chapter titled “1953 Variations in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” The one line in the first paragraph stands out to me: “…whether this program of ours is frozen as solid as an ice cube or whether there is some elasticity in it or not…”

    • John B. says:

      Richard: Thanks for participating. I thought I had read every AA book published by GSO, obviously not. When did this one come out? Sounds really interesting, I’ll get a copy soon. Thanks.

      • Roger says:

        Hi John, It was published last year (2019) and there are some interesting General Service Conference talks in it by Mister Bill Wilson.

        Our Great Responsibility

  2. Andrew says:

    Much in the BB doesn’t make sense and seems, as you stated, self-serving. When I asked my then sponsor “what about the danger of me getting hurt when making an amends?” his response was that didn’t matter since it didn’t say anything about me getting hurt in the BB. More faith without questioning. I also have noticed the change in Bill W’s thinking over the years. So much of the BB seems to have been written on the “high” he was experiencing at the time. There is still a lot of resistance in this area to any form of recovery without the BB being the center of it. I find that annoying. Sixteen years sober and 17 as an atheist I still find the show helpful, but don’t look for me in the high wires.

    Thanks for the work of writing things down. It sure helps.

    • John B. says:

      Andrew:I don’t know where your area is, but the same thinking prevailed when we lived in N.E. Indiana. We’ve lived here in North Georgia for 9 years now, and the same thing is true here, maybe even more so. Just last week a guy in the meeting I now attend, stated with great emphasis that the answer to any of life questions can be found in THE BOOK. Absurd!! Thanks for participating. John B.

  3. Richard K. says:

    Debra, I too am a member of AA and Alanon. Designs for living for people who are recovering from the effects of Alcoholism.

    Making amends as stated in The Big Book is not the way l did it either. I didn’t need to make a list. I knew who l needed to make amends to. Living amends to me is the only real amends. Change my behavior.

  4. John B. says:

    Debra: I really appreciate your participation. Learning to be openminded and developing the ability to see issues of all kinds “from different angles” has elevated my level of serenity. I too was helped by a couple of sponsors who gave me a lot of latitude which at times was mixed with some stern wisdom. Thanks. John B.

  5. Mike B says:

    Well said John, I decided from my first meeting I’d stop behaving like an ass, pull my weight around the house and start living as a decent person. After nearly eight years of happy, healthy sobriety I’ve still not felt the need to follow step nine in the way it is described in the big book or the twelve and twelve.

    I have always worked on the principle that if I can be at peace with myself there is no need to throw rocks into the pond just to stir things up. If I’m wrong I’ll promptly admit it, I feel like I’ve benefitted from treating the amends thing as an ongoing active process rather than the exercise in self indulgent immolation I’ve heard described in painful detail in meetings and have no less serenity for it.

    • John B. says:

      Mike: Thanks for taking the time to participate. Your description of amends as “an ongoing active process” works for me as the description of what my overall recovery has been. It fits neatly with my one day at a time approach to living in general. Thanks.

  6. Debra says:

    Thanks for printing this. Exactly what I thought about this step 25 years ago. I had the support of an open minded sponsor, and my own sense that this was to be handled individually. I am living a better example of me. I dont repeat bad behavior, apologize immediately. Move on. Work out issues in our groups, codependency and alanon groups, are places I learned to see addictive issues from different angles. Keep moving in a sober direction is all important. So is empathy for ourselves and others.