The Discipline of Restitution

Anne, Dr. Bob, and their dog - Restitution

Restitution is the traditional name for the principle known as amends in AA. It is a spiritual discipline we practice through Steps 8, 9, and 10.

“Amends” appears 22 times in the Big Book and the 12&12, and “restitution” 5 times. Both texts also employ related terms like “correct,” “mend,” “repair,” and “reparation,” as well as expressions like “to set right” and “to straighten out.” To these, we can add such synonyms as amend, rectify, redress, remedy, and reform.

The concept of making amends inheres in the Latin root of the term, which means “fault.” In making amends we are acknowledging and admitting that we are at fault, that we have done wrong and caused harm as a result of our flaws, shortcomings, or defects.

Our first objective in doing this, the Big Book explains, is to mend or repair that harm: “Now we go out to our fellows and repair the damage done in the past" (p. 76). This is echoed by the 12&12, which explains that, after looking back and discovering where we’ve been at fault, “we make a vigorous attempt to repair the damage" (S8, p. 77).

The repairing involves helping the person to heal from the damage we inflicted, fostering reconciliation, and restoring relationships. These goals are affirmed in the 12&12, where we read that “[T]he readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine” (p. 87, our emphasis).

Our second objective is to mend our ways, to reform ourselves, to heal from the damage in us. Making amends, suggests the Big Book (p. 79), is part of our spiritual awakening. It is part of the process of undergoing a transforming spiritual experience that radically changes our character and emotional makeup. If we don’t change, we’ll continue to do harm.

The process of restitution begins with Step 8. That’s where we lay the foundation for the actual making of amends for past harms in Step 9. Our work in these two Steps in turn forms the foundation for our work in Step 10, where we continue the process by examining any harm we may do in sobriety and making amends for it. 

In Step 8 we make a list of the persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them. Without the willingness, we simply won’t take the necessary action. This makes willingness a central virtue in that Step. Closely related to willingness is the virtue of forgiveness. We can’t repair the harm we have caused others if we can’t forgive the harm they have done to us. Pride and resentment will hold us back or undermine our efforts. If we lack the willingness, says the Big Book (p. 76), we ask until it comes. We pray for it. If we lack the spirit of forgiveness, we pray that it be given us. Thus, prayer becomes an auxiliary discipline in the Step. Sometimes we may have to go back to Steps 6 and 7, surrender the defects that are blocking us, and humbly pray for their removal.

Foundational also to the making of amends is gaining a practical understanding of the kinds of harms we do to people and of the defects of character and emotion which drive us to it. Our amends can’t be effective if we don’t understand the harm we are trying to repair or the defects which made us do them. The 12&12 suggests that, though we may have made some progress in this area while working Steps 4 through 7, in Step 8 we “ought to redouble” our efforts to see how many people we have actually hurt and the specific ways we have done so (p. 77).

Our two texts touch upon five kinds of damage we do: physical, material, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Physical harm is fairly obvious. It may involve physical violence, sexual assault, or even murder. Material damage may also be relatively obvious. We may have stolen, destroyed property, or failed to pay our debts or otherwise meet our financial obligations. Yet, as obvious as these acts of commission or omission may be, the defects motivating them may sometimes remain opaque to us.

The other three types of damage may be harder for us to discern and connect with our defects. Yet they tend to be the most common and to affect our closest relationships. After a few years living with us, recounts the Big Book, a spouse “gets worn out, resentful, and uncommunicative" (p. 81). For, it adds, we alcoholics are “like a tornado roaring” our “way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil" (p. 82).

The 12&12 picks up on these destructive patterns. Suppose, it says (S8, p.81) that at home we are cold, callous, miserly, or irresponsible; or that we are critical, impatient, irritable or humorless; or that we lavish attention on one family member while neglecting the others. What happens, it asks, when we try to dominate the whole family and tell everybody how to run their lives; or when we wallow in depression and self-pity, inflicting our gloom and wretchedness on those about us. These are just some of the things that make living with us difficult and sometimes unbearable. When we take such defects into our job or business or elsewhere in the society of our fellows, we can do almost as much damage as we do at home.

Have we reflected on how all these defects of character and of emotion have impacted others? Do we understand that anger begets anger? That lying and cheating deprive others not only of their material goods but of their security and peace of mind? That dishonesty generates suspiciousness and mistrust? That demeaning others robs them of their self-respect? That if our sex conduct is selfish we may generate jealousy, misery, and a desire to retaliate in kind? That our defects tend to stir up the defects in others, bringing out the worst in them and in this way causing them harm?  
A “remorseful mumbling that we are sorry” will hardly have a healing effect (p. 83.). Nor will simply telling the injured parties the things we did or failed to do. In most cases they already know, and in others they suspect it. What will help mend and repair is showing people that we understand how we hurt them, hearing us admit the exact nature of our wrongs, acknowledging the actual harm we inflicted, and confessing the defects which account for it. That’s taking full and complete responsibility. A heartfelt apology which follows upon that, and a sincerely expressed desire to change and become a better person—that’s what will begin to set right our wrongs.

Hence the need for a thorough preparation in Step 8. We need to “ponder and weigh” (12&12, p. 81) each relation and each situation carefully with our sponsor, with a view to discerning, beyond the things we did, the actual harm we caused and the specific defects involved. Having done that, having forgiven any harms done to us, and having become willing to make amends, we are then ready to embark on the actual work of mending and amending in Step 9.

However, no matter how thorough our work is in Step 8, we may still discover that we don’t understand all the ways we have hurt a particular individual. Yet if we are truly sincere and approach the person in a spirit of helpfulness, he or she may feel comfortable enough to tell us. Sometimes we may have to ask. We want to make amends for all the harm we’ve done, even those we may not be aware of.

As the foregoing suggests, the principle of restitution doesn’t work by itself. It interacts with other principles, both disciplines and virtues. We’ve alluded to two of the disciplines: confession and prayer. We’ve also referenced three virtues: willingness, forgiveness, and sincerity. In addition to these, the Big Book and 12&12 highlight such traits as consideration, courage, discretion, forthrightness, frankness, generosity, honesty, humility, justice, prudence, and tactfulness.

Indeed, Step 9 in the 12&12 opens with an enumeration of some of these needful virtues: “Good judgment, a careful sense of timing, courage, and prudence—these are the qualities we shall need when we take Step 9" (p. 83).

Confessing our faults to people and admitting the harm we’ve done to them is potentially the most fear-inspiring thing we will ever do in recovery. We don’t know how people will react, particularly if the harm has been grave. If our derelictions were work related, we may lose our job. If criminal or unlawful conduct was involved, we may land in prison.

Hence, courage is of the essence. Without it, we may shirk our responsibility and sweep the problem under the rug—or cut corners and be less than forthright, frank, honest, and sincere. It is not hard to see that without these virtues our amends will ring hollow. They will hardly be salutary. In AA, courage is founded in faith. The Big Book suggests therefore that we “ask that we be given the strength and direction to do the right thing, no matter what the personal consequences may be" (p. 79).

The other three qualities the 12&12 specifies call for practical wisdom, the virtue which enables us to adapt the right means to the right ends. Making amends is not only the most fear-inspiring thing we’ll probably do in recovery. It is also the most sensitive. All the good intentions in the world may come to naught if we don’t use good judgment, approach a person at the proper time, and act with tact and discretion. That we need to be considerate of all the persons involved should go without saying. In the absence of these and the other qualities we’ve noted, making amends can easily backfire and do more harm than good. That’s why we’re told that we are to make direct amends to the people we’ve hurt except when to do so would injure them or others.

Wisdom dictates therefore that we handle different cases differently (12&12, S9, p. 83). There will be people we can make amends to as soon as we are reasonably sure we can do so and still maintain our sobriety. Action may have to be deferred in other cases, though this must not become an excuse for procrastination. There will be people to whom we can only make partial restitution, lest a full disclosure ends up doing them additional harm or hurting additional people. In some situations, a face-to-face meeting may not be the wisest, and we may opt for writing a letter, at least on our initial approach. In cases where we cannot locate an individual or the person has passed away, our amends will obviously have to be indirect. 

In AA, making amends is not a secular enterprise. We are going to people “on a spiritual basis” (Big Book, p. 76). That’s what makes restitution a spiritual principle. That’s why its practice is instrumental in our spiritual awakening, as noted earlier. Yet, here too, we need to deal with different people differently. “It is seldom wise to approach an individual who still smarts from our injustice to him, and announce that we have gone religious,” declares the Big Book (p. 77). We need “tact and common sense.” If talking openly about the spiritual dimension of what we’re doing is helpful with a particular individual, we do it. If not, we don’t.

Notice the Big Book’s reference to injustice. Whatever other character defects may drive the harms we do, injustice, growing out of selfishness and self-centeredness, is certain to be at the top of the list. Thus making restitution is fundamentally an act of justice.

Ultimately, our purpose in making amends is to “fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us" (Big Book p. 77). To what end? To the end that “we may develop the best possible relations with every human being we know" (12&12, S8, p. 77). How can we accomplish that? By practicing the spiritual principles which in fact do make such relations possible.

Steps 8 and 9 are where we begin to do that. In Step 10 our restitution becomes a discipline properly speaking. We do it regularly and consistently. Gradually, the harm we do decreases and the good increases. Eventually, the good defines the new person we’ve become. We are able to “live in the greatest, peace, partnership, and brotherhood with all men and women, of whatever description" (ibid).

The promises we read about in Step 9 of the Big Book (pp. 83-84) are but a glimpse of that spiritual transformation.

[Image: Anne, Dr. Bob, and their dog Roger. Following a relapse at an Atlantic City medical convention, Dr. Bob returned to Akron and made amends to those he had harmed. He never drank again.]

Bill W."I realized at depth that the great harms I had done others were not truly regretted. . . . With this realization came the beginning of a certain amount of humility.“
– Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 311  

Big Book
"Now we go out to our fellows and repair the damage done in the past." – Big Book, p. 76  

12&12"For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past act, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine." – 12&12, Step 9, p. 87  

Life Recovery Bible"So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." – Matthew 5:23-24 

Sophocles"All men make mistakes, it is only human. / But once the wrong is done, a man / can turn his back on folly, misfortune too, / if he tries to make amends, however low he's fallen, / and stops his bullnecked ways. Stubbornness / brands you for stupidity—pride is a crime.” – Sophocles, Antigone  

Thomas Aquinas
"My God, let me direct my heart towards You, and in my failings, always repent with a purpose of amendment." – St. Thomas Aquinas  

Thomas à Kempis
"Gladly we desire to make other men perfect, but we will not amend our own fault." – Thomas à Kempis  

John Stuart Mill"The duty of man is the same in respect to his own nature as in respect to the nature of all other things, namely not to follow it but to amend it." – John Stuart Mill  

Aldous Huxley"Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” – Aldous Huxley 

Corrie ten Boom"Four marks of true repentance are: acknowledgement of wrong, willingness to confess it, willingness to abandon it, and willingness to make restitution." – Corrie Ten Boom  

G.K. Chesterton"A stiff apology is a second insult. The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt."  G. K. Chesterton 

Fulton J. Sheen
"The forgiveness of God is one thing, but the proof that we want that forgiveness is the energy we expend to make amends for the wrong." – Fulton J. Sheen  

Shannon L. Alder"Sometimes you only get one chance to rewrite the qualities of the character you played in a person's life story. Always take it. Never let the world read the wrong version of you." – Shannon L. Alder 

Anthony Kiedis"That's a spiritual lifestyle, being willing to admit that you don't know everything and that you were wrong about some things. It's about making a list of all the people you've harmed, either emotionally or physically or financially, and going back and making amends. That's a spiritual lifestyle. It's not a fluffy ethereal concept." – Anthony Kiedis 

Dale Turner"It is the highest form of self-respect to admit our errors and mistakes and make amends for them. To make a mistake is only an error in judgment, but to adhere to it when it is discovered shows infirmity of character." – Dale Turner  

Kimberly Johnson
"Never ruin an apology with an excuse." – Kimberly Johnson  

Stephen Levine"If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?" – Stephen Levine  

"The best apology is changed behavior." – Anonymous  

"A sincere apology has three parts: I am sorry; it’s my fault; what can I do to make it right?" – Anonymous  

Daily Reflections"I needed to develop the courage to begin, the honesty to see where I was wrong, a sincere desire to set things right, thoroughness in making a list, and willingness to take the risks required for true humility.” – AA’s Daily Reflections 

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts "The Ninth Step is not about easing our guilty consciences; it’s about taking responsibility for the wrongs we’ve done. . . . We are not just seeking freedom from remorse—we are seeking freedom from our defects.” – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts  

"Only as we are entirely ready to surrender the wrongs in us, are we truly prepared to make restitution for the wrongs we have to done others." – PTP123  

PTP4"My goal is to see the truth about myself and my relationships with others, make amends to those I have hurt, and mend my ways and my relations with all." 
– PTP4 

Practice These: Restitution - Anonymous
Practice These: Restitution - CTC

For more PTP123 passages on amends/restitution, see, pp. 15, 17, 18, 20, 30, 31, 33, 73,124, 159, 160, 163, 168. For PTP4, see, for restitution, pp. 10, 33, 46, 272, 387, 388; for amends,  30, 49,  54, 121, 172, 177, 193, 197,  205,  214, 222, 223, 224, 233, 236, 245, 246, 251, 400, 404, 405. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search amends and restitution. See also entries under amends in As Bill Sees It. For audio of Step 9 in the 12&12 and talk on Steps 8 and 9, click on links. 

See also: In All Our Affairs: Practicing Restitution, "Step 8: It's Not Just About the List"

Additional Resources

  1. Meditation for 08/13 in AA’s Daily Reflections     
  2. Meditation for 06/11 in Al-Anon’s Courage to Change     
  3. Meditations for 06/03, 07/06, and 09/04 in NA's Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts

To return to Practice These, please click on link.