After getting sober, I immediately wanted to apologize to everyone I knew, especially the people closest to me because I had hurt them the most. When I left inpatient treatment and finally had clear eyes, I could see how much damage I had done to the people I loved. It was horrifying and the instinct to apologize was overwhelming. When I shared this with a friend who had been sober much longer than I had, however, I was surprised when she cautioned against it.
“What do you mean, wait?” I asked, confused. I was itching to apologize — I needed to make things right between me and my loved ones. How could I possibly go back and face them without being armed with an apology for my behavior?
My friend raised an eyebrow: “How many times have you apologized to them for all that stuff?” she asked.
Saying Sorry Won’t Keep You Sober
I began to see her point. During my drinking, I was constantly apologizing. And it’s not that I didn’t mean the apologies. I really did. Being remorseful, however, wasn’t enough to keep me sober. So when I inevitably drank and did something else that required an apology, people lost faith in my ability to mean “I’m sorry” when I said it.
By the time I entered an alcohol rehab center, my family and friends had heard me apologize millions of times for some drinking-related offense. Every time I promised it would never happen again and every time I broke that promise. The last thing people wanted to hear from me when I was fresh out of rehab was yet another “I’m sorry.” I hadn’t done anything to demonstrate that I actually knew what those two words meant.
Two Ingredients of a Meaningful Apology
Until I got sober, I thought apologies were about feeling bad. If I felt like I had done something wrong, I should apologize. This is a natural instinct but it’s a superficial kind of apology — appropriate for when you bump into someone’s cart in the supermarket or arrive a few minutes late because of unexpected traffic.
Meaningful apologies for more serious offenses require two components: clarity and perspective. When I was actively drinking, my apologies had neither of those crucial ingredients. When I left alcohol rehab, I had more clarity, but I still didn’t have perspective. I wanted to rush into my apologies, make everything right again as quickly as possible. But that’s because I was still thinking about what the apology would offer me. How it would mend my relationships, make me feel better. I wasn’t thinking about the needs of the person whom I owed an apology.
In early recovery, it wasn’t possible for me to have enough perspective to apologize; just focusing on my own self-care was enough of a challenge. I spent more than a few weeks on autopilot — getting up, making my bed, brushing my teeth, eating breakfast, going to a recovery support group, applying for jobs, and so on. My perspective had to be narrow for me to stay on track.
Going Beyond Words
This didn’t mean, however, that I ignored the loved ones to whom I owed massive apologies. The one thing I could change, before I tried to tackle those weighty “I’m sorrys,” was my behavior. Instead of saying I was sorry, as I had done so many times before, I could simply behave in a way that didn’t necessitate an apology.
For me, changing my behavior meant showing up. It meant being present for my family and friends, considering their needs and not just my own. It meant remembering important dates and personal details — things that may seem simple to the average person but had long been missing from my relationships.
Protect Your Relationships, Not Your Addiction
When you’re an active alcoholic/addict, you are always going to put your drug of choice before your family, friends and even yourself. This messed up prioritization was the root of my bad behavior — all the things I did that I wanted to apologize for. When I was no longer being driven by the need to protect my addiction, I could invest my time and energy into caring for my loved ones and myself.
After a few weeks (in some cases months) of showing up for my family and friends, I began to see the ways I had truly hurt them. I had the perspective to understand that I didn’t owe apologies for the occasional incident, I owed apologies for years of worry, for repeatedly broken trust, for lives interrupted or put on hold because of me. When I first got sober, I understood what I had done “wrong” but I didn’t yet have the distance or critical thinking skills to understand how I had hurt people and what impact the hurt I inflicted had on those lives.
As painful as it was to gain that perspective, it meant that when I apologized, it wasn’t superficial. It wasn’t an apology to make me feel better. It was the recognition of the hurt I had caused and a solemn promise to never behave that way again. Because I took my friend’s advice and waited until I had both clarity and perspective, I was able to make the kind of apology that allows relationships to heal and grow. And that has been the biggest gift of my sobriety.
By Katie MacBride