An interview with Piers Kaniuka
Piers Kaniuka has spent the last two and a half years as program director at the Plymouth House, a recovery center in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Treatment at the Plymouth House consists primarily of working through the AA Big Book with one of the staff sponsors, or one of the “monitors,” guests who have stayed on past their own treatment to do odd jobs around the house and help new guests work through the Book. Piers has his M.A. in Counseling Psychology and is a certified crisis clinician in the state of Maine. We interviewed Piers about the amends process and asked him to talk about his own experience as well as his experience in working with others.
STEPS: Do you remember what your sponsor told you when it was time for you to make amends?
Piers: My sponsor told me to make a list of the people I’d harmed, the guiding rule being that they had to know that I’d hurt them. If I went to someone I’d hurt in ways they didn’t know, I’d be harming them by trying to make amends. The one exception to this rule was theft. The basic guide was to do no harm.
STEPS: Was there anything on your list that you were particularly worried about?
Piers: The most conflicted item I had on my list was that I’d stolen money and drugs from a heroin dealer. I wasn’t going to pump any more money into the heroin trade, so I went looking for him to carry a message to him.
STEPS: How did that turn out?
Piers: I couldn’t find him. He was in jail.
STEPS: Did your sponsor give you any specific advice about how to approach people?
Piers: In making amends my sponsor said that I need not be too specific. The people I’ve harmed have a good idea of how I hurt them. There was no reason to hurt them all over again by dredging up the past. We needed to say that we know we’ve hurt them and that we want to do anything we can to make it right. The most important thing we can do when making an amend is to shut up and let the other person say their piece. Anything they have to say is OK. They might talk about their drunk brother-in-law, they might let you have it, and they might tell you that you hurt them in ways that you didn’t even know.
The best depiction of amends I’ve seen in movies is in the movie Flatliners. Kevin Bacon has to go to a woman from his past. He and some other boys had been really cruel to her in grammar school. When he approaches her, she says, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe it’s you!” He says that he hurt her and that he wants to make it right, but she puts up her hand and stops him. You can tell that he’s gone someplace really painful to her. She stops him and he shuts up. Then there is this pause between them, and the scene ends with them hugging each other and crying.
The reason I mention the movie is that I knew someone who had exactly that experience. She’d taken this girl and flushed her head in the toilet in grade school. When my friend made amends to her, the woman said, “It happened so long ago. We were only kids.” My friend stayed quiet and waited, and they both ended up in tears.
This process is really about creating a space where someone else can heal. The most difficult part is that we have to succeed in demonstrating that this is really about the other person and not about us getting out of a jam. I can only do that if I pray.
STEPS: So, what do you say to the idea that amends is really about clearing our own conscience and getting rid of our guilt?
Piers: I would say those are wonderful secondary gains, but that the primary focus has to be on the other person. When they say this is a spiritual disease I think that means that it is interpersonal. In order to get better, we have to follow up the consequences of our disease in the lives of other people. Like that part in the Big Book where it says that this disease involves other people like no other disease can. Warped lives of blameless children and all that.
STEPS: You and your sponsor worked directly from the Big Book?
STEPS: Did you find it lacking anything? Or do you find it lacking anything now that you’ve had some more experience in working with people?
Piers: One thing that’s confusing in Alcoholics Anonymous is in meetings when we read the Ninth Step promises out of the context of the Ninth Step. It says all those things will happen if we are painstaking about this phase of our development, meaning the amends process. And then in the Tenth Step, the Book says that we will be freed from mental obsession. In other words, you can’t really hope to be recovered unless you get past Step Nine. I wish Bill [Wilson] had been more explicit about that.
STEPS: So if you had to rewrite the Big Book…?
Piers: I would place more emphasis on the Ninth Step as the step that separates the grown-ups from the children. The Ninth Step is the biggest faith-building and faith-developing Step. For someone in the Steps, faith is not belief. In the New Testament Greek the work faith is pistis. One way to say it is that it is belief plus action. And in this action you won’t know what the result is going to be. So you have fear, and you have to pray. Then you take action in walking though the fear, and this leads you to a spiritual experience. Fear comes up again and again in these Steps. The Fifth Step is totally scary.
STEPS: Can you tell us about the first amends you made?
Piers: My first amends involved a book I stole from a bookstore. I procrastinated until the pain of procrastinating was unbearable. I tried to rationalize not doing the amends. I thought maybe I could return the book to the shelf while the owner wasn’t looking, or maybe add another book next to it so that I’d be even with the store owner. I told my sponsor that I should avoid the owner because he knew my father and it might be embarrassing for him. I basically whined to my sponsor, and my sponsor just looked at me and said, “Is that what we do?”
So I went to the store, and I prayed. I pretended to be a customer until everybody left the store. I went up to the owner and said, “My name is Piers; I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict. In order to get better I have to go back and right the wrongs that I’ve done, and I’ve wronged you by stealing this book.”
There was a pause and a real Kodak moment. He just looked at me and said, “You don’t owe me anything. I respect what you are doing. Good luck.” It was powerful. It was powerful because I was afraid, I’d prayed, I did the right thing even though I was scared, and afterwards I knew there would be no stopping me from finishing my amends. I knew I could do the difficult ones.
STEPS: What was your most difficult amends?
Piers: My most difficult amends was to the mother of an ex-girlfriend who I had treated poorly. Actually, I had to make amends to three generations of women all in the same day. First I went to see the daughter. Then I went to the mother. I knew I’d harmed her by hurting her daughter. I also was dealing drugs with the brother, who ended up going to jail. After seeing the mother, I went out to the grave of the grandmother.
The grandmother and I had gotten along well, actually. On her deathbed, they said that she was asking for me, and I kept saying, “Yeah, I’ll get there, I’ll get there.” Meanwhile I was chasing drugs.
I went to the grave alone and prayed. There was a strong sense of peace and presence. Mostly what I felt was a freedom because I knew that I wouldn’t have to treat anybody that way again.
STEPS: Any other amends that stand out to you?
Piers: I made three amends to people who later got sober by following the Big Book. I think the amends really made an impression on them. One of my friends just made an amend to an ex-girlfriend who he had treated just awful. She said, “Who are you and what did you do with my friend Joe?”
STEPS: If you had to sum up what you learned by making amends, what would you say?
Piers: I’d say what I learned from Steps Eight and Nine was that this process is about becoming other-centered. This is where we really begin to experience freedom from the bondage of self. Making amends showed me that getting close to God is about getting close to other people. This is not a solitary path. I am not meant to be a hermit or a monk.
I have not had the mental obsession to drink or use drugs since I’ve made amends, so in some sense I’ve been “recovered” for the last eight years. It’s a condition that could change, but it’s based on my spiritual condition. So as long as I stay close to God…. I did experience the obsession while working the Steps, but not after making amends. Also, amends seem to generate a lot of enthusiasm.
STEPS: The Tenth Step talks about continuing to admit when we are wrong. What is your experience with Tenth Step amends?
Piers: After having made amends, I still have to write a lot of inventory, but I don’t have to make as many amends. I also seem to make them in a timely fashion, and I don’t have to go into the whole routine about explaining that I’m an alcoholic trying to get better, because mostly I harm the people closest to me and they already know that I am an alcoholic. Most of my amends now are because of my tongue. I say things that hurt people.
STEPS: I’ve heard you talk about different kinds of amends, transactional and living. Could you explain what those are?
Piers: Living amends are with people who have been a big part of our lives and will continue to be a big part of our lives—parents, partners, children. For these people it won’t suffice to make verbal amends. There is nothing we can say to make things better. Amend means to change, so I’ve got to figure out how I’ve been hurting the people in my life and stop doing it. This may involve a conversation and it may not. Usually the other person will clue you into that. Some of my sponsees have gone about making amends and their spouse will come up to them and say, “What about me?” In situations like that I think it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I know that I’ve hurt you really bad, and I figured that I had better change before I said anything to you.”
Transactional amends are more frightening. They involve finding someone from the past and trying to make things right with them. This involves making dates. Something has to happen in the interaction to allow healing. At best it allows the other person to heal. At worst, at least we assume responsibility for our actions.
There could be something of a third category involving theft. But sometimes it gets mixed in with the other two. Like when we steal from our parents. And you don’t have the money to make the amends. A lot of people get stopped by that.
STEPS: People say they don’t have the money as a way to dodge making amends.
STEPS: What other dodges have you heard?
Piers: “What if I have to go to jail?” “I don’t know where they are.” “They are in some other part of the country.”
When the person is in another part of the country, we have to consult our conscience and ask if a letter will suffice or do we have to make a trip. I had to make a trip to Washington State from Maine. Some people have to drive great distances to do this. On the other hand, if I’m never going to make it to Greenland, maybe I’d better write a letter.
STEPS: What if you really can’t find the person?
Piers: It happens. I think we have to stay in constant readiness. One, for people to cross our path whom we couldn’t find, and two, for people that didn’t make our list due to oversight or forgetfulness. The only reason I’d have someone wait to take action is if they couldn’t find the person.
STEPS: What if there is real danger of going to jail?
Piers: It’s ultimately a matter of conscience, which demands that we be honest. Some people have families and children, and it may cause more harm to go to jail. Other times restitution is in order. My take on the Steps is that it’s about putting someone in relation with God through their conscience. I don’t pretend to be someone else’s conscience. Pornography, Republicanism, and being a vegetarian are all matters of conscience. I don’t want to get into any of that with people. That’s why I think the Steps are not a moralism. If they were, or if somebody approached me with the Steps in a moralistic way, I don’t think I could have taken them.
Another dodge that you hear is “waiting for your amends to come to you.” In other words, not doing anything at all. And “the Step says not to make amends if it will harm them or others, and I’m an other.” So I was me when I was doing the harm, but I’m an other when I’m making the amends.
STEPS: That’s weird.
Piers: You hear that in AA.
STEPS: You spoke about your own experience of visiting a grave. What do you recommend to people who have to make amends to the deceased?
Piers: I say they should visit the grave, preferably alone. If they can think of some gesture that would have some meaning, then they should do it. And I suggest that they don’t talk much about it, at least not right away. Talking about it seems to cheapen the experience. It’s like if I see a deer in the woods and I tell you about it, you will probably say, “Oh, cool.” It takes some of the power away from the moment. It’s an experience that is hard for other people to appreciate.
Anyway, part of this process is learning to have spiritual experiences and not wear them like a badge. I’m not particularly good at that.
STEPS: Last question: What do you notice that is different between people who have made their amends and people who decide they’d rather not?
Piers: People who make amends are proactive in the Steps, and they generate enthusiasm. The enthusiasm is contagious and it builds on itself. Amends is one of those places in the Steps—the Twelfth Step is another—where people really catch fire. People with a passive relationship to the Steps, people who sit and wait for good things to happen, don’t do nearly as well.
This spirituality is synergistic. The way my sponsor’s sponsor would say it is that this isn’t a cheap grace. If you want to know God, you need to know and help his children.
This experience is not just for me. There was a time when they were thinking about calling AA the James Group, after the book of James, because of the sentiment that faith without works is dead. I think that was one of the books Luther wanted to remove from the Bible.
People who make their amends have a disproportionate effect on people around them when compared with those who rely solely on meeting attendance or the A.A. slogan “meeting makers make it.” They have an enthusiasm that comes from having had a real experience.
There was a woman who came through the Plymouth House. Alcoholic, heroin addict, cocaine addict. And her father was dying of cancer. She was also a mother. Her family life was in complete disarray. She left the Plymouth House with her Eighth Step list written and ready to make amends.
She was able to make amends to her dad and helped him feel at peace when he died. She was able to support her mother through her loss and become a mother to her own children, all at once. She left the Plymouth House and walked right into all of that. I can’t think of a better demonstration of what this process is all about.
For more information about the Plymouth House, visit their website at www.theplymouthhouse.com or call toll free 1-800-428-8459.