Service will keep you sober. It’s the key to staying connected.
The entire program of Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on the notion of service. When Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob had the first inkling that the fragile new principles of the program that would later be hailed as the “greatest spiritual movement of the 20th century,” just might keep a man sober, they insisted upon service as its cornerstone.
A.A.’s Twelfth Step—carrying the message—is the basic service that the A.A. Fellowship gives; this is its principal aim and the main reason for A.A.’s existence. Therefore, A.A. is more than a set of principles; it is a society of alcoholics in action (A.A.’s Legacy of Service, B. Wilson).
Can you remember a time when you were so excited about that fancy new flavored vodka that tasted just like your mother’s lemon merengue pie, or the 29% ABV Sam Adams at the pub around the corner, or the fact that your crack dealer lets you hang out and play Resident Evil in his dank apartment while he canvasses school zones? So excited that you couldn’t wait to tell your friends and post all over Facebook about it? That’s the feeling I encourage you to grab onto from A.A. It’s a program of attraction, not promotion, and what’s more attractive than a deliriously happy badass willingly giving away all their delicious badassery with no strings attached?
The service component of the A.A. program was borne out of a few basic tenets – that whispering it down the lane would kindle more curiosity in people than a succession of flashy billboards along the interstate; that an influx of corporate dollars (and its accompanying bevy of big ideas in suits) would hinder rather than help the spiritual aspect of the program; that no one can truly empathize with the desperation and despair of an addict like another addict; and that ashtrays weren’t magically going to clean themselves.
Most of us have been through the wringer by the time we land in a recovery program. We’re hurting, angry, afraid, anxious, sick, profoundly sad, and sleep deprived. The last thing on our minds is being of service to another human being. But service, even at its most basic level, is the key to connectedness – one of our most primitive human needs.
Just like there are many ways to end up in a program of recovery, there are as many ways to be of service to others in recovery.
Show up to meetings on time. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? It’s good advice outside of meetings too. Many of us have become such a slave to the bottle or bag that time itself is like a foreign language, incomprehensible in our thick, muddled minds. The disruption of bodies moving around a room while people are trying to listen is distracting, so unless your cat puked on your shoes on the way out the door, get there on time.
Pitch in before and after a meeting. Most meetings need chairs and tables set up, literature displayed, and coffee made beforehand, and all that stuff needs to get put away afterwards, so jump in and help out.
Make coffee. The coffee commitment is a 12-step cornerstone. If you haven’t played Barista for a few meetings, you haven’t lived. In fact, coffee lore runs so deep and old, I’ve heard it said on numerous occasions that the coffee commitment has literally saved lives. Even if you’ve never brewed a single pot in your entire existence on this planet, have someone show you how and sign up to arrive early and make the coffee for a month or a year. Even on days when you don’t have the energy for even the simple act of scooping grounds into a filter, you’ll know that people are counting on you, so you’ll show up. Uncaffeinated addicts can be cranky, and you don’t want that on your conscience.
Pick up supplies. Where there’s coffee, there are supplies… cups, lids, stirrers, cream, sugar, fake sugar, and teabags. Be a doll and grab some next time you’re out running errands.
Raise your hand. One of the reasons people go to meetings is for the chance to hear that one little thing that’s going to rattle around in their coconut all day that lifts their spirits, changes their attitude, or resonates so deeply with them that they pass it along as their own at another meeting. Sharing both your struggles and triumphs with the group is such a gift to everyone. Sharing also facilitates sponsorship connections – something you say may encourage a newcomer to approach you for sponsorship, and if you’re the newcomer, the tidbits you share help keep early recovery fresh in the minds of others.
Tell your story. Telling your story is the holy grail of 12-step meetings. When someone asks you to do them this honor, always say yes, even if your heart threatens to explode and your bowels turn to soup at the mere thought of it. The stage fright is temporary but sharing details about your life in and out of recovery and allowing others to see into you will have lasting effects for everyone.
Sponsor other men or women. 12-step programs couldn’t exist without the blessing of sponsorship. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Once you’ve gone through the steps with your own sponsor, you are qualified to help another addict in the same way you received instruction or by putting your own unique spin on it. Your job is to help your sponsee through the steps, but many deep, enduring friendships have grown out of a sponsor-sponsee relationship.
Be a greeter. Some groups have “greeters” – people who stand by the door and welcome everyone to the meeting. A warm smile and a handshake go a long way, especially with newcomers and those who are still apprehensive about meetings, recovery, and whether they’ve qualified for a seat in the rooms.
Join recovery groups on social media. There are some people who legit can’t get to meetings in their area, who have debilitating social anxiety, who are still dabbling with “controlled drinking,” and whose only contact with the outside world is from their wheelchair via a laptop attached to a breathing tube. Offer support by responding to questions and sharing your experience, strength, and hope online. Cautionary side note: There are a lot of people in these groups who are truly struggling and genuinely reach out for help to survive another day sober. Depending on the group or page, there are also a lot of individuals who just don’t understand this disease, throw shade at a bunch of external circumstances, and romanticize drinking and drugging. If those are triggers for you, I suggest you scroll on by and find the posts where you can offer positive feedback.
Take a commitment outside of your group. There are a gazillion places where you can volunteer to host or tell your story at a meeting in the community. Hospitals, rehab facilities, prisons, and recovery houses all seek outside support to keep their 12-step programs strong. If your home group has a clipboard that goes around or a bulletin board, look for one of these opportunities or inquire directly at any of your local facilities where meetings are held.
Take a home group service commitment. Between 1941-1945, the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous exploded after The Saturday Evening Post published an article about the good works of the program. No longer able to keep up with the influx of correspondence on their own, the original members of A.A. agreed to enlist volunteers to help maintain order within the headquarters office and the outcropping of groups that were popping up all over the country. By 1950, the 12 Traditions of A.A. were adopted, which declares in part that “A.A., as such, ought never be organized, but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.” (Tradition 9). Today, most groups have a service board whose sole aim is to keep the group running in accordance with all the traditions of A.A. Service positions include Secretary, Treasurer, Intergoup Rep, General Service Rep, Literature Coordinator, and General Chair of the group. Most positions require a minimum length of sobriety and a commitment of 1-2 years. It’s an excellent way to stay sober. When you have a whole group of addicts depending on you to keep things running smoooove, you show up.
Put a buck in the basket. “The seventh tradition states that we are fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.” McDonalds may be the lone holdout still offering dollar cups of coffee, but they don’t give you free refills with an awesome side of spirituality. Contributions are completely voluntary, but it’s nice to keep the rent paid and the lights on.
Be nice. It’s a super simple concept, but a friendly face and some eye contact might be the only thing that gives a person some comfort in their whole day and opens the door just wide enough to allow some pain to escape. Be that person. It can change someone’s entire trajectory.
The deeper you dive you take, the stronger your recovery will be. Service. It’s what’s for dinner.