If you are part of a 12-step recovery program, you know that being of service is a key component to managing the demons of our addictions in order to stay sober. The idea is that in order to keep it, we must give it away. We help ourselves by helping others. Focusing on someone else, specifically another person in recovery, helps us become less focused on ourselves; it works too in a way that allows those of us in recovery to be selfless and rid us of our egocentrism.
Service is rewarding for everyone involved because the more we help others, the better we feel. There is a give and take of accountability and gratitude.
There are also studies that have proved that the helper therapy principle keeps more folks sober than those who don’t help.
In an article published in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, Maria E. Pagano, PhD, explained the benefits of helping or being of service during addiction recovery. Both studies used data from Project MATCH, one of the biggest trials in alcohol research. One study done in 2004 showed that 12 months after a three month rehab program, 40 percent of those suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD) who helped others didn’t drink during that year of recovery. However, only 22 percent of non-helpers stayed sober.
Science Daily reports that another study done by Dr. Pagano and her colleagues in 2009 showed “94 percent of alcoholics who helped other alcoholics, at any point during the 15-month study, continued to do so as part of their ongoing recovery, and experienced lower levels of depression.”
Those in recovery also rely on resiliency to stay sober, and a key component to becoming resilient is to find support through relationships.
Those in recovery also rely on resiliency to stay sober, and a key component to becoming resilient is to find support through relationships. Simply put: We need community.
When setbacks occur at work, in a marriage, romantic relationship, friendship, or even in relapse, the ability to bounce back is greater if we have someone to lean on. There is no better way to build meaningful relationships than to allow ourselves to be vulnerable when connecting with other addicts. Being of service is a wonderful way to do this.
If you are part of a support group or 12-step program, there are plenty of ways to help. You can set up or clean up the room before and after a meeting. You can make the coffee or provide snacks. You can greet people or chair a meeting. If you are far enough in your own recovery, you can become a sponsor for another person in recovery.
But there are plenty of ways to work outside of AA or another recovery program. Here are some ways to be of service outside of a traditional recovery program.
1. Start A Private Online Group or Join a Sober Group
As a freelance writer and LGBTQ advocate, I spend probably too much time online. However, there are really wonderful ways to use social media. My most intimate and best systems of support are inside my phone, across all the time zones, and in private groups between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Before I went to my first AA meeting, I joined my first group for those recovering through a Facebook group invite from a friend of mine.
I knew Jen through writing circles and admired the way she tackled and talked about her addiction to pills. I connected with her as someone with substance use issues and a mother who is trying to stay sober while raising kids. Many others did too. Jen saw the need and desire for an online community for this.
“A friend suggested I make a secret, private Facebook group for moms either in recovery or struggling with addiction. Now, when people message me, I add them to our group of moms supporting each other in a judgment-free zone. Our community members share their strength, love and support with people who are struggling, something that helps everyone.”
We hold each other accountable, share stories, and do our best to support with tough love minus the shame. Jen, myself, and a few others are admins for the group, but this really is a build it and they will come situation where providing service is pretty easy with big rewards.
2. Join A Fitness Group
There is so much power in the statement “move a muscle, change a thought.” I am so grateful for the spaces in my life that allow me to process my feelings through physical activity, especially the spaces led by and attended by others in recovery. Yoga has taught me that it’s okay to be uncomfortable by holding certain poses and trusting that I will not only get through the discomfort but will be stronger because of it. Crossfit through the Phoenix program, specifically for folks in recovery, allows me to push my limits in healthy ways. With support, sweat, and often tears, I and others in recovery are able to harness the strength of intentional movement.
If you are not certified to lead a specific type of class, start a walking or running group. Or offer to meet a sober friend at the gym. The chemicals our bodies experience while working out are better than any drug can provide.
3. Write, Speak, and Share Your Story
Before I made a commitment to do anything about it, I knew I was an alcoholic. As a way to be sure, and as a mechanism to distance myself from myself, I read essays, blog posts, and listened to podcasts and stories about addiction. Sometimes I would tell myself I’m not that bad. Maybe I don’t have a problem. But the more I listened, the more I realized that I sure did. I also realized there is more than embarrassment, shame, and fear to being an addict. Listening to others in recovery was a great way to feel seen and understood. I also learned from the insights and truths others were so willing to share.
I started to write about my recovery about a year into sobriety. I published my work on sites specifically targeted at those in recovery. I have also had my story published on mainstream parenting sites — there is a lot of danger in the mommy wine culture and the idea that parenting is only survivable with alcohol. I am also a LGBTQIA+ educator and public speaker. I am never sorry when I mention I am sober; each time someone tells me they are, too.
4. Make Work Your Service
There’s nothing to say you can’t make a career out of helping others in recovery. Social work, counseling, admin work, or medical professionals directly serving those suffering from AUD in different stages of their recovery can be incredibly rewarding.
Caroline Butler says this, “Being in recovery and being a nurse is not always an easy combination. I am a person in long term recovery from opiate addiction and I now work as an NP in an addiction medicine practice. I am passionate about offering quality, individualized care to anyone seeking help for substance use disorders. I truly understand what people are facing as they seek recovery. I will forever be grateful for this journey of working in the recovery field as it offers me a deeper connection to my own recovery.”
Working in the recovery field can be triggering too, so it’s important to be honest with yourself and your potential employer about where you are in your own recovery. Seeing our lives mirrored in the people we are trying to help may be too intense. Talk to your sponsor, a counselor, or employer to help you navigate troubling situations and big emotions.
5. Show Up and Volunteer
Any act that puts you second to the needs of others will help you take the focus off of yourself, and getting out of our heads can be our best medicine. Giving back to others really does make me feel good; it gives me purpose while hopefully helping others feel seen while being relieved of some burdens they can’t handle alone. There are so many places that could use our help.
Be a mentor for struggling youth who are at high risk for substance use disorder; call a local food bank, homeless shelter, or halfway house and see if they could use some help — whether it’s cleaning a bathroom or just socializing, your presence will make a difference. Coach your kid’s or niece or nephew’s sports team. Check in on your neighbors.
You will find that offering help to others allows you to ask for and accept help too. This back-and-forth dynamic of service adds to the sense of community we all need. As people in recovery, we battle the negative talk our brains tell us is true. When we can shelve some of that talk we can allow affirming thoughts of self-worth, purpose, and confidence.
Caroline Butler reminds us, “The gifts that I get in return for this work are amazing. Each day, I get to witness people taking the steps that will forever change their lives and gives me a chance to offer what I can to make these steps easier.”
Find a way to be of service. There is a connection and comradery understood by two people who have been through hell and are still standing to tell about it.