Service in Recovery: What You Give, Gives Back to You

The word “service” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Twelve Steps. Yet, it is a highly respected hallmark of this widespread approach to recovery. Hang around where Twelve Steppers gather, and you’ll likely hear “Thank you for your service” buzzing in the air.

Service looks different for each person in a Twelve Step program, ranging from being a practical necessity to being a compelling spiritual impetus. Rosemary, Eileen, Pat, and Mary offer here their reflections on giving service.

Service keeps the program growing

Service is what got Rosemary into the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program 37 years ago. Tired of alcohol consuming her life, she made a call to the local AA office.

“Somebody answered the phone and was very kind and helped me find a meeting to go to,” she recalls. “I was very afraid and nervous, and they made me feel at ease and let me know that I could call 24 hours a day. That was very important to me.”

Then she went to her first meeting.

“I remember saying, ‘I’m Rosemary, I don’t know why, but I’m drinking too much, and I want to stop.’” What she remembers hearing was, “You’re in the right place” and “Keep coming back.”
“Those kinds of welcoming greetings were very important,” she says. So were hearing stories of how others were finding their way out of the mire of addiction and also the invitations to go out for coffee and “fellowship” after meetings.

“I was seeing people remaining sober and I wanted that.”

“God has worked a miracle in my life,” says Eileen. “That is what drives me to do the service.”Rosemary found the sobriety she was looking for in AA. She also discovered quite quickly that service was essential for her recovery. She learned that the AA program was founded on the notion of one drunk helping another drunk stay sober. Even people just showing up sober at meetings offer a form of service, Rosemary says.

Soon after joining AA, Rosemary began helping with various meeting and group tasks. Eventually she became a sponsor to others in the program, giving regular one-on-one support that helps her stay sober while helping others get that gift. Over the years, service has become commonplace for her.

“I’ve had people come to my home. I’ve met people in the park. I’ve had a group in my home where we would discuss things and listen to tapes and books.”

Service isn’t always easy. Says Rosemary, “I worked with somebody for a long time, and they kept drinking. I’d be at their house, calling police, and going to motels to find them. At one point I just couldn’t do anymore.” When Rosemary brought her concerns to an AA meeting, she was reminded by others there that once she had done what she could, she would need to let go of the outcome.

“They told me, ‘Hopefully somebody else will be able to help that person.’ That one was difficult.”

Rosemary regularly volunteers to answer phones in the AA Intergroup office in Minneapolis, doing for other callers what someone once did for her.

“One time when I was answering phones, there was a young man who called the office and he said he was going into treatment soon, but his drinking friends were banging on his door. He said, ‘They’re wanting me to go drink with them and I don’t know what to do. My parents are gone, and somebody told me to call this number.’

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“I said that I’d be stay on the phone with him and we talked. Finally, the people went away, and I found him a person who would call him ― another male. He actually called the office back before it closed and thanked me. He said somebody called him and they were going to take him to a meeting. And his parents got home and said he could go. He was so grateful.”

Spiritual awakening leads to service

It’s been 47 years since Eileen walked into her first AA meeting. A year later she found Overeaters Anonymous (OA) (Food is her main “drug of choice,” she says). Recently she also joined Workaholics Anonymous (WA), crushed by the pressures of compulsive activity.

Service has come naturally for her. She assists with meetings, she sponsors, and she has given talks on recovery to many groups. She even spreads the word on recovery to her personal physicians and encourages them to make referrals to Twelve Step programs.

Eileen says she is as driven to share the gift of recovery with others as she was to show off her newborn baby years ago. It’s all spelled out in the Step Twelve, she says, which reads, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [other addicts in the same program] and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

“God has worked a miracle in my life,” says Eileen. “That is what drives me to do the service.”

Her addiction recovery came about through the Twelve Step program. There she came to know a God “who is madly in love with me,” and she speaks passionately about how thrilled she is to experience and share this deep care.

“He is always loving me and wanting to open me up to more grace,” she says. “And so, it’s out of that, that I want to share.”

Twelve Step work has “given my life meaning,” she adds. “I was lost, and I’m not lost anymore. And I’m wanting to share that with other people.”

Now that she’s in WA, Ellen is more likely to take a pause before adding a new service commitment to her schedule. She will first seek guidance from God and others in WA. She may also use the WA tool of substitution by removing from her calendar something that takes an equivalent length of time.

Says Eileen, “God is calling me not to give up service, but to make sure it’s coming from his will and not mine.”

Giving presence, not advice

Mary has always been good at listening to others and reading their feelings. People have often sought her out for comfort and advice. She used to listen for hours and hours.

Mostly, she says, she gave freely of her time and attention “so I could feel worthy. It’s how I learned to survive, by meeting my presumed understanding of other people’s needs. It kept me in a powerful position. Other people had needs, and I didn’t have needs. That made me stronger than them.”

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In her early years in Adult Children of Alcoholics, her service tended to follow this same codependent pattern.

When asked to sponsor someone, she said yes because she liked being needed, she says.

“But this woman was so needy, and I had no boundaries,” Mary recalls. “I could listen for hours. I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I didn’t value my time, my energy.”

Over 38 years in Twelve Step programs, Mary has grown in self-esteem, she says.

“I’ve learned to say no. I’ve received a lot of freedom in this program. I’ve received some sort of sanity and emotional sobriety. Giving it away is how I stay sane. It occurred to me long ago that it doesn’t do me any good to just sit here feeling better. That freedom is given as a gift. It’s meant to be given away.

“I think in the past I was listening for clues about how I could be helpful ― and to give advice. When I listen today, it’s more just being present. And allowing my Higher Power in.

“I used to think I could sponsor people because I knew more. I don’t think that anymore. It’s not about knowing. It’s not algebra, it’s not teaching, it’s sharing a spirit. I feel like my Higher Power has led me to people ― and people to me ― for that exchange, that growth.”

Getting the boomerang effect

Pat, a recovering addict with a long AA history, is motivated in part to give service by the basic premise of the Twelve Step program.

“If I want sobriety, then I need to be helping others be sober,” he says. For him, that means “showing up, be willing to tell my story, and listening to others.”

Pat’s second major motivation for giving service he credits both to AA and to another spiritual program called A Course in Miracles. In both programs, he has learned that giving and receiving are the same thing, he says.

“The Course actually says there’s only one of us,” he says, “When you help someone else, you’re helping yourself.” It’s our egos, he says, that think we are separated in some way from others. In both the Twelve Step program and in A Course of Miracles, says Pat, “The miracle is a change of mind ― our willingness to relinquish our will to the will of God. You’ve gotten your little self, your ego, out of the way and you’re letting Spirit flow through you. I take my direction now from Spirit.”

In both programs, he has come to believe that this will of God is all about love.

“We were made as an extension of the love of God,” says Pat. When addicts surrender to this love, he says, they can see that “we have a common interest as opposed to separate interests.” This awareness prompts a continuous cycle of giving and receiving.

“The more you give, the more you’ve got,” says Pat, “because you’re really giving to yourself.”


Pat Samples is a freelance writer, writing coach, and somatic coach. Her website is patsamples.com

Last Updated on November 13, 2022

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