21 Jan Being of Service While in Recovery by Greg Binns, LMFT
Years ago, I worked in a residential rehab program that was built on the Therapeutic Community model. One thing this means is that the program emphasizes everyone’s interdependence on one another, and that it takes the approach that a big share of the healing and recovery come from learning how to: have relationships with others, have shared goals and responsibilities, let people matter, pull your weight as part of a group, have reasonable expectations of others… One day one of the residents was isolating, not doing what was asked of him, and treating his fellow residents contemptuously. Upon being “pulled up” by a staff member – an old-timer with a big heart and a keen understanding of addictive entitlement and grandiosity – the resident tried to justify his behavior by retorting, “It’s a selfish program; I’m just trying to focus on me today.” My colleague’s response was quick and sharp, and, as I recall, quite public: “You’ve been selfish your whole *#%&$@ life. Now go and finish your… ” whatever it was.
Being of service in recovery finds it’s most specific embodiment in the 12th step, in which the recovering addict is encouraged to “carry the message” to others suffering from addiction. The Big Book gives a variety of reasons why this is effective and in fact, puts so much stock in this act as to be able to say, “… nothing will so much innure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.” [italics mine]
What do you think might justify such a bold claim?
One thing that characterizes addictive suffering is that the addict’s relationships with other people have broken down in the most profound way. This leaves the addict with only substances and/or acting out behaviors to rely on for managing all of life’s inevitable emotional conflicts and existential realities. For all of their ruinous consequences, substances and acting out behaviors have a certain kind of reliability about them. The addict knows exactly what to expect. It’s still a hell, but a more predictable one than needing other people.
Recovery, on the other hand, is a process of changing your relationship with your internal world, with other people, and with the way you find meaning and purpose in life. Being of service enhances all of these facets of the recovery process.
Being of service can take the specific form of reaching out directly to another struggling addict when they’re at their bottom. It can take the form of showing warmth and welcome to a newcomer at a meeting. In perhaps it’s simplest form, it could be just showing up at your meeting (as opposed to not showing up) and being one more person listening to someone share and letting it affect you – i.e. just cultivating an open-hearted attitude in the presence of others. It could be taking a commitment to support a meeting’s physical existence and organization. It could be offering your number to someone for an outreach call.
I think there are a few things going on in all of these examples. One is that each could help me to get out of my head for a minute and interrupt my endless recycling of all the bad thoughts that I usually ruminate on. So at a very basic level, there’s the potential to get relief from my usual mental bad weather by having an interaction to focus on. At another level, it affords me the opportunity to practice two kinds of interactions that may have eluded me in my addiction – experiencing myself as being valuable or useful to other people, and finding value in the wellbeing of others. In a broader sense, at the level of meaning-making, you could see being of service as a way of putting into practice a general kind of reverence for the value of life, both our own and others’. This represents a complete reversal of the worldview of the active addict.
I would encourage you to play with this a little bit in your own life and see what there is to be learned. You might consider something like the following: think of one modest act of service a week for the next month; take a minute and let yourself reflect on the ways your act might affect it’s benefactor(s); notice how you feel; pay attention to your experience as you are being of service, to the details of your interaction with others – what do you notice about your thoughts and feelings; about their responses; what parts feel enlivening and what parts feel aversive; what happens to the ways you think about yourself and others as you continue finding ways to practice service? I’d be interested in seeing your comments.