“Life will take on new meaning. To watch others recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you– this is an experience you must not miss.”
— “Working With Others,” Big Book, Page 89
Myths regarding sponsorship and service work abound in many 12-Step fellowships. Quite often, we hear well-meaning people in recovery tell the newcomer to “slow down,” while instilling within them the idea that they “cannot help anyone yet.” Rather than push the newly sober person into service work and spiritual action, it may be the natural tendency to support the notion that drug addicts in the first year of recovery are fragile and incapable of helping others. After all, many of us were so sensitive over the course of addiction that we likely gave others this impression ourselves. In recovery, it becomes our responsibility to fulfill the beauty of our Twelfth Step, which states that, “Having had a spiritual awakening, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all of our affairs” (Page 61).
If a spiritual experience is vital for recovery from addiction, why should we slow down in the pursuit of that experience? Furthermore, once we’ve had a spiritual experience, why are we still deemed unable to help someone else?
This may seem drastic, but there appears to be a disparity between the early development of Alcoholics Anonymous and our current attitude towards service in many 12-Step fellowships. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous impressed upon us the idea that our recovery is dependent on “work and self-sacrifice for others” (Page 15). After numerous pages in which we are told that the “root of our troubles” lies in our self-reliance, we are repeatedly directed to move away from our own self-centeredness by turning our thoughts to someone else. In the chapter “Working With Others,” the freshly sober alcoholic is immediately told that nothing will “so much ensure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics” (Page 89). Yet, many fellowships suggest that we wait at least a year before beginning to sponsor others or engage in service. Why?
It seems unlikely that anyone is suggesting that we shy away from service for some malicious reason. This sentiment most likely springs from a desire to be helpful to the newcomer, though the consequence is often anything but. We are given an ember of light as we begin to develop a relationship with a Higher Power through practicing the 12-Steps. Working with other alcoholics and addicts can quickly fan that small flame into a brilliant fire and passion for life.
In many ways, this is why the 12-Step program was so radical, and why our fellowship grew with such burgeoning effect.
Like many of my friends, I began to work with my first sponsee very early on in my sobriety. Having made amends while fostering my newfound relationship with God through the disciplines of Steps Ten and Eleven, my own sponsor impressed upon me the need to begin working with others. Though it made little sense at the beginning of my journey, she explained that acts of selflessness would quickly propel me into the “fourth dimension of existence” that the Big Book promised I would find (Page 25). So, when a new woman turned up at our meeting, I was directed to approach her, get her number, and call her in the morning. This I did, despite my own fear and anticipation.
It was only after sitting down with this woman for the first time that I began to see why my sponsor had so emphatically driven me to take someone else through the 12-Steps. We sat across from one another in her dining room, and I began to see why the darkest crannies of my past became the greatest asset I possessed. Despite our age difference, many of our experiences aligned, and our disease had manifested in very much the same way: neither of us could control our drinking, many of the lies we told were similar, and our most humiliating moments miraculously seemed to echo one another. I drove away from her gorgeous suburban home after that first afternoon with tears in my eyes because my life had never meant that much. At last, I had a purpose.
Much more than a self-help program, the 12-Steps are meant as a pathway to deep and profound spiritual experiences.
Having been blessed with a spiritual awakening, it should be not only our job but our joy to seek others with whom we might share freedom. Alcoholism is a progressive illness that can quickly drive addicts into absolute darkness and, ultimately, death. Conversely, happiness is almost impossible to avoid after having been rescued from alcoholic torture! To walk free in the sunlight of the Spirit without the obsession to drink or use is an overwhelming experience, one which our founders in AA tell us to quickly give away. Though we find peace in the first eleven Steps, perhaps nothing is more impactful to our recovery than the effect of being of service to another alcoholic or addict.
“You will know what it means to give of yourself so that others may survive and rediscover life.”
–“A Vision for You,” Big Book, Page 153
Everyone is capable of helping someone else. No matter what walk of life we may come from, there will always be someone in need of our love, compassion and grace. The Twelfth Step is not simply important because it is a requirement of the 12-Step program, but because within it our lives finally take on the meaning and purpose we could never seemed to find on our own. Pouring coffee at a local recovery club may seem like such a small action, but for a person filled with fear and self-pity, the effect of truly being useful is nothing short of electrifying. It is these small actions which show us our worth in God’s universe. The principles we learn in the first eleven Steps are put into action with Step Twelve. Through this, we begin to live a full life of overwhelming joy– one which many of us never imagined was possible.