Updated: Sep 6
One of the most crucial aspects of long-term recovery is our obligation to help other alcoholics and addicts navigate the treacherous battlefield of early sobriety.
When we first get sober, the only thing we can focus on is cleaning up the mess we’ve made of our own lives. But at some point, we need to turn our attention to others by passing along what we’ve learned so that they too can benefit from our “experience, strength and hope.” Helping others can take countless forms – driving them to a meeting, talking to them, answering their late night calls or keeping them company when they’re lonely or frightened. We can also work with others by taking them through the 12 steps (“sponsoring”) as Paul did with me.
Helping others in recovery is something I think everyone should do, whether they get sober through AA or not. Watching someone repair and rebuild their life after addiction is to witness a miracle. Best of all, it reminds us that we need to remain diligent about our own recovery. By helping others, we have a better chance of avoiding our own relapse.
After I had received my hard-earned one year chip, I began to focus more on giving my time to other people in recovery. Paul was a great example for me to follow. He was always helping someone, constantly giving extra time to some poor bastard stumbling into his first meeting like I had a year earlier, broken and desperate for help. He made it very clear to me that if I wanted to keep my sobriety I had to give it away and share what I had learned.
At first I was reluctant. I was still the center of my own universe, and wasn’t crazy about diverting my attention away from ME in order to help someone else. Selfishness, more than benevolence, was still my default mode. But over the last twelve months I’d learned that the wisest thing for me to do was follow Paul’s advice about most subjects, so I decided I would do what he suggested and see where I landed.
Where I landed was in a car with several sober friends, visiting hospitals and rehabs, discussing our experience as recovering alcoholics. We would volunteer our time each week to participate as a visiting “panel,” which is just another way of saying we brought an AA meeting to these facilities. Most of the people we spoke to were in bad shape, many of them having barely survived recent overdoses. Many were fresh out of prison or psyche wards.
These were strange and often hilarious adventures. There we were; a bunch of recovering drunks who could barely manage our own lives, talking to a bunch of drunks who could barely manage to put a sentence together. Half of them were drooling, nodding off or still hallucinating. Our little group would be at the front of the room, telling our stories and trying to sound profound about the dangers of addiction, while most of our audience would be either asleep, nodding off or staring at the ceiling.
At times it felt futile, like these nut cases were just too far gone to care about anything we had to say. But then, every once in a while, someone would approach us after the meeting to ask questions about what steps they needed to take to stay sober. Some of the people we spoke to genuinely wanted to get better. They knew they were sick and needed help, and something one of us had said sparked their desire to finally get clean. Those were the moments that made it all worthwhile. Helping others, I soon learned, could feel pretty damn good.
Over the years I’ve sponsored a number of people, and spoke on countless panels. I’ve even had the honor of helping numerous friends in their own recovery, people I used to party with in my younger days.
One thing I’ve learned is that addiction is spread out far and wide in our culture. It’s fucking everywhere and no one is immune, it seems. I’ve worked with professors, plumbers, lawyers, burglars, doctors, cooks, artists, ex-cons and cops. One thing all of us have in common is a disease that has the power to crush the strongest man or woman and leave their lives devastated and destroyed. Working with others is the best way to ensure long term success at fighting a disease that often takes the lives of even the mightiest among us.