Every addict and alcoholic in this world has an opportunity available to them that they might not even know about.
That is the opportunity to heal their life, and then to heal others. To tell people that it is possible. To be the example.
You don’t have to move mountains in order to accomplish this. Half the battle is simply getting sober and becoming a living example of someone who is responsible in their recovery.
The other half of it is carrying a message in whatever way works for you.
But before any of this can happen you first have to take the plunge and get on track to sobriety yourself.
And that change to sobriety will create a shift in personality. Part of that shift is from being very self centered and wanting to self medicate all the time to having a genuine interest in others and actually caring about their recovery and their welfare.
The shift from selfishness to having an interest in others
When you find yourself in recovery and experiencing some of the benefits you will start to become more stable. At that point you will also start to realize just how valuable your sobriety is to you and how grateful you are to sober.
A natural extension of this idea is that you will start to care about the sobriety of others as well. This is because you know how incredible it is to transition from being absolutely miserable in your addiction to have hope for a better life in recovery. Not only do you have hope but you will realize one day (fairly quickly I might add) that you are actually living a much better and happier life now that you are sober. So it is only natural for you to want this same benefit for others who may be struggling. Once you discover the good news (that you can recover, and life gets better!) you tend to want to share that with everyone.
You were once blinded by your own denial, but now you can see. And it is natural to want to help others to see too.
So we take an interest in our peers in recovery.
There is another reason for this caring shift in attitude. You start to realize two things about your peers in recovery:
1) They can help you, and this is amazing. Your peers can give you advice, give you support right when you need it most, and so on. They are your ally’s in the war against addiction. To a certain extent you need your peers in recovery and you depend on them.
2) Your peers need you, and you can help them. There is always someone coming into recovery for the very first day, right now, this very moment. Who is going to be there to extend a hand to this newcomer? Someone was there when I first got sober, someone was there waiting to give me a message of hope, someone was there to show me how to make it through detox and start getting some support and how to find a sponsor and so on.
So you get massive amounts of help and insight from your peers, but you also give a lot of help back to them. It goes both ways. And the guy who is just walking through the doors to recovery right now, even though he may still have alcohol on his breath, he may say something critical that you really need to hear today. This can be true if you have 30 days sober and it might be true if you have 30 years sober. You never know what a newcomer might say that could change your perspective, and therefore your life.
That is because recovery is about ideas. It is about changing our attitude. It is about shifting our perspective and doing something different. And you never know where you might get that kind of inspiration from. It may be from the newcomer, from the person who has the least amount of knowledge (or so you thought?) about recovery. They might say just the right thing that really causes you to stop and consider things again.
Just think about what your life was like when you were stuck in addiction. It was all about “me, me, me” and self medicating every day. You didn’t really care about anything or anyone else so long as you were able to get your drug of choice for the day. Sure, you could pretend to care about others, but that only came easily to you when you had plenty of supply and you were not craving your next drink or drug. Take away your supply and suddenly you don’t care about others so much any more, right? That is what addiction is–it is an obsession over your drug of choice (combined with a compulsion once you start taking the substance). So if you don’t have any, or you are not sure when you can get some more of your drug of choice, then that is all you will think about. You will worry about it incessantly. This is obsession. This is one half of the mental part of your addiction.
In recovery this is removed completely. I have proof of this: I have been clean and sober for over 13 years now, and I almost never think about drugs or alcohol any more. Hardly ever. Sure, there may be a passing thought, or even a tantalizing craving for 20 seconds where I remember exactly what my drug of choice tasted like, felt like, how it hit me, all of those crazy details. But if I sit there and dwell on it for a day then I am in big trouble. Then it becomes an obsession again. But I have not had a craving go beyond that fleeting 10 second thought in over 13 years. The obsession has been completely removed, just as it promises in the big book of AA. What a freaking miracle. I can tell when I have lost all gratitude when I forget how amazing this little fact is, that I no longer have to obsess over drugs and alcohol all day, every day. The obsession is gone.
And what is it replaced with? I care about other people now. I care a great deal about what happens to them. I care about their sobriety, and if they are doing well or not. Because this is a source of happiness and contentment in my life. I don’t just want to isolate in recovery and become an island, I want to help others and work with them and also get help from them myself. I want to grow with others. I want to enjoy the journey. This was not really possible when I was stuck in addiction. I wanted to avoid personal growth at all costs when I was in my addiction, because quite honestly–personal growth was too uncomfortable for me. It was too scary. I would rather just crawl into a hole and self medicate. I would rather find other drunks and drug addicts who were content with complacency–people who just wanted to get by, however they could, while getting completely wasted every single day. That was the level of my complacency when I was stuck in addiction. I did not want to grow in any way. I just wanted to self medicate all the time. More, more, more.
Getting happiness from the success of others in recovery
During the last 13 years of my sobriety I spent a little over five of them working a drug and alcohol treatment center.
What an amazing experience that was. I am glad that I did it. I had the opportunity to watch a whole lot of people try to get clean and sober.
Many of them succeeded. And I still get some joy and satisfaction from the fact that I had a small part in helping some of these people.
One of the interesting things about working with others in recovery is that it teaches you more about your own path in sobriety.
You might wonder exactly how that works. It is rather counter-intuitive.
We assume that anyone who is in a teaching role will be an expert, and that they will teach the “student” based on their own knowledge, and that the student will simply emulate their example and thus learn from them.
In other words, the sponsor in recovery instructs like a teacher, and the sponsee learns from this, and it all works out.
Only that is not really how it works.
It is more complicated than that. The sponsor is not only a teacher. The sponsee is not the only person learning something.
Instead, what is most interesting is that the sponsor who is the the role of “teacher” is actually doing quite a bit of learning as they try to help someone else to recover.
This is because they start to question everything that they are actually teaching as they are teaching it.
So in trying to help someone else to recover, you can’t just recite what you did in the past. You have to sort of relive it. You have to reinvent yourself based on the principles you are talking about.
If you really want to teach something then you have to be living it, you have to be practicing it, and you have to be putting it into action yourself.
So many people who sponsor others in recovery come to realize that doing so kicks them back into action. They realize that they are complacent, and here they are trying to teach someone how to recover, and yet they are not really “taking their own medicine” so to speak. They need to take their own advice and get back into action!
And so this is exactly what happens in a lot of cases. The person in the teacher role realizes that they are complacent, and so they start to get back into positive action so that they do not feel like a hypocrite when they are teaching the newcomer.
And that is really the driving principle here, the key concept. No one likes to feel like a hypocrite when they are teaching someone else. So if you sponsor others in recovery then it is a very strong way to help hold yourself accountable. You will force yourself to take positive action so that you mirror what you are actually teaching.
Finding your best outlet based on your unique situation
One of the easiest ways to get into this type of work is to simply attend AA meetings. You can get a sponsor for yourself, start working with that person, and eventually go out and sponsor others yourself.
This is certainly a valid path if you are willing to put in the work. It requires self honesty, positive action, and keeping your ego in check. But this is going to be true of any path that you take in recovery, so don’t let those criteria scare you away!
This path was not really for me. I decided that I did not want to go this route, so I had to find other outlets.
Not everyone likes to go to AA, not everyone likes to speak at AA meetings, and not everyone likes the idea of sponsoring other people in AA. I was one of those people. So I eventually found another outlet online, and created a website about addiction and recovery. I also participate in a recovery forum where people come to help support each other in recovery.
Is online recovery “good” or “bad?”
No, it is just a tool. Just like in-person AA meetings are just a tool. They are not the entire solution and they are not the entire program of recovery.
Online recovery is much the same. It is just another tool. It can be used to your advantage or it can be misused and cause you to relapse. Only your self honesty and a sincere effort can help you to judge if you are on the right path.
For example, there are people who are staying sober just based on online recovery. For the majority of people this simply won’t work though. They need the help and support of face to face interaction.
For me, online recovery worked really well. It “clicked” with me instantly. I got a lot out of the online forums and I also started writing articles about my own experience in addiction recovery. People started commenting and I started to have discussions. I got emails from people who wanted specific advice in how to recover, or help someone else to recover. And so I started to interact with these people, these mystery folks from the online world. But it had meaning. And some of them kept talking to me, kept coming back to the forum, and a community formed.
So that was one outlet. It was a big part of my path. I am not big into real life meetings and I am not big into sponsorship. But I have found a different outlet and it works for me. And it has allowed me to connect with a lot of other people as well.
And there are other outlets. It is not limited to just AA and online recovery. For example, there are lots of people who are recovering from addictions right now through religious communities and religious based programs. Those have nothing to do with sponsorship or AA groups or online recovery.
So there are many potential outlets and many potential paths to sobriety.
Do not confuse the path to sobriety for sobriety itself. Look up the zen parable of “the finger pointing at the moon” if you want to see the deeper meaning of this. Recovery programs point to sobriety, but they are not sobriety itself. Don’t confuse the path with the outcome. There are many ways to get sober, and therefore there are many ways to “pay it forward.”
The basis of 12 step work and carrying the message to others
The program of AA did a lot of things right. I have to give them credit for their discoveries even though I don’t necessarily follow their program.
One of the things that AA did right was in the twelfth step. That is the step that talks about “carrying the message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” In other words, to spread a message of hope to people who have not yet found sobriety.
This is noble work. I have huge admiration for anyone who is actively trying to get “in the trenches” so to speak and really help those who are struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. It is not easy. I felt like I did this work during the five years that I worked in a treatment center. It is not an easy job to try to help those who are essentially at ground zero with their addiction.
Because it is such a hard job to do, the rewards can be amazing. This is why it is built into the program of AA itself, because the founders of that program realized that this was a huge secret to relapse prevention. In other words, if you are helping others to recover on a daily basis, it is pretty hard for you yourself to relapse. There is a saying in the sister program of AA (Narcotics Anonymous): “The value of one addict helping another is without parallel.” This is true from at least two different perspectives: The perspective of the addict who is struggling, and from the perspective of the recovering addict who is lending the helping hand. Both parties get a huge benefit from the exchange.
Again, this is an area where I think there are multiple outlets. You don’t have to become a “big book thumper” and dedicate your life to AA meetings in order to carry the message.
One of the most influential people that I met in my recovery journey was a cab driver. He transported me from the plane to the rehab center. And he was in recovery himself, and I can remember being blown away by his message. I told him that he should be a counselor at the rehab center rather than driving the cab. But he was very wise and he told me that he was in the right place, that his higher power had put him there to do that specific job, and that he knew that he made a strong impact on people like myself. And he was certainly right. He was making a difference and he was carrying a message. He was playing the role he had been given and he was playing it well. That was about 15 years ago when I met him and I still remember it to this day.
I carry the message in my own way, based on my own unique talents.
I am not good at speaking in front of groups. I am not good at sharing in AA meetings. So I did not pursue those outlets. I looked for other outlets in which I had more skill. I found part of that online, and so that is where I try to carry a message of hope.
And the message can be very simple. I am an alcoholic, my life was a mess, and I was able to recover and build a new life in sobriety. Any alcoholic can do the same. You can do it with or without AA. You can make it easier on yourself by going to rehab. But in the end you must do the hard work, you must put in the effort. Change is hard.
“Healed people heal people”
My great sponsor likes to say “Healed people heal people.”
Wouldn’t it be bizarre if the people who really helped me to get sober–my family and the people at the rehab that I went to–where not there to help me at all?
Wouldn’t it be strange if I never had that opportunity to get clean and sober?
Because then I never would have reached out to others with a message of hope, I never would have made any connections with people online who were struggling to get sober.
And realize that some of those people have gone on to help others.
“Healed people heal people.”
Think about it…