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Being of Service in 12-Step Groups

Service is one of three principles in Alcoholics Anonymous. The other two are unity and recovery. While service may seem to be an obvious principle to interpret, it can cause some confusion when it is used as a manipulative way to attempt to control others. Recovering addicts may be some of the best manipulators in the world. They certainly have the skills, which are honed sharply while in active addiction. Because they may not be completely laid to rest when in early recovery, there are some who are using that skill in 12-step groups. This is not news to any members attending the groups. However, there will be things said frequently in the groups that are not in the spirit of what the founders had in mind when they stressed the importance of being of service to others as a way of enhancing and strengthening personal recovery from substance abuse.

Early in Alcoholics Anonymous, there was a completely different need for service than that seen today. There were only two original founding members. They were hard-pressed to spread the word about recovery to those who were still in the thralls of practicing alcoholic drinking. As they were able to achieve success with new members, there was some relief of the workload as those members began to spread the good news. Soon they had a small group and from there they changed the history of addiction by forming Alcoholics Anonymous. This is a brief explanation of work that was done for the love of the recovery they had found. This kind of work is no longer needed in Alcoholics Anonymous. While there are thousands of meetings in countries all over the world, there exists a huge need for service work to be done at many levels.

This work does not go away, but increases every day. Service to Alcoholics Anonymous and in other 12-step communities is rewarding, sometimes frustrating, and usually under-appreciated, but it most often leads to a stronger recovery for the person who performs it. The problem occurs when those who do not understand the nature of service tell others in the group things that are patently untrue. A frequently heard phrase is, “Never say no to an AA [or NA] request.” The origins of this saying are unknown. Too often, it is used to bully others into doing what that person wants them to do. This is not service; it is manipulation. The person being cornered into doing what the other member wants them to do will perform this function, but do it with much less than the spirit with which service is intended. They have been conned, manipulated, and trapped into doing something because that phrase is believed to be true by them.

It is strongly hoped that their sponsor will enlighten them about this untrue phrase. It has become a widespread expression, used altogether too often. New members of 12-step groups fall prey to it frequently. They are manipulated into doing things that they do not want to do by guilt imposed from another member mouthing a phrase that should not be used. Again, this is NOT what service is about, nor what it was intended to be. Anything done through manipulation, guilt or shame is not service, it is slavery. Resentment and anger are the byproducts of this type of work. Love is the byproduct of service. Anything that is undertaken through guilt cannot produce the love that was the very spirit of those early founding members. This is truly the spirit of service.

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.

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