Recovery teaches lessons many people don’t expect to learn when they first decide to quit using alcohol or drugs. If you have an idea about what happens during recovery ahead of time, you probably expect to spend a lot of time analyzing yourself, your past behavior, your relationships, your family dynamic, your levels of stress, how you manage your emotions, and a long list of other things that are all about you.
All that’s true.
During recovery – especially if you seek professional treatment in a residential program, a partial hospitalization program, or an intensive outpatient program for alcohol or substance use disorder – you spend time on yourself.
It’s an essential part of the process, elucidated clearly by one of the most well-known steps from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which reads:
“We did a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
That means you take the time – with counselors, therapists, and sometimes your recovery peers – to look at your life with total, unflinching honesty. You learn who you are and where you’ve been in order to move forward. Your inventory helps you become the person you want to be and move your life in the direction of your choice, rather than the direction determined by your alcohol or substance use disorder.
So, yes. During recovery you spend time on yourself. You learn you-centered lessons, because you are the only one that can make your recovery work. But at a certain point during recovery, you learn a lesson that often comes as a surprise.
You learn the power of service.
Service and Recovery
In this context, what we mean by service is helping others.
The first way you learn this in recovery is typically by talking about and sharing your experience with recovery peers. Once you have some time under your belt, you can help people brand new in recovery simply by being there for them and supporting them. When appropriate, you give advice and voice your viewpoint. The next step often involves becoming a sponsor in a community support group, or volunteering to run a support group meeting, clean up the meeting room, or something simple and helpful like that.
At this point, your focus is still inward – if not toward yourself, then toward your recovery community. However, before long, one of you more experienced recovery peers may ask you this question:
Are you ready to be of service to the community?
By that they mean the community-at-large. They ask if you’re ready to help those less fortunate than yourself. They may suggest volunteering at a food bank, a homeless shelter, a senior community, a youth center, or a church clothing drive. When you say yes, you learn that volunteering is both a humbling and fulfilling experience. Depending on what you choose to do, you may develop a greater sense of gratitude for what you have in your life, an increased sense of empathy and compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, or you may learn that you – yes, you, the person in recovery – have a great deal to offer the world.
You also learn what it means to do something for someone other than yourself, for no other reason than they need help. You also learn why some people believe the selflessness of volunteering is the opposite of the selfishness often associated with addiction.
Those are big lessons, which is why volunteering is an important part of recovery.
But with COVID-19, shelter-in-place orders, and social distancing, is it still possible to volunteer?
Yes, it’s still possible.
How to Serve Your Community
Keep in mind that helping neighbors, family, and friends with day-to-day life tasks and chores is always a good idea, and can always happen – as long as you do it in a safe, healthy, and responsible manner.
With that said, there are still plenty of formalized ways to volunteer, despite the ongoing restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. We also offer this blanket disclaimer: follow the advice of your doctor and local health officials with regards to everything on this list. If anything we say below contradicts the advice of medical or public health officials, defer to the officials.
Volunteer Opportunities During COVID-19
- Meal Delivery. Seniors, immunocompromised, and other at-risk populations need help every day with the basics of life. Food is essential, and groups like Meals on Wheels are looking for people to deliver health, nutritious meals – and socially distanced human contact – to those who shouldn’t go out during the pandemic.
- Help in Schools. It’s summertime now, but many schools provide meals and other services for at-need and at-risk children. You can help put meals together on-site (safely) or help distribute meals, either at schools, off-campus locations, or by delivery.
- Online Reader. If you love kids, love books, and love to read, you’re in luck. You can volunteer to read for kids through Reading Partners when school comes back, or if you live in the San Jose, CA area, you can volunteer through the City of San Jose Public Library
- Online Translator. If you’re fluent in a second (or third or fourth) language, you can volunteer as an online translator through the United Nations Volunteer Program.
- Medical Volunteer. If you’re a trained doctor, nurse, or other provider, you can offer your services through National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD).
One Last Thing
The benefits of volunteering are almost too numerous to name. Volunteering helps you stay on your recovery program, build social skills, build self-esteem, engage in your community, and fill your days with sober-friendly activities. That all pales in comparison to the fact that when you volunteer, you help someone who needs help. During this unpredictable and unprecedented time, the simple act of giving of yourself to others can add meaning and purpose to your life. With the ground shifting under our feet nearly every day, participating in an activity you know contributes to the greater good may be exactly what you need.