AA service work

Service in AA

June 14, 2023

By Andy F

Categories: Alcoholics Anonymous

An inconvenient truth

Not long after arriving in AA, when the alcoholic fog cleared, it became easier to absorb what I heard at meetings.

In chapter five of the AA Big Book, on page 62, Bill W, the author of the Big Book, makes the following statement:

“Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles.”

I didn’t react well to this insinuation. How dare Bill make such a sweeping generalization about alcoholics! Selfish – self-centered – not me! I was a nice guy: kind, intelligent, sensitive, and honest. 

It wasn’t me that was selfish and self-centered; it was my Mother, a drunk and wicked aunt, who raised me. They were mean, cruel, and emotionally unavailable. I was a victim of their behavior. They were the selfish ones! Although I had been an alcoholic and addict since I was a teenager, as far as I was concerned, everyone else was the problem.

First exposure to service

It didn’t take long to figure out that the fellowship had two opposing camps. Some stayed clean and sober on fellowship alone, while others surrendered to the suggested program. Recovery from alcoholism involved getting a sponsor, working the steps, and doing service. I quickly joined the ranks of those staying sober just by attending meetings. I resented the people who were doing service at meetings. In my judgment, they were doing it to get admiration and attention. Being a rebel without a cause was a role I had perfected since becoming an alcoholic and addict.

Initially, my journey began with Narcotics Anonymous. The NA members involved in service were nicknamed “service junkies.” I couldn’t think of anything worse than becoming addicted to service. “How boring,” I thought! My primary purpose was to be on the receiving end of other people’s kindness. I certainly wasn’t interested in doing any. Later in my step work, I admitted that I never did anything for anyone unless there was something in it for me. Being lost and needy, I had nothing to give. All I knew was how to take from others. Not surprisingly, I kept relapsing with that attitude!

Trying to get well on a non-spiritual basis

I spent years in recovery chasing sex, power, and money. I watched everyone else’s progress in recovery; I became envious and highly competitive. When it came to the pursuit of material success, I was like a dog with a bone. My sole motivation for staying clean and sober was an addiction to money, approval, and praise. My primary purpose was to prove to myself and everyone else that I was no longer a loser. 

After Thirteen years of misery and relapse, I became convinced that something was fundamentally wrong with how I was approaching life. An obsession with chasing external validation became a major relapse trigger. It brought me to my knees more than once. At meetings, people shared that “recovery was an inside job.” Boy, did I resent that idea!

When all else failed

Everything I used externally to feel better about myself fell apart sooner or later. Living with untreated alcoholism was hard going. Depression and feelings of hopelessness were my daily companions. In early recovery, I was heavily involved in NA. On page 22 of the NA basic text was the following quote: 

“Social Acceptability does not equal recovery.” 

After years of relapse, I had no alternative but to acknowledge that perhaps recovery was an ‘inside job.’ The spiritual solution offered in the twelve steps began to look more attractive. Step twelve said that if I wanted to get well and be happy, I would have to start helping others.

“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all my affairs.” (Step twelve) 

Why is carrying the message to a newcomer so necessary? I didn’t get it. It appeared like such a thankless task. The truth was that the people helping newcomers seemed more balanced and much happier than me. I owed it to myself to discover why service is the cornerstone of 12-step recovery.

What is “service work” in AA?

“Service work in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) refers to volunteer work that members do to help carry the AA message to other alcoholics, help maintain the AA community, and support AA meetings. This can include tasks such as setting up chairs, preparing coffee, serving as a designated driver, cleaning up after meetings, or sponsoring a newcomer. Service work aims to help members stay connected to the AA community, remain sober, and give back to others struggling with addiction.”


That was a comprehensive definition. Now, faced with the prospect of further relapse, the time had come to start doing it!

The primary healing circuit

Bill Wilson, one of AA’s co-founders, suffered from depression for years after getting sober. His honest and moving account is described in an article he wrote for the AA Grapevine magazine in 1958. It is called “The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety.”

In the article, Bill discusses his battle with depression. A light bulb moment changed the course of his recovery. He discovered how to begin finding peace and happiness in sobriety. What Bill realized was, for him, a revelation. The cause of his depression was a dependency on continuous external validation. He saw how addicted he was to a neurotic drive for “top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance.”  In other words, he was trying to fix himself from the outside in. (Quote from Bill’s article)

      “For my dependency meant demand—a demand for the possession and control of the people and the conditions surrounding me…… 

While the words “absolute demand” may look like a gimmick, they were the ones that helped to trigger my release into my present degree of stability and quietness of mind, qualities which I am now trying to consolidate by offering love to others regardless of the return to me…….

…….Then only could I be free to love as Francis had. Emotional and instinctual satisfactions, I saw, were really the extra dividends of having love, offering love, and expressing a love appropriate to each relation of life…….This seems to be the primary healing circuit.”

Copyright © AA Grapevine, Inc, January 1958

An Agnostic Interpretation of the St Francis Prayer

As an agnostic in AA, the following interpretation of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi began to have more meaning. It appears on page 99 in the ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.’

It makes perfect sense to someone who doesn’t believe in the traditional idea of God. It encapsulates a point of view that is successfully treating my alcoholism. I gradually came to agree with Bill when he describes alcoholism as a dis-ease that is threefold in nature: “Physical, mental and spiritual” (See BB Appendix V, P 572) 

May AA’s program of action make me an instrument of peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
May AA’s Twelve Steps teach me to console rather than to be consoled, 
to understand rather than
to be understood,
to love rather than be loved.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in self-forgetting that we find ourselves
it is in forgiving that we are forgiven,
it is in a daily surrender of ego through service to others that we become happy, joyous, and free.

St. Francis of Assisi (Wikipedia)

Love and service in AA

Can an AA member internalize the principles of the St. Francis prayer without believing in God? Can atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers be of service and help alcoholics who are struggling? Of course, they can! If love and service are offered unconditionally in AA, these qualities become “the primary healing circuit” mentioned by Bill.

Through a daily surrender of alcoholic self-will, we gradually acquire the gift of humility. It is the transformative principle of step seven. Humility itself becomes the higher power that achieves this life-giving change in “attitude and outlook.”  (BB 8th of the twelve promises P 84) The twelve steps allow us to benefit from the healing power of service.

The spiritual program of action helps us to transcend the misery of untreated alcoholism. (The “spiritual malady” BB p. 64) It works if you work it. It works whether you believe in God or not. Could it be that devoid of ego, love is God, and God is love?

In fellowship

Andy F

With the support of Danny D

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