Service and Sponsorship


By Steven V.


Before coming to AA, I spent most of my time thinking about, well, me.

I was often thinking about how poorly my life was going, how dissatisfied I was with my love life (or lack thereof), why I wasn’t getting the promotions I thought I deserved, how no one loved or cared about me etc., etc. Since I was constantly in this state of mind I was frequently feeling sad, angry and lonely and drank more to cope. I rarely if ever thought of how I might be of help to someone else. I wanted people to be of service to me!

When I first came to AA in 1990 the idea of “service to others” was introduced to me.

I wasn’t completely oblivious to the idea but thought it was for “do-gooders” who did it to get attention and accolades – not for me. Then I saw other people put on the coffee, set up the chairs, put out the ashtrays (yes, smoking was allowed back then). They were laughing together and they seemed to be having fun. I don’t think it was necessarily at that moment I realized something but it wasn’t long after that. What I came to realize is that I had always craved to be a part of something. To be accepted and liked by others. To have friends and feel at ease with myself.

The first time I got drunk was age 12 in Grade 7.  Some boys I had wanted to be friends with told me they were skipping classes in the afternoon and were going to one of the boy’s house and drinking his parent’s homemade wine and would I like to come? Of course I wanted to come! That was actually the beginning of a long history of risky behaviour to simply be with others but that’s a story for another time. We got drunk, in trouble for skipping school and I was sick to my stomach and vowed never to do that again!

The notion that alcohol would change the way I felt wasn’t what attracted me to it – it was the notion that I would be liked and accepted by these boys. Of course, while under the effects of alcohol I certainly noticed I felt more comfortable and even euphoric. That’s what likely led to me drinking again – the effect and the fact I could fit in and be “cool”.

So, as time went on I was that alcoholic who joined a group, came early to help set up, make the coffee and put out clean ashtrays.  I had fun doing it, I got to know other people in recovery, I showed up regularly and attended the group’s business meeting and lo and behold, stopped thinking about drinking very much at all.

The truth is I’ve been coming to AA for nearly 26 years and am coming up to two years of continuous sobriety again. I’ve passed one year 6 or 7 times, two years 3 times and five years twice. I’m the poster boy for “keep coming back”! Over the years my beliefs have changed quite a bit. I’ve been a group’s secretary, librarian, treasurer and G.S.R. countless times. I’ve served at the Area table and on other committees for more years than I care to remember but you know what makes me the happiest? Helps me feel the most connected to others? Makes me feel useful and helps me to think less about myself and more about others? Good old, basic AA service. Yes, being a group’s Trusted Servant is a form of service and valuable service at that but, there’s something about arriving early each week, working with someone else to help set up the meeting, talking to others and staying after the meeting that does it for me.

A friend in recovery who passed away a few years ago told me he had learned that service was anything we do to help the newcomer or anyone coming back to feel welcomed and comfortable. I agree. Being of service helps to give me the previously mentioned things I had always wanted. Feel a part of, connected, useful and less selfish while being a bit more selfless.

These days I have two groups I help set-up/clean-up each week. I get calls regularly from suffering alcoholics asking for help. I get asked to sponsor men and to speak at treatment centres and detoxes (other forms of service). I’m more comfortable in sobriety than I think I have ever been and I owe a good deal of that to simple, service work.

There’s been several studies done that show that going to meeting and doing service work increase one’s chance of staying sober. For instance, in a  2004 survey published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researcher Sarah Zenmore reported that providing support helped recovering alcoholics and addicts to maintain their sobriety. “Studies have shown that AA involvement is a strong predictor of sustained recovery,” she reported. That included “meeting attendance as well as helping activities such as doing service in the AA fellowship and being a sponsor”.

The beautiful thing about service is that there are no prerequisites, no special knowledge, abilities or talents are required. Just a desire to stop drinking. One doesn’t have to wait to get a sponsor and go through the steps before doing service work. Just go to some different meetings, pick one you like, join it, go to the monthly business meeting and ask if you can help out. It’s a simple as that!


Why have a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous? When you first attend meetings, you’ll hear things about the 12 Steps, Sponsorship, Service, Higher Power and other topics that you’re likely not familiar with. A sponsor is another recovering alcoholic who will devote some one-on-one time with you, show you around, explain things to you and help you feel welcomed. A sponsor can introduce you to other AA members, help you get involved in service and AA events too.

Go around to some different meetings for a few weeks or so. You’ll begin to become familiar with some people, hear them share about themselves and how they got and continue to stay sober. Soon, you’ll find yourself thinking “that person seems to have had some of the same difficulties as I have. Maybe they can help me?”  Sharing at meetings that you’re looking for a sponsor, speaking to other AA members and going for coffee after meetings are other ways to find a sponsor.

A sponsor is typically someone who’s been sober for a while (ideally a year or two although there are no rules regarding this or anything else in AA) and has some experience dealing with the ups and downs of life and works a daily program of recovery that she or he can easily pass on to you. A sponsor can also help if you choose to work the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

A sponsor likely will be one of the first people you’ve been honest with in quite some time.  Someone to learn to trust, to confide in. Perhaps one of your first healthy relationships you’ve experienced in quite a while. In helping you, a sponsor relies on his or her own experience for guidance rather than always be telling you what to do. It is also recommended we pick someone with whom emotional and/or physical distractions won’t become a problem.

These sponsor/sponsee relationships don’t always work out and that’s ok. They are not a life-long commitment. You are free to look for someone else that might be better suited to help you. The relationships we develop in AA will help us learn how to be in relationships with people outside of AA such as our spouses, family and our co-workers.

Sponsors are not professionals – they are recovering alcoholics like you. It’s important to not become overly dependent on a sponsor for help in getting a job, a place to live, money, therapy etc. They may have their own personal experience with these things and can possibly direct you to the appropriate service(s) for help.

Calling your sponsor regularly and asking for help is your responsibility. Remember that they too have lives, family, jobs and other commitments  outside of AA and so it’s important to have contact with other AA members when your sponsor isn’t available.

Our program of recovery wasn’t intended for us to do this on our own. We all need help and by asking someone to sponsor you, you are also actually helping them.

The core of our AA program is one alcoholic helping another alcoholic, and that’s the essence of both service and sponsorship.

Steven has been going to AA/12 Step meetings since 1990 and has served at various levels – Group/District/Area. He’s “gone back out” two times in the last 26 years and learned some valuable lessons. The last time around he finally acknowledged to himself that he doesn’t believe in a God, or a Higher Power, and never really did over all his years in the fellowship. Finding agnostic AA meetings has been a huge part of his recovery. He recently moved to Windsor, Ontario and is starting the first agnostic meeting in that city next month with the help of three other like-minded individuals.

5 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    Great story – Do everything but find a God which will solve ALL your problems.

    Oh yea, that’s in the Book.

    Never mind.

  2. Joe C. says:

    Hey, Illinois would be a great place for a WAAFTIAAC conference; lots of history with Chicago and all. I’ll come and I’ll tell a friend. 🙂

  3. Joe C. says:

    What a refreshing read. Sobriety à la AA is a logical transition. Someone helps us who owe us nothing. We become introspective and gain understanding of some of the why/who/when/where & what of our own addiction and the collateral damage imposed on the ones who’s only shortcoming was that they loved us. Then we come to see that what we’ve learned can help others. Then we learn that helping others is the best relief from our own suffering and incompleteness.

    Repeat. Become more whole and useful in life. Enjoy a purposeful life.

    I just read this look at systemic problems in professional recovery by William White: A Call for Clinical Humility.

    A counselor makes a public apology (there’s a video) for not doing better and letting alcoholics/addicts down. There are systemic troubles with a bureaucratic business system of helping people at the weakest on a for-profit basis.

    I don’t think it was the good old days when people came to AA while they were still drunks and continued to drink and smell of booze in meetings while they transitioned from wet to dry drunk in their early AA days.

    Professionals help people in ways peer-to-peer cannot. But while the factory recovery complex depends on AA/NA et al to keep (some of) their grads as sober statistics that prop up their credibility, AA has grown to depend on detoxes/treatment. Some groups tell drunks not to come back until they are sober. I’ve seen people working on the phones tell people on the phone they had to go to detox, then treatment, then AA as if no one gets sober without $25,000 of treatment.

    Maybe we can/ought to do more to create community for people who desire sobriety. Maybe we can/ought to do more to outreach (meet people where they are). Maybe everything is just fine the way it is. I don’t know.

    I do know that many things in my life today give me a sense of mastery and add meaning. One of them is being involved in our 12-Step community. Part of that is being a sample of how we can have a sober life and be a contributor in the larger community and some of that is showing up and being available when the hand reaches out.

    In a world that seems fated to disaster, we find something in our community that brings order to chaos. For me this whole AA thing works best when I reach out with a whole hand to help instead just point one finger to criticize.

    A story like today’s reminds me that while there are ways for AA to better, when I take that responsibility on myself and focus on to one on one, eyeball to eyeball AA, I sleep better at night than when I engage in being my armchair revolutionary self.

  4. Thomas B. says:

    Wonderful essay, Steven — thank you !~!~! My recovery has certainly been enhanced by General Service work and sponsorship, both utilizing a sponsor and being a sponsor to others, in which my style is that I don’t sponsor them, we co-sponsor each other, sharing experience, strength and hope about how we both stay sober a day at a time.

    Congratulations on establishing a new secular AA meeting in Windsor. I’ll look forward to visiting your meeting sometime. My mother was born in Ferndale, a northern suburb of Detroit.

    With my wife, Jill, I’ve been involved in starting two secular AA meetings, one in Portland and one in Seaside, where we presently live on the coast of Oregon. Serving as GSR for the Portland group has been one of the highlights of my longterm recovery. We’re in the process of moving to her childhood home in Wenona, IL, and look forward with another secular AA member of starting a meeting in nearby Bloomington Normal, IL.

  5. Alyssa (soda) says:

    Can’t wait to visit Windsor :)))))
    Hi everyone!!

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