It’s not over when you’re sober.
That’s the mantra of an academic research project that illuminates the link between service and recovery from addiction. Helping others — even with small tasks — can help you stay sober, according to a collection of studies on service from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
The research shows that service work in a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can reduce drug cravings and help troubled youth break the cycle of addiction and crime.
“Getting active in service in the 12-step program cuts the risk of returning to the drink-trouble cycle in half — and particularly benefits young adults with social anxiety,” says Dr. Maria E. Pagano, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Case Western and Principal Investigator of the “Helping Others Live Sober” research project.
Pagano has studied the role of service among adults and young adults in addiction recovery for more than a decade. Abstinence rates are consistently higher among patients who get active in 12-step service while they are attending formal treatment, she says. Examples of service activities include low-intensity, instrumental tasks such as making coffee at a 12-step meeting, calling a peer to encourage attendance or becoming a sponsor.
“Importantly, it is giving without any expectation of getting praise or something back in return,” Pagano notes. “AA can also stand for ‘attitude adjustment,’” she says. “Helping others helps transform the self-centered thinking at the root of the illness to an attitude of gratitude.” Programmatic forms of service such as holding a service position or helping another with step-work appear to give the helper the biggest kickback benefit in terms of staying sober, Pagano says.
Her Saving Grace:
Mentoring Others In Recovery
Dolores “Dee” Cloward found the healing power of service along her own journey toward sobriety. She immersed herself in volunteer work, facilitating hundreds of online meetings for SMART Recovery,® a nonprofit that advocates self-empowerment and tools for addiction recovery based on scientific research.
In the past decade, Cloward has written nearly 22,000 posts on SMART’s online message board — providing encouragement to others battling drug and alcohol addiction.
“It did a lot for my recovery,” Cloward says of her volunteer work. “It gave me a sense of connection, a sense of competence that I was actually able to write things that were helpful to people. It was reaffirming because we get very beaten down when we use drugs and alcohol.”
Cloward, who also volunteers at her church, says she’s cultivated many friendships through her online and local communities. Today she serves as SMART’s volunteer Court Outreach Committee Chair and Events Coordinator, and was recently awarded the organization’s highest honor — The Joseph Gerstein Award for Exemplary Service.
She sees another concrete benefit to helping others in recovery. “It’s a reminder that I was there once, too, and that life can get better.”
Less TV, More Meaning
Service to others does more than replace drugs and alcohol with new experiences, according to a wealth of research on altruism. People who volunteer report less stress and say that giving back improves their physical and emotional health.
Perhaps volunteers experience more fulfillment because they watch an average of eight fewer hours of television a week than non-volunteers, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.
There are potential career benefits as well, according to research by LinkedIn, the world’s largest online network. A survey of LinkedIn members reveals that 41 percent of employers consider volunteer work equally as important as paid work when they evaluate job candidates. And 20 percent of employers say they have hired a candidate because of their volunteer work experience. Unemployed people who volunteer are 27 percent more likely to be hired than people who do not volunteer, according to the LinkedIn survey.
The Many Ways To Volunteer
The growing body of evidence on altruism and addiction is clear: helping others is good for your recovery. But where do you start? What if you don’t feel engaged with your community — or you’re not sure you have anything to give?
Inspire Others In Recovery
One of the most direct, profound ways to connect with others is to share your story of recovery. Your personal journey to overcome addiction can strengthen people who are struggling with drug or alcohol relapse. Check with your recovery coach about volunteer opportunities in mutual aid groups, and consider training to become a peer sponsor or 12-step meeting facilitator. You can also volunteer your time at nonprofit addiction treatment centers.
“Historically, we know the 12-step programs all rely on peer interaction, people helping people. We know that participation and mutual aid support groups have a significant impact on peoples’ ability to have long-term recovery, it’s well-established,” says Andrew N. Pucher, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).
“The fact that there are millions of people in recovery programs is testament itself to the fact that peer support and peer service helps,” Pucher says. “Sharing experience with each other is beneficial to both sides of the equation.”
Find out how you can support the work of recovery organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART Recovery or NCADD. These nonprofits often need volunteers to coordinate events, hold a regional office or share messages of hope and encouragement through online message forums.
“I would say to people, speak up. Your opinions and experience are valuable,” says Cloward, the SMART Recovery volunteer. “Read as much as you can and explore all options. At SMART Recovery, we are always very much in need of facilitators, and we welcome people to check out our training program.”
To reduce the stigma of addiction and inspire others, consider sharing your story online. You can make an impact at Faces and Voices of Recovery, a national advocacy movement for people in recovery and their families.
“Recovery is everywhere. Whether you’re a person in recovery or a family member, share your story to demonstrate that recovery works for over 23 million Americans and offer hope to people who are still struggling, their families and communities. Speak out about the solution – recovery. Then ask your friends to do the same. Our Stories Have Power.” –Faces and Voices of Recovery
Find A Match For Your Interests
In addition to supporting others in recovery, there are many nonprofit organizations in dire need of volunteer help. Your time is priceless to their quest for social change.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to find a good fit.
Volunteer Match, the largest service of its kind, pairs volunteers with more than 90,000 nonprofit organizations worldwide. You can search volunteermatch.org for causes you care about — some examples include hunger relief, animal welfare, veterans and crisis support — or by local area (not every city is listed).
Volunteer Match also offers thousands of “virtual” ways to make a difference, such as applying your digital skills to aid a nonprofit startup, or sewing memory bears for families who have lost a loved one. Since 1998, Volunteer Match has connected more than 9 million people to service opportunities in the United States and abroad.
Other programs that mobilize volunteers include:
While smaller in scope than Volunteer Match, these online networks also have searchable databases that can lead you to meaningful civic engagement.
Use Professional Skills To Help Others
If you have specialized skills in areas such as technology, accounting, research or marketing, you can find stimulating pro bono work with nonprofits in need.
NPower mobilizes the tech community to provide free computer classes, business mentors and career development training to underserved young adults and veterans. The organization also helps schools and nonprofits use technology more effectively.
Taproot Foundation makes business talent available to nonprofits that address social challenges. The emphasis is on five cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Catchafire also matches skilled professionals with pro bono projects for nonprofits. And you can list your capabilities and desired volunteer posts on LinkedIn for Volunteers, so that charities and nonprofits can find you.
No Expertise Or Career Skills?
You Can Still Make an Impact
Volunteering offers endless opportunity for new challenges and human connections. Even if you don’t have a professional skill set, you can still lead social change and find compelling ways to spread joy and improve lives.
One idea, from the nonprofit Cheerful Givers, is to uplift children in poverty by gathering your friends, family and colleagues for a “Birthday Bag Blitz.” Organizers assemble gift bags filled with small toys, crayons, stickers, etc. — then deliver the bags to low-income parents at shelters and food pantries, so their children can feel special on their birthdays.
You can change a life by helping an adult learn to read; find a program in your area through the National Literacy Directory. Another idea is to join the crew at Habitat for Humanity, a worldwide ministry that builds safe, affordable homes for lower-income families (Habitat also needs volunteers for its home improvement ReStores/donation centers).
There are plenty of ways to get involved, no matter what your skills or life experience may be. Your local Meals on Wheels relies on volunteers to prepare nutritious meals for the homebound — and to hand-deliver meals or make phone calls (“safety checks”) to elderly clients between visits.
You’ll find many service opportunities at global nonprofits such as United Way, Catholic Charities, Goodwill, or health charities that seek cures and support people with cancer, autism, heart disease and other conditions.
Volunteering in ways large or small can reduce social anxiety and improve your recovery from addiction – while making life better for others.
“I think the solution is to not think about it – just get out there and lend a hand,” says Pucher.
About The Helping Others Live Sober Project
Helping Others Live Sober is a research project at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. The project is designed to improve the quality of life for youth, families, and communities by providing a continuum of scientific information, education, and personal experiences on the role of service in addiction recovery.
The website offers resources to support clean living, tips for recovery professionals, results of altruism research studies, and information on the ways in which service is meaningful to helpers in recovery.