Thursday, December 17, 2009

A leaky bucket

"We can only keep what we have when we give it away," is a sentiment you hear a lot in 12-step programs. It's the central concept of the 12th step.

As hungry as I was for recovery, I was afraid of the 12th step for a long time.

The actual step reads: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What it boils down to is doing the things that keep the organization going. I thought it was part of the Kool Aid. It was a way for Al-Anon to perpetuate itself. I understood the need for people to do this work, but I wasn't going to be fooled into thinking it would help me.

In my line of sponsorship, service is one of six key principles, so I felt the pressure to do service work from the beginning. Some people do get involved in service right away, and they claim it helps them. Helping someone else allows them to get out of their own head.

But I wasn't ready.

My own sponsor is a shining example of service. She has so many sponsees that she has to keep a spread sheet to keep track of us all. Far from inspiring me, it scared me to death. I thought of her in the same way I think of Sister Theresa. I deeply admired her spiritual path, but I didn't necessarily want to emulate it.

But I had faith in the program. Service is 12th step work, I told myself. There are 11 steps that come first for a reason. When I get there, I'll feel ready. But when I got to the 9th step, I got a little panicky.I could see the 12th step from where I was sitting, but I still didn't want to do it.

Then I got to step 12, and I was ready.

I realized that I had been a leaky bucket. Everything that poured in just went right out the bottom. Al-Anon gave me the tools to patch my bucket. And as it did, my bucket filled up and flowed over the top. What my bucket couldn't contain naturally flowed over into service.

My first service job was an easy one: setting up the room. It was perfect for me. I was compulsively early to everything, but I was also shy. I hated the idea of sitting in a room full of people who might not talk to me. So I'd sit in my car and read the paper until it was a minute before the meeting was due to start. Setting up was active. It gave me cover. It gave me something to do.

Next, I faced my fear and became a greeter. By then, I knew most of the people in my home group by name. At first, I just smiled and said, "Hi John," or whatever. Newcomers were easy to spot, and I welcomed them and gave them a newcomers packet. My home group was never a huggy group. But at another group I attended regularly, the greeters hugged everyone who came. They were my favorite people because they always made me feel like they were genuinely happy to see me. So I took a chance and started hugging. The first night, I only hugged people I felt very comfortable with. The next meeting I started hugging everyone. To my surprise, people reacted very positively. Pretty soon, I wasn't the one initiating the hugs.

I took on different things. I became the literature coordinator. I signed up to attend meetings at a local prison. I signed up to chair meetings. When the chairperson asked for volunteers to lead newcomers meetings, I raised my hand. I started this blog.

This is my second year in the program. The first year and part of the second I worked really hard on completing steps 1 through 11. When I was done, I felt an emptiness, a kind of 12-step hangover. Service fills the void. For me, it's been a time of experimentation. I'm finding things out about myself. What I like. What I'm good at. What I'm good at that I never thought I would be. And, to my great surprise, I like it.

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