One of the beautiful things about the recovery process is how, when we emerge from the fog of addiction and alcoholism, we begin to understand that we have something to offer the world around us, and we start to ask the question: What can I do to help?
In times of great social strife, that question takes on a more urgent tone. When thousands of people around the country are asking the same question — what can I do to help? — it may ignite a particular urgency within us to get involved, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do so. However, it’s important for newly recovering addicts and alcoholics in the awakening phase of their journey — that time when they begin to see that the world they’ve ignored and hidden from for so long through new eyes — to understand that there’s one thing above all else that should remain most important:
Staying clean and sober. If you’re wondering, “What can I do to help?,” your personal recovery should always be your primary focus, and other steps taken to become socially active should stem from there.
No. 1: ‘What Can I Do to Help?’ Check Your Motives
One of the common traits of newly recovering addicts and alcoholics is the discovery of the beauty of order and routine. While caught up in the grips of drugs and alcohol, our lives are ruled by the overwhelming need to use and drink, and once that habit is gone, we feel adrift: “Many addicts organize their entire daily routine around obtaining, administering, and recovering from the effects of their drug(s),” Dr. Delinda Mercer and Dr. George Woody write in the paper “Individual Drug Counseling . “Because of the time these behaviors require, many people with a drug-use disorder experience a void, or a sense of loss, shortly after stopping the drug. They have spent so much time working for drugs and associating with people, places, and things associated with taking drugs that they have difficulty imagining what to do when they are not using drugs.”
Structure is critical for addicts and alcoholics, who can find comfort in the routine of recovery meeting attendance and the trappings of 12 Step fellowship. Regular meeting attendance, service commitments and social activities built around fellow recovering addicts and alcoholics all serve to restore order to previously chaotic lives, and that causes a ripple effect: We begin to maintain order at home and even find joy in doing things we never did before: bathing, cleaning, even putting on fresh clothes become hallmarks of a lifestyle change, and those things help restore us to sanity. We come to embrace the idea of order … but when we turn on the news and see that the world around us has descended into chaos, it can cause us great concern.
That’s why we need to check our motives. “What can I do to help?” is always a worthy question to ask, but why do we want to help? Is it because we want to make a difference, or because the disorder we see in society right now threatens the order we’ve established in our own lives? It shouldn’t, and it can’t, unless we allow it to. It’s critical that we separate the chaos of the world around us from the chaos in which we used to live. Disorder in society is not a reflection of disorder in our own lives, no matter how much it might trigger us.
No. 2: Get Informed
Emerging from the fog of addiction and alcoholism is, in many ways, starting from a blank slate. Sure, there are plenty of addicts and alcoholics who kept up with current events while drinking and using, and some might have wondered, while still active in their disease, “What can I do to help?” But far more often, the nature of our disease — the getting, using and finding ways and means to get more — keeps us isolated on an island of our own design, and the rest of the world passes us by.
It’s not like we don’t want to be a part of the world, but drugs and alcohol have a way of snatching us from it. We can’t keep up with jobs, with family celebrations, with personal milestones … how in the world can we possibly be tuned into what’s going on in the world if our entire existence revolves around our alcohol and drug use? When we’re working on our sobriety, we often find that we’ve missed major events that have taken place in the world around us, or the ones that unfold in real time during our early recovery can seem much more staggering than perhaps they truly are, mostly because we’re paying attention for the first time.
It’s important, then, to get some perspective — to learn about what’s going on, so you best know how to react to it. Jeff Wilser, writing for Men’s Journal , has a few tips:
- Set a news browser as your internet home page: “For instance, if “Google News is your home page, it forces you to notice the news every time you fire up your browser. Simply scanning the headlines for just a second will leave an impression.”
- Dedicate a block of time daily — “even if it’s just 5 minutes” — for reading the news.
- Listen and read: If you read about something that intrigues you, seek out a podcast about it. If you hear something on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” track down an article about it: “If you listen to a story on a subject, then also read about it, that audio/visual combo—called “dual-coding”—attacks the brain with a one-two punch that can practically turn you into a tenured professor on a subject.
No. 3: Limit Your Media Consumption!
By the same token, wondering “How can I help,” then soaking up every news item you can find, can wear you down pretty quickly. Headline anxiety is a real thing, and it can leave you feeling disheartened — not a good emotion to bring down on yourself if you’re in early recovery. What is it? Oliver Burkeman, writing for Britain’s The Guardian , sagely observes “that the real cause of headline anxiety isn’t learning about worrisome new developments. Rather, it’s not knowing which new developments will prove to have been worth worrying about.”
To keep yourself from stressing out about the endless bombardment of news, especially in times of heightened concern, it’s important not to get sucked into news consumption around the clock, according to Dr. Lane Cook, chief of Psychiatric Services at Cornerstone of Recovery : ““You’ve got to put limits on watching the news, because it can make people really depressed,” he says. “Watch your intake, because it’s easy to get demoralized, so you should be on a strict diet of information.”
Studies actually back that up: According to one published in Harvard Business Review , “Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.” The results were so stunning, in fact, that researchers went over them twice to ensure their accuracy.
Those results don’t mean you should retreat to a mountain cave and avoid society altogether, but they do mean you should be cognizant of your news consumption — especially in early recovery, when your nerves are still raw, your emotions are still imbalanced and your own plate is full from cleaning up the wreckage of your alcohol and drug use. Adding to personal stress by taking on societal stress is unhealthy, and it means you should be careful not to let headlines and social media conversations affect you negatively.
No. 4: ‘How Can I Help?’ Figure Out What You Want to Accomplish
Staying informed is one thing; forming an opinion about what you’re consuming is something else entirely. Our particular affiliations when it comes to political and social issues are often affected by a great many things: Family of origin, education, community and our own innate sense of right and wrong among them. Still others use the rebirth of recovery to explore new concepts, new ideas and new philosophies, because they find their old ways of thinking no longer fit their new way of life.
There’s no right or wrong way to approach your own particular opinion on an issue … but it’s important to establish what your opinion might be in order to steer you in the right direction when it comes to activism. Regardless of whether you support Black Lives Matter or the Fraternal Order of Police, the way you get involved should be guided by your conscience … and it’s important to acknowledge that you don’t know what you don’t know. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that you simply don’t know enough to have an opinion, much less get involved … and that’s perfectly OK as well.
Of course, if you do want to get involved, establishing goals for that involvement is critical — otherwise, we run the risk of doing the same thing we did when we drank and used: a whole lot of talking, and very little doing.
No. 5: Initiate a Conversation
There’s a lot of noise out there, much of it aimed at creating a divide down the middle of society. Rather than contributing to the noise, seek ways to talk to your neighbors and acknowledge your shared humanity, share your experiences and put something positive out into the world.
Fomenting productive, positive dialog is critical to promoting peace and shrinking the growing divisions in our society. Having a rational, peaceful conversation in which emotions are kept in check and personal attacks aren’t tolerated is healthy and, in some ways, necessary in order to figure out what we all can do to make things better.
No. 6: Start Small
When we see something in our communities that bothers us, especially now that recovery has scraped the grime off of our moral compass, it can be tempting to rush into action without forethought. Despite the nobility behind such an endeavor, however, it rarely ends well — for us, or for the change we want to initiate. Instead, focus on ways you can make an impact that don’t involve you taking to the streets in protest or joining the police force to bolster law enforcement. Some tips from Walden University  are solid ones that can help you initiate change without taking drastic action, including:
- Random acts of kindness, “like smiling at a stranger or holding the door open for someone”: “Studies show that simple acts of kindness can actually make the person doing them happier and can even have positive health benefits. Even if the act itself is small, the impact for both the beneficiary and the actor can be large.”
- Volunteer with an organization dedicated to social change: “By volunteering your time, you can help these organizations and allow them to continue providing the services the community relies on … an organization might need help serving meals, tutoring children, or handing out materials. While these are all simple acts, they can be very helpful to the organization and can make a significant impact on the community.”
- Use your wallet: “When enough people support socially conscious companies, the unethical companies will be forced to acquiesce or risk going out of business. This demonstrates that when enough people carry out a simple act, like supporting socially conscious companies, it can lead to a big social change impact.”
You don’t have to change the world in order to make a difference: Sometimes, you just have to change yourself. That’s what recovery is all about, and using our newfound clarity to be responsible, productive members of society, even with small acts of kindness and goodness, can go a long way.
No. 7: ‘How Can I Help?’ Say the Serenity Prayer!
Anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a recovery meeting knows the Serenity Prayer. Go more than once, and you probably know it by heart:
“God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change; the courage, to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
According to an article on the website VeryWell Mind , “For so many people in desperate situations — seeking peace, strength, and wisdom — these simple words, whispered to a God as they understand him, have seen them through their darkest hours. They have come to believe that the qualities expressed in the prayer can come only from a power greater than themselves. And because they believe, they find the serenity, courage, and wisdom they seek from somewhere outside themselves to face another situation, another step, and another day.”
When we’re besieged by current events that trouble and frighten us, we often feel overwhelmed. Recovery teaches us that the Serenity Prayer is useful during those times, especially that first part: finding acceptance in the things we cannot change. There are many ways to work on acceptance, but the Serenity Prayer is often the simplest and most powerful, and there’s a reason so many individuals in recovery recite it as a mantra, over and over again: because it helps them find that acceptance.
But then comes the second part: Finding courage to change what we can. As recovering addicts and alcoholics, we’re often eager to rush into action. After all, we spent so much time as spectators of life, watching it pass us by, that when we come into recovery, we’re driven by a frantic urge to set things right in our own lives. But just as the 12 Steps are in order for a reason, and making amends is at No. 8 and 9, so too does the desire to take swift and immediate action to change the wider world need to be checked by distinguishing what we can change and what we can’t.
And finding the courage to change what we can often doesn’t look like what we think it will or what we want it to. Few things are more frustrating than attempting change only to see our efforts thwarted … but that’s when we need to examine what, exactly, we’re attempting to change. Often, the changes we want to see in the world around us start small, and they start with us.
And that’s where the “wisdom to know the difference” can make all of the, well, difference. By acknowledging the things over which we have no control, and summoning the courage to do our part regardless of how small it may seem, we’re actually expending our energy in the right direction, and that’s beneficial — to our recovery, to our community and to ourselves.
No. 8: Safeguard Your Recovery!
In the rooms of 12 Step recovery, it’s commonly understood that recovery has to come first. If we’re not clean and sober and working on building ourselves into better people, then everything else in our lives — jobs, families, hobbies, even the social activism in which we may want to engage — will suffer. The whole aviation admonition of securing your own mask first before you help others holds true in recovery, and no matter how much we may want to make a difference in the world around us, we’re unable to do so unless we’re taking care of our own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and well-being.
For some people in early recovery, this may mean buckling down on the basics instead of getting involved in social issues. After all, if you’re only 30, 60 or 90 days removed from your last drug or drink, you’re still on shaky ground, and the last thing you want to do is jeopardize the tenuous (but getting stronger) connection you have to this new way of life. Yes, the urgency of dire headlines and ominous current events may elicit passionate emotions, but so should your devotion to the recovery process.
There will always be social issues and unsettling events that dominate the headlines, and being in recovery doesn’t mean that we’re not concerned about making a difference through social activism. But sometimes, the answer to “what can I do to help?” is to simply keep doing what you’re doing: going to meetings, working with others, talking to your sponsor, building ties to the fellowship, working Steps and relying on your Higher Power.
Becoming a responsible, productive member of society is one way — perhaps the biggest way — to make a difference. With your feet firmly planted on the rock of a recovery program, you can do great things … but before you set out to change the world, start with the person in the mirror, and make sure the place on which you stand is firmly anchored to the sobriety that allows you to be part of the change.