The Benefits of Volunteering as a Recovery Activity

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By Peggy Gemperline BSN, MBA, Executive Director, Recovery Works, South Shore, Kentucky

People in recovery are always looking for productive ways to spend their free time.

They can’t help it: everywhere they go that has anything to do with recovery, that’s what everyone tells them to do. Therapists tell them they need to manage their downtime carefully, recovery fellowships stress the importance of being involved in service work, and articles like this one and this one are filled with advice about ways to have fun that don’t involve alcohol or drugs.

If you’re in recovery, you know they’re all correct: you should always be on the lookout for productive ways to spend your free time, because you know that’s when most relapses happen. You know that when you have a long weekend ahead of you with no meeting planned and nothing on your schedule, you need to get something on the calendar as soon as possible.

Not because you can’t make it through the weekend, but rather you know if you schedule an activity that has nothing to do with alcohol or drugs, you increase the likelihood of reaching Monday – and a return to your regular schedule – with your sobriety intact.

Which brings us to the point of this blog post.

If you’re in recovery and looking for a bona-fide, rock-solid recovery activity (which you should be), we have the perfect idea: volunteering.

Why Volunteer?

We once heard an old-timer at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting put it this way:

“Volunteering is the opposite of active addiction.”

Of course, comparing a chronic disease like an alcohol or substance use disorder with a simple activity like volunteering– even by way of contrast – is comparing apples and oranges. It’s the fallacy of comparison: one of the first logical fallacies one learns about in any critical thinking class in high school or college.

However, the more we spend time with this sentence, the more it rings true.

For three good reasons:

  • Reason One: Many of the behaviors associated with addiction can be accurately characterized as self-centered or even selfish. Volunteering, by definition, is selfless, as opposed to selfish.
  • Reason Two: People living in active addiction tend to isolate and avoid social situations. That’s not what volunteering is like. Almost all volunteer situations are social and involve interacting with new people in new places for hours – and sometimes days – on end.
  • Reason Three: People living in active addiction spend a great deal of time and energy avoiding hard truths and ignoring uncomfortable emotions. Volunteering, by its nature, and a volunteer, by default, recognizes hard truths and difficult situations that often include challenging emotions. Volunteers go toward these obstacles and situations in order to alleviate them, while people living with addiction go away from these obstacles and situations in order to alleviate them.

Those aren’t evidence-based, scientific reasons, but we think you see our point: it’s hard to find two categories of activities that are farther apart from one another than drinking or using drugs and volunteering.

The Benefits of Volunteering

You may accept the old-timer’s premise – volunteering is the opposite of addiction – and think something along the lines of:

“Okay, so volunteering makes a great activity for anyone in recovery. Are there more reasons I should think about finding a place to volunteer?”

The answer is yes, there are. The reasons we offer above form the foundation of why volunteering is a smart thing to do while you’re in recovery, but we’ve come up with five more good reasons for you to consider:

Five Benefits of Volunteering as a Recovery Activity

  1. It keeps you focused on recovery. This may seem like circular logic – like we’re saying it’s a good recovery activity because it’s an activity that’s good for recovery – but it’s not. The act of volunteering foregrounds who you are and what you’re doing. You’re out of the house, you’re not drinking or doing drugs, and you’re doing something for someone other than yourself. When you’re volunteering, you are “out of self,” which recovery fellowship members offer as a means of handling everyday stress. The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” suggests in Step Ten that when selfishness, dishonesty, resentment and fear crop up, we ask our Higher Power to remove them, and then we “resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help.”
  2. It helps manage time. You need to find positive ways to fill your days and nights. You may be okay while you’re at work, going to a community support meeting, exercising, or participating in a hobby, passion, or pastime. It’s the unscheduled time that trips you up and leaves you vulnerable to relapse. If weekends are tough for you, you can put in two full days volunteering. You can even travel – nothing outlandish – to places where people are in the most need. For instance, Florida and Texas needed help after the hurricanes of 2017-2018, and California needed help after the wildfires of 2018. If weeknights give you problems, there are homeless shelters and soup kitchens all over the country in need of evening volunteers.
  3. It improves self-esteem. When you help other people, you feel good about yourself. It’s not the fleeting feeling of euphoria you get from alcohol or drugs that fades when the alcohol or drug leaves your system: it’s a steady feeling of rightness and purpose. It’s something you get when you see the tangible result of your actions and the positive impact they have on the lives of others. Once you have that, no one can take it away from you. Build up enough of those moments and those feelings, and you’re on your way to restoring the self-esteem addiction may have taken from you.
  4. It keeps you engaged with the world and the people in it. Many people who live with addiction deal with intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. You may be familiar with the pattern: you know you have a problem with alcohol or drugs, but for a million reasons, you think you can’t talk to anyone about it. Therefore, you don’t. You hide it. You drink or use drugs alone, which compounds your feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s a vicious cycle. Volunteering helps break the cycle by giving you a place to go that’s positive and something to do that you know is good. People start counting on you, and that’s one of the reasons you keep showing up: someone out there needs you. Rather than feeling burdened by responsibility, you feel liberated by choice. You create a virtuous cycle that reaffirms itself each time you volunteer.
  5. You help people who need help. There it is: the essence of volunteering. You volunteer not because it looks good, not because it’s easy, and not because there’s a free lunch involved. You volunteer to help someone who needs help. It’s an expanded version of helping an old lady across the street or doing a random act of kindness for a stranger. When you get to the point in your recovery where you can see past yourself and recognize the needs of others, you’re making progress.

Where to Start

Let’s say you’re in recovery and you’re ready to volunteer some of your time to people in need.

Where should you look?

The first place you can look is somewhere you probably go several times a week already: your local peer support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Refuge Recovery, or SMART Recovery. Start with your home group, where you can generally find service positions such as meeting chairperson, secretary or General Service Representative (GSR). Volunteer opportunities at AA, NA, and Refuge Recovery are typically organized by local (city or state) chapters. For instance, New York AA has a volunteer page here and Cleveland AA has a volunteer page here. Most AA and NA Area Service structures offer opportunities to volunteer. To volunteer for SMART Recovery, click here. If you’re interested in learning how to run a Refuge Recovery meeting – their primary volunteer opportunity – click here.

Those are the quickest and easiest places to start. You can put your name in the hat for office work or you can become a sponsor. Reach out to someone, tell them what you want to do and why you want to do it, and they’ll point you in the right direction.

If you want to expand your horizons beyond your peer recovery community, the opportunities are endless. We’ll give you a starter list, but after a few minutes, you’ll realize you can volunteer almost anywhere, doing almost anything you can imagine. With that said, we’ll start with the basics – i.e. shelter, food, health:

Follow those links, sign up for a volunteer day, and go give it a shot. If you’ve never volunteered before, you’re guaranteed to have a new and enriching experience. You’ll also meet like-minded people, because one thing you know ahead of time is this: you’re all there to help the same cause. That simple fact can unite you, lead to valuable friendships, and open a whole new range of recovery activities filled with meaning and purpose. You may also discover a side of yourself you never knew existed when you were living with addiction: the side that gives without needing to receive, lends a hand when there’s one free, and helps simply because someone needs it.