Service Articles

I Look Forward to Going to Prison

How lucky we are to have been given the opportunity to recover from this seemingly helpless state of mind and body called alcoholism. Before I had the brief window of opportunity to reach out my hand for help and call AA, I was an inwardly fearful type of guy. On the outside I was fearless to excess, I believed I was above the law and could get away with anything. I was always having scrapes with the law and often found myself waking up in police cells all over the world: Plymouth, Columbia, Gibraltar and Cyprus come to mind. Whenever I got arrested I was always intoxicated and in there for a crime of violence.

I was a very dishonest guy and was good at helping myself to things that didn’t belong to me. I considered myself to be a very good criminal because I never got caught, but throughout my life I had an extreme fear of being sent to prison. This did not stop my crimes.

I was petrified of going to prison. So when I came to AA and got myself a sponsor, I allowed myself to be sponsored and embarked on my road to recovery. I never thought for one minute I would be as happy and crime-free as I am now and have been since taking the 12 Steps. I’ve had a spiritual awakening as a result of taking the Steps, I was set free from my old way of life.

I am a firm believer of the Three Legacies: Recovery, Unity and Service. Service is a big part of my structured recovery, having been through the service structure at group level. I found myself taking a newcomer to an AA meeting in Tavistock back in July 2006. The lady who was the secretary at that meeting was a friend of my family. I think we were both surprised as each other to see one another at an AA meeting. I was asked to do the main share of which I would never have refused. After the meeting she commented to me that I would be great for prison service and my name was put forward to Dave B, Prison Liaison Officer at the time. Within a month I found myself entering HMP Dartmoor with Dave. I must admit it was slightly daunting walking through the main wings of the prison to make the announcement that the AA meeting was due to start. Facing my fears comes to mind.

It was a special experience carrying the AA message to the 4 prisoners attending the meeting. Within a couple of months I attended the security induction lesson and was given the role as a Prison Sponsor with my own ID card. I was put on the AA rota to take meetings once a month on a Saturday morning. I never once missed a meeting and remember those winter mornings with snow everywhere, hardly making it up across the moor to get to the prison. Because I was keen, because I carried the AA message as laid out in the basic text and most importantly because I was reliable, I found myself being put forward for position of key holder. This meant that I was trusted to draw keys for the prison. I began to be asked to sponsor inmates, increased my attendance at the prison, and started to do the odd evening meeting on a Tuesday in the Vulnerable Prisoner Unit.

Dave B rotated out as Prison Liaison Officer in December 2007 and I was duly nominated as the new PLO. This was an all new experience for me, and I had begun to attend Plymouth Intergroup. A proud moment for me personally was getting the vote of every Intergroup officer for this position. I have now been PLO for three months and have two and a half years left. The meetings are structured, with inmates taking the meeting with our guidance. We are experiencing increased attendance. My position is not easy at times. I have to adhere to the Traditions, whilst trying with the help of our dedicated team of prison sponsors to carry the message at Dartmoor.

My personal feeling on what we do at the prison is that if we can get an inmate to an AA meeting on his release, then he has a good chance of recovering. If he sticks at his recovery then there is a ripple effect throughout the community. This is because, if he is like me, he will never commit a crime again.

Service in AA is essential - it keeps you at the heart of AA. It has been vastly rewarding to me personally, and when I’m let out of the main prison gate, I often think back to those days of lying low, witness-intimidation and sheer dishonesty, all because of my immense fear of prison.
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My Spiritual Bank Account

Before coming into Alcoholics Anonymous I was a spiritually bankrupt, hopeless alcoholic. I was a truly self–centred, selfish human being. I took from everyone including family, friends and loved ones and was incapable of giving anything back. Like it says in the big book, “selfishness, self–centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles.”

I remember walking into my first meeting at what was later to become my home group and hearing that if I’m to recover from my alcoholism I would need to get a sponsor and work the twelve steps. I asked someone to sponsor me and he quickly got me doing certain actions early on that really started to help me. One of these actions was to get involved with service work within my home group. I hated it at first!

My service work in AA started off with me being a greeter/cleaner. This involved getting to my home group early and standing at the main entrance and welcoming all who came into the meeting. It also involved making sure newcomers where given a tea or coffee and where introduced to a home group member. Also, at the end of the meeting it involved getting a dustpan and brush and sweeping up all of the cigarette ends left outside the meeting place. I remember thinking “how does this help me get sober?” It was at this point I got my first resentment with my sponsor.

I have felt like giving up on service work many times. My alcoholism telling me “they are all using you, they are all in that meeting right now laughing at you for doing all this hard work for free.” But, with the right encouragement from my sponsor and the other established members of my home group, I persevered. I kept getting told such things as “service work will keep you sober” and “service work will keep you in the centre of AA where you are safest” and now, after over 27 months sober, I’m saying the same things to newcomers.

I have been involved in many different types of service work. Within my home group I have gone from greeter/cleaner, tea server, and onto my current position of AA literature sales person. I am also involved with many different types of service work outside of my home group such as court service, where I attend the local magistrates court for two hours and try to help alcoholics there, treatment centre and day service talks where I share my experience, strength and hope with the people attending these places, I spend one night a week every three weeks on the national AA helpline, and I have manned a stand at the local hospital on a couple of occasions.

Doing all these different types of service work has given me a lot. I have got to meet many new people in and out of AA, it takes me out of myself and allows me to think of others and teaches me how to act selflessly when my natural default setting as an alcoholic is to be selfish. For me and my own sobriety this is vital and for the first time in a very long time I am actually being useful. I may not get paid money for the time I give to service work, I don’t even get a T–shirt for it, and at first this really bothered me but today I know that what I get back is much more valuable than money or clothes. I believe that in a spiritual way I do get a payment of sorts. I believe that this payment goes into a spiritual bank account and when I am facing trials and low spots on my road to recovery I am able to withdraw from this spiritual bank account to help maintain my sobriety. So, to make sure I always have a healthy balance in my spiritual bank account I follow a few simple rules, such as, I never say no to service unless I absolutely have to, I always give service work 110%, and I am always grateful for the service work I do.

There are still many different types of service work in AA I am yet to experience and I look forward to hopefully participating in as many of these roles as possible one day. Luckily my home group as a whole is very active within all levels of service work so the opportunities for me are vast. I am very thankful that my sponsor got me involved with service work right at the start of my journey and any resentment I may have acquired in my early days has been replaced with a healthy feeling of gratitude.

Sept 2013
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My Experiences as GSR

I was encouraged into service right from the start of my joining AA. After rotating through the service positions in my homegroup I was nominated and elected to become the GSR. At first it was quite a daunting prospect being the primary servant of the group, especially as my predecessor made it look so easy, however I was sponsored in fully and shown what the role entailed. Although it was a challenging and busy two years I found the experience really rewarding. The following are the things that sprang to mind as I sat down to write this article, which I hope can be of use to anyone becoming a GSR.

The role of the GSR in Britain differs greatly from what Bill and Bob had in mind. If you read the World Service Manual it describes a completely different service structure, and name and role for the GSR. The intended name of the GSR is the General Service Rep but in the UK this, along with the service structure, was changed for some reason to Group Service Rep. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous wanted the individual groups to have a direct say in what happened in AA and so wanted the GSR of each group to have a vote as to who should become delegate for their particular area. The difference in the UK is that the GSR only votes at Intergroup, then up to 3 Intergroup representatives go to Region, and Region then vote on who should become delegate for their area. Using the system we have in the UK the following are just some of my experiences whilst I was the GSR of my group.

Knowledge of the AA literature was essential so that when I went to a committee and started contributing to discussion and votes, I knew what I was talking about. Long before I was elected I had already been encouraged to start reading, among others, the twelve traditions, twelve concepts, AA comes of age, the AA group pamphlet, and the AA service manual for Great Britain. Being the GSR for my group did not make me popular as I had to make decisions based on our primary purpose which not everyone agreed with. You also need to not be afraid of standing up for the AA principles (traditions, concepts and guidelines) and not be afraid to speak up if you feel that they are being ignored. I sometimes found it hard to be the minority opinion (concept 5) at a committee but had to do what I felt was right.

I have mentioned committees above and one of the main duties when I was GSR for my group was as a ‘go between’ between my homegroup and our local intergroup. This involved taking the conscience from my group to intergroup meetings and voting on the various business items on the agenda, and vice versa. It did not mean however that I went there with a strict mandate from my group to vote a certain way. I could go against the conscience of my group and vote the other way as long as I returned to my group and explained why. This was exercising the use of concept 3 the right of decision, and was often based on discussion and new information arising at committee.

Another duty I undertook was to organize the people doing service within the group such as tea team, literature, secretary and so on. This involved making sure that they knew what the service entailed and that they were being sponsored into the position. It meant that if anyone was away then I would ensure their position was being covered. It also meant liaising with the venue landlords if there were any problems. All of this meant that the meeting could carry the message of how to recover to the newcomer in the best possible way.

The role of GSR in my group also involved more lighthearted duties such as organizing trips and activities for my homegroup. This included arranging coaches for trips to conventions and conference meetings, arranging Christmas parties and outings, and group birthday meals. I remember well turning up at the local cinema with nearly 400 pounds cash and booking about 58 tickets for our Christmas outing – the lad in the booking office nearly fell off his chair! Arranging these was challenging at times, however the results were always a good laugh and gave the newcomer proof that we are not a glum lot.

Ben B AA member

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Personal Anonymity

I often say that my wife saved my life by making me go to AA. However, my real saviour was the good publicity that made her aware of AA in the first place and the high public regard for our Fellowship that gave her the confidence to send me there. A little later, when I had recovered from alcoholism by taking the 12 steps with the help of a sponsor, I wanted to tell everyone that I was sober in AA. But part of my desire to tell all and sundry was to say ‘Look at me, aren’t I special?’ Using my AA membership for self-aggrandising purposes is something I still have to guard against. What, though, about my genuine desire to let people know about this wonderful programme? With the guidance of my sponsor I became comfortable with quietly disclosing my AA membership to friends and work colleagues. By these means a number of 12th step calls have come my way. However, even though AA had been going 60 years by the time I pitched up, such ‘quiet disclosures’ would never have been enough to transmit the AA message to my wife’s consciousness. No, a far more widespread and far-reaching means of communication has been necessary.

The early AAs knew that they had to harness the ‘colossus of modern communications’ if AA was to make anything more than the most faltering progress. Many well-meaning AA members (Bill W included) therefore set about publicising AA by appearing on radio programmes, and in newspaper articles, using their full names as members of Alcoholics Anonymous. This worked, initially, especially when famous people also broke their personal anonymity in the media – more and more people were therefore being drawn to AA by these personalities rather than by the spiritual principles of the 12 steps. The problem with this is that the same, ‘Look at me, aren’t I special?’ tendencies were inevitably present as they were (and can still be) with me. This ‘big-shot-ism’ began to run amok as AA members left, right and centre broke their anonymity at the public level, all for the good of AA of course.

The thing is, this Fellowship doesn’t need that kind of help. What if the personality or famous AA gets drunk and mires the good name of Alcoholics Anonymous? What about those who declare their AA membership at the top public level, while at the same time promoting various different causes? Outside organisations naturally wanted to harness the good name of AA and often hired AA members to bang the drum for political causes or for such things as ‘responsible drinking’ messages from the alcohol trade. A sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous would be bound to lend considerable weight to such causes among the general public. The difficulty with this is that given enough anonymity breaks the public and the press would start to wonder whether AA stood for this cause or that cause; that political stance or some other. Consequently AA would be drawn into public controversy, our unity would suffer and our ability to carry the AA message severely compromised. If allowed to persist AA would eventually collapse, and it doesn’t get more serious than that! We needed to protect our society from ourselves, from our natural desires for power and prestige, which can still lead AA members to declare their membership on TV, the radio or in magazine articles whereby the AA name then becomes associated with these personalities in the public eye regardless of what the individual does or says that can potentially put us in a bad light.

The solution turned out to be in Traditions 11 and 12, which suggests no breaking of anonymity at the level of press, radio, TV and films; that we should place our principles before our personalities. At the core of these traditions is humility and sacrifice. We sacrifice our desire to say ‘Look at me, aren’t I special?’ and we sacrifice our desire for short-term publicity based on someone well-known declaring publicly their AA membership. Blanket anonymity at this level prevents controversy and a loss of public confidence in AA and from many internal wranglings that could also threaten our treasured unity. Indeed sacrifice for the common good of AA does me good, it keeps me right sized and humble enough to be a servant of AA rather than rising above it. And sacrifice at the public level, demonstrated by anonymity, is good for our society because the public, the media and newcomers know that we are humble enough to know our place, that they can have confidence in our principles of recovery – ‘This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us, that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.’

Plymouth AA member

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Why Should I Care?

Before I share I always try to think to myself - “Why do I care?” Of course underneath it all I care because sharing is part of my Step 12 that keeps me sober. And, sorry to say this, but I wouldn’t bother sharing if I could stay sober and happy without Alcoholics Anonymous! However once I’ve opened my mouth to share, how I say something is as important as what I say. We are human beings and are as moved by the person as we are by the words they say. And how I say something is not something that I can fake. So if I’m going to say something to try to help the still-suffering alcoholic, I first try to remember why I am even able to help still-suffering alcoholics. I am not an expert or a professional. I am untrained in alcohol therapy.

What I have is an astonishing story. Within a period of a few months, at age 23, I went from the greatest despair in my life to the greatest joy in my life. I went from a suicidal conviction of my own future death through alcoholism, to a sense of joyous and overwhelming disbelief that it was possible to feel so happy and free, and that the Twelve Steps had really worked for me.

This is my truth and this is what I can share for the still-suffering alcoholic, 19 years on at the age of 41. I am not a special case, so if they’re not a special case they too can have this thing. That is why I should care. I know the suffering of the alcoholic and the joy of recovery. If I could see the despair and misery in the people in the lives of the still-suffering alcoholic, and if I compare that to the relief and joy that my friends and family experienced, how can I not care? How can I not want to give this away?

Words shared without really caring but just with a memory of caring, are words which sound hollow. The message I carry is myself as well as my words. Before I speak in an AA meeting I always try to remember: Why should I care?

Plymouth AA member