Being of Service
By Lauren Dummit, LMFT, CSAT,
Co-Founder & Clinical Director,
Triune Therapy Group
Like many others my story of recovery started with a spiritual, emotional, and physical bottom, a moment of incomprehensible demoralization. I couldn’t look at anyone in the eye; I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror. I was in so much shame and hopelessness that I stood outside the doors, stalking this 12-step meeting because I was too afraid to go in. To quote my first sponsor, “I may not have been thinking much of myself, but I was all I thought about.” All day and night I ruminated on my resentments, my regrets, my lost relationships, all the pain I had caused others, how many people were disappointed in me or thought I was crazy, my broken heart, how much trouble I was in, or how I was paralyzed by fears and the future, what people would think of me, getting fired, the list went on. Self-deprecating thoughts dominated my conscious.
Within the first few days of actually joining the meetings, this man, whom I knew had been old friends with my dad, approached me and asked if he could talk to me. I thought I was going to die. I didn’t want to be linked to my family; or, more accurately, I did not want him to see my family as linked to me. I was so worried about him discovering that my family was not actually perfect or that my dad had a daughter that was such a screw up. But, the words he said to me, words I will never forget, were exactly what I needed to hear in that very moment. His words saved my life.
He told me that he had heard about me and had heard about what I had done during my “bottom.” As he continued to talk with that light-hearted smile upon his face, my whole body got hot, my limbs became rigid; I thought my knees were going to give out. I was so embarrassed I wanted to jump out of my skin. But, as he went on, I slowly realized he was not trying to shame me, that he was just trying to show me empathy by sharing the experience of his own spiritual bottom, which involved having fatally hit someone with his car while he was drunk and high and killing them, which was definitely worse than anything I had done.
I felt like I had swallowed a grapefruit as I tried to get the words out when he asked how I was feeling. I responded that I hated myself, that I felt like a monster and just wanted to die. He just hugged me, smiled this knowing smile, and laughed, “Ok, well you’ve got to let that go. You are just stuck in self. When you are stuck in self you can’t be of service to others.” He explained that perhaps everything that had led me here to this very moment in my life had happened for a reason. Maybe I was “meant” to use this experience to help others. He assured me, “I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but one day you will look back on this event and think it’s the best thing that ever happened to you and feel so grateful for your experience. That’s what happened to me.”
He went on to tell me how once he surrendered to his Higher Power and just decided to humbly dedicate the rest of his life to being of service to others, he slowly started to heal from the shame and intense self-hatred he once felt. He moved from being completely self-centered to other-centered. He laughed again, “I just try not to think about myself too much.” He encouraged me to just immediately get into action, pick up a broom right now, sweep, give up my seat to a newcomer, take commitments, offer to do chores for my mother, call someone who is struggling, etc. He promised me that if I just replaced by negative thoughts of how and who I could help, I would start to feel better.
That night as I sat on the couch in my parents’ home after they had gone up to bed, thinking about the complete lack of meaning and purpose in my life, just praying to die, my mom came down. She seemed so worried and sad to see me so distraught, but her face expressed so much love and peace. When I shared how I was feeling, she sat down next to me and responded, “You know, if God put you here for no other purpose, no other purpose at all, then perhaps it was just to spread kindness to someone else, to try to make someone else’s day better.”
Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that she would give me these simple words after the very similar message I had received from my dad’s old friend just that very morning. Since I felt so broken in this moment, I had no better plan, I was like dog with my tail between my legs. I decided to trust this kind man and to listen to my mother, one of the few people that I knew would always have my back and love me unconditionally. If he could heal emotionally and spiritually and stay sober for 24 years after what he had done, so could I. I became willing to try whatever he suggested. I could do that. Maybe it didn’t have to be something grandiose? I could just spread kindness like my mother had suggested.
As I threw myself into service from that moment until now, I have gradually begun to free myself from “the bondage of self.” My first sponsor kept reminding me that if I wanted to build self-esteem, I had to do esteemable acts. She was so wise. Throughout the years I have been in recovery, I have built a life around being of service. At times when I have wrestled with depression, my sponsor would remind me that I was spending too much time thinking of myself and would push me to call someone who was having a harder time than me. At times when I have struggled with social anxiety, I have reminded myself to just get into action, to find a way to be of service in some was and shift my focus to being “other-centered.”
Not only has this practice helped me to build self-esteem, to feel that I have a purpose, to feel more connected to others, to heal relationships, and the loving energy that I put out comes back to me. Giving just feels good. This along with my daily gratitude lists have been the single most significant factor not only in my recovery but also in my overall sense of happiness in life. I have no regrets because I know that everything that has happened in my life thus far has led me to where I am now. My experiences have had meaning. They have allowed me to grow spiritually so that I can help others. They have given me the ability to feel deep compassion. Today I am in love with my life because I feel more connected to you. I feel like part of a whole, part of something bigger than myself.
The ego has an important function; it serves to protect us in order to ensure our survival. It is a primitive defense mechanism that is driven by fear of not having enough or losing what we have. It is all about the “I.” The spiritual path is an evolved state, in which we are motivated by what is in the best interest of the “we” instead of just the “I.” When we are solely self-focused, we isolate ourselves, becoming lonely and filled with fear. When we are other-focused, we are able to feel connected, and in union with the natural flow of life.
Creating a peaceful life in recovery is about finding balance, which often occurs slowly over time. This requires us to develop healthy boundaries. When we are new in our recovery, we often lack healthy boundaries and are accustomed to living in the extremes. So, we may take on too much, finding ourselves frantically busy or overwhelmed, which can provide a mechanism to avoid feeling our emotions, which can be addicting in and of itself.
While service is called “service” for a reason, meaning it is not always convenient for us, it is really only truly “service” if it is given freely from the heart without any expectation of anything in return. If we give with expectations or resentment, it is more indicative of lacking healthy boundaries and may be a symptom of underlying codependence. Often addicts have been very selfish in their disease so being of service is about taking contrary action. However, for those who struggle with always putting other’s needs first at the expense of their own, taking contrary action may look very different.
The journey of recovery is a process, and one’s growth often continues to evolve gradually over time. Finding balance is often a process of trial and error as we discover what works for us. It is important that we not only demonstrate love and tolerance for others along our path, but that we also show love and compassion towards ourselves.