Where to Draw the Line When Helping Newcomers in AA

Where to Draw the Line When Helping Newcomers in AA

By Sue Smith 06/17/13

We want to give back. But service can veer into unhealthy—or downright dangerous—territory. How far is too far? Here's how some of us have handled sticky situations.

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This is probably going too far. Photo via

The AA Big Book says, "We would go to any lengths for victory over alcohol." But exactly how far does that mean? And when does going above and beyond the call of duty to help another alcoholic cross the line?

I’ve been sober for six years. The more time I get, the more important it is to set healthy boundaries that protect my sobriety when I’m dealing with newcomers. In some ways, that’s a bummer. The guilt-trippy parent in me wants to be a total martyr, saying, “Look at all I did for you! You owe me big time!”

“Going to any lengths” doesn’t mean putting myself in situations that would compromise my sobriety in order to help others.

But I can’t be of service if I don’t take care of myself first. There’s a reason why, when a plane is crashing and the oxygen masks drop down, the in-flight manual tells you to put the mask on yourself before your kid. Because babies can’t save lives. And you might die.

“Going to any lengths” doesn’t mean putting myself in situations that would compromise my sobriety in order to help others. I’m the adult and the newcomers are the babies, crying and shitting on themselves (in most cases metaphorically). It turns out other people feel the same. Here are some hard lessons that I and some more AA members with long-term sobriety have learned about service. 

Self-esteem

Healthy sponsorship is about being right-sized, not letting the other person get too big while I get smaller and smaller, or vice versa.

I have these plates—a medium-sized appetizer plate and a large dinner plate. When I first got sober, I would eat all my meals on the appetizer plate. There’d be a lot of food on it and sometimes it would spill over the sides. But the large dinner plate just seemed so huge, like too much space for little old me. I couldn’t imagine using it. But once I did, it felt so empowering. Like, yes, OK, why the hell shouldn’t I use a large plate?

It’s similarly challenging for me to maintain equal footing in relationships and not let people walk all over me—which is a toughie when you’re a sponsor. You do a lot of listening. Sometimes, that’s all people need. But it can’t just be a one-sided relationship. You have to speak up about your personal experience and also share what you’re going through in order for it to be healthy.

I had a sponsee who kept canceling our appointments at the last minute. It made me so mad because I was constantly rearranging my entire schedule for her. I’d be really angry on the inside and call my own sponsor and say I didn’t want to work with the girl anymore—but then, because I wanted this girl to like me so badly, I wouldn’t speak up for myself.

I finally had to say, “If you need to cancel or change our time together, I need to know a day in advance.” It was difficult for me—aren’t I supposed to go to any lengths?—but she respected my wishes and our relationship was better for it.

Verdict: If service starts to make you feel bad or small, you’re doing it wrong. Speak up for yourself when others cross reasonable boundary lines.

Time

A newcomer in LA had lost her license and asked me to drive her to court. That sounded easy enough, so I said yes.

But the more details she gave me, the fishier things got. The court was two hours away. We had to be there at 8am. And she wanted me to pick up Starbucks beforehand. My “Oh Hell No” meter started buzzing, and I told her I couldn't do it after all. Putting myself in a car with a newcomer for two hours in a strange place at an early hour—and on the 405, am I right, Los Angelenos?—would have maybe jeopardized my sobriety. It would definitely have compromised my serenity.

Verdict: Picking somebody up for a meeting is one thing. Taking somebody to court at six in the morning is another. Keep the carpooling reasonable, and listen to your gut.