5 Reasons to Fire Your Sponsor

By Amy Dresner 11/21/16

(And 2 reasons to fire a sponsee.)

A finger pointing accusingly at the camera
Sometimes you have to Brexit.

Over my two decades of being in and out of the program, I’ve had more sponsors and sponsees than I’ve had needles in my neck (and, unfortunately, that’s a lot).

The sponsor-sponsee relationship is crucial to the program. We all need a sherpa in the slippery snowy mountains of recovery. And helping somebody else is how you learn not to be a selfish, self-obsessed asshole. But this sponsor-sponsee dynamic is a man-made invention inside a man-made invention, and sometimes this therapeutic turducken can be difficult to navigate. Integrity is crucial and that can be hard to find in a room full of boozehound lunatics.

So let’s say you’re working with somebody but they suggest you do something that frankly makes you feel like setting yourself on fire would be a more appealing option. It’s so easy to think “whatever, we just aren’t a good match” and move on. However, it’s exactly that temptation to bail when things get tough mentality that helped land us in the rooms to begin with.

However, sometimes you really do need to Brexit. So how do you know when it IS a good time to fire your sponsor? Well, I’m going to tell ya.

TOP 5 reasons to get rid of a sponsor:

1) They aren’t trustworthy.

You should be able to be completely honest with your sponsor and you should have faith that they are going to keep your secrets and not shoot their mouth off to your parole officer, your ex or TMZ. If you start withholding key information because you don’t trust their discretion or you find out they are telling your business, absolutely cut them loose. Your sponsor should be the Hillary to your Bill—your “ride or die” bitch. (Too soon?)

2) They bang you.

I shouldn’t even have to write this, but yeah, it happens. We all know it does. It’s happened to several people I know. Sick people sponsoring sicker people. I’ve heard of people even marrying their sponsors! (What a fucking nightmare. It’s bad enough to have to call them every day. Imagine having to do their laundry too?)

In defense of this 12-step incest, it is easy to sexualize your sponsor. “Oh they understand me. They know everything about me. Blah blah blah.“ It’s the same reason why people fall for their therapists. But my advice? Once there’s even a hint of romantic interest on either side, end it. It can get very confusing and loaded. Trust me on this.

3) They relapse.

Sobriety is tenuous and that’s why we have to be “ever vigilant.” Years ago, I had three-and-a-half years before my sobriety went tits up in a ditch. My sponsees were fucking devastated and rightly dubious about keeping me around. “Oh so you’re going to teach me how to build a solid house? Cool… Wait, the roof just fell down on top of your head? No, no I still trust your judgment… I guess.”

Saying that, I know people who’ve stayed with their sponsor even after a relapse because that person was a spiritual giant or a step wizard or whatever. If you can continue without losing respect and be okay with having more sober time than your sponsor, then by all means…

4) They’re making ultimatums.

I’ve had sponsors try to control every aspect of my life, specifically my dating and sex life. You take on a sponsor to lead you through the 12 steps of the program, not to join their tiny two-person cult wherein you have to run every text, email or masturbation fantasy by them. If that's the Christian Grey-esque power dynamic you want, don't get into AA. Get into a BDSM club or go live on a commune in Ojai.

Let's be honest, we alcoholics as sponsors can get power-hungry. And as a sponsee, when your life is a mess, it’s appealing to let Michael or Anna instead of Jesus take the wheel. But my sponsor, Jay Westbrook, says this: “If I tell you what to do and it seems to have worked, you may become dependent on me. If I tell you what to do and it seems to have not worked, you may resent me. And I don't want your resentment or your dependency. So what I'm going to do is ask you a few questions, give you some decision-making tools, and let you decide. As long as you've looked at your motives and consequences (are your motives clean and are you willing to take responsibility for the consequences), I'll support you in any decision you make.”

So yes, let your sponsor go all Third Reich on you in regards to the steps, but everything else should be a SUGGESTION.

5) They’re abusive.

There is absolutely no excuse for this. They shouldn’t yell at you. They shouldn’t hang up on you. They shouldn’t call you names. However, the sponsors with whom I’ve done the best work, I respected (and I’ll admit) feared a little bit. I was deferential, like to a boss or to a doctor. That deference kept me in line. I need to be scared enough to do the work, scared to lose you as a sponsor… which is different from being scared that you’re going to pelt me with a Big Book.

Now what about the corollary, firing a sponsee? This is a little tougher, because you're taking them on predicated on the notion that they don't have their shit together. But the law of diminishing returns does apply here.

2 reasons to get rid of a sponsee:

1) They’re lying to you. And then they’re lying about lying.

We all know that saying: “How do you know when an addict is lying? Their lips are moving.” Yes, but how can you help somebody when they’re not telling you the truth? Unfortunately, you really can’t.

When I was a tweaker in my 20s, I saw a therapist who was supposed to be “very tough on addiction.” I was high every session, every week, for an entire year. He didn’t notice and I didn’t tell him. And guess what? I didn’t get better. It was an enormous waste of money as well as everybody’s time.

I had a sponsee who was using but pretending to be sober. Weeks would go by and she’d check in, but she was shooting dope the whole time. She’d confess and promise not to do it again. But what do you know? It would happen again and again. I finally cut her loose and I won’t lie, it was very difficult. I asked myself a question: Would I put up with a lover or friend who did this? A boyfriend who kept apologizing and promising to “never do that again” but kept doing it? No. In the end it wasn’t about using. It was about honesty and trust (or lack thereof). And eventually it was about my own self-respect and boundaries as a sponsor and a person in recovery.

2) They won’t do the work.

Meetings aren’t the work. Meetings are the fellowship. The step work is the WORK and in my experience, the only thing that creates any lasting sobriety and/or any real change.

If they’re calling you to “check in” or to bitch about Becky with the good hair, they're not a sponsee, they’re a “friend.” I find that the amount of gossip they get you involved in is inversely proportional to the amount of work they do. And if they continuously refuse to do the work, lose them. They don’t trust or respect or aren’t motivated by you sufficiently to do the work. Or they aren’t ready. Whatever the case, you are not doing either of you any favors by sticking in and being patient. In fact, according to my sponsor, you’re doing them a disservice. Your firing them might be the kick in the ass they need to find somebody who really holds their feet to the fire.

Those are the only two reasons I’ve fired sponsees. I’ve never fired a sponsee because they didn’t follow my suggestion. (I’m not a despot or a cult leader… yet). I’ve never fired a sponsee because they were acting out sexually or doing illegal shit. I’ve never fired a sponsee because they relapsed. Hell, after all my relapses, that would be very pot and kettle-esque of me, wouldn't it? Plus, relapses can be very motivating... if you survive them.

My point is, if you’re doing the work and trying, I will hang in and give you my all. But I can only sponsor the way I am sponsored, which is loving but with a healthy dose of shut-the-fuck-up-with-your-bullshit-ness. I’m tougher than some and laxer than others. And yeah, there’s a lot of writing to do and inventories to take, but now that you’re not driving downtown to buy a few bags every few days, you’ve got time, right?

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