Confessions of a So-so Sponsor

By Anna David 04/15/13

We don’t get much guidance on how to sponsor people in AA, and I'm no natural. I’ve been yelled at, fired and shamed by a sponsee’s mom. Am I really getting it that wrong?

"Sober sisters" Art: Danny Jock

There are women I know who are excellent sponsors. They seem to have at least 10—usually more like 15—sponsees, who call each other “sober sisters” and talk a lot about sponsorship lineage. These sponsors will share in meetings about how hearing from their sponsees is the highlight of their day because “it just takes me out of me.” They call their sponsees their “babies,” and smile lovingly as one after another of these babies thanks them through tears from the podium. They’re the women that new girls are usually pushed toward when they first come into the rooms.

I am not one of these women.

At first, this bothered me. Until I faced one hard fact: I don’t want 10-15 sponsees. Christ, I don’t even know if I could handle five. I’ve got two right now and that feels like plenty.

Another fact: Most of the women I’ve sponsored have not stayed sober. This also used to bother me and I’d blame myself for not being better at this sponsorship thing. Then I remembered that most people don’t stay sober, so maybe it was more a reflection of the challenges of maintaining sobriety than of a lack of skill on my part.

The newcomer women I tend to sponsor often tell me how great life is and how much they enjoy sobriety—before disappearing one day into the ether.

This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy sponsorship. I adore the sponsee I’ve had for nearly five years—but then I adored her before I ever sponsored her. Our road was hardly typical. It went like this: I heard her share in a meeting about how she’d dreamt that she’d been sold to a shepherd for marriage. I passed her a note that basically said, I don’t know who you are but that dream is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard—can we be friends?

We went to dinner soon after, where she dropped what was, to a woman who thought she’d just found her BFF, a bombshell: She was just a few months sober. I had seven years myself, and suddenly felt like I was on a date with a guy who’d just revealed that he was 17. The newcomers I’d befriended since I'd put some time together had always turned out slightly, if not fully, insane. Amazing as this girl seemed, I told myself, she was not going to be my best friend. I felt almost heartbroken as we said goodnight. The next day, she called and, to my utter surprise, asked me to sponsor her.

Of course, it doesn’t usually go like that. All the other sponsees I’ve had have approached me after hearing me share in a meeting; I’ve usually agreed to sponsor them before I’ve even gotten their name.

But just because I like this girl so much doesn’t mean I’ve always been the best sponsor for her. In fact, I sometimes think it makes me a less effective sponsor than I could be. If anything, when she comes to me with a sad story, a tale of someone who’s treated her unfairly, I tend to immediately launch into what I always wanted my mom to do for me—telling her how right she is, how wrong that other person is, and how justified she is in her anger. I’m good at this: I know how to be a person’s cheerleader when she doesn’t quite see how to do that for herself. I know how to guide and advise; essentially, I’d be an awesome life coach.

This, you may not need me to tell you, is not how sponsorship is supposed to work.

Not that I'm wholly indifferent to what it is I’m supposed to be doing. I usually also point out the part I believe she played in whatever happened, the alternative ways she could look at these situations and the steps I think will help her get there. But I often wonder if I’d be tougher with her if I liked her less. And there are plenty of times when I think that she’s so functional, so together, that I’m not sure she needs my help.

The truth is, I sometimes just don’t know what to say to sponsees—especially when they’re new. When I was new, I was emoting all over the place. But the newcomer women I tend to sponsor often tell me how great life is, how much they’re enjoying sobriety and how everything’s coming together beautifully—before disappearing one day into the ether. I encourage them to share their ugliest realities, no matter how awkward it feels to do that with a near stranger, and they usually tell me they will. But the Pollyanna personality stays in place until the girl’s eventual disappearing act. And there just isn’t much I know to suggest to someone who’s not telling me about any issues. I often have to remind myself that sometimes a sponsor’s job is simply to listen.

That isn’t to say I’m some Suzie Sunshine who lets sponsees get away with indulging their every whim. One girl I was sponsoring last year ignored everything I said to her about working the Steps and would just call me when she was hysterical, mid-crisis (and she had a lot of crises).

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Anna David is the New York Times-bestselling author of multiple books about overcoming difficulties and coming out on the other side: the novels Party Girl (HarperCollins, 2007) and Bought (HarperCollins, 2009), the non-fiction books Reality Matters (HarperCollins, 2010), Falling for Me (HarperCollins, 2011), By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and True Tales of Lust and Love and the Kindle Singles Animal Attraction (Amazon, 2012) and They Like Me, They Really Like Me (Amazon, 2013). Find Anna on LinkedIn and Twitter.