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).

One day, I calmly explained to her that I was not her on-call therapist, there to save her in the heat of every manic moment, but someone who was going to take her through the Steps, so that she wouldn’t feel like she needed someone to save her whenever she was in one of those moments. I never heard from her again. I can only hope I didn’t scare her away from sobriety altogether.

Another girl I sponsored years ago started smoking pot again without telling me. When she finally came clean, I felt duped and frustrated. One evening soon after—back when I still had a landline—my phone rang all night long, every hour on the hour. Finally, at about 6 am, I picked up; it was the mother of this sponsee, calling me from Texas, hysterically explaining that her daughter was drunk and had asked her to call me. I said that I couldn’t do anything for her daughter once she was drunk, and that I didn’t think it made sense for me to be talking to my sponsee’s mother whether my sponsee was drunk or sober. I asked her to not call me again. “I see why my daughter drank, with you as a sponsor!” she shrieked, before hanging up.

Like I said, I’m not in the running for any Best Sponsor awards. Not that that sponsee was in danger of winning any Best Sponsee awards, either.

Then there was the woman I sponsored who liked to argue with me on every point. My attitude about the argumentative ones is this: I’m not engaging in this process because I fancy a lively debate; I’m doing it because it saved my life and I hope it can save yours. I dreaded this girl’s calls, but it seemed callous and harsh to tell her I couldn’t sponsor her just because I didn’t like her. One evening, she and I were in a meeting. I was knitting, as I sometimes do, and I needed to look up a knitting pattern on my phone. She was visibly irritated by the fact that I was doing something else while in a meeting. Afterwards, on the street, she unloaded on me. “How could you be on your phone during that meeting?!” she yelled. “You’re supposed to be an example for me!”

One girl I agreed to sponsor called me in the midst of a screaming fight with her husband. “Tell him how crazy he’s being!” she demanded.

I told her I wasn’t perfect, that there were plenty of meetings where I didn’t pay complete attention, and that I was there to take her through the Steps, not to do everything exactly the way she thought I should. “You’re fired!” she exclaimed as she stormed off.

I was simultaneously hurt and thrilled that I’d gotten off the hook. The next day, I got a message from her saying that she’d been thinking. Since she’d just finished her Fourth Step, maybe we could actually proceed with our plans and I could listen to it after all? Maybe, she added, we could work out this sponsorship thing?

I told her we couldn’t, feeling very much like the universe had done for me what I hadn’t been able to do for myself.

Was this the right thing to do? Who knows? Sponsorship may be one of the most variously interpreted aspects of the program. There’s nothing in the Big Book about it and AA offers only one measly pamphlet on the topic, which doesn’t say much. Are we supposed to keep sponsoring people if they relapse, or tell them to find someone new? Is it a good idea to have sponsees re-do the Steps every year, as some sponsors insist, or is once enough? What, exactly, should sponsees expect from us? One girl I agreed to sponsor called me soon after we met, while in the midst of a screaming fight with her husband. “Tell him how crazy he’s being!” she demanded, before handing the phone over to him. I hung up. Maybe others would have played along; I sure didn’t have any interest.

If it’s unclear for sponsors, it’s sure as hell unclear for the sponsees, too. All we’re told when we get to program is to “look for someone who has what we want.” Most of us are so befuddled when we arrive that we’re not entirely clear on who we are, let alone what we want. My first sponsor—who ended up drinking when I had a year of sobriety, though she’s back in the program now—stuck by me, and in many ways saved my life when I slipped at six-and-a-half months of sobriety. Others might have told me I hadn’t surrendered and should find someone new.

We’re all just doing the best we can with very little guidance. Still, to me, it’s a miracle that the sponsorship process works at all. What are the chances that you’re going to find a person who’s willing to take your calls, work with you on your problems, devote endless hours to you for no payment beyond the satisfaction that comes with helping someone the way they were helped, and the conviction that they must do it if they hope to stay sober? A zillion to one, maybe?

When people share that they’ve been with the same sponsor for 10 or 20 or 30 years, I’m blown away. Yet it happens. And most of the happy, healthy people I know in AA not only participate in the sponsorship process but also enjoy it. I’m one of them. I know I’m not ever going to be the woman who shares about how the best part of my day is hearing from one of my sponsees because “it just takes me out of me,” but sponsoring has taught me boundaries and selflessness and a form of nurturing love that was entirely new to me.

And who knows, one day I may even get good at it.

Fix columnist Anna David is the author of Party Girl, BoughtReality Matters and Falling For MeShe served as The Fix's Executive Editor for over two years. Her previous columns have dealt with dodgy doctorsAA-haters and the unpredictability of making amends.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

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.