Al-Anon Sponsor-Seeking

By Malina Saval 08/21/12

I don't know how to do the steps but, even worse, I don’t know how to find someone to help me. 

Malina in Al-Anonland Danny Jock

I started to get the feeling I was doing this Al-Anon thing all wrong. It was Sunday morning and I was heading to Hollywood to try a new meeting that was touted by fellow Al-Anons as awesome. Because it’s a popular meeting, I drove around in circles for 20 minutes trying to find a parking space and wound up spending seven bucks to park in a lot across from a nearby Starbucks.

The reason I was going to this meeting in the first place is that I really wanted to get a sponsor. I needed to get a sponsor. I’d been going to meetings for a year and still hadn’t found one. My husband landed his sponsor within a day of leaving rehab and I was starting to feel really competitive. I’d wanted a sponsor for months. 

I tried many times to muster up the guts to ask somebody and aggressively scouted potentials. There was a celebrity I thought about asking because I loved her last movie and a guy who was going to beauty school in between video directing gigs who was then going to start work on his novel but I’d chickened out with both and then didn’t really know who to ask. My fear of rejection kept getting in the way. I left every meeting with a new five-cent pamphlet (So far, I’d worked my way through HUMILITY, DETACHMENT and one called JUST FOR TODAY) and a colossal sense of failure made all the more pronounced by the fact that I didn’t have a sponsor to call and cry about the fact that I didn’t have one. So I promised myself that by the time my first “birthday” in the program rolled around, I would finally take the plunge. Come hell or high water, I was going to this meeting to get a sponsor.

It had taken me a year to work up the nerve to ask somebody and now my advances were being rebuffed.

Stepping into the giant room, I did a quick survey of the crowd. People slogged through the door, their tight hipster pants slung low below their tan, flat bellies, gun belts with silver and brass grommets buckled around their hips. Everybody seemed engaged in sunny, upbeat conversations, hugging one another in that touchy-feely, 12-step group sort of way—the kind of meeting where all the women act like lesbians even if they’re not. One woman was massaging another woman’s back and with her free hand was patting down her shiny curtain of long, Cher-like hair. Further down, a short white girl with a navel ring and dreads rested her head upon the shoulder of a guy wearing a red flannel shirt and dark sunglasses. 

The meeting started and all the usual things happened: people shared, laughed, cried, there was a lot of nodding. People clapped at the end of each share. We recited the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions and passed around a little basket for donations. 

I thought about sharing but I hadn’t prepared anything. I know Al-Anon’s not supposed to be a performance but I get really nervous any time I do any sort of public speaking. My regular meeting is filled with extremely funny people and if someone’s just shared something that’s made everybody laugh, I generally hold off until someone’s share is not so great. The same goes for someone’s really tragic share. (I was at a meeting once where a guy opened up about his sister’s sudden death and the Emmy-nominated star of a network TV series started bawling her eyes out; there was no way I was going to go after that). To avoid any potential embarrassment, I generally plot and plan my “share,” angling to produce something that will make everybody in Al-Anon think I’m the coolest (sponsor-less) 12-stepper they’ve ever met.

With five minutes left in the meeting, the leader asked available sponsors to stand. They never did this in my Saturday meeting, which accounted for much of my ambivalence in asking anyone. Now my sponsor was going to stand. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. 

About four or five people shot up from their seats: the girl with the navel ring and dreads, a guy in a baseball hat, a man with a swastika tattooed on his shaved head and a guy wearing this super cool nerdy brown argyle sweater vest that looked like it was fished from the dollar bin at Jetrag. Swastika was out for obvious reasons, as was the girl with the navel ring and dreads because I was nervous she’d want to make out with me, and the guy with the baseball hat was sitting a mile away on the other side of the room. 

The guy with the sweater vest was the one sitting closest to me, which is why I decided that he was going to be my sponsor. He kind of looked like Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine in all the flashback scenes, with a quirky sideways half-smile. 

We ended the meeting with the Serenity Prayer. I kept track of Ryan as we filed out of the room—there were so many of us, it was like attempting to exit a South American soccer match without getting stampeded—and caught up with him just outside the exit doors where a red-haired girl with an iPhone was snapping photographs of his feet.

“I have a shoe blog,” she told him. “Those are really amazing loafers. I’d love to post a picture of them.”

While Shoe Girl snapped away, I focused on Ryan’s shoes, trying to figure out what about them made them so blog-worthy and why she took zero interest in my Minnetonka moccasins. 

“Hi,” I said meekly, trying to edge my way in. “I’m looking for a sponsor?”

“Oh yeah?” said Ryan.

I didn’t think it was going to be this way. I thought I’d ask and he’d just say yes. He’d stood up, after all. It had taken me a year to work up the nerve to ask somebody and now my advances were being rebuffed. I could literally feel myself getting smaller in the room, shrinking down to the size of a six-month sobriety chip, like Alice in Al-Anonland.

Ryan looked away from me. “I think if I were a woman I’d want a woman to sponsor me,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s a rule,” said Shoe Girl. “You have to have the same sex sponsor.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I know a woman who sponsors three guys.”

“Well, she’s doing it wrong.” 

I wanted to tell her to fuck off but in Al-Anon we learn not to swear at shoe bloggers who sponsor-block you. So instead I said, “Well, do you know any women that might want to do it?”  

Which is when Ryan led me across the room to meet Tamara. Tamara was short and her nose was covered in whiteheads. I knew this was never going to work, which I realize sounds really judgmental but in Al-Anon we’re also taught that it’s okay to have flaws so long as you are ready and willing to have the “God of your understanding” remove them. But that was step three and I hadn’t even begun the steps because I didn’t have a sponsor with whom to do them. 

Ryan gently pushed me toward her.

“Hi,” said Ryan. “This is—" 


“Malina is looking for a sponsor.”

And in a flash, Ryan was gone.  

“So, I’m looking for someone who I can maybe do a step or two with?” I said to Tamara. 

“It doesn’t work that way,” she responded, scrutinizing me with a long suspicious glance. “You’ve got to commit and be serious about it.” 

“I am serious about it,” I said, an edge of desperation in my voice. “My husband’s been sober for about a year but we fight all the time. He’s depressed. I’m depressed—” 

“The first year of sobriety is always the worst,” she said.  

“So...” It was small torture, like asking someone to prom, and I didn’t even like her. “…Can you be my sponsor?” 

She hesitated. “Why don’t you read the chapter on ‘The Wives’ in The Big Book,” she eventually replied. “Let me know what you think. We can take it from there.” She wrote her number on the back of a card and handed it to me. 

I got in my car and cried. Then I called my shrink and left a message, pissed off that he wasn’t there and that he never picked up the phone. Then I called my husband and picked a fight. Then he hung up on me. I felt despondent and adrift, selfish and cruel. I was a fledgling Al-Anon flop.  

I parked my car on an empty side street and called Rebecca, an old timer in my Saturday meeting. She had 17 years in program and while I’d thought about asking her to be my sponsor, she was way too self-righteous. She once called me out for mentioning the name of a particular magazine in a meeting—“We don’t name outside publications”—and repeatedly referred to herself as a “recovering asshole.” She was also a Republican, which I thought was pretty weird because she had brown curly hair and wore Birkenstocks. But in Al-Anon we learn to “Take what you like and leave the rest.” And Rebecca’s shares were always inspirational and motivational. So I told her about Ryan and his nerdy brown sweater vest and Shoe Girl and how depressed and disappointed I was because I was never ever going to find a sponsor. 

She patiently talked me down off the proverbial Al-Anon ledge. Don’t be so hard on yourself, she told me. It’s about progress, not perfection. I would find my sponsor. It just might not be today: “Just don’t pick one based on his sweater vest.”

Even if she was a recovering asshole, I knew that Rebecca was right. So I dried my eyes, cracked open the Al-Anon directory and drove to another meeting. 

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