My Sponsor’s Relapse

By Nick Oliver 10/30/12

The guy that was helping me build a sober life decided to drink after over two decades of sobriety. What step helps you get over that?

I'm fine. I swear. Danny Jock

After three years of working together, my sponsor and I had started to grow apart.

It didn’t strike me as a big deal at first. We never really had that “call-me-every-day-no-matter-what” relationship. And while we were in pretty constant contact early on, as time went on—after I had gotten through my 12th step—we only got together when it was utterly convenient.

There were plenty of valid reasons, I figured, for the lack of contact. He had recently gotten a big new job and my life was getting ever busier as I tended to all the Promises-type blessings coming my way. But after a full month went by without any face-to-face contact and with more of my text messages going unreturned, I started to wonder if there was perhaps more to our distance than just our full lives.

The call that ended our full month of silence came while I was in my first week at a new job—a job I credited him with helping me to get, since part of what had inspired me to make a dramatic shift in my career was watching him do something similar in his. And it wasn’t the only way he inspired me. Not only was Jonathan spiritually grounded at 22 years of sobriety but he was also well read, intellectual and had an acerbic edginess I saw as a welcome alternative to the overly Christian eagerness of some of the other old-timers I met. But even more than that, Jonathan was—unlike me—a person who wasn’t afraid of conflict. He was someone who, if he felt he wasn’t being given his due at work, would quit to find a better gig for himself. I hoped that, in sobriety, I’d find the courage to be more like that.

I’d find myself thinking—and wanting to ask Jonathan—so how’s the gorilla sex treating you?

I viewed our relationship as one of aspiration and mentoring—I aspired to be sober and was relying on him to show me how to do it. This worked well, though I have nothing to which I can compare it. I don't have any sponsees yet and quite frankly, the thought of having one terrified me until I realized that I would still have access to Jonathan when I worked with a sponsee—that the states of being sponsored and sponsoring were simultaneous. I figured my calls to Jonathan would, one day, be about taking someone through their fourth step and no longer solely devoted to my own resentments or issues with prayer. Just the mere thought of his presence was enough to ease my fear.

So when I saw Jonathan come to terms with the unacceptability of his job situation and take dramatic action to create positive change in his life, I was inspired to follow suit. I decided to leave my floundering business partnership for more profitable opportunities and was pleasantly surprised by how easy and positive the transition was.

Which is one of the many reasons why, when I saw his name pop up on my phone screen at my new job, I jumped to take the call. I wanted, if nothing else, to let him know that I was cool with him needing to focus on work for as long as he needed and to tell him that I was in a good place in my program—I was going to a few meetings every week, praying and meditating on a regular basis and writing often to keep an active inventory of my increasingly expanding life—and that it was helping me adjust to all the newness and uncertainty that surrounded me.

But it quickly became apparent that Jonathan wasn’t calling to get things back on track. After saying hi and apologizing for being so distant for so long, he busted out with, “It’s not just that I’ve been busy with work. I’ve started drinking again.”

I didn’t know what to say—there was absolutely no precedent in my life for this moment. There is no passage in the Big Book that seemed relevant. “How are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m good,” he said. “So far everything’s been okay. The hardest part of it all is that I love AA and I love so many people in the program but I’ve decided to take some time away.” With that, and after a bunch of “mmmm hmmm”s and “okay”s, I  just let the conversation taper off into making ambiguous plans to catch up with each other at some point.

Now I'm not the type of AA member that believes that his choice to drink again means that he has just signed a death sentence. Jonathan is 42 years old and has been in AA for over 22 years. He lives with a sober person and most of his friends, at least for the time being, are in the program. Maybe he can drink like a normal person for a while, and maybe if his drinking exceeds that of a normal person he’ll come back into the rooms. Who knows?

I’ve had my own slip-ups. I’ve been in the rooms for almost three years and, God willing, (as I feel we’re obliged to say) if I keep it up for another couple months, I’ll have put together two years of continuous sobriety. While I consider any lapse in sobriety, no matter how minor, to put an alcoholic at serious risk for a prolonged relapse, I do see a distinction between slipping up and “going out.” After my own experience of having a few drinks in an attempt to mute the sting of the death of my beloved dog, I was surprised to hear the chorus of “Welcome back” and “We’re glad you came back” offered up in the rooms when I came to a meeting afterwards. I was here just two days ago, I thought, not feeling like I had left for long enough to warrant such a prodigal-son reception. 

But when I went out, even for a day, Jonathan took it extremely seriously. To lose a connection with one’s first step is not a minor event, he told me, and he treated it accordingly. When I told him what had happened, it felt as if I told him someone had died—until he broke the ice by telling me the stale joke (if you can call it that) about how an alcoholic choosing to take a drink is like a person deciding to have sex with a gorilla: It’s not over when you want it to be but when the gorilla decides it’s over.

At first I was heartbroken by Jonathan's exodus; while I don’t have any experience with other organizations, it’s hard for me to imagine one where someone’s departure from the group is cause to celebrate. Perhaps it happens when a missing child is found alive or when someone’s cancer goes into remission. But to see anyone—especially the person who guided you through the steps—leave is devastating.

After letting the news settle in a bit, the anger arose. Wasn’t Jonathan’s primary purpose in life supposed to be helping other alcoholics to achieve sobriety? Wasn’t that the whole point of the program and if so, shouldn’t that hold up, even under any temptation? And what about his other sponsees? What becomes of a support pyramid when one of its keystones disintegrates? I’d find myself thinking—and wanting to ask Jonathan—so how’s the gorilla sex treating you?

But now it’s my job to move on.

I’m grateful that I learned enough from working with Jonathan to know that just as no human power could relieve my alcoholism, it’s not my job to keep him in the fold. He’ll come back if and when he’s ready. Now it's my turn to be an example.

And I don’t feel abandoned by AA just because my sponsor abandoned me. The group has shown their support and surrounded me in exactly the way I’ve come to expect. My program is much bigger than just my relationship with my sponsor.

Now that Jonathan no longer has what I want, I need to find someone new. I expect the relationship to be different, but similar. I’ll be taken through the 12 steps by someone in the way their sponsor did. And if Jonathan ever decides to come back to the rooms, I hope I can be one of the people to welcome him back.

Nick Oliver is the pseudonym for a sober writer living in LA.

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