The $75-an-Hour Sponsor

By Lou Stein 06/11/13

When I was newly sober, a shrink gave me his business card at a meeting. And taught me how not to work the AA program.

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I was sober a month. The days were long but I was struggling through it. The summer days kept me out walking the streets endlessly and going to as many meetings as I could stand. I did enough right actions to succeed—I fellowshipped with other newcomers, I gave my number out and encouraged people who had less time than me. I read the Big Book, I worked on Step One with my sponsor and I even read Living Sober—which to my surprise I liked.

Let me be clear: None of this came without extreme anxiety. Asking someone for their number—then actually calling them up just to chat—was a profound experiment in trust for me. One man from my home group gave me his number and said “call anytime.” That night I called him very depressed while alone in a diner overeating.

”I think I just need a friend to talk to. I’ve lived in the city my whole life yet I feel so alone.”

He said, “I’m glad you called me.”

We talked for a half hour. I felt much better, then at the end of the call he said, “You know, we don’t have to be friends now. We may become friends, but this is called fellowship. It’s what we do for each other and it works.” This made me laugh and we have remained acquaintances, who share a big hug when we happen to bump into each other every couple of months.

Today, I have a sponsor who tells me the exact same thing, for free—and half the time he buys me breakfast as well.

Early sobriety is a rich time—first the anxiousness and boredom sets in. I had sat on my couch smoking weed for a decade. Take away the weed and it was excruciating. I had to escape but this time without drugs or alcohol. This quickly led to new friends, books, writing, exploring the city, movies, long phone calls—all out of a necessity to not go crazy with the isolation I was suddenly feeling for the first time un-anesthetized.

I took a sponsor who didn't believe the Big Book was important. He let me buy him dinner a few times a week because, after 20 years sober, he couldn't afford to eat out (neither could I, but I never told him that). I had spent so many years thinking I was right about everything, only to find out that I had been mostly wrong, so I had an open mind for the first time in my life. My psychic told me that there were people bugging my apartment and spying on me because of a conspiracy documentary I was working on. I was paranoid, judgmental and scared of the things I wanted most. Everything felt bad, so how would I know what was actually bad for me and what was actually good? To put it very mildly, I was cracked up from years of abuse and this was a very vulnerable time.

My home group was my solace. I wanted to have hope and I found it there each day I went in. Exchanging numbers with people was getting to be standard procedure. Nine times out of 10 I would take their number and then text them mine or visa-versa. On the odd occasion someone would give me their business card.

On my second day one of the members of that group handed me his card when we exchanged numbers. I looked down. He was a therapist. Was he offering me therapy or was he just giving me his number? I had started to go to the gym and eat better and wake up at a reasonable hour; perhaps therapy was the next step of self-care for me, and this man was offering me the perfect opportunity. Was God taking care of me in ways I could not understand and guiding me to this professional relationship? Or was the guy just looking to fellowship?

A month later I called him and I had my answer. We began therapy. I was broke. I had a few grand that would come and go each month. He wanted $150 per hour. I offered $75 and he accepted. I started seeing him twice a week and immediately I was feeling better. I made a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish in therapy and informed him that I needed support on this journey. He assured me that he would be there for me. For $75 an hour. I offered to pay him cash so that he could avoid paying taxes on the money. He accepted.

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