Getting Fired by a Sponsee

By Taylor Ellsworth 02/10/12
They say it’s not personal. They say everyone finds the right sponsor. They didn’t say how much it would hurt.
I love you, so you'll stay. Right? Photo via

My sponsee fired me while I was riding the trolley, staring out the window at trees adorned with Christmas lights, shrouded in a fuzzy glow of constant rain. It was an uncomfortable, two-minute chat, comprised mostly of awkward pauses. She said that it was time for her to move onto someone different, and when we said goodbye I told her, perhaps too desperately, she could still call me whenever she wanted. I wanted to melt into my plastic seat for the rest of the ride, suspecting that the other passengers had heard my words and knew exactly what had just happened to me.

You knew this was coming, you piece of shit, I thought. The deprecating self-talk began as murmurs, then grew to a roar: as familiar as any other breakup I’d had before. 

But this wasn’t the end of a boozy, emotionally abusive relationship; it was the end of something much more meaningful. It was the end of my relationship with the only other woman who I’d ever led through all 12 steps.

I got sober young, at 18, in part because I was becoming a younger version of my mother: addicted, pathologically self-pitying and manipulative, and fatally dishonest. I was also simply exhausted from the near-daily task of retracing the previous night’s mishaps from my perpetual blackouts.

If someone who couldn’t stay sober himself sponsored the man who created the program, what does that mean about the importance of sponsorship?

I met Emily the night I took my one-year coin. It was the first time anybody ever approached me after a meeting to inform me that I had told her story—that what I’d said had resonated. I had taken on sponsees before, but each one relapsed shortly after being asked to write a moral inventory. But I was always comforted by the words of my friend Nick, who said, “One out of every 10 who ask you to sponsor them will actually call you, and one out of every 10 who calls will actually work the steps.” The odds weren’t good, and I assumed that Emily would be part of the unfortunate majority. So when we began meeting regularly and working the steps together, I felt lucky.

I disclosed to her the wildest stories from my using days and the craze of early sobriety in order to soothe her nerves when she felt hopeless and terminally unique. Over time, I watched her grow from a scared little girl into a smart young woman. She’d go through phases where she called me every day, and then she would suddenly not call for weeks at a time, leaving rambling messages about whichever extreme feeling she was having today. In those first few months of sponsorship, my conversations with my sponsor frequently turned to Emily. I was constantly asking for advice and suggestions, because Emily was my only sponsee, and I wanted to be the perfect sponsor so I wouldn’t lose her; it was much the same way I had always treated the task of being someone’s girlfriend or friend.

The thing is I’m not certain I was the right sponsor for her, or a suitable sponsor for anyone who truly needed to be guided into reality by someone with a firm grasp on recovery. I focused so much on pleasing her, on saying what she wanted to hear, or not saying anything at all, that I may have danced away from saying the things that may have truly helped her. Taking tearful 7AM phone calls and midnight text messages always felt like more of a duty than a job. While listening to another person complain about their problems seems to have nothing to do with staying sober, whenever I did it, I would feel a strange gratification that was different than the relief I’d once found in gossiping about celebrities and complaining about boyfriends over goblets of wine with a girlfriend: I knew that I was doing something right.

AA tells us we need to show up for others, but sometimes it is unclear what that looks like. I felt that I was doing what I was supposed to by answering the phone, but when it came to the conversation itself, I never knew my place—when I should have listened passively, preached violently, or simply hung up. And as soon as she severed our sponsor-sponsee relationship, I regretted ever holding my tongue when I thought her boyfriend was being an asshole, or when I wanted to tell her that not showing up for her cleanup service position in our group wasn’t okay. I avoided saying the hard things because I wanted to let her figure things out on her own.

Working with another alcoholic is terrifying. There is no test to pass, no graduation date, no qualification that prepares us for sponsorship—which makes it impossible to know if we are ever truly ready. We can never even know if our sponsors are qualified to help us. All we have is our judgment—and if over-used meeting phrases ring true, our best judgment is what had us using and drinking until we almost killed ourselves, so should we be trusting ourselves with this choice at all?

Sponsorship is never mentioned in the Big Book. Legend has it that Ebby Thatcher, a chronic relapser and Oxford group member prior to the existence of AA, sponsored Bill Wilson. If someone who couldn’t stay sober himself sponsored the man who created the program, what does that mean about the importance of sponsorship? Is sponsorship really just a symbol for accountability that forces us to be honest, or does the character of a sponsor deeply influence the quality of the sponsee’s sobriety, as most meeting-goers will attest?  

The truth is, the internal pressure I feel to perform every task I take on perfectly makes it nearly impossible for me to feel like I’ve done my job well enough—with anything. I worked with Emily for two years, and not once during that time did I feel as if I was giving her what she deserved from a sponsor. Although I took her through the steps almost exactly as I’d been taken through them and reiterated my own sponsor’s advice frequently, I remained insecure because I craved validation of my work as a sponsor—a gold star of sorts, which would reward me and inform me if I was doing it right.

My sponsor has attempted to beat it into my consciousness that I am “not important enough to keep anyone sober or get them drunk.” But when you’re a narcissistic alcoholic, it is easy to believe that a single word you speak can change the course of the universe. I wanted to prove the importance of my role in Emily’s life by how I sponsored her, but there’s no tangible proof of good sponsorship. Is the proof in the fact that I stayed sober, as the program tells me I will if I work with others? Or, does it rest on the quality of my sponsee’s life, or the number of women she has sponsored since we worked the steps? 

There can be no evidence of my failure or success because sponsoring another woman is not a tool for ego inflation or deflation, despite my efforts to make it one. My friend Steven aggressively hunts sponsees down because he assumes that most newcomers are too self-conscious, naive, or afraid to ask another to sponsor them. He calls them when they don’t call him, and picks them up without notice—essentially forcing AA on them. I’ve seen it work successfully, on some exceptionally crazy types, but I have also seen in blow up in his face. Another woman I know has more sober time than her sponsor. She is five years clean and still calls this woman with only three years of sobriety every single day, even if she has nothing to say. Neither of these styles of sponsoring or being sponsored appear desirable to me, but they’re staying sober, so what do I know?

Circuit speakers often share emotionally charged messages at huge meetings about the transformational power of working “eyeball to eyeball with another alcoholic,” as one old-timer, Mark, likes to describe it. But I must confess that I’ve never been moved to tears after listening to a fifth step or kneeling on the ground and reading the third step prayer with a newcomer.

Both sponsorship and working with my own sponsor have always been a clumsy and precarious facet of my sobriety. When I didn’t break down in transcendental tears while reading my fifth step to Jenifer, it made me feel like either wasn’t a bad enough alcoholic, or I wasn’t a good enough AA. When steps six and seven felt like absolutely nothing, I was racked with guilt. And despite the knowledge that I can stay sober without the spiritual upheaval that I long for, I also feel guilty when a sponsee doesn’t weep with clarity or bleed serenity after working some steps.

Emily is still sober. I’d like to be able to say that all I feel is gratitude for the experience we had, but the truth is, I wish I knew why she fired me. Not for her sake, but because an answer would give me fuel for my endless quest for perfection. I still see her at meetings fairly often, and we chat, but it’s mostly small talk. I went to a Young People’s conference in Las Vegas recently and I saw her wandering alone one night, so we sat on the steps of her hotel room and smoked together. I wanted to ask her what was new the way I used to, when she would tell me all the details—if only so that I could give her a few last morsels of advice. But she didn’t ask for wisdom or assistance in “figuring shit out,” as she so often would before. She didn’t need me.

Instead, I settled with catching up on our running plans and boyfriend troubles—just like we were friends.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. This is her first piece for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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