Sponsorship: The Great Unknown

By Rachael Brownell 11/10/11
There’s no training required to become a sponsor in AA—and that means people still getting their bearings can end up working with those who may not have any themselves. What's a newcomer to do?
A leap of faith—but you're not alone. Thinkstock

Just about the first thing you hear in AA is that you need a sponsor. Less prevalent are the warnings about the sponsors to stay away from. Newcomers are encouraged to choose someone they respect and who “has what they want” but that’s often all they’re told and this lack of guidance can bring unfortunate and occasionally deadly results. Sponsorship is intended to be two alcoholics or addicts talking to each other—one walking the other through the steps.  The fact that many addicts and alcoholics use their sponsors for romantic, financial, and employment advice reflects on the poor boundaries of most addicts rather than the purpose of sponsorship—for sober people to help each other stay sober. 

AA’s Questions and Answers on Sponsorship pamphlet offers very specific guidance to the person seeking a sponsor, including the admonition that “a good sponsor should probably be a year or more away from the drink” and should be someone “using the AA program successfully in everyday life.” And to those wanting to sponsor, the pamphlet offers a list of dos and don’ts—including refraining from pressing personal opinions on the sponsee, not taking the newcomer’s inventory, offering professional services, or pretending to be right all time. Despite the guidance offered in the literature, however, not everyone gets it right. 

Sarah, a 67-year-old retired social worker, first looked for a sponsor during her first few months. Now 27 years sober, Sarah recalls picking a woman named Lynne because of her warmth and willingness to take Sarah under her wing. “She took over my life and bossed me around,” Sarah recalls. “I was so screwed up in early sobriety that at first that was okay.” But after a few months, the disturbing lack of boundaries in the relationship began to bother her. When Lynne asked her to move in so she could “mother her,” Sarah began to feel like something inappropriate was going on. Later, Sarah found Lynne parked in front of her house watching her. “In retrospect, I’m pretty sure Lynne hadn’t worked the steps herself,” Sarah says, “though she really did help me find meetings in the beginning.” Unfortunately for most of us, even the most questionable sponsorship practices can be sprinkled here and there with real help and wisdom, which can make things confusing—especially for newcomers. 

Where it gets tricky is when a sponsor oversteps and starts giving advice on outside issues. People often confuse their sponsor with someone who is an expert.

For those with more sobriety, identifying red flags in the sponsorship relationship is easier. When she was 15 years sober, Marty, a 50-year-old retiree from Bellingham, Washington who now has 21 years, moved from California to Washington state and began “shopping for a sponsor.” She attended several meetings and listened to women in the program who appeared to be practicing AA in their lives. At coffee with a potential sponsor, Marty had an intuition that something wasn’t quite right. “I had a bad feeling,” Marty recalls, “especially when she told me I should call only her if I had a problem and not ever call other women in the program.” Marty quietly concluded their coffee meeting, let the potential sponsor know she’d be looking elsewhere for help and, a month later, asked another woman to sponsor her. “I’ve been working with her for over a decade and she’s very gentle,” Marty says. “Very loving and focused on the Big Book, but she doesn’t try and force me to do things her way.”

Forcing newcomers to subscribe to a sponsor’s way of thinking can have disastrous results. “After my first sponsor relapsed,” says Amelia, a 30-something publicist who’s 10 years sober, “I asked a woman with 20 years to be my sponsor. She seemed to have what I wanted: she was in the same field as me and said she was happily married with kids. I was too new to understand that she was in the Pacific Group, which promotes the idea that sober people shouldn’t take anti-depressants. She told me I had to go off of them if I wanted her to sponsor me so I tried—and became so depressed that I almost relapsed. Later I found out that she was having an affair with her [male] sponsor and her husband was leaving her.” While Amelia now has a “wonderful, loving and most of all not controlling sponsor,” she’s been through many more over time. “There was the one who made me spend $500 to go to her past life therapist, the one who liked to massage me while I read from the Big Book, the one who would only listen to my fourth step over the phone while she was on the Stairmaster, and the one who put me on ‘dating restriction’ until she decided I was ready to date and then ‘fired’ me when I kissed a boy 10 months later,” she says with a chuckle. “I think my picker was broken for a good long time.”

This inability to stay within the bounds of the AA program is one of the signs of a not-so-great sponsor, according to Dr. Ingrid Matheiu, an LA-based psychotherapist and the author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice. A sponsor who insists on a rigid observance of certain prayers and procedures might, without meaning to, interfere with a person’s ability to run his or her own recovery. “Where it gets tricky is when a sponsor oversteps and starts giving advice on outside issues,” Matheiu says. “People often confuse their sponsor with someone who is an expert.” Even if the sponsor isn’t putting herself forward as an expert, some people in recovery confer a kind of Higher Power status onto their sponsor, thus robbing themselves of the one of the best gifts of AA: two alcoholics sharing their experience, strength, and hope together. 

Nina, a 35-year-old student who's four years sober, found just such a relationship. When she first entered the program, Nina looked for someone who “sounded like she knew what she was talking about.” Luckily for Nina, her very first sponsor choice was a good one. She describes her sponsor-sponsee relationship as loving and supportive, adding that her sponsor is very clear about her role. “If I ask her advice about something, she never ever tells me the right answer,” Nina says. “She reminds me that I’m going to do what I do and that it’s not up to her to make my decisions for me.”  This approach, to suggest rather than order or give assignments, is in line with the AA literature. 

Which is why when someone asks Liz, a 53-year-old retiree who’s 18 years sober, if she’ll sponsor them, she first asks them to sit with her and read the AA pamphlet on sponsorship. She always tries to keep in mind what her sponsor told her years ago: “It’s my job to hold the light on you while you dig.” In other words, the person being sponsored does the heavy lifting—personal inventory, step work, and service—while the sponsor is there to help and guide. As the AA pamphlet concludes, this way, “the newcomer learns to rely on the AA program, not the sponsor.” 

Rachael Brownell is a freelance writer and author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here AnymoreShe lives in the Pacific Northwest with her sexy boyfriend, her kids, her books and her closet that is no longer full of skeletons. She has written about the importance of humor and what motherhood is really like in sobriety, among other topics, for The Fix.

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