Where to Draw the Line When Helping Newcomers in AA

By Sarah Jones 06/17/13

We want to give back. But service can veer into unhealthy—or downright dangerous—territory. How far is too far? Here's how some of us have handled sticky situations.

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The AA Big Book says, "We would go to any lengths for victory over alcohol." But exactly how far does that mean? And when does going above and beyond the call of duty to help another alcoholic cross the line?

I’ve been sober for six years. The more time I get, the more important it is to set healthy boundaries that protect my sobriety when I’m dealing with newcomers. In some ways, that’s a bummer. The guilt-trippy parent in me wants to be a total martyr, saying, “Look at all I did for you! You owe me big time!”

“Going to any lengths” doesn’t mean putting myself in situations that would compromise my sobriety in order to help others.

But I can’t be of service if I don’t take care of myself first. There’s a reason why, when a plane is crashing and the oxygen masks drop down, the in-flight manual tells you to put the mask on yourself before your kid. Because babies can’t save lives. And you might die.

“Going to any lengths” doesn’t mean putting myself in situations that would compromise my sobriety in order to help others. I’m the adult and the newcomers are the babies, crying and shitting on themselves (in most cases metaphorically). It turns out other people feel the same. Here are some hard lessons that I and some more AA members with long-term sobriety have learned about service. 

Self-esteem

Healthy sponsorship is about being right-sized, not letting the other person get too big while I get smaller and smaller, or vice versa.

I have these plates—a medium-sized appetizer plate and a large dinner plate. When I first got sober, I would eat all my meals on the appetizer plate. There’d be a lot of food on it and sometimes it would spill over the sides. But the large dinner plate just seemed so huge, like too much space for little old me. I couldn’t imagine using it. But once I did, it felt so empowering. Like, yes, OK, why the hell shouldn’t I use a large plate?

It’s similarly challenging for me to maintain equal footing in relationships and not let people walk all over me—which is a toughie when you’re a sponsor. You do a lot of listening. Sometimes, that’s all people need. But it can’t just be a one-sided relationship. You have to speak up about your personal experience and also share what you’re going through in order for it to be healthy.

I had a sponsee who kept canceling our appointments at the last minute. It made me so mad because I was constantly rearranging my entire schedule for her. I’d be really angry on the inside and call my own sponsor and say I didn’t want to work with the girl anymore—but then, because I wanted this girl to like me so badly, I wouldn’t speak up for myself.

I finally had to say, “If you need to cancel or change our time together, I need to know a day in advance.” It was difficult for me—aren’t I supposed to go to any lengths?—but she respected my wishes and our relationship was better for it.

Verdict: If service starts to make you feel bad or small, you’re doing it wrong. Speak up for yourself when others cross reasonable boundary lines.

Time

A newcomer in LA had lost her license and asked me to drive her to court. That sounded easy enough, so I said yes.

But the more details she gave me, the fishier things got. The court was two hours away. We had to be there at 8am. And she wanted me to pick up Starbucks beforehand. My “Oh Hell No” meter started buzzing, and I told her I couldn't do it after all. Putting myself in a car with a newcomer for two hours in a strange place at an early hour—and on the 405, am I right, Los Angelenos?—would have maybe jeopardized my sobriety. It would definitely have compromised my serenity.

Verdict: Picking somebody up for a meeting is one thing. Taking somebody to court at six in the morning is another. Keep the carpooling reasonable, and listen to your gut.

Money

Cash can be another source of stress. Should I loan someone money, or not? How much is too much? “I worked with a sponsee who had a ton of pride around his poverty," says John. "He would skip meetings because he couldn’t contribute to the Seventh Tradition basket. But one day he asked to borrow $100 because his daughter was coming to visit and he needed cash to take care of her.”

“For whatever reason, I agreed to help him out. I told him I’d meet him at my bank in my neighborhood. It crossed my mind he might be snowing me, but I could afford it. He kept pushing the meeting time back: a half-hour, an hour, then two. When he told me he was going to be almost four hours late I put my foot down and said I couldn't wait anymore.”

Despite what the Big Book says, today I would never allow an active meth and heroin user in my crib, no matter how badly they wanted to stay sober. 

“A switch flipped and his voice suddenly took on a sinister tone. He finally told me that, despite my protestations, he was coming anyway. Sure enough, after a bit, I got a call from him standing outside my bank. I hung up on him and he called me about a dozen times over the next couple of hours. Eventually his calls stopped, as did our relationship. I never saw him again.”

Verdict: If you can spare the cash, sure, loan it. But you have to be able to let go of ever being repaid. Otherwise, you'll cop a resentment. And if things take a darker turn, pull the plug.

Work

AA isn’t a hotbed of mental health. Yeah, we’re all sober and you run into people on the street and you’re like, “Oh my god, you too?!” That’s the fun part. But seriously, it’s a good idea to keep your AA and work lives separate. 

I once worked at a Brooklyn restaurant that was owned by an AA member, and shit got weird. I was a bad waitress, but no one told me. Yes, I dropped a tray of nine mimosas during a packed brunch service, but, like, show me how to hold a tray properly!

Then one day at the end of the summer I got fired. It seemed like it was out of nowhere because I hadn’t been given any warnings. No one said a peep. I held a resentment against the boss for a long time, to the point where I tried to avoid him in meetings. It wasn’t a good scene. It took a few years before I got over it and we were able to co-chair our homegroup together.

Josh experienced a similar situation, but from a different angle: “I don’t recommend someone for a job unless I’m absolutely certain they're professional and polite,” he says. “I did this once and the AA-er came in and copped an attitude of monstrous levels to my friend who was hiring a freelance graphic designer. The AA-er, who had barely a year as a designer, informed my friend they would be lucky to have him, as he would soon be a famous artist. Embarrassing.”

Verdict: Even more in AA than with life in general, be very careful mixing business and pleasure.

Safety

We’re dealing with real life and death shit here. Things can get gnarly. “I helped clean out the apartment of a dude who’d just died from drinking," says Matt. "He had a bunch of one-day coins and filled ashtrays. Made my head spin a little.”

You gotta stay safe! I once sponsored a girl who was addicted to meth and heroin. She couldn’t put together more than two weeks sober. I have no idea what ever happened to her. Once I met her outside of a diner in Brooklyn and she was holding a beer bottle that she smashed. She cut up her hand, then walked into traffic. That’s the kind of sponsee she was.

One night, she’d had some relationship drama and had no place to stay. She asked if she could crash at my place and I let her, even though I didn’t have a full couch at the time, just a weird love seat. She slept on that. Afterward, she constantly asked to stay at my place.

Despite what the Big Book says—“A drunk may smash the furniture in your home, or burn a mattress. You may have to fight him if he is violent. Occasionally you will have to meet such conditions.”—today I would never allow an active meth and heroin user in my crib, no matter how badly they wanted to stay sober. 

I want to go back in time five years ago and shake myself and say, “What the hell were you thinking?!” She could have stolen stuff from me, or physically harmed me. Or my cats. Sorry, Bill W., but that doesn’t sound like a safe situation for a 26-year-old girl. If I wanted to put my life in danger, I would have kept drinking!

Verdict: Find your own place to crash, kid.

Sarah Jones is a pseudonym

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