How Not To Choose A Sponsor

By Kiki Baxter 10/26/16

It’s not like this bleary-eyed, stone-hearted, overly-sensitive, unreliable, untrusting individual steeped in a shit-ton of denial is going to choose a sponsor for all the right reasons.

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How Not To Choose A Sponsor
No bad choices?

I realize that "How Not To Choose A Sponsor" is kind of a negative title, but I like it. It’s more catchy than "How to Choose a Sponsor After You’ve Been Drinking for Twenty Odd Years and Fucked Everything Up." It’s not like this bleary-eyed, stone-hearted, overly-sensitive, unreliable, untrusting individual steeped in a shit-ton of denial is going to choose a sponsor for all the right reasons. Here are some of the reasons I chose my early sponsors:

1. She was French.

2. She wore cool clothes.

3. She was older than me and was still sexy.

Or

1. She was popular and happy-go-lucky.

2. She seemed cool.

Or

1. Everyone liked her (and by extension, everyone would like me).

Or

1. She works a good program. Ding! Ding! Ding!

Actually, they all worked a good program. The problem wasn’t them. The problem was me.

“I don’t think I ever chose a bad sponsor,” says Neal when I ask him how not to choose a sponsor. “I’ve been a bad sponsee by not calling or not reaching out and keeping in touch, or not following through in action.”

Truth be told, I was a little disappointed by Neal’s sober answer. But hey, that’s cool. He’s got way more sobriety than I—not that I’m comparing or despairing or anything. 

Neal continues, “I had a sponsor who was super smart and he would cut me off right away and tell me what to do or fix me, and what I really needed was to be heard so I wanted to fire him and move on to a new guy. The new guy asked why and when I told him, he told me to tell my sponsor these things so I did, and my sponsor changed his approach and it’s gone much better ever since.” 

They say that the relationship with your sponsor is your first sober relationship, so I can see why it would be helpful to practice some sober life skills like communication. But just because I could see that doesn’t mean I did that. My m.o. was to tell people what they were doing wrong and that I was moving on. It wasn’t really a conversation. I had already made my mind up. I think it made me feel very uncomfortable to tell someone what I needed, because what if they didn’t care? What if nothing changed? What if I got hurt? It was better just to move on. I loved running away. It was almost my first drug. My problem was that no one was good enough. How safe that was. Or how safe it seemed.

When I asked Stacy (who is celebrating 30 years this month) how not to pick a sponsor, she sort of echoed Neal’s sentiment but then she indulged my negative-leaning question with this suggestion: “You don’t want to pick someone because of how they look, or what they’re wearing or material things. You don’t want to pick someone who’s not doing service, or in a service position of some sort. I wouldn’t pick someone—and a lot of people have a different opinion on this—but personally, I wouldn’t pick someone who has less sobriety than I. I want them to have more experience through this program.”

Cool. And what if they’re of the opposite sex and are super cute and have really good, um, program? Okay, I’m joking. I’m not responsible for my first thought. I’m only responsible for how much I indulge in it, or, god forbid, act on it. 

“If my mind is set on doing a self-destructive act,” adds Neal, “my sponsor would say, these are your options and no matter what you do, I’ll still love you. Then, all of a sudden, my higher self emerges and I choose the right thing. Empathy is the key to sponsorship, not just the wisdom to know the solution.”

HOW TO BE A GOOD SPONSOR

So the conversation seems to want to be about how to be a good sponsor. Fine.

“I make sure I validate them, their feelings and let them know they are being heard,” continues Neal. “At that point, they are receptive.”

I spoke to another double-digit dude in the rooms this morning, I’ll call him Mike. Mike said that he tells his sponsees to call him every day while they’re working steps one through nine. Mike currently has nine sponsees, so I ask him where he finds the time. “It’s not always a long conversation,” answers Mike. “The first thing I ask is what meeting did they go to, and the second thing I ask is what the speaker said. After that, they can talk about personal stuff. It’s really just about getting them in the habit of calling another person and reaching out. I just do to them what my sponsor did to me.”

That sounds good to me. I know I wanted someone to tell me to call them every day, but I was too scared for that kind of sponsorship. Nevertheless, the people that I did pick always answered the phone or at least always called me back. They let me know they cared about me. They were patient and kind. They had a good sense of humor (which I had lost along the way) and they reminded me to lighten up (which wasn’t my most favorite thing to hear.)

“Your sponsor's not supposed to be your best friend,” says Neal. “If you get too chummy, it might be hard to crack the whip and say the things you need to say. A sponsor is a guide. I do think there should be a little bit of fondness for one another. Certainly it helps to have someone reflect back to you how much they love you.”

That can be a pretty hard thing for a newcomer to take. I remember when my sponsor would say "I love you," or worse, "you’re a child of God." Yuck. To the "I love you" sentiment, I’d think, you don’t even know me, accompanied by a faint queasy feeling in my stomach or something akin to suffocation/claustrophobia. To the "you’re a child of God" thing, my inner cool chick would gag a little. But now, I’ve said both things to my sponsee, and I’ve meant them. And I see her gagging a little on the inside. When I hug her, she says, “Oh—now it’s time for this.” And I love her even more because I relate. It takes time to thaw. 

“I was very lucky,” says Stacy. “My first sponsor was like a god thing. A friend of mine and I were talking and he put a woman on the phone and she said I’ll be your sponsor—I had six months—and what was cool was that I didn’t know WHAT I was looking for. These people are new. They don’t know the difference so go up to them and say if you want to work the steps, I’ll take you through the steps. A lot of time, they just need direction. It’s like offering them coffee. They either want it or they don’t.”   

I ask Neal what his first AA sponsor was like and how he got him. “Someone just came up to me and put his hand out. He was just out of a psych ward and was heavily medicated, but I just needed to hear ‘don’t drink and go to meetings.’ And as I was sober longer, I got someone who had a better grasp of the steps and more to share. I had a sponsor who died of AIDS and I had to get another sponsor. The hardest thing is not making my sponsor a higher power and shifting my dependency onto them.”

For me, developing any kind of dependency—or let’s say trust—in my AA sponsor was very challenging, although I wouldn’t cop to it. It was harder for me to rely on and use an AA sponsor than sponsors in other programs for some reason, so I went for a time without. Since I was going to a lot of other fellowships and working the steps in those programs with sponsors, I didn’t really feel the need. Drinking wasn’t really “up” for me. I was dealing with other shit. But I’d still go to my one AA meeting a week. Usually. (Down from 4 or 5.) But I mentioned this fact to one of the founding members of my home group who had 40 plus years sobriety and whose story is in the Big Book, and he turned to me with the constant love and warmth that always shown in his eyes, and said plainly and directly, “Get a sponsor.” So I did. It still took time for me to get in the habit of calling her. And it took time for me to be willing to listen. And it took time for me to actually really want her to tell it like it is, whether I wanted to hear it or not. And it took time to allow that she may even love me. It’s taken six to seven years to be available for that.

GRACE

“When I had 24 years,” says Stacy, “I had a relationship that leveled me. We split up and I was in a major depression. My friends hadn’t heard from me. They thought I had relapsed. My sponsor said, ‘You need to find a newcomer.’ So on Sunday I walked into a meeting right on time and there were like two to three hundred people there and I couldn’t find a seat, so I made my way over to the railing by the coffee pot. I didn’t know anyone there, but I sponsored a couple people that knew people and I saw my sponsee and asked if there was anyone there that was new, and she pointed to someone sitting right next to me and said, ‘That girl right there is new.’ At the end of the meeting I said, ‘Hi, my name is Stacy. Do you have a sponsor? And she said, ‘No’ and I said, ‘I’ll be your sponsor,’ and she said, ‘Okay.’ It turns out that she had been praying for a sponsor. And what’s powerful is that she knows that she means as much to me as I mean to her because I was done, and God put her in my life.”

Turns out that the sponsee that Stacy is talking about was one of my early “running buddies.” And turns out that Stacy also sponsors one of my other early day running buddies. And that’s how I got to know Stacy. And that’s how, one day, I got the courage to ask her to be my sponsor. And one night last week, when we were all sitting around the table visiting, I realized how lucky I was to still be here. How grateful I was to all the sponsors that had shared their experience, strength and hope with me and all of the fellows in the rooms, like Neal, who generously share their stories and their recovery. Because by helping others we help ourselves, and that kind of sanity can go a long way—not only in AA, but everywhere. 

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