I’m Open and Willing, Dear Sponsor, but Wait a Minute!

By Maggie Weeks 08/08/18

We know “our best thinking got us here,” but that doesn’t mean we need to be open and willing to take abuse or be manipulated.

upset woman holding thumb down
Sponsors, even ones that initially seem to have it all figured out, are not infallible.

When you first came into the program, you might have heard your “best thinking got you here.”

You’re told since your way hasn’t been working, maybe it’s time to try something else.

You’re told you need to surrender.

You’re told you need to start listening and follow directions.

Well, if you were like me (gung ho!), and made the decision to be “open and willing,” I’ll bet you gave the program your best shot: you took the suggestions readily; you went to 90 meetings in 90 days; you read the Big Book daily; you got a sponsor; you did the steps. And hopefully, you started to see some progress. Your life began to improve. You cleaned up the wreckage of your past, mended relationships, got involved in service work, and really started to feel better about yourself.

If the “your best thinking got you here” aphorism played like an endless loop in your brain, you might have felt that you’d lost the ability to think rationally for yourself and that you needed guidance. Should I break up with my addict boyfriend who just happens to be violent?  Well, um, yea . . . but you might have been so enmeshed in codependence while simultaneously combatting your addiction that you honestly didn’t know what to do.

If you were like me—with some crazy, delusional thinking going on—and you were put on a six-month waiting list by your insurance to see a therapist, you’d need some help, and fast, and that help might have come by way of a sponsor. And if she was a good one, she’d listen, be empathetic, and gently suggest healthier ways of coping with your problems.

Some people will say that a sponsor’s job is solely to lead a newcomer through the steps—not be a counselor, therapist or life coach. And while some sponsors may stick to this definition, most of the ones I’ve met take a much more involved role. My peers in recovery say they call their sponsors when they want to drink, when their ass is falling off, when they need help! The many times I discussed a problem with a fellow member after the meeting, I invariably heard, “Have you run this by your sponsor?” Or “Call your sponsor, that what she’s there for.”

Sponsors can be unquestionable lifesavers. Through the years, I’ve had sponsors who have really saved my ass. One time, I was dealing with a relative who had a meth addiction and bipolar disorder. She was delusional but also cruel and selfish. But because she was “blood,” I enabled her. After one particularly trying event with her, I remember calling my sponsor and telling her I didn’t know what to do. She told me to do nothing—walk away. And not feel guilty. It ended up being the smartest thing: my relative got much better learning how to cope and take care of her problems herself instead of manipulating me into doing her bidding.

But be careful. Not all sponsors should be sponsors. They may only recruit potential sponsees because their sponsor told them it was their turn to get one, not because they are qualified. And if you get with one who isn’t right for you, she could cause you some damage. As a newcomer, you’re incredibly, nakedly vulnerable—and impressionable. So can you see the conundrum here? You want to be open and willing, you want to start following suggestions and take direction—but you still have to listen to your gut and not confuse vulnerability with gullibility.

When I first met this particular sponsor, I was blown away by her enthusiasm for the program. She was very bright, seemed very together, articulate, funny, educated, empathetic, kind, the whole enchilada. She told me she had tried myriad ways to recover because she’d always been searching for that thing that would fill her up that wasn’t drink drugs food men money or status, and after searching far and wide, she finally surrendered to AA. She claimed it was the best decision she’d ever made. Since she seemed to have what I wanted, I asked her to be my sponsor. I was sure she’d say she was way too busy, because at the time she had six sponsees and was working. But to my delighted surprise, she said “Oh, my of course I can.”

I was wildly excited and hopeful. I was not working at the time and was willing to do just about anything asked of me. She could see I was clearly broken, my life practically in ruins, and assured me she would help me get through these very trying times of early sobriety.

We dived right into the steps. She also instructed me to do 90 meetings in 90 days and get a coffee commitment. But gradually—almost imperceptibly—I discovered something else: She wanted to mold me. At first there were mild corrections of my speech or attitude, but it got to the point that I felt oppressively censored. If I ever said “should” or “have to” she’d immediately correct me and say, “not ‘should,’ not ‘have to’” it’s “I ‘get to’” do blah blah blah. In hindsight, I would have told her “Look, ‘should’ is an intrinsic word of the English language, it means something needs to be done. I think I know the difference of when I ‘get to’ do something and when I ‘should’ do something.”

Another thing she’d do when I told her of a problem I was having with someone, was immediately cut me offbefore I could even finish. She’d interrupt and say, “I want you to think of three good things about this person. Remember, they are doing the best they know how. Find your compassion.” Which is good spiritual advice, but when the shoe was on the other foot and she was pissed at someone, she’d get downright eviscerating, nary mentioning three good qualities of the victim of her rant.

But her all time fave platitude was: “If you spot it you got it!” said immediately to moi every time I complained to her about a person I felt was being unfair, selfish or mean. And she did have a point: sometimes, when we see something we don’t like in a person it’s because we recognize it in ourselves. But not always! For example, do we renounce the bully because we are bullies ourselves? Maybe, but usually not. Then she’d get into mystical stuff and go on about karma and say, “Everybody gets what they deserve because it’s all karma.” When I asked, “So the old lady that gets raped by a stranger, how did her karma cause that?” Her reply, “Well maybe she did something to deserve it. Now, personally, I’ve never been raped.” Whaaatt?

But what put me over the edge was something she said that I knew, even with my broken brain, was incontestably wrong. I didn’t have to chide myself this time for thinking that I wasn’t being open and willing enough to learn, or was being controlled by my ego.

While we were taking a walk, I confided in her about a doctor who had sexually assaulted me when I went in for a pelvic exam.

She responded: “Well, you aren’t going to like this, but can I say something to you?”

“Well, sure, I guess.”

She took a dramatic big breath, squared her shoulders and said, “Okay here goes. I think, that maybe you asked for it.”

I was dumbfounded. At the time, I explained to her, I was 19 and alone in New York City. I’d gotten my first bladder infection, couldn’t pee and could barely walk straight I was in so much pain. All I wanted was some antibiotics.

“What do you mean I was asking for it?” I asked, frightfully confused.

“Well, I didn’t want to bring this up, but now is as good of time as any. I see the way you talk to the men in the meetings. You’re very sexual, you know.”

“What?” I boomed. “Are you fucking kidding me? I try to treat everyone, men and women alike, with respect, and hopefully, kindness.”

“Well that is not how it is being perceived. People talk you know. I’m hearing all kinds of things, like ‘God, I can’t believe Margaret is married! The way she talks to the guys.’”

Now I was pissed. I am an incredibly happily married woman. I adore my husband dearly. I would never, ever, go out on him. I am not even remotely attracted to other men.

I realized then that her thinking was irrevocably off and I had to cut bait. I finally got the courage to fire her but it took time; she wielded a lot of power at the meetings and she intimidated me. It was an incredibly painful experience. I was already so vulnerable and sensitive, and totally confused. To have my sponsor, the one I’d done my steps with, the one who knew my deepest darkest secrets, become something slightly resembling, well, delusional, was demoralizing to say the least!

It took me a while to get back to my homegroup. I was so shattered. I really thought of everyone as family there: they were so nice and kind, it was easy to be friendly back. But . . . but, what if my sponsor was right? Could I have been so wrong, so delusional? Was I flirting and were dudes coming on to me and I just didn’t see it? Eventually I went back and shared what she told me to a couple of trusted AA pals. They told me they’d never heard or seen any of the behavior she was reporting about me. 

The reason I’m sharing this story is not to criticize AA, or gossip about members, or diss sponsors. I’m sharing my story because I don’t want the same thing to happen to another vulnerable newcomer, a newcomer who knows her thinking is off and is willing and open to change, but may be confused about the accuracy and validity of some of her sponsor’s suggestions, opinions, or directions.

Listen to your intuitions, and your higher power. If you’re having problems with your sponsor, share your experiences—without using names—with other trusted members in order to get some perspective. Because we are scared and alone when we come into the rooms. We know “our best thinking got us here,” but that doesn’t mean we need to be open and willing to take abuse or be manipulated.

Most of the time, sponsorship is a wonderful example of people helping other people. Sponsors can help talk you out of a drink, and because they're drunks like you, they usually get where you're coming from. But just because someone is a sponsor or old-timer doesn’t mean they are perfect.

Face it, we are all deeply flawed in some way. But sponsors have a very serious job to do, and they should be doing it out of altruism, not as way to assuage their own ego by lording over vulnerable newcomers who they can control, manipulate or abuse. So be careful. Be open and willing but keep your boundaries firmly in place. And if things get creepy, don't spend too much time being resentful (like I did!). Instead, break it off with him/her before you develop another codependent, dysfunctional relationship, and chalk it up as an invaluable learning experience.

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Maggie formerly lived in Japan, but now resides in Bonita California. She has been a Japanese translator, professional dancer, and salesperson. She has written for San Diego Reader, Memoir Magazine and The Fix. She has also written a book, Memoirs of a Dancer, in 2004. She enjoys hip hop music, dancing, hiking, her husband, family and friends.