What To Do When Your Sponsor Falls Off the Pedestal

By Anna Fredericks 05/11/16

Everybody's human, especially our long term sober mentors.

What To Do When Your Sponsor Falls Off the Pedestal

I walked into my favorite AA meeting and sat down next to my sponsor. I’ve been doing that for 28 years. It’s different now—her eyes don’t light up and she doesn’t smile. She is quiet. I ask how she is. “Okay, but I don’t feel like talking.”

The boundaries hurt. Let’s call her B for boundaries of steel.

In walks her other sponsee and B’s face lights up. She turns toward him, leaving me to stare at her back. They become animated, chatting in hushed tones. I crane my neck, trying to hear what they’re saying and be included, but B’s back doesn’t yield. I’m locked out.

B and I met in 1988 when I was 26. She was two years older and five inches taller. I was ranting in an AA meeting about how many times the word God appeared on the hanging Twelve Steps shade. She came over to me afterwards and offered a two-inch square card with lavender tulips on it. Inside she’d written, “Good to hear you. Please call if you’d like to talk.” At the bottom was her phone number.

Her skin was olive and her hair dark brown—like mine. It made me feel safe, like we were from the same tribe. I looked up at her 5-foot-seven-inch frame and tried to smile. I was so miserable in those days—fresh out of rehab and shaky, terrified a drink would fly into my mouth and cocaine would shoot up my nose. Meetings were the only safe place for me, but I had squirrels running around in my head.

The first time I dialed her, my hands were shaking. I was amazed she sounded happy to hear from me. My name sounded beautiful when she said it. I got a magic feeling, like I’d had around my second grade teacher, Mrs. Pugatch. 

B and I went to meetings together daily. There was humor in the rooms and intimacy when speakers laid their emotions bare. She had a mother-hen quality that I basked in. I’d craved that type of acceptance and non-judgment.

B became everything to me—friend, confidante, and wise older sister. She often said I was one of her closest friends. Our friendship was nurturing. She “got” me and loved me—flaws and all. When I was funny, her eyes reflected back joy. When I was sad, she listened and comforted me. We grew strong together.

B never told me what to do. She prefaced sentences with, “In my experience…” or “You might want to try…” The only time she demanded something of me was when she saw I was withering from loneliness.

“You have to sign up for sober softball,” B said. I thought she was nuts. I couldn’t see how that would solve anything and told her I didn’t know how to play. She said that didn’t matter. “I’ll go with you.” We went every Saturday morning and after the game, the group went for brunch at a nearby coffee shop.

One morning over scrambled eggs and toast, a teammate asked how I was. “I feel like killing myself,” I said fighting back tears. He smiled and said, “Oh yeah, me too. Can you please pass the salt?” It was a life-changing moment to realize that everybody in AA understood depression. Nearly three decades later, he and I still laugh about that big “Aha” moment for me. 

B’s words sprinkled like pixie dust with a power to heal. She never seemed exasperated with me no matter how many times I called her, freaking out. Her time was wide open then and she included me in everything. 

She found love, had two kids, left the city, got a master’s degree, launched a career. No matter how busy she got, I was always a top priority. Not anymore. I have asked repeatedly if we can meet for an hour. She is always polite when she says, “I’m sorry, I just don’t have the time in my schedule.”

I’ve been disappointed by the changes in her. Anger rises while I witness new behaviors. Her body seems tight and protective, closed off and aloof. I want to yell, “Quit naval gazing and come back to me!”

For the past few years, I’ve been asking myself what happened. I probe memories searching for my part. In 2010, I had a full-blown social anxiety attack during one of her parties. Usually, I last an hour at events like that, but the evening was important to B so I pushed myself to stay three hours. By then my discomfort was so high, I scurried out with only a quick, “Gotta run.”

Looking back, I wish I’d explained my urgency to skedaddle. I could’ve hugged her tightly before my awkward exodus. But was my faux pas enough to ruin our decades-spanning connection? I can’t believe that it was. Maybe I didn’t go visit her enough after she’d left the city for suburbia. Or perhaps I’d alienated her when I said, “I’m worried about how thin you are. You need to eat more.” Her eyes had blazed and she’d snapped, “Don’t judge me.”

After puzzling over a gazillion possible reasons for B’s emotional distance, I craved a conversation. “Did I do anything that upset you?” I asked. “What do you mean?” she said. I told her I felt a gaping disconnect between us. She, who had taught me to communicate clearly, replied with an evasive, “I’m going through something. It’s not about you.”

I didn’t believe her.

In earlier sobriety, I would’ve doubted my perceptions. I would’ve thought I was bonkers or paranoid, or too sensitive—but these days, I don’t doubt what I see. She reaches for her other sponsee and pulls far away from me. 

So now what? I’m stabbed with a fork in the road. Should I choose the path of least resistance as described in the Big Book? 

Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.

To accept means to let go of expectations and dial down any dwindling desires within this one-sided relationship. In fairness to B, if I were in a crisis, I could still turn to her. I believe she’d be willing to talk on the phone. But, is that enough?

Long ago, B taught me to improve my self-esteem by doing esteemable acts. Now I have loads of self-esteem—enough to tell me that ashes leftover from a fizzled friendship just ain’t enough. Acceptance could mean to let go of my sponsor and move on. Twenty-eight years may be enough time to go it alone. B hasn’t had a sponsor for most of the years I’ve known her. 

But that’s no shining endorsement. Mental health can be slippery and mine needs protection. A new sponsor might improve the odds of success; however, options are limited. A viable candidate would need decades of sobriety. A sense of humor is vital and whip-smart is mandatory. This time around, I shouldn’t blur the line between sponsor and friend. 

The last time I tried to broach this topic, I asked B if we are still friends. She sidestepped and said, “After all this time, you’re like family.” I’m left wondering what that means. When I’m disappointed in my sisters, I don’t tell myself to replace them. When I don’t know what to do, B always said, “Do nothing.” Perhaps, instead of venturing left or right at the fork, I should choose the center—go to a meeting, share about it, then go for a sandwich with my AA buds. More will be revealed.

Anna Fredericks is a pseudonym. 

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