relationships

Sponsor Stuff (Part 1)

Therapists use a variety of tools to help newcomers and those formerly sober folks who felt the need to do some additional field work. One therapist I know likes to use the concept of the AA “Askit Basket”, adapted to a mixed group of alcoholics and other addicts, where participants put anonymous question slips into a basket or jar, and then the group uses them at random to stimulate discussions. With the permission of the group, she passes the anonymous questions on to me, and I try to craft explanations for a wider audience.

Lately there have been a lot of questions about sponsors and sponsorship, so I thought I’d devote a couple of posts to questions about that important subject.

Do you believe that going to meetings and getting a sponsor is one of the most important things to do in recovery?

Bill W. (left), AA co-founder, and his sponsor Ebby T.

When I got to recovery, I was a victim of my own best thinking. It was pointed out to me that just because you can take a watch apart, it doesn’t mean you can put it back together. You have to learn the skills. That made sense to me.

I had been unable to think myself out of multiple addictions, and it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to think my way into recovery. I needed to listen to people who had done what I needed to do, and learn from their experiences (and my own).

The twelve steps are the guidelines that we follow to straighten out our heads, our lives, and our problems with other people. They are the accumulated wisdom of more than 70 years and millions of recovering people. I figured I’d have to be pretty stupid to overlook a resource like that.

I believe that going to meetings, getting a sponsor and working through the 12 steps is the most important thing to do in recovery, because they provide a template for dealing with recovery and its problems.

What is the best way to go about choosing a sponsor? What qualifications should that person have? Why must my sponsor be of the same sex? How do I change sponsors?

Choosing

Smart people don’t buy the flashiest car on the lot. They research and get one that they can afford, tthat performs best for their purposes, gives the most value for the money, gets the best gas mileage, has the best safety and repair record, and so forth. And they always, always take a test drive.

To choose a sponsor, we don’t ask right away, we watch for the people who clearly have good long-term sobriety. We get numbers and call people. We go out for coffee and “audition” them. Most importantly, we choose one who can laugh, and who can laugh at him or herself.

As far as qualifications go, we don’t choose sponsors based on whether they’re “right for us,” but by the quality of their program, what they share in meetings (and don’t share) and whether or not they’re likely to be able to pass it on to us. We choose someone who talks about solutions, not problems.

That is a sponsor’s only purpose — not to be our friend or buddy, although that happens, but to guide us through the steps and help us find solutions. Finally, a good sponsor will help us see when we’re fooling ourselves. In recovery, fooling ourselves is often fatal.

Gender Issues

The relationship between sponsee and sponsor involves a lot of emotional intimacy, if it’s working properly. This can make both parties vulnerable. It is also unfortunately true that there are unscrupulous people of both sexes who prey on newcomers by first sponsoring them and then messing with their heads, and often their bodies.

Our sponsor needs to be of the same sex to avoid romantic entanglements. Romantic situations in early recovery effectively stop our recovery, because we don’t have the emotional tools to handle them. Heck, we don’t even know how to have decent relationships with ourselves. Even if there is a broad age difference and no one’s interested in anybody, there’s no guarantee that they will always feel that way. When we’re serious about our recovery, men sponsor men, and women sponsor women. The exception is gay people. It is not uncommon for gays to have cross-gender sponsorship, for obvious reasons. Finally, romance aside, we hear differently and share differently with the other gender.

Changing Sponsors

First I have to ask myself if I want a change because the partnership isn’t working, or if my current sponsor is making me uncomfortable by pushing me into areas where I’m afraid to go. If that is the case, the proper course would be to talk to the sponsor and see if an agreement can be reached to solve the problem.

If, however, there is a genuine problem, whether of personalities, ability to schedule meetings, or perhaps the wrong kind of relationship developing, it’s simple. We look them in the eye, and say that things aren’t working out and we’ll be looking elsewhere. We don’t have to give a reason, and we don’t have to argue, but it is important to be open and honest so that we can hold our head up instead of dreading that we’ll run into him or her at a meeting.

More next time. Stay tuned.