sponsorship

Sponsors In Recovery — More Questions

Our clients attend group sessions while in detox, and questions come up about sponsors in recovery. Since the subject seems to confuse some folks in the beginning, we like to mention it occasionally with a bit of an explanation. These were a couple of recent questions.

What is a sponsor?

Sponsors in recovery are people with experience in the particular program of recovery, who have completed the 12 steps, and who help newcomers understand and guide them through completion. Along with that, they make themselves available as supports outside of meetings. A sponsor should be of a gender preference that minimizes the possibility of outside entanglement, and the sponsee should remember that age is not a factor in these matters. That is, men sponsor men and women sponsor women, unless the parties are gay.

Most sponsors require that their sponsees call them every day, and want to meet with them on frequent occasions to discuss their program, things that may be on their mind, and help prepare them for the various steps. If they do not have time to do that — and there are many good reasons why that might be the case — then perhaps another choice would be wise.

A sponsor is not a moneylender, legal adviser  marriage counselor or therapist. Their purpose is to help the newcomer focus on the 12 Steps, and to help them come to an understanding of their program of recovery. These other things distract and change the focus of the relationship, and are generally considered detrimental. Furthermore, it is quite likely that they are not qualified in those areas anyway. Although most of us develop friendships with our sponsors, even that is not necessary.  What is required is experience on the part of the sponsor, and our ability to learn to trust them.

The person we choose does not have to like our kind of music, be a sports buff, or even close to our own age, but he or she must show through appearance, actions and words that they are not only working a solid program but are also living a healthy life. There is no such thing as a perfect sponsor, but the best bet is to check out the person at a few meetings or over a cup of coffee, and see that they are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk as well.

Finally, we need to remember that a sponsor’s purpose is to lead us through the steps. If that is not happening, or if they are taking us off on some tangent, we need to understand that we are not married to them, and that we are free to look for another sponsor. We do, however, need to be sure that the incompatibility is real, and not simply a matter of having heard something we did not want to hear. The nature of recovery is change, and a sponsor who is unwilling to dig a little is not doing the job right.

Is it okay to have a sponsor in AA and another in NA?

This is a matter of opinion, to a degree. Generally-speaking, when it comes to those two fellowships, we would suggest that it is best to settle on one or the other for our step work. Every sponsor learns sponsorship from their own sponsors, and styles of sponsorship thus vary quite a bit. Having two individuals risks confusion. For example, one may like to spend more time on a particular step than another, or put more weight on writing as opposed to talking. Neither of those is wrong, but they can conflict.

One of the best reasons for not having two sponsors, however, is the danger that we will play one against the other. In any endeavor, it is best to have only one leader at a time. We recommend that a newcomer choose one fellowship for in-depth work, and attend meetings of the other for identification with those issues as well.

The exceptions to the above occur in the case of specialized fellowships, such as Overeaters or Gamblers Anonymous, or sexual addiction groups. In those and some other cases, the primary purposes are so different (at least on the surface) that it is imperative to have a sponsor who can personally and comfortably address those issues.

Sponsorship Stuff (Part 2)

Can a sponsor be an extended relative who attends AA and has been clean for over 10 years?

Most recovering people and recovery professionals consider it unwise for us to choose sponsors with whom we have anything other than a casual relationship.  Relatives (even distant ones), co-workers, and friends are generally thought to be off limits. Put simply, it’s not a good plan to have a sponsor with whom we have a past.

Relatives, even distant ones, have ties to our families.  Friends often do too, and the opinions of both friends and co-workers are important to us.  Because they share our histories to a degree, all of these people will have their relationships, opinions, resentments and so forth — perhaps even  involving some of the same people.  In most cases, that would hinder their listening to us objectively, and would most likely affect our ability to be open and honest with them as well.

Sponsorship, when it works properly, involves sharing many things that we would not necessarily want a family member to know, from things about the rest of the family to our own circumstances.  The same could well turn out to be true of co-workers and friends.  Generally speaking, a sponsor who is completely uninvolved with our outside history is best.  While we might be more comfortable with people we know in the beginning, it is likely that down the line our previous association will become an obstacle, especially when we are being guided through the steps.  That, of course, is a sponsor's primary purpose.

In addition to all of the above, by choosing someone we already know we are depriving ourselves of the experience of reaching beyond our safe space for help — a skill that most addicts and alcoholics need to learn.

My sponsor makes has me spend two weeks or more on every step. I don’t feel that I need that much time to complete a step.  Is this typical, and why?

It is not unusual for sponsors to move us through the steps even more slowly than that.  When I thought things were going too slowly, it usually meant that I didn’t want to look at issues as closely as I needed to.

The purpose of the steps is to help reshape our ways of thinking about life.  They are not simply items to be ticked off a list, but are meant to be put to use.  In early recovery, most of us didn’t have a grasp of our denial, the ways our behavior had hurt others, or how to go about dealing with those things.  Taking our time over the steps allows us to absorb the ideas behind them, and to begin putting them into action in our daily lives.

Another reason for not hurrying is that, as time passes, we inevitably remember other things — other issues to which the step’s principles can be applied.  If we rush through the steps without giving those things time to happen, we greatly lessen the impact of the work we are doing, both immediately and as we move on in our recovering life.

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.

Home Groups, Sponsors, Reservations, and Families That Use

This time we’re combining four questions that don’t require long answers into one post.

How soon should I find a home group?

You need to find a group where you feel reasonably at home.  This may change over time, but you need to look for one where you aren't totally uncomfortable.  Don't look for perfection, because it doesn't exist.  Groups are made up of people — all kinds of people.  Again, reasonable comfort is the key.

There’s no set limit.  Generally, it is suggested that we spend a few meetings in each of several groups, then stick with the one that feels best for a while.  When we’ve made that much of a commitment, making a home group decision shouldn’t be difficult.

How long should I wait to get a sponsor?

Generally speaking, the same rule applies to sponsors.  Listen to what people say.  Look for people who are happy in sobriety, and sound like it — consistently.  Look for people who sound honest.  Avoid people who quote the literature constantly, and look for people who make sense when they’re thinking for themselves.  Don’t wait too long, but try to choose based on those ideas.

There is no set rule, but since a sponsor is your guide through the program and the steps, it’s not good to wait too long.  If you’re doing a meeting a day, you should have a pretty good list of candidates in a couple of weeks.  Then ask them to go for a cup of coffee, and spend some time one-one-one.  If that feels good, then ask.  You're not getting married, but you don't want a one-night stand, either.

What is a reservation?

A reservation is an excuse to use that we make in advance.  Here are some examples:

  • I’m an alcoholic and can’t drink, but a little pot can’t hurt.
  • I’m a painkiller addict, but it’s OK to have an occasional drink.
  • I’ll go to meetings and do as I’m told, but it’s hard for me to trust people so I’m not getting a sponsor.
  • I’ll go to meetings, work the steps, and do as I’m told, but I’m sure that after I’ve been clean and sober for a while it will be OK for me to have a drink now and then.
  • I’ll go to meetings and work the steps, but to heck with that one-year thing.  I’m going to have a relationship if one comes along.

To put it another way, a reservation is a recipe for failure.

How often should I see my family members that still use drugs?

How often do you want to be tempted to use drugs yourself?

Talk about pushing buttons!  Our families hard-wired our buttons for us.  They can push them without even meaning to.  In any case, people who are using around you clearly don’t have your best interests on their mind.  Add to that the fact that seeing you clean and sober may make them uncomfortable enough to actively encourage you to use, and the answer is simple: very seldom, and always in the company of a sober companion. (See “reservations.”)

That's it for this time.  Keep on keepin' on!

Are there effective online AA groups and sponsors?

Q. Are there effective online AA groups and sponsors?

[The person asking the question is a public figure, concerned about negative publicity and broken anonymity.]

There are good online AA groups.  Most, if not all, have provisions for connecting newcomers with online sponsors.  Any program of recovery is only as effective as the desire of the individual to work at it.  In that respect, an online program is better than no program at all, and no doubt they do the job for some recovering alcoholics and other addicts.  Consider, however, that the purpose of a program is not only to keep from drinking.  Recovery is about unlearning how to be an addict, and learning how better to function in the world outside of AA, NA or whatever program one has chosen.

During our addictions we learn a great many undesirable habits.  We all lie, to ourselves and to others.  We are all thieves.  We may not take material things, but we steal time from our employers and families.  We steal other people’s pleasure in having a clean and sober family member, friend, or business associate.  We steal the time and resources of courts, social services, hospitals, insurance companies and law enforcement — things that are desperately needed by society to accomplish other purposes.  We steal the health of others by causing them stress, causing accidents, and taking up space in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms and other health facilities.

We also develop dysfunctional ways of dealing with other people, with stress, with personal problems, even efforts to enjoy ourselves.  Those of us who continue to function effectively in society still create our own little worlds of quiet chaos — otherwise, why would we be seeking recovery?

When we first get clean, the habits of addiction are still with us.  We have to unlearn them, and learn other ways of dealing with people, the world at large — and ourselves.  In some cases, we have to relearn skills that we’ve forgotten, or get up to date in our fields of expertise.  We have to clean up the wreckage we left behind, and reestablish ourselves in our families and society.  We have a lot to accomplish.

The Twelve Steps are a template — an agenda, if you will — for getting these things done.  They work exceptionally well, at least as well as any other programs of recovery, and better than the majority.  However, they were developed on the basis of face-to-face contact.  Some “solos” have managed to stay sober by letters and (now) email, but the great majority of successful recovery comes from the meeting halls where we interact with others who can guide us.

Sure, some of that can be done online.  This very article is one of the ways that can occur.  But online does not put us in the presence of others.  Online can’t hug.  Online can’t look at our face and tell that we’re having a crappy day, despite our protestations, and call us on it.  Online can’t give us unconditional love — because we need to see that in the face of another human being.  Online can’t tell when we’re full of b.s. — nor can we tell that about the people we interact with online. Online can’t go out for coffee and a chat, or to a picnic, or just be companionable.  We can’t call online at 3:00 AM, the midnight of the soul.  Online can't phone us to find out how we're doing if it hasn't seen us in awhile.  Nor can we do those things online for others.  In short, it’s a weak substitute for f-2-f meetings.

That’s not to say online meetings can’t be helpful, but in my opinion they should not be substituted for the real thing.  Alcoholics and other addicts need contact with people.  We avoided real interaction by keeping ourselves high and detached.  Now we need to do the reverse.  There are meetings for professionals, held privately, to avoid the issues of unethical media who no longer respect our anonymity as they once did.  A call to our local Intergroup office will probably turn up at least one in our area.

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.”  Sitting in front of a monitor, regardless of good intentions, is not being thorough.  This is not meant to take anything away from the good people on line, but merely to say that depending on them alone is likely to be a recipe for disaster.

Questions From Newcomers: What Should You Look For In A Sponsor

Original Draft of "How It Works"

There is a line in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that reads, “If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps.” It is accepted in the rooms of the 12-step fellowships that the way we achieve lasting sobriety is by making changes in our lives. The steps are the basis of those changes. They provide a framework for action that we take to begin to get our lives back on track and on the way to normal living. They are based on ideas that have been found to work – if we work at them.

In order to “work” the steps we need guidance, and that is the purpose of a sponsor. A sponsor's job is not to lead us around by the hand, or counsel us in our relationship problems, or lend us money, or provide transportation, or be our friend – although some sponsors do some of those things. Emphatically, it is not the job of a sponsor to tell us how to live our lives. The purpose of a sponsor is to guide us through the steps. Many of us continue to use our sponsors as sounding boards and develop lasting friendships after we complete the steps, but that is a bonus. If a sponsor has taken us through the 12 steps carefully and thoroughly, then he or she has completed the job. Anything else is secondary to that duty.

That said, the sensible thing for us to do is to choose a sponsor strictly on how carefully we believe they seem to have done the steps. We want sponsors who are clearly sober, who have obviously worked through most of their issues, who are living sober lives in the community, and who are generally the sorts of people that we would like to become.

That means that, among other things, we want sponsors who won't become distractions from our program. If we are male, we want male sponsors. If we are female, we want female sponsors. If we are gay, we carefully choose sponsors to whom we are not likely to become attracted, of whatever gender. Sponsors and sponsees work closely together, share confidences, and develop extremely close relationships within the context of the program. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of carrying those relationships too far. In that case, we no longer have a sponsor/sponsee relationship, regardless of how we may try to fool ourselves, we will be distracted from our program, and we are risking not only our sobriety but that of the other party as well.

Another common trap is to choose sponsors who are “right for us.” We are in no position to make those decisions. If we knew what was right for us, we wouldn't need meetings. My advice is to choose the person in the room who has a quiet, solid sort of sobriety, the person that the chair calls on when no one else wants to share, the person who talks about how he or she did it, not about how others should do it. The person who doesn't necessarily share all that much, but who invariably leaves us thinking “Yeah!”

Another indication of a good sponsor is to take a look at their sponsor, the one who will become our “grand-sponsor.” A string of two (or three) solid individuals who seem really to have it together will virtually guarantee not only that we will get a good sponsor but that we will have good resources to fall back on if needed.

Finally, remembering the reason for getting a sponsor to begin with, we want one who talks about the steps – about their understanding of them, what they have meant in their life, how they continue to incorporate those ideas into their daily living, and so forth. High-falutin' ideas about spirituality, or religion, or New Age ideas have nothing to do with sobriety. Spirituality is about being a good person and doing the next right thing. Religion and New Age ideas have no bearing on the steps, and should be pursued separately if one desires. It is easy to be swayed by big talk. Look for the person who lives the steps, and you won't go far wrong.

Sponsors and Sponsorship

In the early days of AA, the fellowship was really anonymous. The only way you even found out that there was such an organization was to have someone invite and escort you to a meeting. This person was your sponsor, and became responsible for showing you the ropes, making sure that you got to meetings, and so forth. Later on, after Bill Wilson wrote the Steps and they were adopted by AA, sponsors began guiding their “pigeons” (as newcomers were called back then) through the process that has since become pretty-much standard for all 12-Step groups.

Over time, the relationship of newcomers and sponsors has changed a bit, but the essential idea behind sponsorship has not. A sponsor is a person with substantial sobriety or clean time, who agrees to help a newcomer through the steps. And that is all a sponsor is, as far as the fellowships are concerned. He or she may become a friend and mentor in other respects, but the principal responsibility remains the same — to insure that the “sponsee” makes it through the first few months of sobriety with the skills to continue on the path to recovery. [Read more…]