We Are Not Saints — Dysfunction In Recovery Groups

We encounter dysfunction in recovery groups, as we will in any organization of whatever purpose. Because this is sometimes used as an excuse not to participate, we’d like to discuss some of them here.

We need to remember, first of all, that people at AA, NA and other recovery-oriented meetings are not usually there because they are well. They are there to learn skills that will enable them to live without engaging in harmful behavior. The emphasis is on learn. Not everyone learns quickly; some resist, and don't learn much. Some may use their presence in the fellowship to convince themselves that they are okay, and that they have only one problem to address. Unfortunately, some of their “outside issues” have the potential to cause problems within the group.

There are people who may befriend newcomers in order to take advantage of their vulnerability in various ways. Some see the fellowships as a social club, and make no effort to change. (Those folks don’t usually last long.) There are people with control issues who keep running groups when they have many years in recovery, unwilling to pass the baton to younger leaders and support them while remaining out of the spotlight. There are those who are merely annoying — who share frequently and long, and repeat mostly the same things every time. Some folks love to quote the literature but share nothing personal, leaving us feeling preached at, rather than shared with. As the saying goes, “Some are sicker than others.”

I could go on, but that’s not really the point I want to make. My point is this: we gain from our recovery programs according to the effort we put into them, and part of that effort is taking a good look at others and deciding if we really want what they have. We need to look for people who seem as though they are living stable lives, and who behave as though they actually have something to offer besides flash and big talk.

If dysfunction in recovery meetings is really the reason we’re turned off, the remedy is simple: find another meeting. If there is no other meeting, we need to decide if we really want what the fellowship can give us. If so, we need to tuck it up and attend the the annoying meetings anyway, taking the good stuff away with us and leaving the b.s. in the parking lot.

Recovery is a life or death issue. Alcohol and other drugs kill people. If we don’t want to be part of that group, we need to work at becoming part of a different kind. Just as with any other collection of human beings, there will be jerks. But there will also be folks who are genuinely helpful, and — on extremely rare occasions — we may even run across a saint.

How do you stay clean and sober after treatment?

Don’t use; go to meetings; get a sponsor; work the steps: These are the basics of recovery in the 12-step programs. If, by “don’t use,” we include all variations of addictive behaviors, and if we broaden our definitions to include other successful recovery programs and their processes, these are the basics of true recovery. I’m writing about 12-step programs specifically, because they are what I know best and they are the path that we recommend at Sunrise.  Nonetheless, the same principles apply in one way or another to all recovery programs.

Abstinence, of course, is essential. We don’t get over behavior or physical addiction by keeping the taste of it fresh in our minds. Drugs (including alcohol) require abstinence to allow our brains’ chemistry to begin to normalize, and our heads to clear so that we can begin to change our ways of thinking and living without interference. As long as we are distracted by the pleasurable — or at least familiar — sensations generated by our addictions, we aren’t going to get very far. All creatures tend to stick with the familiar — a concept known as homeostasis — unless jolted out of their ruts by some sort of severe discomfort. Crawling back into the same ruts is not the answer.

Going to meetings is simply the logical thing to do. Most of the time our families haven't a clue about where we're coming from. Even if some of them do, it’s hard to take guidance from people that close, and it's nearly impossible for them to look at situations with the necessary detachment to allow them to guide us effectively. If they are that good at guidance, and we were that willing to listen to them, why do we need help?

Meetings, on the other hand, give us contact with people who know how we feel and how to start feeling better, since they have been down the same path and had to make the same sorts of changes in order to salvage their own lives. Unlike family, they are not the people who wired our buttons, and they are far more likely to be able to look at us and our difficulties with a clear head.

The steps are simply the process by which we slowly gather the fragments of our emotional and social selves back together so that we can function effectively in our new lives. There is nothing mystical about them. They are simply applied psychology, and the reason so many counselors and physicians recommend them is because they are known to work when people are serious about them. When you get right down to it, they’re about as mystical as hoeing weeds out of a garden. Romanticize the process of gardening though we may, it’s still a lot of hard work to get a decent crop.

Sponsors are the interface between recovering people and the steps. The purpose of a sponsor is to guide us through the steps and support us during the journey. They are not shrinks, accountants, consciences, bosses or experts. They are not there to drive us to meetings, loan us money, or mediate our domestic strife. They are simply people who have successfully completed the steps and are able to explain them to someone else.

Most emphatically, they are not our new best friends. While we should be able to get long with them, it isn’t necessary to even like them. What we must do is respect what they have accomplished, and desire to accomplish the same things. That’s why it’s necessary to watch folks for a while before we decide to ask them to sponsor us. The most unsatisfactory experience I ever had with a sponsor was several years into sobriety when I asked for some help without peering beneath the surface. As it turned out, the reason I was attracted to that person was because we were too much alike — he had some of the same problems I did. (Remember, we’re attracted back to the familiar.) It didn’t work out.

Watch. Look. Listen. When we find someone of whom we can say, “That is the one I can trust enough to follow down some rough roads,” we are on the way to choosing the right sponsor.

Who said recovery was complicated? It’s a lot of work, but it’s really pretty simple. We may need additional help beyond our 12-step programs, but physicians, counselors and medication are not the final answer. They are only for the purpose of dealing with specifics. When we decide to redesign our lives, we need the long-term support of folks who understand us — and our recovery.

At least that’s how I and most of my friends did it. I can only speak of what I know.

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?


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.