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.

A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step 9

Sunrise Detox Photo

This is the ninth in a series of posts in which we hope to acquaint our readers with some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend. There are a variety of other programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.

Step 9 reads: Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

The principle behind Step 9 is Justice.

Step 9 is scary; there’s no getting around it. The idea of confronting someone and trying to say and do things to right a wrong that may have had years to fester is downright terrifying. But so was the idea of quitting alcohol and other drugs, and we managed that. The Ninth Step is our last big hurdle. The steps that come after are the maintenance steps, the ones that keep us honest. Step 9 is the one that makes us honest.

In combination with Step 8, Nine requires scrupulous self-honesty. When we make amends, we do not make excuses. We are telling the other person that we did wrong, we know we did wrong, and that we are willing to do what we can to right the wrong. Period. We don’t say, “I did it because….” We say, “I did it, I’m sorry, and here’s what I’m going to do to try to make it up to you.”

During Step 9 we stay in close communication with our sponsor.  We need to be careful that we don’t do stupid things with the mistaken notion that they have to be done, or that they are the only way to handle a situation. We don’t approach someone who has been happily married for thirty years and apologize for an affair we had with their spouse. That doesn’t heal, it hurts. Equally, we needn’t do things that would harm us, such as confess to serious crimes. In such cases, we proceed carefully. It may be necessary to make amends in such a way that we satisfy our own conscience without injuring ourselves. “Except when to do so would injure them or others” includes us. 

Amends can include many things: money or other things stolen, loans not repaid, time stolen from employers, and other material things. But the most important are the personal ones: reputations damaged by lies, date rape, family obligations not met, associates and family embarrassed, people let down, and — especially in the case of children — promises unkept. In many cases, we will not be able to right the wrong, but we at least admit to it and make it clear that we regret it, without excuses. We don’t rush. It has been a long time, and if we take a few months to get it right, it’s just fine. We need to get these things straight in our own head before we attempt to speak of them to others.

More often than not, folks will accept our amends with open arms. They may tell us to forget it. They may tell us that they didn’t even remember it. They may tell us that our sobriety is enough payback (not an uncommon reaction). Occasionally — rarely — the people whom we approach will not accept our amends. We express our regret, let them have their say, and then do what we can. If we are rejected, that is an expression of the other person’s anger and resentment. It is not about us, and it is none of our business. We’ve done what we could.

Sometimes we find that we need to make amends to people who are no longer available. We may not know their whereabouts, they may be dead, or they may simply refuse to see us. If that is the case, we don’t simply blow off the obligation. We do something concrete, such as a donation to a charity, that will help heal our own hearts. We do that because, in the final analysis, that’s what the Ninth Step is about: it is about us, about knowing that, finally, we did the right thing. That we’re okay.

It is the most freeing of the steps, and our biggest step into our new life.

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.

Addicts Need To Clean Out The Broom Closet

Q. In the past I stayed sober, but didn’t really feel it because I didn’t work the steps. Every time I try to start them, I give up. I think I am scared to do the actual step work because I hate bringing up my past. It causes resentments and depression all over again.

Imagine that we have a dirty kitchen. We sweep everything up, mop up the messes, and throw everything into the broom closet. We throw the garbage in there, too. Eventually we’re going to have to go in and clean out that closet. It’s a nasty job, but deodorant sprays can only do so much.

You can probably see where we’re going here. An addict’s head is the same way. We stuff all the nasty stuff and try to cover up the stink with alcohol and other drugs, but it gets worse and worse. When we try to do without the “deodorant,” we discover that it doesn’t work very well for us. At that point we can do one of two things: get high again (which hasn’t been working for us either) or go in and clean out the closet. It’s a nasty job, but we if we have help, and if we do a good job, it isn’t long until the kitchen is liveable again.

Most of us can relate to where you’re coming from. For just about any alcoholic or addict, looking at the past can be pretty scary. But if we never open the closet and look inside, how are we going to get rid of all the trash? It's impossible to make our past go away. We have only two options, deal with it, or turn our brains off again. There is no third way.

The 4th and 5th steps come where they are for a reason. They’re preceded by admitting that we’re powerless, that with help we can overcome the old obstacles, and becoming willing “to turn our lives over the the care of God as we understood him.” Whether or not we believe in god, we have to have that willingness. If we don’t, then we aren’t ready to do a 4th step, let alone a 5th.

The thing is, we don’t have to do it perfectly! We do the best we can. Maybe we’re not able to do a fearless inventory, but perhaps we can be a little bit fearless. The same is true of the 5th step. We can trust a little, and share what we’re able. The important part of that step is admitting to ourselves the exact nature of our wrongs, anyway, not someone else’s wrongs. If we were abused, were an abuser — no matter what our secrets are, it is always going to feel better to get them out and tell someone about them. That closet, remember?

Another thing: anyone who has been around the rooms for any length of time has heard things that would likely curl a newcomer's hair (and if our sponsor hasn’t been around for a while, we can find an old-timer to help us with the 4th and 5th — it’s allowed). The chances are pretty good that whoever we choose will have similar stories of their own. Most of us aren’t all that different. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. We can always go back and repeat the step later — with a little more trust, and a little more fearless.

The important thing is to do the best we’re able — to get a start.  

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.

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.