By Barry Doughty, ICADC, Clinical Therapist for Oxford Treatment Center
Sponsorship is the heartbeat of an AA/NA fellowship. Just like your body can’t survive without the heart, the program doesn’t work without sponsorship.
Having a sponsor is having a sounding board. Reality still gets distorted no matter how long we’ve been clean. That’s how the disease of addiction works. It’s always trying to trip us and get us away from the very thing that saves our lives — the meetings, the stepwork, volunteer work, etc. We need someone else who can help us so that we don’t limit ourselves to our own thoughts. Addiction will have you living in a fantasy land even if you’re clean, thinking you’re living in happily-ever-after recovery land — and that’s not reality.
A sponsor is a guide through the steps. You need their experience working the steps. It’s a 12-step program, and if you’re coming to the meetings but not working the steps, you’re not getting the full benefit. Through working the steps with your sponsor, you start practicing the principles embedded in the program: honesty, openness, willingness, surrender, faith, hope, trust, integrity, courage, etc.
Sponsorship helps bring about freedom, and it’s because we work steps.
“Sponsorship is a two-way street; it helps the sponsor and the sponsoree. One may have more experience living life without using drugs or alcohol, but they both benefit from the experience.”
How to get a sponsor
You’re not going to pick up a sponsor at the laundromat or the supermarket. You have to go to the meetings. I don’t want to hear that you don’t have time to go to meetings. I just did 157 meetings in 100 days. That’s being more than nine years clean, while having a full-time career and being a full-time college student.
Once you start going to meetings, what you’re looking for in a sponsor is someone who is there on a regular basis, someone whose actions match their words, and someone who is carrying the message of recovery. Look for someone who is solution based — not living in the problem, but seeking the solution. Then approach that person and ask them. Until you find that person, it’s the group’s responsibility to sponsor newcomers.
“Look for someone who is solution based — not living in the problem, but seeking the solution…”
What if the sponsor I choose says no?
The number one reason addicts don’t get a sponsor is the fear of rejection. I was terrified to get my first sponsor, and I didn’t get one until I was forced to. When I finally got the courage to ask someone if he would be my sponsor, the man said, “It would be an honor to sponsor you.” It was exactly the opposite of what my disease was telling me.
The other two reasons addicts won’t get a sponsor is because of our ego and our pride — both of which will kill us. You think you’re smarter than everybody else and no one could possibly help you. Just about the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do is to ask another man for help. But it is vital, and it is what will save us.
How does the sponsor relationship develop?
For most addicts, sponsorship is the first intimate contact with another human being — not in a sexual way, but in a relational way. When you live like you do for so long, and you’re the center of your own universe, it’s hard to know how to relate to other people.
My first sponsor told me to call him every day. I would call and say, “Hey…” and there would be silence on the phone. He would do the talking. He said call me tomorrow, and I would call and the same thing would happen. But over time it grew, and I began getting comfortable talking to him about things. Having a sponsor teaches you how to build and retain relationships with other human beings.
It’s going to be a learning experience. It might not work out. You might find that the sponsor’s life is so full and they don’t have a lot of time. That’s why it’s so important to have a broad recovery network, beyond your sponsor.
What if my sponsor relapses?
Then it’s time to get another one. Having to start over with another sponsor is not convenient. But neither is losing your life to addiction — and that’s what’s at stake.
My second sponsor died at the age of 47 of a heart attack. He died clean, two weeks after earning his 29-year medallion. But I knew that I had to get another one. It wasn’t even a question. I had to do that immediately, because I’m responsible for my recovery.
I asked his sponsor, and he took me on. I don’t know what it’s like to be without one. If something were to happen to him today, I’ve got someone else in mind. None of us are here forever.
Sponsorship is survival
Sponsorship is a lifeline. A sponsor can throw you a life ring when you’re about to drown — and help pull you up if you do go under.
Without sponsorship we die. We limit ourselves and miss out on the rewards that the program has to offer. So go all-in. Pursue your recovery with the same focus you once used to pursue your active addiction. You’ll find recovery works the same way: Once you taste a little bit, you’ll want more and more.
“Gather your courage and seek out a sponsor to walk with you along the road of recovery. Their perspective will help you see your way into a clean life and experience the freedom it holds for you.”
Download AA’s brochure “Questions & Answers on Sponsorship” (PDF)
Barry Doughty, ICADC, works with patients as a Clinical Therapist for Oxford Treatment Center. His experience in the addiction field over the past seven years includes working as an aftercare/outreach counselor with direct services, including group and individual counseling as well as teaching addiction education. An Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, he specializes in motivational interviewing and works to facilitate change that is patient-centered. At Oxford Treatment Center, he also helps facilitate family groups in the Intensive Family Therapy Program.