Ah yes, the sponsor. When I first attempted sobriety through a 12-Step program back in the 90s, a succession of serious-looking people in church basements were very insistent that I get a sponsor. Without one, I was told, I would surely relapse and die, or at the very least, not be able to advance to the higher levels of AA and earn a coveted year’s sobriety chip. So, after being turned down by the first three people I approached, (how’s that for a kick in the nuts?), a shady-looking dude in a tie-die and dark sunglasses grudgingly volunteered for the job. There were some requirements of course. First, I had to call every day at a certain time. Second, I always had to pick up the phone when he called, and third, I was expected to make time for social activities with him and his friends. Um, ok?
I discovered within a few days that I had made a colossal mistake. Rather than being a recovery companion, an elder brother steeped in the arcana of the 12 step process, my sponsor was a raving lunatic. Rather than work the steps, he would call me several times a day and try to get me to go to see live music, in bars, and got irritated when I said I didn’t think that was a good idea. “You’re isolating!” He would yell into the phone. Well no, I’d explain, I’ve only been sober for two weeks so I don’t think I should be going into…”Listen to me! I know what’s good for you TRUST ME!”. It was about a week later when he fired me as a sponsee, after I declined his request to go see his friend’s Grateful Dead cover band in some shady dive. Working the steps never even came up. I decided to wait on the sponsor thing until I made some friends at the meetings I was going to, but for some reason nobody wanted to talk to me. Maybe I was giving off a bad vibe, or maybe the meetings on the North Shore of Long Island were just full of cliquey assholes, I could never figure out which. Anyway, after my 90 in 90 I exited the program. Too uptight, to rigid, too freaky for me.
One of the big problems with sponsorship as its laid out in 12 step programs is the potential for abuse. I have come to discover that my experience with my erstwhile sponsor was not unique. Any time you put someone in a position of power over someone else, the possibility that they will use that power unwisely exists. This is especially true when the people acting as sponsors are untrained, unqualified, and probably suffering from their own unaddressed mental health issues. Let’s not even get into the “13th Step” issues, where male sponsors prey on female newcomers who are vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation. That is a big problem 12 step groups, whether it is acknowledged or not.
All that aside, I believe that some aspects of the sponsor model have value. Trying to navigate recovery alone is a challenge and one that typically leads to less desirable outcomes. I don’t believe, as many do, that it is impossible to maintain one’s sobriety without help from someone else, but I don’t think it’s particularly easy. At the end of the day, why make the journey harder than it needs to be?
Maybe the answer isn’t to look for a recovery mentor, (although that relationship has its place), but to seek out a recovery partner. Someone who has gone through the basic training in how to maintain sobriety but is willing to receive help as well as give it.
I like the analogy of the buddy system in scuba diving. In scuba, you never dive without a buddy. The expectation is that your buddy has the same basic level of training as you. He may have more training than you, or he may have less, but everyone who straps a tank on and jumps off a boat has had certain base level of training about what to do in an emergency. In a very real sense you are putting your life in your buddy’s hands. He is the one you turn to if things go south, and he in turn will come to you if he runs into a problem.
Applying the scuba analogy to the issue of sponsors makes sense to me. You find another recovering addict or alcoholic and help each other maintain sobriety. Let’s call it, “tandem sponsoring”. No power trips, no abusive relationships, just one addict helping another. My friend Nat and I have that relationship. If one of us is having a rough day or feels an urge, we reach out to one another. Send a text, make a call. We check in with each other on a daily basis and make sure everything is ok. It’s been working well for a year now and I have every reason to believe it will continue to work into the future.
So, how do you find your tandem sponsor? What do you look for? Where do you look? Stay tuned, I’ll cover all that in the next installment of Rev. Mike’s Words of Wisdom.