âWhenever anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help I want the hand of AA always to be there and for that, I am responsible.â The words of AA founder Bill Wilson explaining the fundamental role of a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Sponsorship began when the program of AA began. Bill Wilson, hanging on to his sobriety by his fingernails, decided that he needed to talk to another alcoholic or he would begin drinking once more. He found that alcoholic in Dr. Bob, a seemingly hopeless alcoholic who had been trying, unsuccessfully, for years to stop drinking. Wilson explained his ideas about how to stop drinking and the program was born. From there Bill and Dr. Bob went out and found other alcoholics with whom they shared the principles and eventually the steps and by so doing they became the first sponsors in Alcoholics Anonymous.
I have been a sponsor for years now and I can tell you that I take that responsibility very seriously just as I take alcoholism very seriously. We are talking about life and death matters when we speak of sponsorship and alcoholism. When I agree to be someoneâs sponsor I am agreeing to help them combat a deadly disease and to help them find an answer and solution to a nightmare that has invaded every aspect of their life. In most cases I am dealing with a human being who has been broken down emotionally, physically and psychologically and they are asking me to help. If that is not a serious matter then I donât know what is.
Being a sponsor is, in fact, a life and death matter and it is a role that takes its toll on a sponsor emotionally. You see, more often than not, our sponsees will relapse and some will die upon relapsing and that, my friends, is frightening. On several occasions I have reached out a hand to help, had that hand grasped in a death grip, worked for months to pave a path of sobriety, only to have that person relapse and die.
On the other hand, there have been enough success stories to feed my soul for a lifetime, and knowing that there is the possibility of success is all it takes to continue reaching out.
So what, specifically, is the role of a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous?
In laymanâs terms the sponsor helps a struggling alcoholic to find the solution as explained in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. If you have read my other articles about alcoholism you will know that helping someone to stop drinking is only the first of many steps necessary to find happiness. The most difficult undertaking is teaching an alcoholic how to change their life AND change who and what they are so that they have no desire to ever drink again. Alcohol is only a symptom of a much bigger problem and that problem is the alcoholic. For years an alcoholic uses alcohol to hide from reality, to cope with the knowledge that they are unhappy with themselves. This underlying problem is what needs to be addressed once alcohol is out of their physical system and they are able to tackle the bigger issues.
A sponsor guides his or her sponsee through the steps and principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Those steps and principles are detailed in the Big Book; there is no reason for me to list them here; you can find them at http://www.aa.org/bigbookonline/en_tableofcnt.cfm and http://www.aa.org/1212/. In them you will find a way of life that has helped millions of suffering alcoholics over the years and they are the guide to live by in the Program.
A sponsor helps the sponsee to become part of the Fellowship of AA, encouraging the sponsee to attend meetings, become a part of the fellowship and to provide service to others. The sponsor is there always to answer questions and provide support while the sponsee learns to at first take baby steps in sobriety and eventually to take larger strides towards a personal freedom. The sponsor is a mentor, a friend and a sounding board, and a good one can make the difference between life and death; a bad one can also mean the difference between life and death. Although I have always said that drinking is a choice it is still crucial to have the kind of support a sponsor can give as an alcoholic makes their way through sobriety. We all need support in life; we all need to feel that we are understood and that we are not taking on this life by ourselves and a good sponsor provides that much-needed support.
Since a sponsor will be guiding a sponsee through the Twelve Steps, Twelve Principles and Twelve Traditions, it is strongly suggested that the sponsor practice those things in all their affairs. How can one properly teach that which they have no experience in? Furthermore, it is strongly suggested that the sponsor be a living example of those steps, principles and tradition. I have known sponsors who have not completed the Steps and yet attempted to teach those Steps to a newcomer. I have known sponsors who preached forgiveness and yet held resentments in their own life. Remember, a sponsor is supposed to be a living, walking, breathing example of the Program.
Nowhere is it written that a sponsor should be sober for a certain amount of time before becoming a sponsor but it is suggested that they have a solid foundation of their own before attempting to take on such responsibility. A year of quality sobriety is often mentioned as a good guide but it is completely arbitrary. In my time I have met many alcoholics with five, ten and fifteen years of sobriety who were not living the Program. On the other hand I have seen those who completely embraced the Program in six months. Again, quality of sobriety (not to be confused with length of sobriety) should be the determining factor.
It is strongly suggested that a sponsor only work with a sponsee of the same sex. Far too many complications are possible and in fact probable when a person is working with someone of the opposite sex. I have witnessed many a Program romance that ended disastrously and led to the relapse of sponsor and sponsee. It simply is not worth the risk despite the best of intentions. We should not go to AA meetings to find a date; thatâs what Match.com is for. Alcoholics Anonymous is for saving and restoring lives and although many consider a meeting of AA to be their own personal dating service that is not and never will be the purpose of this Program.
A sponsor is not a personal banker for the sponsee. We are not there to lend money nor are we there to pay off some bills until the newcomer gets back on their feet. I have had newcomers ask me for a loan and I have turned them down flat.
A sponsor is not a landlord. We are not there to provide housing for the homeless and we are not a food bank for the hungry. By extension we are not a rent-a-car service or a personal chauffeur. We are not marriage counselors or job providers and we most certainly are not physicians. We have no business dispensing wisdom about prescription drugs, divorce, taxes or the raising of children.
We have one job and one job only: to help a suffering alcoholic work the Program and learn to live a happy life without alcohol.
As I stated earlier, the job of sponsorship is one I take as seriously as life and death. If I do not have the time to properly devote my energies then I will decline the offer to be someoneâs sponsor. If I am not feeling secure because of my own emotional problems I will decline the offer.
If I feel that a sponsee if not serious about this business I will decline the offer. There are enough alcoholics out there who have been beaten down and are ready to do the necessary work, so why would I waste my time on someone who is not willing to treat this seriously? If that sounds harsh or cold then so be it, but I am being asked by someone to invest my emotions, heart and soul into changing their lives so the least I can expect is that they are willing to do the same. I have had far too many sponsees do a half-assed effort, relapse and die. When that happens a part of me suffers and today I choose to pick my sponsees very carefully. Just because someone asks for help does not mean they are serious about doing the work, so I interview beforehand to try and obtain an accurate reading on the seriousness of the sponsee. If, after that interview, they are satisfied with me and I with them, then we can begin to form a team to tackle the task at hand.
For those of you out there who are struggling with this disease I wish you happiness. The solution is out there waiting for you but you need to make up your mind how badly you want it. Millions in the world today were at one time hopeless but made the choice to find a better way. If you truly choose to find a better life and you want my help then reach out and I will grab you. As a recovering alcoholic it is my responsibility to do so.
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
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Timeflies Tuesday: Alcohol