Breaking up is hard to do. The old maxim doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships, either; it can be incredibly difficult to extricate yourself from any close personal relationship. This can be especially true if the person you’re severing ties with is someone you consider a mentor. And in many cases, that’s what a sponsor is. (For those not familiar with the lingo of 12-step programs, a sponsor is someone who has been through the 12 steps him or herself and volunteers to take a newcomer through them. Beyond that, individual relationships between sponsors can vary.) I have had two sponsors throughout the course of my seven years of sobriety, and I have had a starkly different relationship with each.
My first sponsor — I’ll call her Paula — was perfect for me when I was newly sober. She was bossy but kind, and she took me through the 12 steps over the course of a year. I needed direction, guidance and structure and Paula gave me exactly those things. We met weekly, I called her daily and she was a huge source of support and guidance for me during that first year.
Then something happened. Paula began getting upset with me for things I couldn’t understand. Things — and this part is crucial — that also didn’t make sense to those in my 12-step meeting who also had long-term sobriety. Often, when you are newly sober, what a sponsor asks you to do is not always clear, so it’s natural to sometimes question what their requests of you, such as asking, ‘Why do you want me to call you every day?’ ‘Why is it important to say I’m an alcoholic/addict at meetings? Why do I have to go to meetings, anyway?” Much of what becomes intuitive later in sobriety is confusing at first, and a good sponsor can help you understand the new waters in which you find yourself.
But sometimes a sponsor is wrong. In my case, Paula was struggling with her own issues, and she wasn’t in a place where she could be a good sponsor. This was made clear not just by her actions but also by the way other people in AA reacted when I told them about her comments and behavior. Through the support of others in the program I figured out how to talk to Paula.
I crafted a long email to Paula. I wish I could have done it face-to-face, but at that time Paula was prone to bursts of outrage and I didn’t feel comfortable putting myself in that position. I explained that I appreciated everything she had done for me, that I wouldn’t have gotten through this first year of my sobriety without her. Then I said that I thought it would be best for me to find another sponsor. Even though I didn’t feel like I had done anything to warrant the rage she exhibited, I framed the situation as one in which we mutually were not getting along. It would be best for both of us, I wrote, to work with other people.
Paula wasn’t happy. She called me ungrateful. She said that I was putting her sobriety at risk by doing this. (That’s a huge warning sign, by the way; a sponsor should never make a sponsee feel as though s/he is responsible for their sponsor’s sobriety.) After a week or so, however, I received an apology note from Paula, recognizing her behavior and wishing me the best in the future. She had some things she had to work out and she needed to take some time to work on herself. I still see her at meetings occasionally, and when I do we are always friendly. I have heard through the grapevine that she’s still struggling with some issues, but I hope that’s more rumor than truth.
I connected with my next (and current) sponsor six years ago the way that so many relationships happen — by word of mouth. A friend was constantly raving about how great her sponsor was, so I casually asked, “Is she taking any new sponsees?” It turns out this woman is one of those people who is capable of taking on 50 million sponsees and being a great sponsor to all of them. Don’t ask me how she does it. One significant different between my current sponsor and Paula: My current sponsor gives suggestions. Sometimes they are firm suggestions and sometimes they are casual, but she never demands I do anything. Sponsorship is a symbiotic relationship; if she’s going to be willing to share her wisdom with me, I have to be willing to follow her suggestions. Ultimately, however, my sobriety is my own responsibility.
Sponsorship is an important relationship in sobriety, but it’s not the only one, of course. Other people you meet at the meetings you attend — especially those with long-term sobriety (loosely defined as many years sober) — can offer suggestions and insight about maintaining your recovery, too. If you have a network of people with long-term sobriety around you the notion of switching sponsors, if you want to do that, isn’t so scary. I’ve heard people boast about how they’ve had the same sponsor for 30 years, and while that’s great, it can give the impression that success is measured by how long someone has been working with the same sponsor. You get to determine what successful sobriety means to you and that may or may not include having the same sponsor year after year.
Finding ‘The One’
If you‘re in a 12-step program and you don’t yet have a sponsor, the first advice I have to offer is this: Find one. While I can’t provide any hard evidence, I can say that anecdotally there’s a strong connection between how quickly someone gets a sponsor and how comfortable they are in their sobriety and in regularly attending AA meetings. (My own experience is only with Alcoholics Anonymous.) This is where a “temporary sponsor” can come in super handy. A temporary sponsor is someone you may or not want to be your sponsor for the long haul, but to whom you can be accountable while you’re figuring out your newly sober world.
While at first it may seem strange to ask someone to be your temporary sponsor (or your sponsor, for that matter) — and you do need to ask; people don’t necessarily volunteer to be a sponsor– — in the context of 12-step meetings there’s nothing unusual about this process. There is a lot of shit that seems weird at first (see the post on that here) and that’s okay; ask the people you meet about it and it’ll quickly seem a lot less weird. (And do keep in mind that anyone you ask has may decline to become your sponsor, for any reason, of course.)
How do you know if someone might be a good sponsor? Listen. I lovingly refer to 12-step meetings as a mixed bag of nuts. We’re all a little nutty, but some of us might be more to your taste than others. The best way to determine whom you might work well with is to listen when others share. If you hear someone you think sounds especially wise, funny, approachable or some combination of the above, go ahead and go up to him or her after the meeting. Maybe you’ll just end up saying hello, but maybe you’ll end up with a sponsor. (If you’re in AA and looking for a sponsor, this pamphlet from Alcoholics Anonymous can help explain a few things. And if you’re in a different 12-step program of which sponsorship is a part, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous and a number of others, you can likely find similar literature about your specific program.)
Finally, most people suggest finding a sponsor who is the same gender, but there’s no strict formula for that, either. This guideline is, at least in part, designed to decrease the possibility of sexual/romantic feelings between sponsor and sponsee. Therefore, if you’re attracted to the same gender, you might want to find a sponsor who’s not your sex.
There’s no formula for finding the perfect sponsor, just as there’s no formula for any other kind of relationship. As Robin Williams put it so well in “Good Will Hunting”: “She is not perfect. You are not perfect. The question is whether or not you are perfect for each other.”
Kate Shaw is a pseudonym.