We forget that ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ wasn’t always about meetings. It began between individuals, strangers who realized they understood one another better than wives, doctors, or clergymen could. Sponsorship plays a vital role in the AA paradigm and continues the tradition of one alcoholic sharing his story with another.
Sponsorship – having a sponsor, being a sponsor – is also one of the best shots you have at getting better.
Many people tell stories of earlier attempts at sobriety, with and without AA. For months, in and out, they lingered at the back of the meeting without ever really talking to anyone; without, when talked to, taking the leap and asking for help.
Most of those stories are about relapsing and struggling until finding a sponsor.
I was lucky. I did that bit, hung out in the back of the room with my head down, listened to these alcoholics talk, and walking as fast as I could to a bar afterward. For a few weeks I did that, go to a meeting, end up at the bar. Go to a meeting, stop at the liqour store. But at one of those meetings I got up the gumption to raise my hand as a newcomer. The man behind me leaned forward and patted my shoulder, said it’d be alright. That everything would be alright. After the meeting, this man shook my hand and talked at me. I was in the awful wasteland between a hangover and the drunk before it. The man shuffled me over to a woman putting on her coat. Sarah, this is Karin. Karin, this is Sarah.
And then I had a sponsor.
I was lucky. I don’t know that I would have had the courage to ask anyone, and if I had I would have been ruthless in my choice. Must be smart, not to god-y, not too into this touchy feely stuff. My damned opinions would have gotten in the way of my getting help.
I do not think I could have got sober without her. When I had 90 days, I moved halfway across the continent to dry out, take help from family, give up my life in Brooklyn. I hadn’t been out of the car 20 minutes before I’d found a meeting, and within days I’d asked a woman to be my new sponsor. I was smarter at 90 days. Smart enough to know how very sick and frail I was. Smart enough to know it was other people who’d gotten me sober at all. Alcoholics got me.
And I knew, at 90 days, that no body but alcoholics could.
Why Get A sponser
A sponsor will probably be your first and most personal step toward the millions of other alcoholics out there, and, truth be told, toward normal people, too. A sponsor will be able to tell you her story, what AA is, where meetings are, and what you can expect. More importantly, your sponsor will listen to you. She’ll listen to you talk about what alcohol has done to and for you, what it has cost, and why you’re trying to quit. This will probably be the first time you’ve been able to speak about your behavior and feelings without the need to hold back. Probably the first time you won’t be judged.
Listening to other alcoholics in meetings, or reading about the disease, or going through treatment will probably strike you with the unsettling and revolutionary thought that there are people like you. People who have thought as you think, who’ve done the same things you’ve done.
Asking someone to be your sponsor, or taking someone up on it when they offer, is making a commitment. Sometimes that commitment to someone else is enough to get you to the next meeting.
Your sponsor will help you with the tremendous personal overhaul that getting sober is. There is something of a mentor relationship involved, in that your sponsor should walk you through the steps or help you figure out what other people have done. But a sponsor isn’t an authority figure you need to be accountable to or struggle with, a guide through any secret society traditions, or a jesus-christ in street clothes come to be your savior. She’s just an alcoholic. All she really does is tell you what it’s been like for her.
But that’s exactly what you need.
Who should you ask?
Typically, you should look for somebody who seems to have a recovery you want. People often ask folks with similar backgrounds, drinking histories, or religious bent to be their sponsor.
The point is asking for, and recieving, help. The point is that you’re willing to listen, follow direction, allow someone else to tell you what might be the best thing to do. Alcoholics are not very good at this at all, which is why we need it. Being willing to listen, and being willing to try, is the only thing you have to do for it to work.
My first sponsor was very ‘by the book’ and very religious. Catholic. She’d been raised that way and never really lost her faith in God, just kind of lost her attention span and practice along the way. The Higher Power language made sense to her, and felt like coming home.
I struggled with that. But I did everything she suggested. And I got better.
My second sponsor seemed in many ways her polar opposite; she was probably agnostic, but you’d really have to push to get her to even say that. Her style had much more to do with following my lead, asking what I needed, than the first.
There’s a temptation to think that your sponsor has to be the ‘right’ person. Maybe, once you get past early recovery, it will be important for you to have a sponsor who shares your values or lifestyle or station in life. But when you are struggling to get a few days strung together, it really does not matter.
Remember that your sponsor isn’t the only alcoholic out there; you’ll be meeting hundreds of people, some you’re more comfortable with than others.
Why Should anybody help you (why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?…)
By the time I walked into an AA meeting, I had burned a lot of bridges. Not very many people wanted me any more. There wasn’t anywhere I could go: churches wouldn’t help (I’d tried), therapy didn’t work (ditto), and friends and family had just had enough.
Alcoholics, though, wanted me. They wanted me in a way that was open and simple and absolutely strange to me at that point. I didn’t believe I could get sober, but they did. Alcoholics carried me; they had hope when I was hopeless; they loved me until I was healthy enough to start loving myself.
That is the heart of the AA paradigm; alcoholics can help other alcoholics. Helping other alcoholics will get you sober when no threats or jail time or lost job or sick body is able to do it. Why are you doing this? I asked my first sponsor, I don’t know how many times. She’d call to see how I was feeling out of the blue. She bought me endless cups of coffee. She picked me up for meetings, and if she couldn’t she found others who could. She listened to me sob and held my hand when I just couldn’t talk. I slept on her couch when I was afraid to be alone, when I just couldn’t trust myself.
I need to do this so I don’t die, she’d said. Other times she shrugged and said that’s how we do it. It is hard to recieve that kind of help – the out of the blue grace you know you don’t deserve – especially when you’re at your lowest and most self-loathing.
But if you take it, your life becomes less loathsome. Later, when you see someone else walk in the door bleary and pale and terrified, you’ll realize you’re doing better. You’ll realize you might have something that guy needs. Give him coffee, give him your number.
He might make it. He may not. I’ve seen both, as a sponsor myself. Witnessing someone go from a miserable cowering mess to a dignified and strong human being fires my own strength. And watching an empty chair, wondering if she’ll come back, reminds me how desperately I need to be in the chair myself.