by David S.
“Call If You Feel Like Drinking!”
When I first attempted to get sober, I thought I’d just be going to some group therapy at AA meetings a few times a week. That was my plan.
I got drunk over and over. Things got worse. I expected the meetings to take my compulsion to drink away, and they didn’t.
They said I might ought to get a “sponsor.” So, I did.
They said call him often. Call if I wanted to drink. So, I did.
I called and spilled my guts about my day. I called whenever I felt angry. I called any time I felt uncomfortable. All the time. ALL THE TIME.
Most of all, I called when I wanted to drink… Which was also all the time. I even called in the middle of the night. Repeatedly.
I called drunk, and I got drunk again, and again, and again. Things got really bad.
I had assumed bleeding all over another individual they called a “sponsor” would relieve my anxiety and I wouldn’t want to drink anymore. Same with the meetings. I vomited all my problems on these guys, and to my shock and disappointment…
Nothing changed. I stopped calling. I couldn’t see the point.
I continued to drink. I continued to be angry and afraid.
“Why won’t these people help me?” I blamed them. I continued to be a victim.
I repeated this pattern several times. I CONTINUED TO RELAPSE.
Beyond Human Aid
If you have assumed I did not have the “want to,” or the willpower, you are most incorrect.
I did what I thought I was supposed to do. It was what they told me to do, wasn’t it? Was I missing something? Isn’t group therapy the public impression of AA? Isn’t catharsis and letting it all out the point?
But they didn’t correct me, and in fact reinforced that perception. Nobody told me what I was doing, which was forming an emotional dependency on people, would be ineffective and actually harmful.
I acted the pitiful and broken man with gusto. I did it because I wanted to get well. I wanted to quit drinking. Save me! Save me! Save me!
But I knew it wasn’t working.
“Men have cried out to me in sincere and despairing appeal: Doctor, I cannot go on like this! I have everything to live for! I must stop but I cannot! You must help me! Faced with this problem, if the doctor is honest with himself, he must sometimes feel his own inadequacy. Although he gives all that is in him, it often is not enough. One feels that something more than human power is needed to produce the necessary psychic change.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, The Doctor’s Opinion xxix)
“Once more: The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 43)
Doctors are human beings.
Meetings are groups of other human beings.
Sponsors, no matter how knowledgeable, are human beings.
So, it is very clear that my faulty human dependence, my expectations for getting answers from other people, depending on them, was doomed. Pg. 43 very clearly states they are not the answers to my spiritual illness. They are not of themselves the solution.
More on that:
“When this sort of thinking is fully established in an individual with alcoholic tendencies, he has probably placed himself beyond human aid, and unless locked up, my die or go permanently insane.” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 24)
So, if I had continued to act on the misinformation that dependence on the meetings or my sponsor were my solution to alcoholism, what could I expect? To lose my freedom entirely, through commitment to an institution, through repeated imprisonment, or by being buried in the ground.
Those are not the outcomes I wanted, but I could easily see the writing on the wall after yet another trip to rehab.
“If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution. We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 25)
So, if spiritual help, a connection to a Higher Power, or a relationship with God is my only hope, how in the Hell do I do that?
The Advice I Wished I Had Gotten…
“Hi, we’re glad you’re here. Find a sponsor, work the Steps with all your heart, and start helping others. Find something greater than yourself. You’ll notice Him walking along with you any day now if you’re looking for Him.”
Sure it does. I had indeed been confused. I had been acting on a complete misconception before. But the last time, my sponsor cleared this up from our first conversation.
From the very start he told me what an alcoholic according to Alcoholics Anonymous was.
On a bumper sticker, it’s like this: I start drinking and I cannot stop. Even if I manage to stop briefly, I always find a sufficient reason, even in the face of dire consequences, to do it all over again. My pain demands relief and it will get it if I don’t treat it from the inside, and the cycle starts again and worsens. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Then, he laid out our relationship clearly.
He started by having me read the following:
“We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than 100 men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, Foreword to First Edition)
We talked about the possibility of being recovered. To be well and whole again, which was different from the impression I’d gotten of hiding in meetings for the rest of my life, whining about my feelings to strangers and to my sponsor on the phone every single day forever.
He told me that wasn’t what this was about. We can recover. Hiding is not the answer.
He then directed me to the second sentence and asked me what the most important word found in that passage was.
If you guessed “precisely,” you are correct.
He explained that this book, this instruction manual for how to recover, was a specific plan. It was a specific course of action that he had recovered as his sponsor had helped him follow exactly as written.
He’d be willing to share that with me. Exactly as written. We would be acting with urgency. Alcoholism and addiction do not wait. Everything we did would be following the directions, and when in doubt we would simply refer to the directions.
The directions were for developing a relationship with a Higher Power — God, if you will. I was really surprised it wasn’t actually about not drinking.
If I had other “needs” or “ideas,” he didn’t have any clue what to do with those, because there really was no negotiating with a numbered list of actions to be worked in order. He really had no intention of listening to my opinions on the matter. It was really simple, cut and dried, I’m on board or back in the deep and rough ocean to keep going under the waves.
Black and white. Follow the map. Or, keep trying it my way. And my way wasn’t working.
It became clear to me that this plan seemed to have more depth and weight than, “Go to meetings and bare your soul, then call your sponsor if you want to drink,” which had proven to fail me.
A Sponsor Explains the Directions and Offers Guidance in Working the Steps Based on their Knowledge of the Book and their Experiences from Recovery… In Order to Build a Relationship with a Higher Power.
That’s it. It’s pretty simple. It’s not about building a relationship with your sponsor.
That’s why sponsors aren’t paid. That’s why there are no degrees or licenses for this work.
Sponsors explain the directions. If they’re doing that job well, they do it as written.
Don’t Just Take My Word for It
I took the liberty of reaching out to a number of my fellow recovered alcoholics and addicts for their input on this topic. They have widely varying stories, assorted drugs of choice, and some are men and some are women. All were in rough condition when they came in, and for most, the attempt that got them clean and sober was not their first, but a few were lucky to be one and done.
Each one has worked to pass on this message of a recovered life possible through the 12 Steps, serving willingly and without any compensation as sponsors to other men and women.
Here is what the others have to say about sponsorship in their own words:
“In the beginning taking me through the book and giving me an adequate presentation of what the program is and what I’m supposed to do — how to be a good AA.”
“Someone to show me how to get what it is they have, which is why I chose them in the first place because I want what they have. So naturally she will guide me in the same way to help me get there. She makes suggestions to me, not demands, and if I am willing to work at it I can get what she has.”
“Things a sponsor is…a messenger of hope, a tour guide through the steps, a person who is willing to be brutally honest with you and hold you accountable for your nonsense. Someone who is actively working a healthy program and who has a firm grasp on their own truth.”
Here’s What They Say a Sponsor Is NOT
“Things a sponsor is not, God, your parent, your physician, your psychologist, a perfect shining example of humanity. I believe it is very important to not put your sponsor on a pedestal.”
“She is there to offer love, guidance, support, and to be one person in the world I know I can be open and honest about ANYTHING at all, free of judgement and without my having to worry it will go further than her. She is not there to be my best friend, but to help me achieve sobriety and the life God has for me and that I was meant to live all along. She is there to show me my part, and where I need to take responsibility for myself, even if I only own 1% and the other party owns 99%.”
“My sponsor is NOT my buddy, not my life coach, not my relationship expert, I don’t call him when I’m bored. He is the mirror I look into that won’t always tell me I look great. When I feel like things are too good he is there to level me out, he is the heroin to my spiritual speedball.”
So, Do I Call My Sponsor about Problems?
Yes, but it’s not the main point, and it’s probably not going to sound like what you’re expecting…
“My sponsor is Switzerland, he gives me an unbiased opinion. He’s like my father, tells me things I know I probably won’t like but I need to hear. Most of the time he lets me know my ideas are not the best.”
“Someone I’m accountable to, an objective viewpoint. That has spiritual consent to tell me I’m being an idiot.”
“I think it’s just a spiritual advisor who calls you out on your shit. I think people get it confused with being a counselor because, while yeah, we listen to what’s going on, but we show you where you may be in the wrong. My sponsor is just someone who listens to me for a bit and then tells me my part. It’s an accountabilabuddy.”
My Sponsor Said These Things to Me, and I Tell Every Guy I Sponsor:
I am not your mother.
I am not your life coach.
I am not really your friend.
And you don’t want me to be.
Why Isn’t a Sponsor Your New Best Friend?
Simply, so that they have no investment holding them back from telling you the unvarnished truth. No sweetner. No covering their own bets or advancing some personal agenda.
As I get into my 5th Step and explain my resentments, my sponsor needs to cut through my excuses and help me see that most of this is my own doing. I contribute to and exacerbate every one of the negative situations. I think I’m the victim, and my sponsor has to crush that tendency to blame others. I had to see my own part in making myself sick, and realize I must likewise do my part to get well.
When I get to my amends in Step 9, and I start making excuses why I don’t need to talk to a certain person, or why I don’t need to do it in person, my sponsor is there to shut down the excuses and to help me see that fear will get me drunk again.
In Steps 10 and 11, my sponsor continues to point out the return of certain character defects, which was a shock to me. My ego wasn’t allowing me to see that I might not be doing as sparkling a job as I wanted.
When my roommate relapsed, my sponsor did not listen to me cry and hold me. He lit my ass on fire about whether I was actively searching for people to help (Step 12). He, shall we kindly say, inspired me to get busy because my sobriety was on the line and self-pity was causing trouble again.
We need someone to tell us the truth.
It’s pretty clear that lying to ourselves and making bad decisions based on fear or selfishness is what alcoholics and addicts are best at. Sponsors let us know really clearly that we’re treading into dangerous waters. We’re much better off making decisions on truth and a clear perspective.
In a nutshell: If I’m full of crap, they have no reason not to tell me, and it is their job to do so. They aren’t overly concerned about damaging our fragile new friendship. That way, I get what I need — The TRUTH. No polish, no strings, not watered down.
We give our sponsors what is called “spiritual license.” They are there to help. They know better than we do, and they need to get through to us, whatever it takes. Sometimes that help is enjoyable, and sometimes it is not. That’s just the way it is.
I put myself out there to be changed. I am already in the fire, and put myself on the anvil. I am pounded into something better, stronger, and yet more beautiful.
Some things I’ve said as a sponsor, and some that were said to me:
“That sounds like dishonesty to me.”
“Wow. Where is the integrity in that?”
“There you go making assumptions again.”
“Your pride? Wait… What? What does this happening or not happening have to do with anybody but you? What about this isn’t just plain fear of not getting what you want? Plain. Old. Selfishness.”
“That’s about the worst idea short of buying a six pack.”
“My God… You are the worst Monday Morning Quarterback I have ever seen. Why the instant replay? Why do you keep sitting in regret and guilt?” (That one hurt, but he was right.)
Most of the time, sponsors are fair and kind. But, truth can sting a little, and if a new guy is not hearing me as the sponsor in a reasonable tone of voice, I will resort to stronger tactics. It’s not fun as a sponsor to have to say those things. We do it because we care. No addict or alcoholic in recovery would ever want another to go back out and die… But that’s always where we’re headed if we do not cut the crap and keep moving forward.
Sometimes my sponsor needs to ring my bell so I can hear the truth.
My sponsor is my corner man in this fight. He has to apply some Spiritual smelling salts between rounds to clear my thinking.
A strong sponsor is also willing to let you go if you just refuse to do the work or look at the truth. They cannot do the work for you. They cannot fix you. That is not what they do. That is between you and God. A sponsor just sets up an introduction, so to speak.
A Higher Power is the solution to alcoholism and addiction.
The Steps are how we can form a relationship with that Higher Power.
A sponsor helps us navigate the directions, and tries to keep us between the ditches that lie on either side of this narrow road to a recovered life.
And we give them permission to help us with that, whatever that takes.
“David S. is an alumnus of the SONTX Residential Program and served as a house manager. He is celebrating sobriety running the streets of Dallas and a program called “Back on my Feet.”