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Fraser Trevor Fraser Trevor Author
Title: What Sponsorship Is
Author: Fraser Trevor
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When you first started going to 12-step group meetings, you probably were grateful just to be among people who understood what you were g...
Cover of "Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story...
When you first started going to 12-step group meetings, you probably were grateful just to be among people who understood what you were going through. It was enough to know that you had somewhere to go where no one would judge you, and you could feel at ease listening to the experiences of others. But over time, and many months of successful recovery, you may begin to wonder about doing something yourself to help newcomers. If so, how to know when you are ready to be a sponsor is a primary question. Here are some answers that may help.

What Sponsorship Is
In the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous or A.A., the first and oldest of the 12-step organizations, the word “sponsor” wasn’t used. Bill W. and Dr.Bob, the two co-founders of A.A. just came together to discuss their efforts to stay sober. The Twelve Steps weren’t even written yet. But through the sharing of their experiences, both realized they were helped. They sought to help others in the same way.
The process of sponsorship is that the sponsor and the person sponsored meet as equals. In A.A., the sponsor is an alcoholic who has made some progress in his or her own recovery program and seeks to share that experience on an ongoing basis with another A.A. member who is trying to achieve or maintain sobriety through the A.A. 12-step program.
Although it’s unwritten and informal, sponsorship is a basic part of the A.A. 12-step approach.
How Sponsorship Benefits the Sponsor
Just as Bill W. and Dr. Bob discovered so long ago, sharing experiences with another alcoholic in recovery strengthens both individuals. It particularly strengthens the older (in terms of length of successful recovery) member’s sobriety, but it also strengthens the newcomer in that the sharing of experiences makes it easier to learn to live without alcohol.
In essence, sponsorship offers the sponsor the satisfaction of being able to help another human being struggling with recovery to navigate the rough patches. By assuming the responsibility of watching over someone other than him or herself, the sponsor gains more than words can describe. That’s what thousands of sponsors would tell you if you ask them why they bother to be a sponsor. Sure, there are difficult times for sponsors, just as there are for all members in 12-step groups. But the sponsor has chosen this path, accepted this responsibility, and with that comes the possibility that he or she can help guide another along the path to sobriety.
How to Know if You’re Ready
Are you ready to assume the responsibility that being a sponsor entails? According to long-time A.A. sponsors, the most successful sponsors are men and women who have been in the organization long enough to have a thorough understanding of the 12 steps and the suggested recovery program the steps encompass.
Generally speaking, the A.A. member who has enjoyed sobriety for many months or years is better equipped to handle sponsoring a newcomer than an individual who is only sober a short time. This is not always the case, since there are exceptions, but it is more likely to be true than not. So, how long you have been sober is one factor to take into consideration, but it isn’t the only one.
You also need to have a good capacity for understanding and patience. Listening to and supporting a newcomer is tough work. You should expect to be called upon at any hour of the day or night – and unless you are willing to be available to your sponsee when needed, perhaps you are not yet ready to be a sponsor. It takes a great deal of your time and effort to be a successful sponsor. Some members require more patience and understanding, and, therefore, more time than others.
But you still need to understand more about what you’ll be doing before you can really answer the question of whether you’re ready to be a sponsor.
Duties of a Sponsor
What exactly does a sponsor do? The simple answer is: whatever it takes to get a newcomer sober and help keep him that way. Of course, this does depend on the limits of your experience and knowledge, and it must be within reason, but that’s the gist of what a sponsor does.
More specifically, a sponsor:
• Leads by example and past drinking history what staying sober means in his (or her) life
• Encourages the newcomer to attend a variety of A.A. meetings – helps him to do so – and also encourages the newcomer to obtain a number of different interpretations and viewpoints of the A.A. program by going to different meetings
• Suggests the importance of keeping an open mind – particularly if the newcomer is unsure whether or not A.A. is right for them or even whether or not he or she is an alcoholic
• Will never take the newcomer’s inventory unless specifically asked
• Introduces the newcomer to other A.A. members, especially those who share the same interests or occupation
• Ensures the newcomer is aware of the A.A. literature, in particular the Big Book, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Grapevine, As Bill Sees It, Living Sober, and various other A.A. pamphlets
• Makes him or herself available whenever the newcomer has problems with sobriety
• Discusses with the newcomer the meaning of the 12 Steps as well as their importance
• Talks about the importance of the 12 Traditions
• Encourages the newcomer to join in activities with the A.A. group as soon as possible
• Never imposes his or her personal opinion or views on the newcomer — this includes religious views
• Doesn’t pretend to know all the answers or maintain a pretense of being always right
• Attempts to give the newcomer the scope of A.A. as well as beyond the group through literature about the Fellowship, the
worldwide A.A. organization, the service structure, and the Three Legacies
• Helps explain the A.A. program to the family members of the newcomer, if that will prove useful, and gives them information about Al-Anon Family Groups and Alateen (for younger family members of the alcoholic)
• Readily assists the newcomer to obtain any additional help – such as medical, vocational, or legal) – outside the scope of A.A., if it is needed
• Is honest and says he doesn’t know the answer, if that’s the case, and helps the newcomer find a good and reliable source for the information needed
• Encourages the newcomer to work with other alcoholics as soon as possible – but when the newcomer is ready. Often this means the sponsor taking the newcomer along on Twelfth Step calls
Throughout the interaction of the sponsor with the sponsee, it is important that the distinction be made that it is the A.A. recovery program that is at work. It is not the personality or position of the sponsor that is important. In this way, the newcomer learns to lean on the A.A. program of recovery and not the sponsor.
This makes it easier for a member to change sponsors, if needed, or to go to other A.A. groups in order to receive additional guidance. There is no personal hurt feelings or insult when the work is always about the A.A. recovery program.
Do You Need a Particular Style?
Often those who are interested in becoming a sponsor wonder if they need to adopt a particular style. The answer is that there’s no single style that works in all instances. Your approach will tend to vary depending on the needs of the individual you sponsor. In some cases, it may necessitate a brusque approach, whereas other times you’ll need incredible patience and understanding and need to go over things numerous times.
You may prefer a casual approach, allowing the newcomer to come to you with questions and proceed from there. You may decide a more structured approach is better, complete with a checklist that you keep for yourself so that you cover important points in an order you deem appropriate for the newcomer.
No matter which approach you start off with, it’s wise to note that sometimes an approach is successful and sometimes it fails. Of course, it’s up to you to determine how you’ll interact with your sponsee, but remember that flexibility is important. Similarly, try to utilize a number of approaches, depending on the needs of the individual and the circumstance, and don’t rely just on a single way of interacting.
What About Working with an Alcoholic’s Family?
Perhaps you don’t feel ready to be able to work with the alcoholic and his or her family at the same time. Maybe you will be better at this than you think, so don’t discount your readiness to be a sponsor just yet.
Part of working with the alcoholic’s family involves explaining the A.A. program of recovery. You’re familiar enough with that – and you’ll be explaining it to the newcomer anyway. So, this is just an extension of your audience. It may be helpful to remember that the family members are generally as much in the dark about how A.A. works as the newcomer.
Also keep in mind that it will be immensely helpful to your sponsee if you take the initiative to help the family members become more educated about the A.A. program of recovery, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and how the family can be supportive of their loved one in recovery. Millions of recovering alcoholics have said how much easier their lives were, how it was easier to go without drinking, when their families took an interest in A.A., read about the organization, participated in Al-Anon Family Groups and Alateen.
There are some points to keep first and foremost in your dealings with the family.
• The family can be told that the alcoholic needs understanding and some sympathy during the early days of recovery. But this does not mean babying the alcoholic or pampering him or her – simply because they’re living a life of sobriety for perhaps the first time in a very long time.
• It’s also important that the family knows they cannot treat the alcoholic as some kind of hero (or heroine) for not drinking.
• Let the family know it’s good to encourage the alcoholic in his or her recovery, but not to expect too much too soon.
• Family relationships may have deteriorated or damaged as a result of the alcoholism of their loved one. You as the sponsor are not a marriage counselor or family therapist. Don’t be drawn into such a role. It is, however, often the case that the alcoholism has been the major divisive force and once the alcoholic is actively trying to change his or her life and remain sober, things may begin to change in the family dynamic.
• Help family members learn more about Al-Anon Family Groups and Alateen. Help them to find meetings nearby. The Al-Anon program, while similar to A.A., is an entirely separate program. Its purpose is to help relatives of problem drinkers understand the illness of alcoholism and its effect on the family. In Alateen, which is a part of Al-Anon, teenagers who have a parent or parents who are alcoholic, come together to share their own experiences.
Final Words of Caution
Remember that being too firm with a newcomer may frighten the individual away from A.A. Still, it’s necessary to be consistent about the principles and steps that are integral to the A.A. program of recovery. The program is based upon these principles and steps and for a newcomer to disregard them is disheartening at best, and may prove to be a prelude to relapse. Temper firmness with gentleness, and monitor the situation to ensure that the work of the program is always first and foremost. In other words, balance firmness with sympathy and understanding.
It’s also recommended that sponsors avoid being overprotective of the newcomer. To do so risks the newcomer becoming dependant upon the sponsor – and that’s certainly not the objective. The newcomer should depend on the A.A. program, not any particular individual. Ultimately, the sponsor wants the newcomer to be able to stand on his or her own and not be propped up by the sponsor. So, the sooner the newcomer is able to accept responsibility and actively work the 12-steps, the more likely that he or she will gain strength in recovery.
If you adopt a more casual approach with your sponsee, be careful not to be too casual. Some alcoholics have said that they stopped going to A.A. because they felt their sponsor allowed them to drift away. Not calling between meetings to check on how the sponsee is doing is one example of being perhaps too casual. This doesn’t mean you have to call every day without fail, but checking in is always a caring and responsible way of helping your sponsee progress in recovery.
Finally, sponsors should be the same sex as the newcomer. This appears to be the one universal rule in the A.A. organization.
Take Your Time to Decide if You’re Ready
In the end, how to know when you’re ready to be a sponsor is something that you will arrive at after careful consideration. Most sponsors will tell you that you will know it when you are ready. When that time comes – and don’t be in a rush for it to be – take the next step and begin helping another alcoholic find their path toward recovery using the principles and steps of the A.A. recovery program.
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