"A sponsor can help us achieve a richer, deeper, more enjoyable recovery than we are likely to find on our own."

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Episode 134 -- July 26, 2021

Twelve Step Tutorial: What a Sponsor Does

Remember walking into a Twelve Step meeting brand new and wondering how it works? All the new language and ideas and people can make a person feel like they're entering a new club without knowing the rules of membership. I'm supposed to find a sponsor? Who's that? What do they do? WHY?

In his book Twelve Step Sponsorship: How It Works, author and sponsor Hamilton B. lets us in on some of the need-to-know information about what can seem like a mysterious part of the program. In this excerpt he offers a few basics about how sponsorship works, what a sponsor is for, and how this unique relationship helps newcomers to recovery find help and hope.

Before we were in recovery, our addictions benefited from our isolation. Now we have the chance to be part of at least one relationship that's dedicated to supporting us as we pursue recovery and rebuild our lives. We don't have to do this alone.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

What a Sponsor Does
Alcoholics Anonymous defines sponsorship in this way: "An alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through A.A." Every sponsor is different, just as each sponsee is different, but certain activities, responsibilities, and obligations are common in sponsor/sponsee relationships. Some of the primary ways in which a sponsor shares his or her experience, strength, and hope to help a sponsee are as follows.

A sponsor helps us work the Twelve Steps by providing explanation, guidance, and encouragement.
Helping a sponsee work the Steps is a sponsor's most important function. The Twelve Steps are the foundation of AA and other Twelve Step recovery programs. The Steps require us to take action, but they were not meant to be worked alone. In fact, we cannot work them alone if we follow the way the AA Big Book suggests that we work them. The meaning of the Steps and how they are applied to life require explanation and interaction. A sponsor can help us translate the general principles of the Steps (a set of ideas) into the specific activities of our lives (our behavior).

A sponsor can provide some temporary discipline and motivation as well as the ongoing encouragement that we may need to work the Steps. There are times that call for "tough love" in sponsorship. Our sponsors can help us resist looking for an easier, softer way than working the Twelve Steps and applying their principles in our lives. They can confront us on our procrastination and on our unwillingness, when necessary, and help us stay focused on what's important—Fellowship principles and the work of the Steps.

A sponsor helps us get established quickly in our Fellowship by explaining basic concepts and terminology and by introducing us to other members.
A Twelve Step group's unfamiliar language, customs, and ideas can be confusing to newcomers ("Turn it over," "Ninety in ninety," "Easy does it," and "Keep it simple," for example). A sponsor can guide us through this confusion by explaining the Fellowship's customs, concepts, and terms. By teaching us the language of recovery, our sponsor can help us understand the program more quickly and help us feel part of it sooner.

A sponsor is a safe person whom we can learn to trust.
Most of us have a lot of fear, many questions, and more than a few secrets when we come into recovery. In order to get better, we need to share our fears and our secrets with someone else and find the answers to our questions. Our sponsor is the person in our Fellowship who feels the safest and is best suited to help us do that. Sponsorship creates a safe environment in which we can expose a little bit of who we are. Addiction is a disease of isolation and loneliness. Having one person whom we can trust and with whom we can share our feelings and fears helps reduce our loneliness and isolation. A sponsor provides a safe place for us to be honest about ourselves and to discover the rewards of being open with another person. As the AA Twelve and Twelve says, "We don't have to be alone anymore."

A sponsor can answer the many questions that we have as newcomers or develop as "mid-timers."
As newcomers to a Twelve Step program, we can ask our sponsor "dumb" questions, "ridiculous" questions, terrifying questions. Our sponsors can provide one-on-one answers to satisfy our curi­osity, increase our understanding, and reduce our fears. They can do the same even after we've been in recovery a long time, because as we grow in recovery, our questions don't end. We have new experiences, face new challenges, and develop greater insights that lead us again to our sponsors for their experience, strength, and hope. Our sponsors are deep reservoirs of practiced Twelve Step knowledge.

A sponsor can monitor our progress, confront us when it is appropriate, and generally help us stay on the recovery path.
Our sponsor is in a unique position to keep track of our progress in recovery. He or she can often detect the warning signs of a slip even before we can. When we are on a "dry drunk" or are actively moving away from the program, a sponsor's intervention can often bring us back.

Most of us need to be confronted now and then on the kind of negative behavior that brought us to recovery in the first place. How else are we going to change? But with our sponsor, the confrontation is not an attack. A sponsor confronts our behavior, not our being, and he or she does it with compassion. Sponsors can point out our inappropriate behavior and how it hurts us without making the confrontation a hostile act. They can do it because of their love and acceptance of us, and because of our willingness to trust them. Sponsors can confront us on inappropriate behavior as no one else can.

A sponsor reminds us to apply Twelve Step principles in our lives.
The Twelve Steps offer a "design for living" that means much more than not having a drink or not using (although not having a drink or not using is the basis of everything else that our Twelve Step program gives us). Our new way of life in recovery requires us to change some of our old attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, and behavior by applying these Steps and program principles to our lives. Because we are trying to learn to use new tools for living, we need someone to remind us to use those tools and to help us figure out how to use them. A sponsor can do that because he or she knows both us and the tools well.

A sponsor models the Twelve Step program of recovery.
There is a Twelve Step saying that "We have to walk the talk" to stay sober. It is not enough to theorize about recovery; we have to live it. Understanding what a Step means is only half of it. The other half is applying it. A good sponsor sets an example for us by showing us how to use Twelve Step principles to build a rewarding, sober life. By modeling the principles of the program, a sponsor becomes a powerful teacher. With such a sponsor, we can learn by doing as well as by example.

Our sponsor is available in times of crisis.
Especially as newcomers to recovery, we face fears, crises, and new circumstances that challenge us. We may suddenly want to drink or use. Or we want to know how to handle an unexpected situation. We may just need to talk. With a sponsor, we have someone we can turn to. We have someone who knows and cares about us who is available in times of crisis. (Even without a sponsor or when our sponsor cannot be reached, we can always turn to someone else in the program.)

A sponsor provides practice in building relationships.
Our relationship with our sponsor can serve as a model for other relationships. We can practice expressing our feelings, revealing our fears, and discussing our expectations with another person. We can also practice admitting when we are wrong, making amends, and being honest. We can learn to trust and to ask for help and to think about someone other than ourselves. What we learn with our sponsor, we can then apply to other people in our lives.

A sponsor can help us achieve a richer, deeper, more enjoyable recovery than we are likely to find on our own. In essence, with our sponsors and others in the program we can learn to experience and express love and to feel loved in return. Finally, we will come to love ourselves.

© 1996 by Hamilton B.
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