Sponsorship Goes Both Ways – May 1998 Grapevine Article AA General Services Office

A.A.’s program of recovery is spiritual, but the hands-on action of two drunks – one sober, the other new or returning from a slip-helping each other is what glues it together, as our co-founders quickly found out. Looking back on their relationship some years later, Bill W. observed, “Dr. Bob did not need me for his spiritual instruction .. .. What he did need, when we first met, was the deflation at depth and the understanding that only one drunk can give to another. What I needed was the humility of self-forgetfulness and the kinship with another human being of my own kind.” (As Bill Sees It, p. 212)

In the old days, in Akron, Ohio, sponsorship often began with the ill alcoholic’s hospitalization and surrender – the latter induced sometimes by A.A.’s nonalcoholic friend Sister Ignatia, who encouraged her patients to bend their knees instead of their elbows. Other times it took off in Dr. Bob’s kitchen with his home-cooked Rx: tomatoes, sauerkraut and Karo syrup stirred together in one big pot and simmered on the stove. “The men got to where it almost gagged them, taking it straight,” pioneer A.A. member Ernie G. later recalled. “[Dr. Bob] did back down finally on the sauerkraut, but he kept up the tomatoes and corn syrup for years.” (Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, p. 105)

Today that mouth-twitching concoction has sometimes been replaced by milkshakes and honey and broth, and the handful of “prospects” has mushroomed into more than two million members worldwide. But the simple truism-that the best way to keep our sobriety is to give it away to the alcoholic who still suffers-remains the same. In his keynote address on the theme “Sponsorship: Gratitude in Action,” at the 1991 General Service Conference, late trustee Webb J ., of Western Canada, took this a step further: “You’ve got to give it away to keep it, but you can’t give away what you haven’t got.” This he learned when, fresh out of a treatment facility, he tried to sponsor someone else and wound up “back in the bottle.”

Fifteen months later, Webb recounted, “I came back to A.A. and stayed. And I got into service when the group made me a greeter, figuring that if you’re going to shake anyway, you could put it to some use at the front door. I did all the menial tasks, like setting up chairs making coffee, picking up ashtrays – everything except sweeping the floor. We had one guy there, a former racketeer; if anyone else dared to touch that broom, he’d send a look that made you think of cement overshoes… In tune I found someone who agreed to sponsor me, on the condition that I not leave town for a year while cleaning up my mess, that I join a group, do the Steps and Traditions, and stay active. I did all of it and consequently have enjoyed an interesting, exciting and probably life-saving service life. As it says in our Third Legacy, ‘A.A. is more than a set of principles; it is a society of alcoholics in action. We must carry the message, else we ourselves can wither and those who haven’t been given the truth may die.’”

Speaking at the same Conference, then Southern Indiana delegate Dorothy M. said, “When a newcomer reaches for help, I want the hand of a member who’s willing to be a sponsor right there.” She emphasized that “our bonding stems not so much from having shared a common disaster as from our sharing in the common solution.”

Experience shows that A.A.s around the U.S. and Canada are committing themselves anew to sponsorship. Letters received by the General Service Office contain a variety of questions (many of them answered in the pamphlet “Questions and Answers on Sponsorship”). Following, in capsule, is a sampling of these, and the responses to them from members of the G.S.O. staff:

Q. Did Bill W. have a sponsor?

A. Yes. In fact, Bill wrote on numerous occasions of the profound influence that his boyhood friend and drinking companion Ebby T. had on his life. “And there sat my sponsor Ebby, who had first brought the word that lifted me out of the alcoholic pit,” he wrote in AA. Comes of Age (p. 46). Bill forever referred to Ebby as his sponsor, even though Ebby had many alcoholic relapses. Throughout the years, Bill tried to carry the message to his friend, just as Ebby had given it to him.

Q. While hospitalized after three months of sobriety, I developed a serious throat infection for which the doctor prescribed pain medication. My sponsor told me I should change my sobriety date to the day when I stopped taking the pain reliever. Do you agree?

A. Some members say they do not trust their own decision-making processes and rely totally on their sponsors. I may have some residue of the typical barroom drinker, but I can share with you that I would not depend on my sponsor for legal or medical advice. As the pamphlet “The A.A. Member-Medications and Other Drugs” points out (p. 5), experience shows it is best that “no A.A. member plays doctor”; nor would my sponsor want to be put in this position. My sponsor did not give me my sobriety date either and, as far as I know, can’t take it away from me!

Q. Is there a “right” way for a sponsor to guide one through the program?

A. A.A. experience shows that sponsorship is a very personal thing. Both sponsor and sponsee have a lot of latitude in making choices as to who their sponsor would be and how they would use the relationship …. I personally do not believe in a sponsorship tie that means a lot of babysitting. I feel it is my job to introduce the person to the A.A. recovery program, help them work the Steps to the extent that he’s willing to do so, and try to introduce him to the higher power of his understanding. Then I feel it’s important to work myself “out of a job” so to speak, and encourage the sponsee to rely more on his higher power than on me. Others have a completely different view, and I have no problem with that.

Q. My sponsor and I had a falling, and I no longer feel able to go to the same group. What should I do?

A. Personality problems are often the hardest ones to try to solve, although in practicing the A.A. principles in all our affairs and putting principles before personalities, we are often able to master this to some degree. We do hope you will consider going to some other meetings right now and getting a new sponsor. It’s often heard in A.A. that just because we have a particular sponsor in the beginning doesn’t mean we’re married to the person. Sometimes the relationship doesn’t work out, and we move on to someone else. What’s important is to have a sponsor you feel good about sharing with honestly who can help you through the Steps and Traditions.

Q. I have taken Step One and admitted I am powerless over alcohoL Where do I go from here? What should I look for in a sponsor?

A. Well, there is always Step Two. Regarding your second question: When I came to A.A., it was suggested that I look for someone who (a) had been sober more than two years, (b) was female like me and (c) appeared to enjoy being sober. That’s how I found a sponsor, and I shall always be grateful for that beautiful lady who was my first real friend in AA. and through the years remains a dear friend.

Q. I am sober· two years and have just started to sponsor somebody for the first time. Do you have any suggestions?

A. Perhaps the most important part of sponsoring is to be able to give without demand. As Bill W. wrote 4{) years ago (Grapevine, Jan. 1958), “Watch any A.A. of six months working with a Twelfth Step case. If the case says, ‘To the devil with you,’ the twelfth stepper only smiles and turns to another case. He doesn’t feel frustrated or rejected. If his next case responds, and in turn starts to give love and attention to other alcoholics yet gives none back to him, the sponsor is happy about it anyway. He still doesn’t feel rejected; instead he rejoices that his one-time prospect is sober and happy… But he well knows that his happiness is a by-product, the extra dividend of giving without any demand for a return.” (The Language of the Heart, p. 238).

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