In the aftermath of the tragic death of a sponsee, his sponsor reflects back on life, service, and relapse in AA
“Ken, I think something bad happened to Dan.”
With those words, spoken softly over the telephone by a fellow recovering alcoholic early one evening last spring, my worst fears as an AA sponsor began to be realized. Over the next few hours — after several panicked phone calls and desperate Internet searches — I started to piece together that one of my two sponsees, a newcomer struggling to put together 90 consecutive days sober, had likely succumbed to this disease at the all-too-tender age of 31.
Rumor had it, I learned, that Dan — like me, an alcoholic and also an addict, and a little too enamored of his own brain power — had overdosed on some combination of mind-altering substances. And there was an online article at a local news site describing the suspicious death of someone of similar name and age two days prior. I hadn’t heard from Dan at all in more than a month — in stark contrast to our once-daily texts and weekly face-to-face meetings — so I’d assumed he had relapsed. I’d been texting and leaving voicemails, and hoped I’d soon get a remorseful phone call or message from him. But the final conversation I had that night, with Jim, Dan’s best friend in the program, confirmed the devastating facts. There would be no message from Dan. He had picked up. And he had indeed died. I went to bed in tears … and woke in disbelief but holding out a slight hope. Perhaps there’d been a mistake. But it was all still true in the cold light of day. Dan was gone.
How had this happened? The internal blame game began, as I digested the awful new reality of Dan’s untimely passing. Had I done enough? What could I have done differently? Was I the right sponsor for him? If only he’d chosen someone else. Did I even have any business being a sponsor? That last question cut deep and had in fact bedeviled me my entire time in the program.
In fact, I believe it was that sort of indulgent self-doubt that took me out of the rooms for the first time, a decade and a half ago. I had first entered Alcoholics Anonymous back in early 1998. My 30th birthday loomed ahead, and I couldn’t imagine continuing to “live” the poor excuse for a life my chronic alcoholism had left me. So I dove headfirst into the program, attending meetings, doing fellowship, working the Steps with a sponsor and trying to be of service whenever I could. I was soon celebrating 90 days at my home group, and then — before I knew it — six months. And then nine. I took every suggestion I heard — until, finally, I reached my first anniversary in AA.
When the celebrations died down, my sponsor suggested I start thinking about getting a sponsee of my own. What better gift to myself, and someone else, he asked, than to share what I’d been so selflessly given? I recoiled, dumbfounded, at the thought. I couldn’t possibly. What did I know? How could I take on that kind of responsibility? Sponsorship was far too important and complicated to leave to the likes of me.
And anyway, I thought — somewhat self-importantly, I now realize — I don’t want to hold someone else’s life in my hands. Thanks for the advice, I told my sponsor, but I’ll stick to the parts of the program that deal with me. In short, I said “no.” Needless to say, by the time I should have been celebrating two years sober at my home group, I had stopped attending meetings or talking to my sponsor.
I did manage to “white-knuckle” it and stay dry — and very sad — for several more years. That was, I suspect, partly because I was in a relationship with a controlling and vigilant partner, which lent my life some semblance of structure and routine, despite all my internal misery and turmoil.
But as soon as I unceremoniously found myself single at liberty at the ripe old age 38, I picked up a drink without a second thought. And my problems picked up again, too. Job and home were soon threatened, but since the proverbial seed of recovery had been planted years before, I couldn’t help but have bouts of clarity between the binges. So I began popping in and out of meetings, becoming a permanent denizen of AA’s so-called “revolving door.” I even began to hop 12 Step programs, too embarrassed to attend the same fellowship — never mind the same AA meeting — after yet another relapse. I had an alphabet soup of fellowship options, as I’d begun using an ever-increasing volume and variety of illegal substances in addition to my still-prodigious intake of alcohol.
By early 2012, age 43 and going on 44, I had lost everything: apartment, career, health, many friends and nearly all my family. Spiritually, financially, physically and morally bankrupt, I was left with nothing to lose but my very life itself. On November 30 of that year, I made the decision — yet again, for the umpteenth time in years — to turn my will and my life over to the loving care of a power greater than myself. This time around, AA “took.” What was different? Two things.
First, simply being sober suddenly became enough. Unhindered by career, social or romantic concerns or obligations, I began to put together some serious time in “the rooms”: first days, then weeks, then months. Six months in, I began trying to find work so I could support myself, and my AA meetings, through my own contributions. Getting rejection letter after rejection letter, I soon despaired of ever working again.
Dejectedly clutching one such freshly opened missive outside my home group meeting one Friday evening — chain-smoking cigarettes, chugging a coffee and feeling very sorry for myself — I had what I believe was my most profound “white light” experience in the program to date. Watching my fellow AAs stream into the church hall, it occurred to me that — even if I never worked again, dated again or had my own home again — I could stay sober. Staying away from the next drink and working at becoming more and more sober, day by day was, in fact, all I needed. That realization and acceptance filled me with a sense of unbridled joy and peace.
Second, I started saying “yes.” Yes to AA commitments. Yes to showing up for family, friends and community. And yes, after a moment’s hesitation, when, just after my one-year anniversary, my soon-to-be first sponsee approached me and asked for help.
And “yes” a year later, when Dan — brilliant, defiant, hopeful, struggling Dan — asked the same. From no sponsees at all, to two? So soon? Yes.
I believe those yeses are what’s kept me sober, one day at a time, for eight years now. Willingness lets God’s grace do its work on and in me. Thanks to esteem-able acts, today I enjoy a bit more self-esteem than I did when I first said yes to sponsoring Dan. But I strongly suspect that it was not any increasing self-confidence, but evidence of my Higher Power at work in my life that drew him to me.
Am I sad that, despite my efforts to help, Dan lost his battle with his disease, that we’ll have no more of our weekly meetings or daily texts? Of course I am. Do I regret saying yes to him in the first place, although my worst fear ultimately came true? Although I “failed?” No. I do not.
Rather, I thank God for bringing Dan into my life, however briefly, so that I could be of service to him — and him, to me — in the spirit of AA in the time we had together. Today, I say yes to sobriety. I say yes to sponsorship. I say yes to my Higher Power. I say yes to saying “yes.”