Whenever I hear sponsors mentioned in AA meetings, I think about the sponsors I’ve had since September 1974, when I first got to AA.
I remember my first sponsor. Let’s call her Wilma, since that wasn’t her name. I asked her to be my sponsor after my first AA meeting.
Wilma was the only one who spoke to me before the meeting, and she spoke with great enthusiasm about AA and sobriety for some time during the meeting. Someone had said during the meeting that having a sponsor was very important. So I quickly asked Wilma to be my sponsor.
I also picked her because she made me feel comfortable. We were very much alike in personality and attitudes. She even thought it was hip, slick, and cool that I was gay, even though she was definitely heterosexual.
But I stayed sober only about ninety days.
I went to lots of AA meetings and had great enthusiasm about sobriety, but I don’t remember working any Steps. I got drunk shortly before Christmas 1974.
But about nine months of drinking was all I could take before crawling to the phone to send up a white flag of surrender. I still vividly remember the phone call I made to Wilma that September day when my ego had been squashed like a bug on a windshield and I was desperate to get back to AA.
But Wilma was drunk.
She’d started drinking a few weeks after I did. After I found my own way back to AA, several people told me that Wilma had been in AA for a number of years but had never been able to stay sober for more than about a year.
I waited almost six months this time before getting serious about picking another sponsor. And I read the Big Book and began working the Steps.
About the time I saw Step Four looming on the horizon–working the first three Steps daily had become automatic–I started searching for a sponsor. I talked after meetings and over coffee with some of the older members of the groups I was attending, and I still believe they gave me some good suggestions on how to go about finding a sponsor.
One fellow told me to only consider those who’d been sober for at least seven to eight years. This, he felt, was long enough for them to get over what he considered to be the silly and egotistical habit of summarizing their sobriety as a set of rigid rules which they then foisted upon their sponsees.
“Remember,” he said (in so many words), “thousands of drunks all over the world have gotten and stayed sober solely on the basis of the AA program as described in the AA books and discussed in meetings. But all you know about one person’s special rules is that one person has stayed sober by following them.”
Another person told me to watch out for people who reminded me too much of myself in terms of personality, attitudes, or outlook on life, because, if we were very much alike, we’d share the same blind spots.
A third person suggested I consider someone who had something that I wanted for myself in my future sobriety–not someone who had what I already had.
And someone else told me to check people out. “See if they walk like they talk,” she said. “Check them out with some of the old-timers so you don’t pick someone who’s making habitual use of AA’s swinging door,” she added, knowing my earlier experience with Wilma.
Another woman in AA gave me some specifics. “When you find someone you think might fill the bill,” she said, “get a phone number and use it. Do this with several people.
“Use them as if they were your sponsors by calling them when you have a problem or a question,” she said. “Do this for a while and you’ll find yourself eventually calling only the person who’ll be a good sponsor for you.
“The others will drop by the wayside,” she said. “They won’t be home most of the time when you call, or they’ll be too busy to talk to you when they are home. They’ll want to do all the talking and won’t be able to listen to you. Or you’ll be afraid to talk to them about problems for some reason you may not be aware of until you try.
“The important thing,” she continued, “is that you’ll end up with the right person this way, even though you’re not doing the picking. It’ll feel to you like your sponsor is picking you.
“It’s like what they say about coincidences being the way God works best, and that God does his best work anonymously. Your sponsor will be picked for you in a way that seems like a coincidence, but it won’t be,” she said with a strange little smile that I didn’t understand for years.
I followed many of these suggestions, the most difficult being to ask people for phone numbers and then call them. But I made myself do it, for the person who’d suggested I try potential sponsors out on the phone for a while had also said that if I couldn’t do this now, I might not be able to do it later.
When I was about nine months sober, I picked as a sponsor a woman I never would have picked when I was newer.
Thelma was very much unlike me. I was in my late twenties; Thelma was about sixty. I was definitely a lesbian; she was definitely not. I was a university graduate student; Thelma had made it through high school. She even wore all those bright and ill-fitting housedresses–clothes I would never be caught dead wearing.
I could tell right away that she wasn’t bigoted against gays, for when I mentioned I was homosexual, she didn’t bat an eye. She just looked at me as if I’d confessed to liking popcorn. And the look said better than any words can that my sexual orientation had nothing to do with AA, sobriety, or her as my sponsor.
In this and other ways, Thelma made me feel at home in AA, and I lost that feeling of being different. After a few months of having Thelma as my sponsor, I even lost the feeling I’d had most of my life that if people really knew me and all that I’d done in my life, they’d tell me to get lost. I became just another alcoholic in a room full of alcoholics.
I remember what Thelma told me when I asked her to be my sponsor. She told me that she could be my sponsor as long as I remembered one important thing: She had clay feet. “Don’t put me on a pedestal,” she said. “If you do, I’ll fall off.”
Thelma had nothing especially new or insightful to say on how to stay sober or work the Steps. On sobriety, she said, “To stay sober, don’t drink.” Whenever I asked her about working the Steps, she just said, “Read the book. The directions are in it.”
Thelma was definitely spiritual, the quality that had drawn me to her in the first place. But there wasn’t a religious bone in her body. This proved fortunate for me, for I did not know it then but the sober years to come would show me I had some deep rooted resentments against organized religion based on childhood experiences, including a parent’s use of God as a punishing and vengeful deity.
It has taken years for these wounds to heal. During that time, all I could do to help the process was choose not to practice, a day at a time, the resentments that had grown like scabs on these childhood memories. This especially meant not getting caught up in similar resentments expressed by others in meetings.
Thelma told me about the Great Spirit of the universe, since she was half American Indian and found the Indian practices and beliefs more in keeping with her own spiritual experiences. She never lectured me about spirituality, but then Thelma never lectured me about anything.
Thelma always listened to me, no matter how long I needed to talk. If I was ranting on about some injustice I’d experienced, Thelma let me rattle on until I ran out of steam. Then she would tell me about an experience she’d had when she was certain that someone was treating her unjustly.
The endings of such stories drawn from her experiences were always the same: “And then time passed, I got over my hurt, and later found out I had been wrong about that person.” She’d find out that the person she’d thought was intentionally hurting her was doing no such thing or that the injustice she’d felt was no injustice after all.
I must have done a lot of ranting in those days, for I can remember hearing about a number of Thelma’s experiences of this sort. At other times, when I had no problems and we were just talking, Thelma would patiently tell me about how impossible it was to know the truth when anger locked me into my own point of view. But she usually phrased it as the need for “walking a few miles in the other person’s moccasins.”
In meetings, those who didn’t know her probably thought of her as a quiet older woman who sat in the corner and listened carefully to everyone who spoke. From her example, reinforced by others I knew in those days, I learned how to quiet my mind and truly listen to others so that I could hear what I needed to hear that day.
One old-timer explained it this way to me: “Don’t let your mind rattle on at meetings. Then all you’ll hear from someone else is something that gets you thinking about what you have to say. Listen to everything the person talking has to say, as if your life depended on it–because it might one day.
“Listen to everyone this way, especially the ones you want to ignore,” this old-timer said. “God won’t deprive you of the answer you need, if you’ve come to an AA meeting needing an answer. He may, however, have your answer come out of the mouth of the person you least expect to have your answer. God has a sense of humor.”
I never heard Thelma criticizing anyone other than herself. If she didn’t agree with someone, she was silent or spoke about something else. And when I asked her a question, Thelma wasn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know. Let’s ask someone else.”
The most consistent policy in Thelma’s approach to sponsorship was her refusal to give me advice about anything. If I phoned her about a problem, she would listen carefully, not interrupting even if I took five minutes to give every insignificant detail. After a moment of silence, Thelma would share with me one of her experiences.
Sometimes the experiences weren’t similar, but the feelings or reactions were the same. Thelma never used sharing experience as a roundabout way of telling me what to do, either.
In talking about her experiences, she was vague about the details but very clear about her feelings and even clearer about what she had to consider before making a decision. She was much clearer about the process of making that decision than she was about exactly what decision she made.
It took me years to realize what Thelma was doing, not only teaching me how to make decisions on my own but also how to see the common thread running through human experiences so I could avoid getting sidetracked so easily by the details.
Once she said something like this:”If I told you what to do, and it worked, you would have no one to thank but me. All you would learn to do is be dependent on me to do your thinking and deciding for you.
“Even though you want very much right now for me to tell you what to do, if I did this you would one day come to hate me for it, because one day you would resent it as a way I have kept you weak and powerless,” she said.
Thelma told me that, no matter how much I feared making bad decisions, I could not learn how to make good decisions except by making decisions.
“You’ll make mistakes,” she said, “We all do. You will make some bad decisions before you learn how to make good ones. But what is true about good decisions is also true about bad ones: You will always learn from the consequences.”
Thelma did not tell me to grow up. She allowed me to grow up.
She gave me lots of elbowroom for growing, giving me no rules to follow (or break) regarding meetings to attend or required check-in phone calls or visits to her. As I grew, I began to learn as much from her methods as from what she said to me, especially in the years that followed when circumstances took me hundreds and then thousands of miles from Thelma.
Thelma was my sponsor. She was never my higher power.
I say ‘was’ because Thelma has disappeared from the face of the earth. Some call this death. But what is important is that I haven’t lost Thelma. I’ve just gained another invisible means of support.