Nothing has been more helpful to me in staying sober and living a useful life than sponsorship. But in the beginning, I sometimes used my “authority” as a sponsor to bully my sponsees. I ridiculed their thinking and showed little compassion or patience if they acted in ways that I didn’t approve of. Where did this soberer-than-thou attitude come from? I think I brought it with me from the days of wine and roses.
Some of the things that I hear from new people who have recently acquired a sponsor or sponsee sound like this: “My sponsor told me to call him every day or he wouldn’t sponsor me.” “If my sponsee isn’t willing to go to any lengths, I will drop him (her).” “My sponsor told me I couldn’t share until I had done all Twelve Steps.”
The Preamble says that AA is a “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope.” The operative word here is share. Didn’t Bill go looking for Bob? Wasn’t it Bill’s idea that he needed Bob to stay sober? Yet we often find sponsors dictating to sponsees what they can do, where they can go, and whom they can talk to. The sponsor does not call the sponsee; the sponsee is required to take all the initiative.
Of course, sponsorship, like everything in AA, is a personal matter. It is a kind of verbal spiritual contract between two people over a number of expectations. But many of these conditions fly in the face of AA’s Conference-approved pamphlet about sponsorship and much of our other literature. Bill says that “even the newest of newcomers can begin to carry the message.” AA started to grow when Bill and Dr. Bob went looking for a drunk to talk to. It is true that Bill and Bob asked the candidate some questions: First, do you believe you are powerless over alcohol? Second, do you believe in God? And third, are you willing to turn this problem over to God’s care?
I was very lucky in this regard because I did not believe in God, yet no one refused to talk to me. I didn’t know if I was powerless over alcohol, yet I got the same loving care that people who did got. When I was new in AA, there were no Step meetings in my area and sometimes a sponsor would just take his charge out to the golf course for an informal chat. There was no structure to the relationship. They were just buddies. The amazing thing is that many of these people stayed sober on this loose style of sponsorship. At the other extreme, however, the sponsor gave the newcomer a laundry list of things to do and dictated his every move. Some people said newcomers need this kind of sponsorship. But many of these people never left their sponsor’s side. They didn’t branch out from the sponsor and his other charges, and they became a little clan, with everybody sounding like everybody else. Maybe that’s what some people needed. For me, it never would have worked.
My sponsor never told me to do a thing. He was a great listener. He asked questions. Having an older member actually listen to me was very healing because I was so unsure of what I thought. My sponsor listened carefully and asked pointed questions. Another sponsor I knew says, “If you teach a child everything, you deprive him of the opportunity of learning anything.” His style of sponsorship is very laid back and open. He looks at what his student is doing that shows promise, and encourages him to continue along those lines.
I have made a terrible mess of being a sponsor, and not just when I was new. I have made bad decisions long into sobriety. A sponsee was making a decision to break up his family after several years of sobriety. I came down hard on the side of his not doing this. But I had also told him from the beginning that he had to take responsibility for his own sober decisions. After I made my speech about why he should not leave his family for another woman, he said simply, “This is something I have to do.” A stricter sponsor might have “fired” him. I shook his hand and wished him good luck. He went through with the separation, got divorced, and moved on with his life, depending not on me, but on the whole Fellowship of AA.
I feel that I have done a good job as a sponsor if I talk myself out of a job. Many of the men I have sponsored are now old-timers and I rarely see or hear from them. They have families, jobs, and other interests besides AA. Sometimes I call them when I feel the need for a little guidance. Often they come out with things that I have never heard before, and it amazes me. “Where did he learn that? I never taught him that.” No, I didn’t. I taught him to learn on his own, making full use of the whole Fellowship.
We are made aware in Steps Eight and Nine of the danger of dependent relations. We learn that it is through “the twisted relations of family and friends that we have been most troubled.” We have been “especially stupid” about our personal relations. Why shouldn’t that same observation apply to our relations with our sponsor or sponsees?
I know I will continue to hear people who are spoon-fed AA by their sponsors. I will continue to hear people say “My sponsor told me I had nothing to say so I couldn’t speak, even at a discussion meeting.” Or, “My sponsor told me not to talk to others about my program.” Or, “My sponsor told me to throw out my medication.” Or, “My sponsor told me to get out of therapy.” And I know I will continue to see what strikes me as a bullying kind of sponsorship. But right along with that brand of sponsorship, I have the freedom to offer another approach. And I think a great part of our strength lies there: No one can tell us what to do, think, or feel. We are all in the same lifeboat. We are all sober under the grace of God. No one of us is any better than anyone else, though we sometimes like to think so.
But I don’t believe a sponsor can do a sponsee harm. One of the wonderful things about our Fellowship is that there is somebody for everybody and we usually seek out people who seem to be a good fit. All of us in AA have a right to our own opinion, even if that opinion is that somebody else’s opinion is not as good as ours. There is not a society on earth that places greater emphasis on the individual’s right to think, say, and do what he or she pleases than AA. The whole structure of AA is based on a democratic spirit. There are no bosses or gurus. Nowhere on earth do we find such a wonderful society, extending so much freedom to so many people. If it works, don’t fix it. We have grown from two people to two million, and we show no signs of getting smaller. We must be doing something right.