Right from the start, AA spread simply by one drunk talking to another. Bill W. called on Doctor Bob in 1935 in Akron and AA was born. A physician, Dr. William Silkworth, who had worked intensely with alcoholics, was quick to see the possibilities for growth in this approach. But he was also vocal and emphatic about the physical aspect of our illness. Our bodies are not normal. We are allergic to alcohol. But the promise of recovery, he believed, would be through the simple expedient of one drunk talking to another.
AA has gone through a lot of changes since 1935. Today some people are getting their one-to-one recovery counseling outside the Fellowship from paid professionals. I’m not talking about people who seek professional help for problems other than alcohol. AAs have always done that. What I’m suggesting is that we may in some cases without knowing it be encouraging the use of Twelve Step surrogates. Sponsorship is still an important part of the program. But some interesting changes in the AA population are being reflected in the way that sponsorship gets done or, in some cases, doesn’t.
One of our great strengths, I think, as a Society that deals effectively with the problem of alcoholism is the informal, loosely structured way in which help is passed along. No appointments required. No papers to fill out. You don’t need insurance. It is truly ingenious. Totally unlike any other helping profession agency. And we have the best track record of anybody when it comes to showing the alcoholic how to live sober.
People who have and use sponsors continue to tell us over and over the importance of having a sponsor. Yet how often we hear, “I have a sponsor but I never see him.” “My sponsor is never home.” Sponsorship too often tends to be a catch-as-catch-can affair. A few words at a meeting. A message left on an answering machine. A call at spring semester with a half-hearted promise and resolve to “get together real soon.”
Some of the changes in the AA population may suggest why more people don’t benefit from sponsorship.
People coming into AA today are generally younger, healthier, and better informed about alcoholism and drug addiction. Often AA is not their first contact with information about recovery.
When I was new in the program you met every single person who came to AA in the Springfield area. The meetings were far fewer and smaller and you heard the same person several times a week. Everybody tended to know everybody–sometimes more than was comfortable. As for sponsorship, it was the natural extension of what was very commonly called a Twelfth Step call, a routine part of recovery in Western Massachusetts in the late sixties. You got a call from the AA telephone operator and you and your sponsor jumped in the car and headed out to talk to a new candidate for recovery. Often you brought a bottle just in case he was really sick. You might bring him home for drying out. With friends you took turns nursing him back to human semblance. There was no other way. There was no detox. With good reasons, a lot of hospitals did not want alcoholics. In any case there was a great deal of routine personal contact with the disease in its active stages and with the physically ill alcoholic. It could be very unpleasant.
Because alcoholism was not yet widely accepted as an illness, people died who did not get the proper medical attention on time. Thank God for the informed AA members who got behind the idea of medical help for a medical problem. Today there are detoxes.
All the same, old-timers will remember there was a certain “esprit de corps” among those sober members who closed caring ranks around the shaky and sick new person in those days. It was a very special kind of experience and, although it has been replaced by something better, I’m glad I had it.
The AA population today is more varied, mobile, and has more resources available to it. Alcoholics are coming in with big life decisions well ahead of them. There’s more to do. Conferences. Dances. School. Dating. Career moves. Marriage plans. Houses to buy. Futures to begin. There is, I feel, less emphasis on the past. It seems to me that new people are more oriented toward the future. Groups are bigger. It’s easier to hide or get lost, both for sponsor and sponsee, in the forward rush to sober self-reliance and success. I have a feeling, though, that alcoholics find today just as they always have, that unless we place first things first, where we are headed may not be where we are going. That was many times the case with me, thank God.
If the AA member years ago was too sick to help himself and depended entirely on an AA member for guidance, even with problems that the sponsor wasn’t entirely competent to handle, could it be that today’s new member, sometimes, is too well and too well informed to place his newfound and still fragile sobriety into the willing and capable hands of a sober peer? If the sponsor feels intimidated by all the outside resources competing for the new person’s attention, could it be that there is false pride on both sides of this wall? I wonder. Both could feel awkward and the temptation to look for a professional substitute could be there.
It seems to me that this is both a change and a challenge to our Society. It is a change that reflects a more varied and mobile, a more self-directed and busier AA population. I think it is a challenge to all of us in AA, for whom all else has failed, to make sure that sponsorship stays alive and well for our own sakes, because we need it to nourish our own sobriety, as well as for the growth of the Fellowship.
Sponsorship is a shared spiritual intimacy unlike any other. It is a life-nourishing experience we must never abdicate to paid professionals as a matter of convenience. It is just too basic to recovery, as it was first conceived, and as it has proved to work.
Sponsorship is not on the way out. But we in AA may have to go a little out of our way to make sure it stays where it started and where it took root–at the heart of recovery in a shared experience with the Steps.