Founding member Bill W. struggled with his initial efforts to maintain sobriety and got the idea that he needed the support of another alcoholic who needed his support as well. Of course, most AA members know that Bill W. found Dr. Bob, and this relationship marked the beginning of the AA program.
The notion of sponsorship differs from its use in 12-Step programs compared to many other organizations. In many organizations, a sponsor is a person who recommends and supports membership for another individual in an organization. Twelve-Step groups do not use sponsors as requirements for membership, but instead as part of the support system to assist an individual in maintaining their progress in recovery. Anyone with a desire to control their substance use can attend 12-Step meetings without sponsorship. Sponsors share their experiences and give their support to others in these groups.
In the context of recovery and membership in a 12-Step group, a sponsor is an individual who has experience in the recovery program and shares their experience with others (most often, individuals who are new to the program) to help these individuals negotiate much of the uncertainty and doubt that occurs in the initial stages of recovery. While sponsors and sponsees are actually equals in the program, the sponsor/sponsee relationship is one of mentorship; it involves the sponsor being an educator and a guide to a positive approach to recovery. A sponsor should be a person the sponsee can be comfortable with and one with whom the sponsee can feel free to discuss very personal issues. Confidentiality is essential to the sponsor/sponsee relationship.
The Benefits of Having a Sponsor
Sponsors are typically utilized heavily during the early and middle stages of recovery; however, some individuals may continue to use sponsors throughout their recovery program. Typically, sponsorship occurs as part of an aftercare program and in the context of membership in a 12-Step group. The goal of the relationship is to reduce the risk of relapse and prepare the individual for a lifetime of sobriety.
Relapse rates are significant in recovery from any substance use disorder. The sponsorship of a knowledgeable and confident individual does not ensure that someone will not relapse; however, it may reduce the risk of relapse or lessen the severity of a relapse.
The book Twelve-Step Sponsorship: How It Works offers an impressive list of the benefits of sponsorship:
- Shared experiences: Individuals new to recovery often feel isolated and alone. They may be uncertain about their status as an addict and may have a number of questions about what actually qualifies as an addiction (substance use disorder). Sponsors act as confidants that can put the individual’s experiences in perspective. Sponsors can help the individual to look at the big picture by sharing their own experiences (most of which are often very similar in nature) and helping the person in recovery get perspective on their situation. This lessens the burden of feeling isolated and alone.
- Assistance in understanding and applying the program: In 12-Step groups, there are often a number of issues that are confusing for newcomers. One of the primary functions of the sponsor is to assist the individual in understanding the program, applying it in a positive way, and answering any questions regarding issues that may not be clear in the literature or during meetings.
- A sense of hope and strength: For many individuals who are new to recovery, there is a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness regarding the future. Sponsors can help to instill a sense of hope, confidence, and optimism regarding the potential for success in recovery. By providing an example for the individual that despite all of the struggles that can occur during recovery, one can still maintain sobriety successfully, sponsors can instill feelings of competence and hope in their sponsees.
- A listening ear: Everyone experiences a time when they need just to get things off their chest to someone who will listen to them. When an individual agrees to be a sponsor, they automatically agree to be a confidant with whom one can share experiences, feelings, and thoughts without being judged.
- A sense of accountability: Even though sponsors are there to lend a sympathetic ear, they also function as anchors that maintain a sense of groundedness for the individual. Sponsors make sure that individuals maintain behaviors that are conducive to recovery. They are there to provide direction and point out instances where an individual needs to alter their actions. This includes giving the individual assignments to complete, materials to read, and ideas to consider.
- Encouragement: Many individuals who are new to recovery are often hesitant to think in new ways, try different things, or pursue things that are perceived as being a little risky. Sponsors provide encouragement for an individual to move outside their comfort zone and to engage in activities that may be a bit intimidating, such as speaking during meetings, doing volunteer work, etc.
- Motivation: Of course, sponsors provide motivation for sponsees through their actions and instructions. At the same time, they also keep the person grounded in reality.
- Positive resources: Sponsors can provide a number of contacts, opportunities, resources, activities, etc., that are conducive to recovery. This can include introducing the recovering individual to potential peers, providing literature, making recommendations for other meetings to attend, recommending therapists, etc.
- Support during relapse: While the major function of the sponsor is to assist the individual in avoiding relapse, relapses still occur. For many individuals, these are quite disheartening. Sponsors can provide support help the person learn from their experience and get back on track.
- The development of a positive lasting relationship: Lasting relationships often result from sponsorship. These may be lifelong relationships that provide solid sources of ongoing support and encouragement.
A sponsor/sponsee relationship will not work unless the sponsee maintains contact with their sponsor, asks questions, and listens to their advice. Most 12-Step programs recommend that sponsors be of the same gender as the person being sponsored and have significant time in the program, with successful recovery, under their belt. Other than that, the direction as to who should sponsor whom is intentionally left up to the potential sponsor and the person asking for sponsorship. This means that some individuals may choose someone to sponsor them who eventually proves not to be right for them. There is no shame in changing sponsors; however, it is also counterproductive to keep changing sponsors when the individual feels they are being pushed too hard or does not agree with everything their sponsor suggests.
Sponsors are available to support the individual but are also supposed to function as motivators to push the individual beyond what they normally might want to do and to question the individual’s belief system.
This involves some degree of discomfort from time to time, and in some instances, the relationship might be a poor fit. A good strategy is to give the relationship a fair amount of time to establish itself, evaluate how it is working, and then discuss the situation before deciding to make the relationship more permanent.