Episode 23: Step Five and Sponsorship

Admitted to God, to Ourselves and to Another Human Being the Exact Nature of Our Wrongs.

By John S.

I was transformed by the Twelve Steps, but there wasn’t anything supernatural or magical about it. The change I experienced was the result of what I learned from the process. I simply adopted new behaviors that made it easier for me to live a sober life.

In Step Four, I made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself, which means I honestly and objectively reviewed my past and looked at my part in the events that shaped my personality, and possibly contributed to my alcoholism. I made a list, but for me this wasn’t necessarily an index of wrongs, though often that was the case, rather it was a catalog of experiences and how those experiences affected me. Sometimes, I was wrong but in many instances I wasn’t—that to me wasn’t really the point. The point was to learn the truth about myself, and I feel that’s what I accomplished, and having accomplished that—I was ready for Step Five.

In Step Five, I learned how to trust another person. Trusting people never came natural to me, and as my drinking grew worse, I found myself becoming increasingly detached from others. However, as it turns out, my problem was far more serious than simply not trusting people—I feared them. I desperately wanted to hide the truth about who and what I was. I didn’t want to be found out, and the tragedy of alcoholism, at least from my experience is that I was ultimately hiding the truth from myself—and that was killing me.

Could I stay sober without this Step? Perhaps I could have, but I believe that the experience of sharing my story in its entirety with another person placed my sobriety on more solid ground, because it connected me to other people, and other people, especially the people in AA are my lifeline.

I would caution the newcomer who may be contemplating the Steps to think carefully about the person with whom they will be sharing their Fifth Step. It’s absolutely imperative that we have full trust that the person who will be hearing our Fifth Step will without doubt keep our confidence. This person could be our sponsor, but it could also be a therapist, a friend, a spiritual adviser, almost anyone can fill the role. The main thing is that we trust this person and that they understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

I took this Step with my sponsor as is the case with most of us, and there is an advantage to this because the sponsor has direct first-hand experience with the Step, and understands why it’s important. In my case, my sponsor was very good about sharing with me little bits of information about himself, which helped make me feel more relaxed and comfortable in sharing my story with him.

I read from the Fourth Step that I had written, going down the list from one resentment to the next. I read each resentment, my part in it, and how it affected me. When I came across one that was particularly difficult or embarrassing to talk about, my sponsor seeming to notice my hesitation, would encourage me to talk about it. The entire process took a number of hours, but I felt that I was very thorough, complete and honest.

When we finished, I securely placed my Fourth Step in my backpack and caught the bus to my apartment. Upon arriving home, I took some time to reflect on everything that I experienced in AA up to that point, and I asked myself if I had done my best with the first five steps. I was satisfied that I did, and in the coming days, I became overcome by a powerful emotional experience that lasted for several days. I had this sense that for the first time in my life, I really understood myself, and this seemed to give me more patience and understanding of others. I felt as though I was truly placed on new footing.

Sponsorship

Sponsorship-PamphletOne of the kindest gestures that we can extend to a newcomer is to simply listen, and a good sponsor will remember this when hearing a Fifth Step, and that’s what my sponsor did with me. He listened with compassion and understanding, free of judgement and criticism. He simply listened, speaking only when the sharing of his experience would help me through a particularly difficult and painful memory.

I’ve been on the other side of the table and heard a number of Fifth Steps as a sponsor, and every time I felt humbled and honored that the person would trust me with such a responsibility. I did for them what my sponsor did for me —I listened.

A good sponsor can make all the difference with respect to a person’s participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, and the practice of sponsorship is considered by AA World Services as “a  basic part of the A.A. approach to recovery from alcoholism through the Twelve Steps”. (Questions & Answers on Sponsorship, p. 8)

I would encourage everyone in AA to read the AAWS pamphlet Questions & Answers on Sponsorshipwhich describes sponsorship as:

An alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through A.A.

The pamphlet explains that sponsorship is a relationship among equals as illustrated by the example of Bill W. and Dr. Bob. Bill carried the message to Bob who in turn sponsored many others, but the two men sustained one another. Neither was in a position of authority over the other.

The Q&A section of the pamphlet brings up a few items that I found interesting and deserving of commentary.

The pamphlet suggests that a newcomer should choose a sponsor who seems to be using the A.A. program successfully in everyday life and has been sober for at least one year. It’s recommended to “stick with the winners”. But how does someone who’s new to A.A. and has never gone through the Twelve Steps have any idea whether or not another person is “working the program” and is not in fact a wolf in sheep’s clothing? For this reason, I don’t think one should rush into getting a sponsor. Take it easy, be careful.

I totally agree with the suggestion that sponsors and the sponsored should be of the same sex, and I think it’s worth noting here recognition of the problem of thirteen stepping, which is when an older more experienced member takes advantage of a newcomer for sexual purposes.

There is also a reminder to newcomers that they need not agree with their sponsor on everything, and if they hear an idea that seems strange, they should ask questions. I have heard of sponsors telling people not to take medication for depression or other mental illness, which is completely inappropriate.

For what it’s worth, here are my suggestions to the newcomer considering whether or not to get a sponsor:

  1. Take your time. There is no urgency to have a sponsor. If you’re going to meetings, sharing honestly, getting involved with the fellowship, making friends, and not drinking, then you are doing just fine.
  2. Choose someone who is already in your circle of friends. Someone you know well.
  3. Watch out for the person who is over confident, that seems to have all the answers and isn’t shy about giving advice.
  4. Stay away from anyone who suggests there is something wrong with how you think. Never, allow anyone else think for you.
  5. Remember that sponsorship is a relationship between equals. Your sponsor has no authority over you. If they try to exert authority, it’s perfectly okay to change sponsors.
  6. If you are a woman, do not choose a male sponsor, and if you’re a man don’t select a woman for a sponsor.

Sponsorship can be a helpful and healthy experience, but don’t allow others to pressure you into it. Just take your time, take it easy and proceed with caution, and you can have a safe, happy and productive experience with sponsorship.

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Peg
Peg

what is the thought on doing your fifth step with a member of the opposite sex who is also in the program?

John S

Steve K. wrote a great article about opposite gender sponsorship at his site 12stepphilosophy

Jerry F
Jerry F

Excellent piece John & Steve. Your fifth suggestion, “Remember that sponsorship is a relationship between equals” needs to be emphasized. It is written for the sponsee but there is much to be learned here for the sponsor. Too often a sponsee will place himself in a subservient role and look up, admiringly, to his sponsor for those precious words of wisdom and advice. This is dangerous territory for the sponsor. This is ego-stroking. The sponsor is all too likely to accept a hierarchical relationship as it seems to be beneficial for both parties. The sponsor is doing the Twelfth Step… Read more »

John S

I totally agree Jerry. I know a lot of newcomers, and I was like this myself are at a point in their life where they really want someone to give them the answers, tell them what to do that will make everything great. Unfortunately, there are too many sponsors who do provide what these people want. I didn’t mention this in the essay, but Benn and I spoke about it in the podcast, there are some groups that practice a perverse form of sponsorship in my opinion where the sponsor is giving direction to the person they sponsor and if… Read more »

Jeb Barrett

Thanks for the personal and thoughtful sharing of your experience, Steve. I particularly like the suggestions at the end on finding, choosing a sponsor.  From my own experience however, it has been better to follow the process for Step Five as Bill outlined it in Chapter 6, telling my whole life story, withholding nothing, perhaps for the first time rather than hiding behind a piece of paper. Hearing myself talk openly and honestly about myself while another person listens and perhaps asks a few questions is how I have managed to recover what I had denied myself. (We are only… Read more »

Micaela S.
Micaela S.

Wonderful post.  It really spoke to me and made me feel peaceful during a very busy day.  Thank you.