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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  1. John S July 1, 2016 at 9:12 pm - Reply

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

  2. Jerry F June 29, 2016 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    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 work he needs to do and the sponsee is doing an exemplary Fifth Step.

    The sponsor needs to recognize that this unequal relationship is developing as it is and then needs to refuse to be treated as the master. He must insist that the sponsee develop his own insight into his own character. This is difficult work for most of us as it means subordinating our egos so our sponsees can learn all of the lessons the Fifth Step has to offer.

    • John S June 29, 2016 at 1:06 pm Reply

      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 those directions are not followed, the back up (grand sponsor) steps in as the enforcer. It’s very bizarre behavior that I’ve had reported to me as being practiced by one of the groups here. I understand group autonomy and all, but people need to know that sponsorship is not about that at all.

  3. Jeb Barrett June 29, 2016 at 11:51 am - Reply

    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 as sick as our secrets?)  Having continued this process for over 30 years of progressive recovery, I will swear by it.

    As I understand it, Bill attempted to summarize the recovery process in 12 steps rather than 6 only after he had written what follows, also aware that the Catholic Church in particular would forbid its members from AA attendance and participation if it sounded like AA was a substitute for their role. Therefore, he created a Step Five that suggests the practice of sacramental confession and absolution.  However, that’s only a small part of what the whole story can and does reveal. It is a means of sharing all of the hidden and missed opportunities for life learning, as well as the strengths we may have demonstrated in the past, as well as in the present.

    The whole housecleaning process of Steps 3 through 9 should continue for a lifetime as more and more is revealed through the continuing practice of pages 60 through 88 (without the religious ideas), emphasizing self-examination, self-honesty, restitution and thinking things through (meditation), providing lasting rewards. At least, that is how it has worked for me, one day at a time, never resting on my laurels (past accomplishments).

    The best advice I heard when I first entered the doors of AA was to Accept, Begin and Continue to use the process Bill shared, the “precise directions,” rather than making up directions for “doing the work.”  I also appreciate the statement that “No one person speaks for AA as a whole.”  That one helps me to learn something from everyone’s interpretation and application, as suggested on page 191 of As Bill Sees it.

    This is my experience, strength and hope!  Best wishes for a lifetime of happiness and feeling good about ourselves.

  4. Micaela S. June 29, 2016 at 11:21 am - Reply

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

  5. life-j June 29, 2016 at 10:09 am - Reply

    Well done John and I especially like some of the points in your list at the end.

    I think that the urgency in AA to find a sponsor and work the steps is directly correlated to the increasing fundamentalization (is that a word?) of AA. The sooner you do those two things, the better your chance of becoming the sort of  AA’er who doesn’t think for themself. It wasn’t meant to be that way at one time, but now it is one of the characteristics of a cult: having a procedure in place to break down your own personality as soon as possible, and replace it with a prefab personality of the cult’s.

    Itis important that we identify this stuff, because I think there is still a good chance of saving AA from itself, or shall we say, from the fundies.

  6. Steve K June 29, 2016 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Good essay John!  I agree with your suggestion about newcomers choosing a sponsor of the same sex, but I’m not so sure when it comes to people who’ve been around the rooms for some time and have a good foundation of recovery and good understanding of the Steps.

    As general advice same sex sponsorship is good safeguarding practice, but some in the rooms asert this suggestion dogmatically as AA law, and we both know that there are no absolutes in AA according to its traditions.

    I say this as i’ve recently started sponsoring a woman in the fellowship who’s two years clean and sober and very committed to her recovery. She’s had difficulty with female sponsors previously and started using me for support which has developed into sponsorship. I’m ok with doing this as there’s no sexual attraction and she finds me helpful for her recovery, and my motives are very genuine. My difficulty is with others’s judgement in the rooms, who through the mantra of “men for men, women for women” assume that the relationship has alterior motives and that it’s morally wrong.

    I am starting to doubt myself on this issue due to other’s opinions, but it seems a shame to ask my sponsee to find someone else when she seems to get alot from my sponsorship. I realise that yours is only a suggestion and aimed at the newcomer, but would be interested in your thoughts on my dilemma John. Kind regards, Steve.

    • boyd p June 29, 2016 at 10:40 am Reply

      Another way to state direction regarding gender complications in the sponsorship relationships is to say “there must be no romantic dynamic” involved.  Thus the multiplicity of gender views being made plain these days are accommodated.

      • John S June 29, 2016 at 6:22 pm Reply

        Yep, I totally changed my opinion about the same sex sponsor advice. This sponsorship pamphlet probably deserves a more in depth and critical review.

    • John S June 29, 2016 at 9:44 am Reply

      Thanks Steve and you are correct to clarify that point and I agree. I was in fact writing with the newcomer in mind. I have been helped and continue to be helped by women in AA.

      Perhaps the advice is too black and white and should be discarded altogether. The sex or sexual orientation of individuals is less important than the motives and actions of the parties involved.

      Thank you for reading. The second half of the essay was put together rather quickly and I think that shows.

       

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