This week, we are publishing two articles on sponsorship. The first is written by Ashley H. from Jacksonville, Florida and the other by Laurie A. from the United Kingdom. Both stories were written from the author’s personal experience, and we hope they will generate a lively discussion of what Ernest Kurtz in his book Not—God, A History of Alcoholics Anonymous called “the unique A.A. phenomenon of sponsorship.” (Not–God, p. 89).
Sponsorship has a long history in Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill W., throughout his life, acknowledged Ebby T. as his sponsor, because it was Ebby who first carried the message to Bill. However, sponsorship as a recognized AA practice, really got it’s start in Cleveland, Ohio during the early 1940’s. It was during this time that AA was experiencing rapid growth with hundreds of newcomers, and an ever expanding number of AA groups. (Not–God, p. 89).
We recommend reading the pamphlet published by AA World Services, Questions and Answers on Sponsorship for a brief historical overview of sponsorship, and some basic guidelines that one may wish to consider before choosing a sponsor or becoming a sponsor. Additionally, we also recommend reading Steve K.’s excellent article Is Opposite-Gender Sponsorship in AA Ok?
Thank you Ashley and Laurie for your contribution to AA Beyond Belief , and thank you Kathryn for your amazing artwork.
Spiritual Sponsorship: With or Without Belief
By Ashley H.
“Hit your knees every morning, let go and let God, pray when you wake up and before you go to sleep at night…” Being in southern, Bible-belt country, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings it seemed like every potential sponsor had the same initial script. When I would ask, “What if I don’t believe in a God?” their response would always be something along the lines of, “Just believe that I believe, keep searching and you will be contacted, how can you not believe when you’re such a miracle?” There were a few with more open-minded answers like, “Use the group as your higher power, your higher power is anything that’s greater than you, use a doorknob.” (The doorknob answer would always get a lot of flak from the rooms, mostly in the form of laughter, sometimes a little aggravation at the nonsensical idea.) While I appreciated the alternatives, I still felt like an outcast and that I had to change to really belong here.
At the point of true desperation and detestation of how my life currently existed, I stuck around and grabbed a sponsor that was as close to a real hippie as I could find. She wore a lot of bright colors and jean jackets, lived at the beach, and just had a mellow, smoothness about her. She also helped me through the steps, with my version of a higher power at the time, which was nature. This idea she could get behind, because she too spent a great deal reveling in the outdoors. This woman truly did not care about my conception of my higher power, just that it worked for me. She provided hope and a feeling of belonging that I hadn’t yet found and with that I found myself able to share my experience more openly. I shared freely in meetings from day one, just because I needed the attention I think, but when I had more sobriety time I noticed people actually listening more. The introduction to my shares became, “Hi, I’m Ashley and I’m an alcoholic, I’m also your friendly, neighborhood agnostic.” There were always those “You’ll never stay sober without God!” people, but I just smiled and made a firm resolve to “keep coming back” to show others my path.
After a year of sobriety, I picked up my first sponsee, and she held Christian beliefs and had no issue with the “G-word” like I did in the beginning. Funny enough, we worked the steps just how the book instructs. We prayed the third step prayer, we discussed the plan that God has for her life, and we worked on trusting her God during any challenging times. Later in my recovery, about three years in, I had a young lady ask me to sponsor her that is a Buddhist. She struggled with typical meetings because she did not believe in a creator and got tired of hearing that “prayer and God will do for you what you cannot do for yourself.” We worked through the traditional steps, but the higher power changed. We focused on the collective consciousness of the group and her higher, sober self. The point is, my experience shows that my beliefs should never get in the way of me helping someone else. It is my responsibility to keep my hand outstretched to anyone reaching for sobriety, no matter our apparent differences we are still the same.
I remember when I first found an agnostic meeting. There was no bashing of traditional AA meetings (because we are an AA group), just open speech about beliefs, disbeliefs, and how to deal with alcoholism on a behavior-based level. We have Christians, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, all types join us Saturday mornings and it has given my recovery the momentum it needed. I strive for acceptance of all kinds and I’ve found that’s the best way to grow and learn about myself and my recovery.
About the Author, Ashley H.
Ashley serves as the WAAFT intergroup representative and has been with the group a little after its founding. She obtained her master’s in clinical mental health counseling and her passion is helping others find a better way of life, whatever that may mean to them. She is also a recovering Catholic and now lives a more Buddhist-based spiritual life filled with nature and meditation. Ashley lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
MY FOUR CARD TRICK!
By Laurie A.
When I plucked up courage to phone a man and ask him to be my sponsor, there was a long pause. I thought, ‘Oh dear, he’s going to say no.’ But finally he said, ‘It would be a privilege, thanks for asking me. Just remember one thing – you will help me as much or more than I can help you.’ I’d heard him share at meetings and there was a calmness and quiet confidence about him which I ached for. I was only a few weeks sober and in emotional turmoil, racked by neurotic, skin-crawling anxiety which kept me awake at night. I needed help.
My first sponsor assured me that all would be well, as long as I stayed sober. Life might not go according to my script but I would receive the power to cope with any problem. Driving home with him after a meeting one night, I was telling him about yet another apparently insuperable dilemma. As I got out of the car he said, ‘Ah well, whatever you do it’ll be OK’, and drove off into the night. How could that be right? Whatever I do? Even if I get something horribly wrong? It was only later that I realised that what he meant was, everything would be OK – as long as I didn’t drink on it.
I’ve had three sponsors and each has helped me to stay sober. The first one moved away so I asked another man to take me on. Sadly he drank again. My current sponsor has become one of those ‘lifelong friends’ which the Big Book says we will make in AA. The psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote, ‘There is something of a tradition in 12 Step programmes that it is OK to outgrow your sponsor. And in this respect I believe the sponsor system superior to traditional therapy. It’s considered normal to go to your sponsor and say, “Look, I’m really grateful for the help you’ve given me, but I think at this point I’m ready for a more sophisticated sponsor.” And the sponsor is likely to say, “I couldn’t agree with you more and I’m delighted that I’ve been able to help you and that you’ve come this far.” There are not many psychiatrists who would take as kindly to their patients’ outgrowing them.’ Over 31 years in AA I’ve been privileged to sponsor a number of men and a few have ‘sacked’ me because I didn’t shape up!
The pamphlet Sponsorship: your questions answered (available from GSO) describes ‘firm sponsorship (“tough love”)’ and ‘a more casual attitude’. I’ve tried both approaches. I was so desperately anxious that my first ‘sponsee’ should stay sober that I was on his case the whole time. He seemed to be doing well but then he phoned me from a pub and said he was drinking; I broke down in tears. Another chap was an atheist and could not accept Step Three. I repeatedly cajoled and encouraged him to keep an open mind and late one night thought I’d achieved a massive breakthrough after talking myself hoarse discussing a Higher Power, a Power greater than ourselves, God as we understand Him. Finally I said, ‘Look, all you have to do is say, “I turn over my will and life to the care of God.” That is all you have to do to make a start on Step Three.’ There was a long silence then in a quavering voice he whispered, ‘I turn over my will and life to the care of God.’ I punched the air and mouthed ‘Yes!’ to myself. Three weeks later he drank again – he hadn’t even taken Step One. He phoned me a few years later and said he was in a halfway house after coming out of a treatment centre. He was some months sober and thanked me for my help in the early days, so as AA co-founder Bill W. wrote, ‘Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.’ For other early prospects, dragging their feet over Step Four, I used to take the four of hearts, diamonds, clubs or spades from a pack of cards and post it to them in an envelope with no covering note. Some took the hint, others didn’t!
I was so laid back sometimes as to be horizontal and one man said he needed a more assertive sponsor to give him firm direction so was moving on. I thanked him for helping me to stay sober. Another time I decided to give a sponsee the benefit of my wisdom over his relationship and my advice just made things worse. I felt hurt and guilty, but as the AA Preamble says, my primary purpose is to stay sober myself and, as far as I can, try to help others to achieve sobriety – but they have to do the achieving, as I did and do; it is not my responsibility as a sponsor to get or keep someone else sober or to solve all their problems; that’s their job.
From time to time someone will ask me to ‘take them through the Big Book’. But I don’t know how to do it. If people can read they’re quite capable of taking themselves through the Book and if they can’t read for some reason they can listen to the Book on a CD or download it from the web. The Big Book speaks for itself – there’s nothing between the lines. Bill W. said ‘Every AA has the privilege of interpreting the programme according to his or her own outlook.’ (As Bill Sees It); I’m not some AA super guru to tell someone else what the Book means. I believe my responsibility as a sponsor is to encourage someone to live their own way through the programme, not to try to run their lives for them.
Occasionally I’m asked about prescribed medication and I say they should discuss that with their doctor, not me. The pamphlet on sponsorship says, ‘Some sponsors talk about the programme in a more spiritual way than others do. However, the sponsor points out that it is up to each newcomer to determine what that AA phrase, a Power greater than ourselves means.’ Among others, I’ve sponsored a Catholic priest, a Jew and a born-again evangelical Christian. I’m an agnostic but I don’t discuss religious doctrine, what Bill W. called ‘theological abstractions’, with those I’m trying to help.
I’ve been privileged to sponsor some wonderful people, many of whom are now firm friends, but as the pamphlet points out, ‘It is the AA 12 Step recovery programme – not the sponsor’s personality or position – that is important. Thus the newcomer learns to lean on the programme, not on the sponsor.’
Copyright © Share Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author, Laurie A.
Laurie A. is a retired national newspaper and BBC journalist in the UK. His sobriety date is 8/10/84. He served on the Great Britain AA literature committee and edited Share, the British fellowship’s national magazine, and Share and Share Alike, a book celebrating 60 years of AA in Britain in 2007.
The images for today’s articles were created by Kathryn F.
The audio for this story was recorded and narrated by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, you may reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.