“We may worry that we are a burden to our sponsors and hesitate to contact them, or we may believe our sponsors will want something in return from us. But the truth is our sponsors benefit as much as we do from the relationship. In our program, we believe that we can only keep what we have by giving it away; by using our sponsors, we are actually helping them to stay clean and recover.”
– Narcotics Anonymous, “Sponsorship, Revised”
One person can have a profound impact on your recovery from addiction: your drug or alcohol sponsor.
Learning how to live sober takes ongoing support for most people with substance use issues. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was born as a result of sponsorship: co-founder Bill W. sought help for his urge to drink from someone who could relate. He found Dr. Bob, also in recovery, and their shared experiences bolstered each man’s sobriety and formed the basis of AA. Today more than 2 million people in 175 countries use the mutual help organization to assist their recovery (2014 membership estimates from AA).
Sponsorship is a core component of all 12-step programs. The experienced member in recovery helps the newcomer maintain abstinence by applying the 12-step principles to everyday life.
“Many people attend AA or NA meetings without fully “working the program”, which has been shown to be as important, if not more important, than actual meeting attendance,” says Mark Schenker, Ph.D., a Philadelphia psychologist and author of “A Clinician’s Guide to 12-Step Recovery.” “Sponsorship is a key element of working the program.”
Studies: Sponsorship Works
Research suggests that having a sponsor yields positive results for recovery, says George Koob, Ph.D., Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
“Multiple NIAAA-funded studies indicate that the primary perceived role of a sponsor is to guide a fellow member (of a more junior nature) through the 12-steps and that having a sponsor is beneficial,” Koob says, citing studies by Tonigan & Rice, 2010; Subbaraman et al., 2011; and Witbrodt et al., 2012.
One study measured the outcomes of a 12-step intervention for more than 500 people with substance use disorders. The researchers found that meeting attendance and having a sponsor “were the only strong and consistent predictors of abstinence” over the course of a year (Jan. 2013, Zenmore, et. al., “Involvement in 12-Step Activities and Treatment Outcomes,” published in the journal Substance Abuse).
A more recent study showed that among 157 young adults, a “therapeutic alliance” with a sponsor was associated with important recovery behaviors such as 12-step participation (June 2015, Kelly, et. al., “The Sponsor Alliance Inventory: Assessing the Therapeutic Bond Between 12-Step Attendees and Their Sponsors,” funded by NIAAA; published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism).
“If the person receiving sponsorship views his or her sponsor as having similar recovery goals and approaches to achieve those goals, outcomes are better,” Koop notes.
Qualities of A Good Sponsor
So how do you choose an effective sponsor? Mutual aid organizations recommend a few basics: Find someone you can talk with freely and honestly. Stick to one sponsor if you’re a newcomer. Choose the same gender so you can stay focused on the program (some gay men and women feel an opposite-sex sponsor is more appropriate for similar reasons, AA notes).
An honest self-appraisal of your needs is critical in choosing a sponsor, says Schenker, a board member of the Society of Addiction Psychology, American Psychological Association. Many people in recovery benefit from a supportive approach, while others need toughness and confrontation to stay sober.
“Some sponsors are ‘Step Nazis,’ placing a high level of demand on their sponsees to devote themselves to work on the steps,” Schenker notes. “Others take a more casual approach. Similarly, other sponsors will insist that you contact them daily, while others will make themselves available to you, but otherwise will give you distance.”
Schenker recommends self-reflection and discussing your sponsor choice with someone else, perhaps a “temporary sponsor” or trusted colleague.
It’s important to ask a potential sponsor about his or her sobriety record. There are no rules, but a good sponsor “probably should be a year or more away from the last drink – and should seem to be enjoying sobriety,” notes AA in its pamphlet, “Questions and Answers on Sponsorship” (Alcoholics Anonymous, revised 2010).
An ideal sponsor, according to AA, is someone who does everything possible to help the newcomer stay sober through the mutual aid program. They guide their sponsee through the Twelve Steps & Traditions, and urge the person to attend a variety of meetings and read the 12-step literature. The sponsor shows by example how it’s truly the program – not the sponsor’s position or personality – that is essential.
“Thus, the newcomer learns to rely on the AA program, not on the sponsor,” AA notes. “A sponsor well-grounded in the AA program will not be offended if the newcomer goes to other AA members for additional guidance or even decides to change sponsors.”
Since the program itself is key to abstinence, a newcomer has options if the sponsor is unavailable: attend a meeting, call other members, read the Big Book and other 12-step literature, and phone or visit the nearest 12-step organization or clubroom to find sober peers.
Risks to Avoid
“A sponsor’s role is to guide you through the program; they do not serve as a therapist or guru,” Schenker adds.
“Most people find that they need to have something in common with their sponsor, some sense of comfort and safety with them,” he says. “However, the caution is that too much comfort will be detrimental, in that a shared world view may blind you both to areas with may need attention or confrontation.”
An effective sponsor does not carry a pretense of being right all the time, and will help find answers when needed. The sponsor also never tries to impose his or her personal views on the sponsee. “A good sponsor who is an atheist does not try to persuade a religious newcomer to abandon faith, nor does a religious sponsor argue theological matters with an agnostic newcomer,” AA notes.
Early in recovery, it doesn’t make sense to have multiple sponsors, Schenker says. “There’s too much room for splitting, getting different opinions. This, in turn, opens up the possibility of following the advice that you like, not the advice that is good for you.”
Generally speaking, it is important to find a sponsor of the same gender. “Most people think that this is due to the risk of sexual attraction as clouding the sponsor-sponsee relationship,” Schenker says. “But the other element is the need to have a shared experience to relate from. There are things that are just not comfortable to share with someone of the opposite gender, and this could inhibit such a cross-gender relationship.”
Schenker notes that in opposite-sex sponsorships, vigilance is required to avoid a phenomenon known as the “Thirteenth Step” – the sexual or other exploitation of a new member by an established and predatory member of the fellowship (remember, 12-step recovery organizations do not limit membership by character).
“The basic word on choosing a sponsor is to find someone who has what you want, in terms of sobriety, personal integrity and maturity,” Schenker says. “But many people find a sponsor by simply raising their hands in a meeting and announcing that they need a sponsor. Invariably, a more seasoned member will offer their services, even on a temporary basis.”
The sponsor also benefits from the relationship, as sharing sobriety eases the challenges of recovery and fills the need to help others.
“It is a mutual enterprise,” Schenker says.
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More Recommendations For Choosing A Sponsor
The following tips on choosing an alcohol sponsor were shared by two national addiction experts who conduct research on mutual help groups:
J. Scott Tonigan, Ph.D., Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico; and John Kelly, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and Associate Professor in Psychiatry in Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
An Effective Sponsor:
- Has one or more years of continuous sobriety
- Attends AA meetings on a regular basis
- Is the same gender
- Is very familiar with the approved core literature
- Does not sponsor more than three people, with some exceptions (in other words, has adequate time in his/her schedule to serve as a sponsor)
Questions To Ask A Potential Sponsor:
- Do you attend AA on a regular basis?
- How long have you been sober?
- What do you feel is the primary role of a sponsor? (The correct answer: help the newcomer work through the steps)
- How many people are you sponsoring now?
- How do you feel about meeting outside of AA on a regular basis, and how often? (a good sponsor meets at least weekly with a newcomer outside of
- The sponsor does not emphasize the need to work through the steps
- The sponsor lacks personal boundaries and “demands” that a “sponsee” help solve the sponsor’s personal or social issues.