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SPONSORSHIP IN RECOVERY: Where it comes from, how it works in N.A. and A.A. and how to make the most of it

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Addicts and alcoholics usually come through the doors of facilities like Cornerstone of Recovery certain of one thing only: They want the pain to stop.

They may not be ready to embrace recovery and embark on a new journey, but they’re ready to do something different. The pain of staying the same has become greater than their fear of change, and so despite the trepidation they often have over what life will look like clean and sober, they steel themselves to make that change.

Recovery, to use one analogy, is like an Olympic-sized swimming pool. For some, the only way is to dive into the deep end without hesitation, and this method has worked for many. At Cornerstone and other drug and alcohol treatment centers, however, patients enter the water via the steps (or “Steps,” if you will). We hold their hand and take it slow, allowing them time to acclimate to the information and tools we give them to make the most of their recovery.

One of those tools is sponsorship. If recovery is the pool, then a sponsor can be the lifeguard, the man or woman who sits atop a stand by the side of the water and keeps a watchful eye on us to ensure we don’t flounder and drown. A sponsor is the individual in our recovery journey who will throw us a life ring or toss us a line when we’re in over our heads and begin to panic or tire. They can pull us to safety, and they can teach us how to do more than tread water in one place.

At Cornerstone, patients who move through the treatment process are introduced to 12 Step recovery, of which sponsorship is a crucial component. The longer they’re under our care, the more they’re encouraged to make use of outside programs, which have meetings in cities around the world. After their time at our facility, meetings serve as the anchor of their individual recovery programs, and sponsorship is at the heart of almost every recovery fellowship.

The early days of A.A.

The “mothership” 12 Step program, Alcoholics Anonymous, traces its roots to a quasi-sponsorship that Bill Wilson, the co-founder of A.A., found in a former drinking buddy.

Ebby Thatcher was a longtime friend whom Bill Wilson met while enrolled at Burr and Burton Seminary in Vermont in 1912. It was in 1934, however, that a meeting between the two men changed the course of Bill Wilson’s life, and by proxy the sobriety of millions of addicts and alcoholics who would follow in his footsteps. When the two reconnected, Wilson, who was by that point well on his way to down-and-out alcoholism, invited Thatcher over in expectation of a “congenial drinking companion,” according to author Susan Cheever, who wrote the Bill Wilson biography “My Name Is Bill.”

“But Ebby, who was living at the Calvary Mission in Manhattan, had been going to meetings of Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group. He had stopped drinking,” Cheever writes. “Ebby had been one of Bill Wilson’s best drinking buddies. Now he brought with him the word that sobriety was possible.”

Thatcher himself had been rescued from alcoholism by a man named Rowland Hazard, who recruited Thatcher for the Oxford Group upon learning that he was about to be committed to the Brattleboro Retreat, a Vermont insane asylum, Cheever writes. Hazard himself was a recovering alcoholic who had sought counsel from famous psychiatrist Carl Jung, who suggested that some “cures” for alcoholism came about through spiritual experiences. Back in New York, Hazard joined the Oxford Group, an organization that subscribed to six tenets of understanding as a way of moral evolution:

  • Men are sinners.
  • Men can be changed.
  • Confession is a prerequisite to change.
  • The changed soul has direct access to God.
  • The age of miracles has returned.
  • Those who have been changed must change others.

A few years later, Wilson would use those tenets as a basis for the 12 Steps, but on the day of Thatcher’s visit, he was “aghast” at his old friend’s religious conversion: “So that was it — last summer an alcoholic crackpot; now, I suspected, a little cracked about religion,” Bill would later write in the Big Book of A.A. Their meeting didn’t result in Wilson’s immediate sobriety, but a seed was planted. Combined with the observations of Dr. William Silkworth of New York’s Towns Hospital, where Bill wound up for the second time in 1934, the idea of alcoholism as an illness began to take shape.

“Silkworth believed that alcoholism was not a failure of willpower or anything else,” Cheever writes. “He believed that certain people had an allergy to alcohol … Silkworth explained that since alcoholism was an allergy, it could no more be defeated by willpower than tuberculosis could be.” Those words rang true for Wilson, and after a period of binge drinking and depression, he paid Thatcher a visit at the Calvary Mission, where he answered an altar call. He drank again for several more days before he had a spiritual awakening, thanks to another visit from Thatcher, who “went over the points from the Oxford Group that he said had helped him to stop drinking: admit you are licked, get honest, talk it out, make restitution, give of yourself, and pray.” He also gave Wilson an influential book: “Varieties of Religious Experience,” by William James.

From that point forward, Wilson never drank again.

From Ebby to Ed

As Bill Wilson’s sobriety journey began, Thatcher fades to the background in the history of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. He would go on to maintain periods of sobriety before relapsing, and Wilson sought to help him in a number of different ways, including a regular stipend and arranging for his stay at an A.A.-based rehabilitation center in Vermont, where he died in 1966. In his place appeared a man that Wilson would later come to regard as his “spiritual sponsor.”

It was in November 1940, and while Alcoholics Anonymous had showed promise in the early years of its development, the new organization’s administrative duties weighed heavily on Wilson. Copies of the Big Book were sitting in a warehouse, unsold; public scrutiny of the program was cynical; and cash flow problems were abundant. One night, the maintenance man of the building where Wilson and his wife, Lois, were living told him a “bum” from St. Louis was at the door and wanted to talk about the 12 Steps. That "bum" was a Jesuit priest named Father Edward Dowling, and he was fascinated by the parallels between the Steps and the exercises of St. Ignatius.

“The curious little man went on and on, and as he did, Bill could feel his body relaxing, his spirits rising,” writes Robert Thomsen in the biography “Bill W.” “Gradually he realized that this man sitting across from him was radiating a kind of grace … soon Bill was talking about all the Steps and taking his Fifth Step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.”

“His message was that saintly men are not happy men,” Cheever continues. “When Bill whined about wanting contentment and asked if there was ever to be any satisfaction in his life, Dowling replied no, that there never would be. Ironically, it was the most cheering thing Bill had heard in a long time.”

Bill continued to consult Dowling off and on throughout the years, and at the July 1955 General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous during which a resolution was passed to turn over the organization to a board of elected officials from its various home groups, he introduced Dowling, who spoke, as a man “made of the stuff of saints.” Upon his death five years later, Wilson wrote, “He was the greatest and most gentle soul to walk this planet. I was closer to him than to any other human being on earth.”

According to writer Heather King in a piece for the Catholic Education Resource Center, “His funeral was packed.  From society matrons in mink coats to Skid Row drunks, people came from around the country to pay homage.”

Sponsorship becomes a part of the program

Sponsorship wasn’t associated with Alcoholics Anonymous in the beginning; in fact, nowhere in the first 164 pages of the Big Book — the section of the A.A. “Bible” that has remained largely unchanged since it was first written — is the word “sponsor” even mentioned. There are, however, loose guidelines mentioned in Chapter Seven, “Working With Others,” that would serve as general suggestions for the sponsorship process:

  • “Don’t start out as an evangelist or reformer.” (p. 89)
  • “If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God.” (p. 93)
  • “It is important for him to realize that your attempt to pass this on to him plays a vital part in your own recovery. Actually, he may be helping you more than you are helping him.” (p. 94)
  • “Never talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop; simply lay out the kit of spiritual tools for his inspection … If he thinks he can do the job in some other way, or prefers some other spiritual approach, encourage him to follow his own conscience.” (p. 95)
  • “Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone. The only condition is that he trust God and clean house.” (p. 98)

In 1975, the publication “Living Sober” went on to detail a history of sponsorship: “In the earliest days of A.A., the term ‘sponsor’ was not in the A.A. jargon. Then a few hospitals in Akron, Ohio, and New York began to accept alcoholics (under that diagnosis) as patients — if a sober A.A. member would agree to ‘sponsor’ the sick man or woman. The sponsor took the patient to the hospital, visited him or her regularly, was present when the patient was discharged, and took the patient home and then to an A.A. meeting. At the meeting, the sponsor introduced the newcomer to other happily nondrinking alcoholics. All through the early months of recovery, the sponsor stood by, ready to answer questions or to listen whenever needed.”

Sponsorship began to become a part of the A.A. lexicon in 1940, when the Akron Group published a pamphlet titled “A Manual for A.A.,” described as “a practical guide for new members and sponsors of new members of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The language is more strident and authoritative than that found in the Big Book, much of that attributed to the fact that it was written by Dr. Bob Smith, the co-founder of A.A. whose own sponsor was Wilson. (Wilson had roughly five months sober when the two men were introduced during a business trip Wilson took to Akron, where he found himself craving a drink and needing the company of another alcoholic.)

Theology was well-represented in this publication, and sponsors were encouraged to make sure newcomers had both a copy of the Bible and the Upper Room, a devotional magazine published by the United Methodist Church. Newcomers were urged to read certain passages and to read the Big Book “and read it again so that it will become your second Bible.” Sponsors were directed “to assume full responsibility for the newcomer to include, if necessary, paying for his hospital stay,” according to blogger Robert B. of the website A.A. Agnostica. “The sponsor is directed to ‘encourage him to look up to you. Your responsibility never ends.’”

Sponsorship becomes ingrained in A.A.

In 1944, one of Dr. Bob’s sponsees, Clarence S., penned the A.A. Sponsorship Pamphlet, the first tract directed solely to those who would serve in such a role. It largely regurgitated material published four years earlier in the Akron manual, although references to the Bible and Upper Room were removed. Religious overtones were still predominant in his writings, however, and it emphasized the role of a Higher Power in the sobriety process.

It would be another 30 years before sponsorship was addressed at length, this time in “Living Sober.” The publication noted that “sponsorship turned out to be such a good way to help people get established in AA that it has become a custom followed throughout the AA world, even when hospitalization is not necessary.” The section on sponsorship lays out a loose framework for how the process works:

  • “At AA meetings, people often recommend that an AA beginner get a sponsor, and it is left up to the newcomer to pick someone as his or her sponsor, if one is wanted. One reason it is a good idea to have a sponsor is that you have a friendly guide during those first days and weeks when AA seems strange and new, before you feel you know your own way about.”
  • “It's usually better if men sponsor men and women sponsor women. This helps avoid the possibility of romance rearing its lovely head — a development which can hideously complicate, if not destroy, the sponsor-newcomer relationship. By trial and error, we've discovered that sex and sponsorship are a very bad mix.”
  • Whether or not we like what our sponsor suggests (and sponsors can only suggest; they cannot make anybody do anything, or actually prevent any action), the fact is that the sponsor has been sober longer, knows pitfalls to avoid, and may be right.”
  • “An AA sponsor is not a professional caseworker or counselor of any sort. A sponsor is not someone to borrow money from, nor get clothes, jobs, or food from. A sponsor is not a medical expert, nor qualified to give religious, legal, domestic, or psychiatric advice, although a good sponsor is usually willing to discuss such matters confidentially, and often can suggest where the appropriate professional assistance can be obtained. A sponsor is simply a sober alcoholic who can help solve only one problem: how to stay sober. And the sponsor has only one tool to use — personal experience, not scientific wisdom.”

The following year, the A.A. General Service Office published the pamphlet “Questions and Answers on Sponsorship,” a tract that has been revised several times in the years since. It clarified many of the ideas about sponsorship and extrapolated on previous guidelines that had appeared in earlier publications, including:

  • The sponsor and the sponsored meet as equals (p. 7)
  • Sponsorship responsibility is unwritten and informal (p. 8)
  • Don’t impose personal views or beliefs or pretend to know all the answers (p. 14)
  • There is no best, or single, way to sponsor. Be flexible and tolerant of whatever helps a newcomer. People of many faiths, or no faith at all, can get sober in AA (p. 15)
  • Firmness is best tempered by sympathy and understanding (p. 16)
  • Sponsorship doesn’t mean forcing any specific interpretation of AA; many alcoholics maintain sobriety without personal belief (p. 21)

It was, according to Robert S., “a considerably more open, balanced and compassionate approach to helping others compared to the more doctrinaire views of the Big Book, Dr. Bob and Clarence S. It reflects a more humanitarian, egalitarian, benevolent view of how we in the AA Fellowship have evolved to help each other recover.”

Science finds sponsorship effective

Over the years, as various 12 Step organization have spun off of Alcoholics Anonymous, sponsorship has inevitably followed. One of the biggest sister organizations, Narcotics Anonymous, first formed in 1953, but it wasn’t until three decades later that the N.A. Basic Text was written by members of the fellowship and approved by N.A. members. Sponsorship is liberally discussed in the Basic Text, and in 2003, N.A. World Services approved a new book, simply titled “Sponsorship.” Rather than being a complete work of directions and suggestions, it’s crafted in much the same manner as the Big Book and Basic Text, with personal anecdotes and stories serving as placeholders of experience, strength and hope.

In recent years, scientists, researchers and academics have taken an interest in the efficacy of 12 Step programs, and in studying and evaluating their various facets, more and more attention has been paid to sponsorship. The results of their studies demonstrate what the earliest members of A.A. knew in the beginning: “Continuous sobriety increases in tandem with duration of sponsorship,” according to K.N. Rynes and J.S. Tonigan, who authored the article “Do social networks explain 12-step sponsorship effects? A prospective lagged mediation analysis” in 2011 for the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

The noted researcher addiction researcher William L. White collected a number of these scientific observations about sponsorship for a 2015 blog post titled “The Science of Sponsorship”:

  • Sponsorship contributes approximately 25 percent of the positive effects of drinking outcomes, according to factor analysis of assertive models by a trio of researchers in a 2011 article for the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence;
  • Positive sponsor-sponsee alliance is associated with enhanced short-term abstinence outcomes, according to a 2015 study in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism;
  • Three separate studies showed that “sponsored members of 12-Step fellowships are more likely than those without sponsors to participate in other activities that have been linked to enhanced recovery outcomes, e.g., meeting attendance, home group affiliation, step work, service work, etc.”; and
  • “In terms of recovery initiation and stabilization, the greatest effects of being sponsored occur in the first year of the sponsorship relationship,” according to Tonigan and Rynes.
  • In addition, a 2017 study detailed by the Recovery Research Institute — an arm of Massachusetts General Hospital and affiliated with Harvard Medical School — examined a 338-person sample of stimulant (meth and cocaine) users and found “individuals with a sponsor at the end of treatment had 33 or 50 percent greater chances of no illicit drug use or problems, and no stimulant use, respectively, at one-month post-treatment compared to those without a sponsor.” The bottom line of that study for individuals and family members seeking recovery: “There is a good accumulation of evidence that obtaining a 12-step sponsor is likely to improve recovery rates over time.”

So what is a sponsor?

It’s important to note that a sponsor is not a savior. Sponsorship is part of the recovery process, and while the general cliché in most recovery circles is that “if you’re sponsoring yourself, you’re sponsoring a fool,” it’s generally (if not begrudgingly) agreed upon that sponsorship is not a requirement. However, anecdotal evidence (as well as the aforementioned scientific research) from thousands of members of 12-Step fellowships agree that having a sponsor, and being a sponsor, can only enhance one’s recovery.

While there are no set rules for sponsorship, both A.A. and N.A. have laid out guidelines over the years that are generally agreed upon as conditions for a successful sponsor-sponsee relationship — first and foremost, that “our sponsors … can advise us on how to work the Steps,” according to the N.A. Basic Text.

“We cannot afford to lose sight of the importance of sponsorship and of taking a special interest in a confused addict who wants to stop using,” it states on page 56 of the Basic Text. “Experience shows clearly that those who get the most out of the Narcotics Anonymous Program are those to whom sponsorship is important. Sponsorship responsibilities are welcomed by us and accepted as opportunities to enrich our personal N.A. experience.”

In “Living Sober,” there are a number of additional suggestions that newcomers should keep in mind regarding sponsorship:

  • While it might be beneficial to seek a sponsor who shares our particular background and interests, it’s not necessary, and “in many instances, the best sponsor is someone totally different. The most unlikely pairings of sponsor and newcomer sometimes work the best.”
  • It’s important to remember that those who might sponsor us are not always at our beck and call. They have lives, meaning they must meet obligations to jobs, families and the fellowship, just as we do. It’s not a betrayal of trust if our sponsor is unavailable due to those obligations or illness or any other reason; those times simply give us an opportunity to seek help from others in the fellowship, from literature, from our network.
  • While there’s no rule about having only one sponsor — and in fact, having more than one can “provide a wider range of experience and knowledge than any one person possibly can,” according to “Living Sober” — there are also risks involved. We can fall back into old habits of manipulation and playing one sponsor off of another, or withholding information from one sponsor because we know he or she might tell us something we don’t want to hear. “Such behavior seems more a reflection of our illness than an honest search for help in getting well,” it states. “We, the newcomers, are the ones most hurt when this happens.”
  • It’s imperative that we remember our sponsors are human beings also in recovery — meaning they aren’t perfect. They will make mistakes, in their own program and in their guidance of us. On the surface, that might seem devastating, but as the literature points out, “a sponsor's unfortunate behavior is no more a valid excuse for taking a drink than anything else is. The hand that pours a drink down your gullet is still your own.”
  • You owe your sponsor nothing in return for his or her kindness. Hopefully, recovery has given you the gratitude for his or her assistance that you freely express, but there’s no obligation to pay for services rendered, unless it’s payment forward to those who come to you for sponsorship down the road. It’s then that you’ll come to understand that “a good sponsor is as much helped as the person being sponsored.”

The Basic Text elaborates further on this idea: “The reinforcement received by sponsorship is limitless. We spent years taking from others in every conceivable way. Words cannot describe the sense of spiritual awareness that we receive when we have given something, no matter how small, to another person.”

Choosing the 'right' sponsor

Despite our romantic notions, we won’t find a sponsor through supernatural means. They won’t appear to us in a burning bush, we won’t see their names written in fire in the sky, there won’t appear a magical glow around them in a meeting.

So how, then, do you choose the right sponsor for you? First and foremost: Listen, then ask.

It’s suggested that you pay attention in meetings to those predecessors whose words resonate with you. You might hear it said that a sponsor should be someone who has something you want, but that’s not a reference to material wealth. Financial gains and an accumulation of “stuff” may or may not materialize the longer you stay clean and sober, but spiritual riches will remain forever, if you choose to nurture them. Those are the “things” it’s suggested you seek out in a potential sponsor.

Perhaps their words strike a chord within you. Perhaps you find yourself amazed at the seemingly endless fountain of wisdom they always seem to share. Perhaps you see how they move through the rooms with a serenity, a gentleness of spirit, that seems impossible. It’s suggested that you simply keep your eyes and ears open and look for someone who has what you want: a peace of mind, a sturdy character, a knowledge of the program and a connection to a Higher Power that are the foundation stones of any good program.

Then, all you need to do is ask. They may say no, but don’t take it as a personal rejection. Perhaps they have full plates with their personal obligations, or maybe they’re already sponsoring numerous other individuals. If they politely decline, ask them to suggest a peer they trust as a potential sponsor. The most important thing to do is to open your mouth and ask for help. When you do, you’ll find a sponsor.

But is it the right sponsor? It’s impossible to make that determination immediately. It’s important to remember that a relationship with a sponsor takes work. You’re not going to find a sponsor and immediately feel so at ease that you’re ready to work a Fifth Step with him or her. Trust takes time and effort, and it’s completely understandable that you don’t trust your sponsor right out of the gate, because you don’t know him or her. A good sponsor understands that and is patient, and if you’re willing to do the work necessary to help that relationship grow — calling regularly, opening up (quickly or slowly) about the issues you face, asking for experience and strength and hope regarding certain situations in your life — that trust will begin the materialize.

Not every sponsor-sponsee relationship works out. That doesn’t mean the process is flawed; it simply means you haven’t found the right sponsor. Remember: It’s your recovery that’s on the line. Don’t let reluctance to hurt someone’s feelings keep you from finding a different sponsor. Again, a good sponsor won’t take that personally, because it’s your life, your future and your serenity that’s at stake. By the same token, be careful not to fall into a pattern of continually changing sponsors; if you seem unable to find the right sponsor no matter how many people you attempt such a relationship with, then perhaps the problem lies with you.

Certainly, there are as many different styles of sponsorship as there are personalities in the fellowship. Some sponsors are gruff drill instructors, and we may find we need that kind of discipline and accountability, especially early in our recovery. Others may take a reflective or contemplative approach that leads us down the path of knowledge to answers that were always there. Others may channel Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid,” suggesting arcane exercises that amount to waxing the car or painting the fence, tasks that seem useless on the surface but eventually reveal themselves to be ideal preparation for unexpected and trying life circumstances.

Remember: Recovery is a swimming pool. Whether you dive in headfirst or ease your way in, the most important thing you can do is get in the water. Don’t let fear paralyze you, and don’t reject the offer of help from the lifeguards that are standing by to offer assistance. They, too, were once novice swimmers, but if you put your trust in them, you’ll soon take your place alongside them as a fellow steward of the life-changing process of recovery.

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