First, let's get the terminology straight:
A Sponsor is someone who generally takes you through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and assists you in applying the principles of AA to your daily life, mostly by sharing their own experiences with similar problems or their knowledge of what the Big Book of AA suggests as the way to handle a particular situation. If you're very new to sobriety and/or AA then a Sponsor might also help you build a good foundation in Alcoholics Anonymous itself, and demonstrate what an active member of the program does to handle life's little curve balls on a daily basis.
There are two places in AA literature that speak to what a Sponsor is: There is a chapter in the book "Living Sober" and there is an excellent brochure called "Questions and Answers on Sponsorship" which should be free at any AA meeting that happens to have it on hand.
A Sponsee is the person a Sponsor is helping. Other terms for Sponsee are "Baby" or "Pigeon." ("Pigeon" seems to be more East Coast in origin. I don't care much for the term "baby" and I think the word "pigeon" invites a lot of misunderstanding and distrust. I know when I showed up in AA if that's the word I heard being used to describe the sponsee end of a sponsor/sponsee relationship then I would have viewed the whole thing with deep misgivings and no small amount of distrust.)
The "relationship" is a completely voluntary thing from both sides. There is no right or wrong way to sponsor someone, although there are some rough guidelines that seem to be commonly agreed upon. People in AA talk about "firing" a sponsor or a sponsee but that's just shorthand for ending the sponsorship. After all, you can't "fire" a volunteer.
Generally you ask someone to be your Sponsor, although sometimes people offer (I'm not really comfortable with that, but I know it's worked out great for some people). AA is a happy anarchy -- although there are many customs there are almost no rules of any sort. (Which gives us both great freedom and great responsibility. Like Spiderman. No. Wait. That was power and responsibility. We don't have much in the way of power. Nevermind.)
Loosely speaking it's suggested that you find someone to sponsor you that "has what you want" -- a phrase ripe for bad puns and biased interpretation, I know. In general that alludes to their insides, and how they move through the world, not the cash and prizes sort of thing.
When it comes to sponsorship, or all of AA, no one can compel you to do anything of course, but some sponsors demeanor is such that people are uncomfortable not following their "suggestions" (direction). Certainly a Sponsor can set out some boundaries around giving their time to work with someone, and if those boundaries aren't met then they can choose not to work with them -- many AA's find that the fear of losing their sponsor in that way can be a good motivator when willingness is in short supply.
Eventually I've found that there is a mutual trust that develops -- most sponsees find that most sponsors have their best interests, that is, their sobriety, uppermost in their minds, and whatever suggestions are being made are in service to that purpose.
There is no debt between Sponsor and Sponsee. The Sponsor gives their time freely and without any obligation incurred by the Sponsee so that the Sponsor stays sober. AA's 12th Step is all about carrying the message of recovery to another alcoholic, not to get them to "join up" but so that the person carrying the message gets out of themselves and grows in their recovery. (In that light a Sponsee is really helping the Sponsor by giving them someone to help -- but it takes a bit for people to really see and believe that.)
I've been pretty much every kind of sponsor you can be over the years ... too involved, too aloof... learned a lot about myself along the way. People bring unconscious baggage to the sponsor/sponsee relationship from both sides of it, and it can take quite a while, and several different sponsors and sponsees, to sort through it all.
I remember one time, years ago now, when I caught myself madly picking up my place before a sponsee came over. Way beyond the "tidy up" so someone is comfortable sitting at your kitchen table or what-have-you. I realized in that moment that I had an assumption about being a sponsor -- that I was supposed to be "more" than the sponsee: Cleaner, smarter, bigger... not "better than" so much as "ahead of" -- which is, of course, bullshit. And I didn't even know I thought that way until that moment. (Thus is insight found through our defects of character.) Any of my sponsees who come to my home now could assure you that I've really gotten over that "pick up your place" thing. People say to trust God and clean house. I'm one-for-two on that, most days.
This is such a dry post. I'm being academic and dusty (and most likely a little boring) because I'm avoiding writing about the thing that's troubling me.
Full disclosure first: I'm not on my game right now. A death in my family, another family member in the hospital unexpectedly... what I know is that I should go slowly in making any major decisions till I regain my equilibrium a bit. My AA friends have, as AA friends always do, circled the wagons, and I'm pretty much ok -- I mean, I'm not incapacitated, sitting and staring out the window, unable to shower or eat (oh, I can always eat) -- but I'm still not quite myself.
So I'm very aware that being a little raw is coloring some of my thinking.
Speaking candidly, I have a lot of experience as a sponsor and I'm really clear that, off my game or not, my primary responsibility in that relationship is to help someone get and stay sober. I can't do it for them, but I can help them do it. Since I didn't give them alcoholism I can't take it away -- but I can help them make good use of the tools of AA, which I personally have found to be pretty powerful mojo -- and apparently thousands of others have found that to be true as well. This stuff isn't theory based.
Ok. Here it is:
I've been working with someone, sponsoring them, for a little while now.
I was very moved by their story, and as we've started to go through the Big Book together I became even more moved as they opened up about how they've tried to stay sober, and about their alcoholism, and their past. They've had a tough go of it.
Shortly before they asked me to sponsor them they had relapsed. This relapse was not their first, and they were genuinely frightened about whether they could stay sober and if AA would work for them any more. That's the scariest, saddest, most horrifying thing when working with people who've relapsed a number of times over a period of years -- the deep seated fear that they are somehow too broken for AA to fix. Miracles and magic for everyone else in the meeting, but they used all theirs up and so God says, "Sorry. No more for you."
When you hear someone express that fear honestly to you, and you look them in the eye when they say it, well... that moment is always a real test of just how much do I believe in God anyway, and how much do I believe in God's ability to change people and AA's ability to save lives? Not what do I hope is true -- not what do I want the truth to be -- what do I really believe?
And my best answer in that situation is the one that I have literally seen to be true with my own eyes: Every person's story, everyone's experience, is valuable and potentially helpful -- even life saving -- to someone else in the rooms of AA. Our experience sober and our experience dealing with relapse can be of immense value to someone else who is struggling.
It is not for us to judge our experience, it is for us to share our experience -- and in so doing we save each other's lives -- and thus alchemize our pain and fear into something worthwhile and important.
But... things are not going well with this sponsee. I have grave doubts about my ability to be helpful to them.
As is often the case with people, certainly not just alcoholics, they're very willing when they're very scared, but as the fear fades so does the willingness.
Last night the sponsee didn't show up at the AA meeting they'd committed to attend. Today they didn't show up at my place to go through the Big Book together as was our standing commitment, and they didn't call, email or throw a brick with a note tied around it through the front window.
I know that people are messy, and fear can look like unwillingness sometimes. It's easy to really want to take action one moment and the next to be lying on the floor of your living room, staring at the ceiling and thinking back over every stupid thing you've ever said in your whole life. "What's the point" can sneak up on you in a thousand different clever disguises with a hundred different beguiling or bewildering raps.
I understand all that -- but my fear now is that I am "understanding" someone right back to relapse. My brand of sponsorship isn't very "tough" anymore.
Is the kindest thing I can do for them -- is the most help I can be to them -- to free them up to find a sponsor that will be tougher on them? Or will doing that feed feelings of rejection and isolation and helplessness and reinforce the idea that they are beyond AA's ability to help them?
I searched my heart as to whether I should call them tonight when they failed to show up or contact me -- people have to ask for help, I know that -- but to not call... is that punishing? I've called this sponsee, and others, under somewhat similar circumstances before -- it can't always be on the sponsee to pick up the phone. But I also deeply believe that AA isn't selling anything. And neither am I. (Seems like I'm writing that a lot lately).
This is what they told me at one of my very first AA meetings: If you want what we've got, do what we did. If you don't, then good luck and godspeed. Try it for ninety days, and if you don't like it then your misery will be cheerfully refunded. (They were a salty band, those old curmudgeons at my early AA meetings. I think sometimes now I'm in the curmudgeon seat, and I'm not sure I care for that.)
Am I enabling someone to put their life at risk by not holding them more accountable? I am not responsible, but I am responsible, if you follow me. (And if you don't, I'm sorry, but I don't have it in me right now to sort that out any further. Ask a friend. Or go read that blog here on Typepad about Marrakesh. She's got pretty pictures. Plus you get to say the word "Marrakesh" a lot when you talk about it, and that is so fun.)
I believe, and have said to people, that everyone deserves a sponsor that calls them to action, and if my suggestions don't call you to action then you should find someone whose suggestions do, because if you're really an alcoholic then your alcoholism really is trying to kill you.
I'm not on my game. I'm overwrought and prone to wild swings of emotion lately with my family stuff swirling around.
It's good for me to get out of my own head and think about other people and their lives and turn my will and talent and attention to being of service, but I have to tell you (and I know I'll be embarrassed when I post this but right now, late at night, with my fingers clicking along over the keyboard and the cat snoring away, a warm limp lump in my lap, this writing feels intimate and especially confessional) when my sponsee didn't show up and didn't call I became really worried, and it started to work on me. The usual loving detachment was in short supply, and I sat here dithering about calling them or not, and whether I'm of any help to them... which of course, if you're an alcoholic and not on your game the thinking goes like this: No help to them no help to anyone no good to yourself you should just quit everything and stop bothering the world.
Here's the good news:
(ok, I'm literally laughing out loud as I type that, since right about now this post could use some good news. Jeeze, why not start to call this blog "DebbyDownerPants".)
The good news is that even when you're not yourself, if you've got some sobriety under your belt -- and that's not about time sober, that's about recovery -- you recognize those thoughts as lies when they show up, and you know that those feelings are not representative of the truth of your life at all.
But knowing that does not free you from the effect of the feelings -- it just prevents you from acting on the feelings.
So its been a rough evening here at Casa SponsorPants, kids.
Of course I feel better for writing this, and I'm not going to delete it, tempted as I am. What's the point of doing this if I don't share all my mess along with my recovery? Display my insecurities and my solutions, my ego and my occasional bouts of low self esteem -- That, in fact, is the whole point of sharing.
My God, I italicize a lot.
The advice I like least from AA (and that's saying something, since AA offers me a great deal of wise, effective advice that I do not like at all) is this:
When in doubt, do nothing.
I have a friend who is 34 years sober (and let me tell you when we have
an argument a spirited discussion they're happy to throw that in your face) and those are words they put a lot of stock in. When in doubt, do nothing.
I would say "all I am is doubt tonight" but that sounds just over-the-top, so let's go with "I have too much doubt tonight to make any decisions for a bit."
Besides, what can I do? For me? For my sponsee? I mean, really... Write. And pray. Realistically that's pretty much it.
I've written -- so now I'll pray.
But at times like this it's hard to not feel like prayer is just speaking into a dead telephone.
I still do it though -- because it's the doing that changes me, not whatever's listening (or not) at the other end.
There are more writings like this in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook via Amazon.