When we enter recovery through AA or NA, everyone tells us the same thing—we need to find a sponsor. But finding a sponsor feels like a big deal. Where do we look? How do we know they’re right for us? What if we ask for their help and they turn us down? With all of the questions and fears that cloud our minds when seeking a sponsor, it practically feels like asking someone out on a first date. And the two are indeed similar, in the sense that both require a bit of confidence. We simply need to know what we want and how to ask for it.
Once we find our sponsor, we must know how to work with them. Our sponsor can guide us through our recovery, but they can’t keep us sober. We must do the work ourselves. With our first sponsor, this may require a bit of a learning curve. And with each sponsor after that, we may again find ourselves adapting to their particular style of sponsorship. But no matter who sponsors us, we must remain willing to do whatever it takes to stay sober. Otherwise, even the best sponsor in the world can do nothing to help us.
Finding and using a sponsor feels like a big commitment. In many ways, this informs our initial fears. We feel that, once we find someone, we’ll be stuck with that person for the rest of our life. But this is not the case. Sometimes, we find it best to seek help elsewhere. Of course, we should not make this decision lightly. We’ll cover some valid reasons for changing sponsorship below. First, however, we’ll begin with the basics of finding and working with the right person.
How to Find Your Sponsor
Some AA and NA groups actually ask people to raise their hands at the start of the meeting if they are currently seeking a sponsor. Doing so, or even mentioning your need for a sponsor during your share, may attract the attention of a viable candidate. If they approach you after the meeting, this will save you a lot of trouble. Many meetings also ask people to raise their hands if they are willing to sponsor, so be sure to pay attention if your meeting does this. It will allow you to focus your attention on willing sponsors, as well as saving you the fear of rejection.
You may wish to perform some “market research.” In layman’s terms, pay attention. Listen to people’s shares. Find a few people with long-term sobriety, and pay attention to what they say. Some people will inevitably inspire you more than others. You might find that someone shares a similar worldview to your own, and they’ve learned to incorporate this mindset into a sober lifestyle. You’ll always be your own person, but you should see something in your sponsor that you wish to see in your own recovery.
You’ve likely heard this before, but same-sex sponsor relationships are important. Some make exceptions in the case of homosexuality. This, of course, assumes that the only point of same-sex sponsorship is to avoid potential sexual relationships. But it’s about more than sex. You need to be able to relate with this person. They should be someone with whom you can share every detail about your life in addiction. Major differences in demographic issues such as gender identity sometimes make this harder. Perhaps you don’t see this as an issue, but you might find it best to heed this suggestion anyway. Guidelines such as this don’t tend to exist without reason—they arise from the experiences of those who came before us.
Once you find a viable sponsor, waste no time in approaching them. Depending on the membership of your local groups, it may take some time. Perhaps no one is willing to sponsor, or perhaps all potential sponsors have too many commitments on their plate to take on a new one. Either way, keep searching. Eventually, you’ll find someone you like who is able to take you on. Then you can start getting to work.
Before moving onto the work phase, we should mention the issue of temporary sponsors. Our sponsors have their own lives to manage, and sometimes they may become unavailable. Perhaps they go on vacation for a couple of weeks. They might still take our calls, but we need someone we can meet in person from time to time. In such cases, we should always have a backup temporary sponsor in mind. Get someone’s number, and ask if they can sub in for a little while. Once we’ve been attending meetings for a while, it should be easy to find someone willing to take us on.
The same applies to our own travels. If we’re going out of town for an extended period of time, we should try to find someone on day one who can work with us until we return home. Never go an unnecessary length of time without a sponsor. Not only is it reckless, but it’s often an indication that we’re not showing proper dedication to our recovery.
How to Use Your Sponsor
Our sponsor’s primary goal is to guide us through recovery. They are not our financial advisers, our legal consultants or relationship counselors. It isn’t their duty to provide us with medical advice or religious guidance. We should only discuss such matters with our sponsors when we feel that it impacts our recovery. Of course, our sponsors might express interest in such matters as our relationship with them grows. But no matter what, their main priority should always be walking us through the Twelve Steps. And it’s our job to ask for help in this matter. If we feel ready to move on to a new step, we should ask. If they do not believe us ready to do so, then we should remain patient and continue working.
While the Twelve Steps remain top priority, our sponsors may request more of us. For instance, we know one old-timer who asks every new sponsee to call him at 9AM daily for the first three months. By the time they call, he expects them to read a daily meditation and write out a three-item gratitude list. He does this for two reasons. First, he wants to help them establish a healthy and sober routine. Second, he wants them to demonstrate their willingness. A sponsor cannot work with someone who won’t take suggestions. We need to show that we truly care about our sobriety, and will do anything to maintain it.
Different sponsors may have varying interpretations of the Twelve Steps. When working Step Four, our sponsor may ask us to write our list in a certain format. Upon reaching Step Six, some sponsors may require very little work from us, while others may ask us to write out our character defects and draw one from a hat each morning so that we may focus on it for the next twenty-four hours. In some cases, our sponsors might give us the leeway to practice the Twelve Steps as we wish, simply nudging us when they feel that we’re moving in the wrong direction. But as long as we continue working the Steps in earnest, they can do us no wrong. Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness remain the primary guiding principles of recovery. As long as we apply these principles to our work with our sponsor, we’ll stay on the right track.
Finally, try to call your sponsor every day unless otherwise instructed. Don’t just call to check in and say hello, but actually tell them how you feel. Let them know honestly if anything is troubling you, even if it seems like something insignificant. If it’s threatening your sobriety, be upfront about this. Never wait until after a slip to pick up the phone. Even if cravings strike you in the middle of the night, try to get hold of someone. And if your sponsor doesn’t answer, turn to other members of your support network. Try to get someone who can meet you face-to-face if possible. But whatever you do, don’t suffer it alone. You found a sponsor to help keep you sober. When facing relapse, there is no good reason not to make use of them.
When to Fire Your Sponsor
Sometimes we feel ready to move on and work with someone else. More often than not, we feel this way after a disagreement with our current sponsor. But we cannot act impulsively. If we’re just trying to find someone who will tell us whatever we want to hear, we may as well not have a sponsor at all. We must ensure that we’re seeking new sponsorship for the right reasons. According to Amy Dresner of The Fix, five reasons may justify our decision to fire our current sponsor.
Three of these reasons boil down to trust. If they engage us in a sexual relationship, we cannot trust that they put our sobriety first. If they gossip about us, we cannot trust them to keep our discussions confidential. And if they relapse, we might not trust them to offer sound guidance. No matter what, we make the final choice. Nothing requires you to fire your sponsor under any of these conditions. But in most cases, no one will disagree with your decision if you choose to do so.
Two of Dresner’s reasons involve control. Some sponsors may become verbally abusive. Note, however, that “abusive” is not the same as “strict.” A strict sponsor can help quite a bit. But one who berates you and calls you names should be dropped like a hot potato. The same applies to sponsors who try to dictate your personal life. Your sponsor can make suggestions about outside issues. But as we said earlier, they are not your doctor or your financial manager. If they start giving you unsolicited advice on such matters, you can ask them to respect a few boundaries. And if they don’t respect you enough to listen, you might consider looking elsewhere.
Of course, some people might just wish to trade up. Perhaps you simply feel that your sponsor is no longer getting you anywhere, and that you might make more progress working with somebody else. Most people won’t see any problem with this. Just be sure to have another sponsor lined up before firing your current one. Don’t find yourself without a sponsor simply because you fired your current one without asking if anyone else was available.
When you do fire your sponsor, don’t belabor the point. You don’t need to turn it into a long conversation where you apologize and talk about everything they’ve done for you. Simply tell them that you’d like to work with someone else. Their world will not stop turning just because they lost you as a sponsee, so you don’t need to feel guilty. Simply wish them well and continue to focus on your own sobriety.
One Last Note
We recognize that not everyone reading this subscribes to AA or NA. And while we personally recommend these programs, we recognize that different recovery methods work for different people. But even if you don’t need someone to walk you through the Twelve Steps, you might wish to seek something similar to a sponsor relationship. Go over your support network and identify a few key names. Identify who you can call when you absolutely need help getting through a craving. When the day comes that you need a shoulder to lean on, you’ll be glad you did.
Recovery might take multiple forms, but no one should go it alone. Everyone needs help from time to time. There’s no shame in admitting this—it’s what makes us human. After losing touch with our humanity for so long, we should feel grateful to rediscover it in sobriety.