Bad Sponsors in AA

stormy island seascape

October 13, 2020

By Andy F

Categories: Sponsorship

Relapse and sponsorship

Being a serial relpaser was not an experience I would wish on anyone. Over the years, I have had at least twenty sponsors. Most would let me go whenever I started drinking again. I was always looking for someone new.

As unfortunate as my history of relapse was, I gained a lot of knowledge regarding what to look for in a sponsor. Hopefully, this blog can help a newcomer make a more informed choice when asking for help. If my experience can help another alcoholic, then that would have made my own journey worthwhile.

Who can benefit from hardcore sponsorship?

I have had good sponsors and bad ones. Some were not well enough for the task. Strangely, I once benefited from working with a Big Book fundamentalist. I describe my relationship with David B. at length in my book. When I received the Gift ODesperation (A helpful acronym for GOD), I asked him for help.

Having David as a sponsor was not an easy experience. He was very strict and intolerant at times. That said, he knew the illness inside out. His experience as a sponsor guided me toward long-term sobriety. For a limited period, David taught me a lot about alcoholism. For a long time, I didn’t believe that alcoholism was an illness. He helped me to see it and accept it. David’s daily suggestions were the foundation that prepared me for a much happier experience of an alcohol-free life.

You are a member if you say you are

“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

This is the third tradition of AA. It represents the unique and all-inclusive nature of the fellowship. Being a spiritual fellowship, we welcome anyone who wants to stop drinking. If you say you are an alcoholic, no one in AA can dispute this. Tradition three requires us to accept everyone with a desire to stop drinking—those who identify as atheists and agnostics, as well as those with co-existing mental health issues.

A sometimes serious problem can arise if your chosen sponsor has a coexisting personality disorder. Some members have maladapted, often destructive egos. Their agendas can be dangerous and predatory to a newcomer. A humorous saying in AA is that: “alcoholics are ego-maniacs with low self-esteem.” An untreated alcoholic with an over-inflated sense of self can be harmful. If a sponsor is arrogant and controlling, it is probably best to walk away.

Narcissists in AA

Alcoholics who are also narcissists are not uncommon. They are dangerous people to get involved with. Even more so to have one as a sponsor. Too often, they give the impression of being friendly and charming. If you are unfortunate enough to get one as a sponsor, you may soon realize you have made a regrettable choice. You may wonder why you did not trust your intuition and end sponsorship when the warning signs became apparent.

Sponsorship with someone with narcissistic tendencies may be a damaging experience. It can set you back in your recovery. You may even need outside help to deprogram yourself from this toxic relationship. The fact that they can appear personable and interested in you is the very thing that makes them so dangerous! Please be patient, prudent, and discerning when seeking a step guide.

An Addiction to Power

Asking someone to take you through the steps is an essential life-giving decision. It requires good judgment. The fellowship is full of people at different stages of recovery. The length of physical abstinence means nothing. When some alcoholics put down the alcohol, they can sometimes replace it with a new addiction. Sadly, for some alcoholics, it’s a lust for power and control over others. An insatiable craving for recognition and admiration frequently drives them.

After getting sober, some members give the impression of having a great recovery. However, on closer inspection, they are grandiose and arrogant. They become as addicted to power as they were to alcohol. If, as Bill suggests, alcoholism is a spiritual illness, then becoming addicted to power cannot be described as a spiritual awakening. It amounts to the same spiritual bankruptcy that alcoholism created in the first place. It is merely a continuation of the “spiritual malady” (BB p. 64) in a different form.

“The member talks to the newcomer not in a spirit of power but in a spirit of humility and weakness.”

Alcoholics Anonymous comes of age p. 279

Your own conception of a higher power

I would also like to point out that some fundamentalist members believe that their own personal interpretation of God is the only way to recover from alcoholism. This type of sponsorship can confuse a bewildered agnostic trying to develop their own conception of a higher power. Any sponsor who demands strict adherence to their own ideas about God violates the all-inclusive ethos of AA. 

“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” 

Empathy and compassion are the qualities most conducive to successful sponsorship. The third and eleventh steps are qualified with the clause “as we understand him.” Especially in early recovery, it is just as valid to say, “as we don’t understand him.” (Steps three and eleven)

If newcomers don’t believe in God, a good sponsor will refer them to the Chapter on Step Two. Page 27 clearly states, “You can, if you wish, make AA itself your higher power.” As an enquiring agnostic, I have learned to avoid sponsors who have fundamentalist views about God.

Carrying a spiritual message, as described by Bill in the Big Book

Every AA member searching for a higher power must follow a path to spirituality that works for them. Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of AA and author of The Big Book, is clear about how to carry the message of recovery to the alcoholic who still suffers:

 “You will be most successful with alcoholics if you do not exhibit any passion for crusade or reformNever talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop; simply lay out the kit of spiritual tools for his inspectionShow him how they worked with you. Offer him friendship and fellowship.”

(BB p. 95)

No one has all the answers

If you find yourself with a sponsor who thinks they have all the answers about the nature of God and tries to impose them on you, then does this type of fundamentalism reflect the spiritual principles of AA? None of us have all the answers, nor do we have a monopoly on truth. If newcomers want the program, they will seek a conception of a higher power that works for them. Good sponsors know that as long as their sponsees remain seekers, they will eventually find a spirituality that guides them to contented sobriety.

The entire psychic change

A spiritual awakening and a belief in God are not necessarily inclusive. Some members remain agnostic and yet devote their lives to service in AA. Selfless service in the fellowship is powerful enough to facilitate the “entire psychic change,” mentioned by Dr. Silkworth in the doctor’s opinion. (BB p. XXIX) Whether or not a member believes in God is irrelevant to the program’s success.

“He must decide for himself whether he wants to go on. He should not be pushed or prodded by you.” 

(BB P.95)

Fear-driven compliance

Observing my reaction and those of some of my peers, the fruit of hardcore fundamentalism can, at times, achieve an insincere, fear-driven compliance. Does it accomplish a lasting surrender to the spiritual principles of AA? That’s an interesting question. Each person has to decide what kind of sponsorship suits them. 

No person in AA can claim infallible knowledge of the Big Book and its principles. Bill clearly states:

 “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize that we know only a little.

(B p.164)

Bill concludes the statement by saying, “God* will constantly disclose more to you and to us.”

(BB p.164)

For many of us, GOD* = Good Orderly Direction from a sponsor you trust and respect.

‘As we understand him’

We need to be careful and remember that AA is all-inclusive. The AA program is open to personal interpretation. I was told this by the GSO in New York (The General Service Office of AA). If we follow the guidelines of the Big Book, we are reminded that steps three and eleven are qualified with “as we understand him.”  Bill W added this clause on the insistence of Jim Burwell. Jim B was AA’s first atheist. He died on September 8th, 1974, and was 38 years sober.

Following Good Orderly Direction is good enough to make a powerful beginning. When an alcoholic surrenders and becomes teachable, The possibilities become endless! Love and service remain the core principles of AA. Dr. Bob shared this message in a talk he gave three months before he died. It is known as “Dr Bob’s farewell talk” and is available online. The principles of love and service are powerful enough to lead non-believers to a non-God-centered spiritual awakening.

Love and tolerance

Bill himself makes a powerful statement in the Big Book. He offers us clear-cut instructions on how recovering alcoholics are supposed to behave to one another if they have put their lives “on a spiritual basis” (BB p.44). Members acknowledge the all-inclusive nature of AA. Potential sponsors will hopefully use Bill’s words as their mantra.

“Love and tolerance of others is our code.”

BB p. 84)

The unspoken agreement between the sponsor and sponsee

In conclusion, when working with a sponsor, the prospective sponsee is invited to strive for “honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness” (BB. p. 568). They are more likely to be successful if the sponsor is kind and tolerant. A willingness to be teachable and follow the suggestions of a sponsor is crucial.

Doing “the work” of the steps is the responsibility of the sponsee. Love and tolerance are the spiritual mandate of the sponsor if recovery is to have depth and meaning. Choosing a sponsor based on discernment was a skill I had to learn in AA. As a practicing drunk, discernment was not a quality I possessed.

My current sponsor keeps reminding me that the fellowship is a psychiatric hospital. Some people are well, and others aren’t. Finding a sponsor who encapsulates the spiritual principles of love and tolerance can sometimes take time.

The AA literature teaches us the importance of being patient to make a healthy choice………

 “Here, we ought to take much care, remembering that prudence is a virtue which carries a high rating.”

(12&12 p. 61)

In fellowship,

Andy F

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