Healthy Sponsorship Boundaries in AA
Many relapses; many sponsors
I came to AA on the 15th of May 1984 after twenty years of self-destructive drinking. For the next thirteen years in AA, I relapsed regularly and almost died on several occasions. During this period, I probably got through at least twenty sponsors. There were many reasons for my frequent relapses. My inability to tolerate the word “God” or mention of a “higher power” was undoubtedly one of them.
These two words appear in six out of the twelve steps. I used my intolerance of God as an excuse not to do the steps. Moreover, I was in complete denial of Step One. Every time I relapsed, I would have to find a new sponsor. A person can get through a lot of sponsors during thirteen years of relapse. I have had every type of sponsor you could imagine.
A recovering alcoholic’s right to be treated with respect
Just because I am a drunk, it doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve kindness and respect when getting sober. Trust has never come easily, yet here I was, asking for sponsorship from a stranger. In this blog, I will describe some of my diverse experiences: the positive and the not-so-positive. I learned something valuable from every one of them. This blog aims to make newcomers more aware of the importance of making an informed choice when asking for help.
A soft approach with no focus on step work
My first sponsor was the kindest and most wonderful man you could imagine. We were together for about two years. Theo and I never did any steps together because I wasn’t mentally well enough. He was so kind and supportive. As a newcomer, I found life very challenging. I would go so far as to say that in my early days, I found life without alcohol quite traumatic. In many ways, once I let go of the drink, my life fell apart. Alcohol had been a lifelong crutch.
Positive experiences with good people kept me coming back to AA. Theo was my support system, mentor, guide, and friend. We went to meetings together frequently. I was often invited to his house to visit with his family. Very sadly, Theo drank again and died of alcoholism. He was such a kind and compassionate man. I have nothing but the fondest memories of him.
The Gift Of Discernment (GOD): – Choosing a Sponsor wisely
In the fellowship, many very kind and loving people are always happy to reach out to a struggling newcomer. On the other hand, some members are selfish, self-centered, and too ego-driven to be helpful. I want to offer the reader a better understanding of what to look for in a sponsor. Depending on our mental and emotional health as newcomers, we benefit from different approaches to the program at different stages of our individual recoveries.
For me, getting well was painfully slow. Initially, I could only handle the ‘softly softly’ approach. Later on, I could cope with a more disciplined style of sponsorship. We all get better over time. The condition is that we become teachable and learn how to follow the suggestions of an experienced step guide.
Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness
To get well from the alcoholic illness, it became necessary to internalize the three main principles of recovery. These are “honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.” They are essential to the recovery journey. (BB pages 567 and 568)
I learned to choose sponsors suited to whatever level of recovery I was able to cope with. It was a gradual and incremental process. When ready and in enough pain, I became willing to follow suggestions. I learned something valuable from every sponsor I had. Later on, through negative experiences, I learned not to behave like this toward the people I sponsored.
The 12 steps – A cure-all?
Hardcore sponsors will tell you that no matter how mentally impaired you are, the steps are a cure-all. These fundamentalists tell people that they won’t sponsor them until they stop taking their medication. They proclaim that alcoholics who are on medication “are just eating their alcohol in the form of tablets.” Some of them think they know better than doctors.
Following your doctor’s advice
Of course, no one in AA is qualified to say who can and who can’t be on medication. That assessment can only come from a qualified physician. I did have a few fundamentalist sponsors that interfered with the treatment I was receiving from my doctor for anxiety and depression. If there was a boundary violation in the fellowship, that was it. Initially, I did require medical intervention. Only when I improved could I face myself honestly in the steps.
Medication and the Twelve Steps
In the long run, I do believe that the 12 steps are the only truly effective treatment for alcoholism. When I was ready and went through the program, the steps even helped me recover from my various mental health issues. I can assure you, not before I was ready. I always tell newcomers to AA who have co-existing disorders requiring medical intervention. “Medication enabled me to do the steps, and the steps enabled me to stop taking meds.” Some members will need to be on medication for the rest of their lives. Most of them are committed members and do excellent service work in AA. I had to be on medication for about twenty-five years. As a result of the twelve steps, I have been medication-free for the past fifteen years.
Boundaries with hardcore AA sponsors
My last relapse was a very hopeless and desperate time in my life. I knew I wouldn’t survive much longer if I didn’t do the one thing I had always feared, namely, get a sponsor and agree to take suggestions. Ten years of talk therapy whilst going to meetings failed to keep me sober. I could not deal with the “wreckage of the past.” (BB p. 164}. I remained trapped on the merry-go-round of relapse with alcohol, drugs, sex, and food.
Eventually, I did what everyone else did when I got the “Gift Of Desperation” (Acronym for GOD). I finally got a sponsor. David was considered a Big Book fundamentalist. He was a well-known and notorious member of the London fellowship. I asked him to take me through the program. David founded the “Vision for You” groups in London. They had a reputation for being a cult-like splinter group. These groups were known for their very strict and structured approach to the program.
AA cult watch
For more information, please see http://aacultwatch.blogspot.com/. This website has a section about David B., the founder of the “Vision for You” group. My experience with David is very relevant to this blog. I hope it will invite readers to establish healthy boundaries in the sponsor/sponsee alliance.
The “Vision for you” groups
David B. founded these groups to create his style of recovery from alcoholism. He wanted a platform to share what he saw as a pure and undiluted AA message. He was the original “Big Book Thumper” in the UK fellowship. I have devoted a whole section to David B. in my book “The Twelve Steps for Agnostics.” In the chapter about step six, I recall my memories of when David sponsored me.
What kind of man was David?
Unquestionably, David was a good man. He knew that helping newcomers was keeping him sober. He devoted his life to carrying the message of recovery to the alcoholic who still suffers. David’s interpretation of the Big Book inspired him to promote his unique recovery style. Many members of mainstream AA saw the “vision for you” as a cult.
Their approach was undoubtedly very different from the rest of the fellowship. Within a few years, David’s groups mushroomed to about seven or eight groups in London alone. Many more sprang up in Plymouth. Later on, they spread all over the UK. They eventually arrived in the U.S., Sydney, Australia, and Bali.
When I was in New York, some AA members had heard of David B. They knew that his approach to recovery was hardcore. He believed that only through unconditional surrender followed by a willingness to take suggestions could a drunk stay sober and get well.
Asking for sponsorship in a hardcore group
I asked David to sponsor me after more than a decade of relapse. I was genuinely frightened that I wasn’t going to make it. With the help of a psychiatrist, my mental health had improved considerably. Strangely, this wasn’t enough to keep me sober. Would I have been able to cope with his style of sponsorship when I was a newcomer? No chance! I would not have lasted a day with him when I was new.
When David agreed to sponsor me, his first question was, “Are you willing to go to any lengths?” Then, he gave me six suggestions, which I had to take daily. He handed me a sticker to put on my shaving mirror. It read, “You are now looking at the problem.” I spent a lifetime blaming others for my failures. The sticker would remind me every day who the problem was.
Strange as this may sound, The sticker on the mirror was my first ‘non-God-centered spiritual awakening.’ Why? Because it was the truth! Now, I had become teachable and performed David’s six daily suggestions without complaint.
The “Six Things”
- Get on your knees and ask for a sober day.
- Call your sponsor and call a newcomer to ask how they are doing.
- Write a gratitude list.
- Read a chapter or more from the ‘Big Book’ and/or ‘The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions.’
- Read and internalize the “Just for today” card.
- Pray for the people you resent, wishing them everything you desire for yourself.
The “Just for today” card
- Just for today, I will try to live through this day only and not tackle all my problems at once. I can do something for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt I had to keep it up for a lifetime.
- Just for today, I will be happy. This assumes to be true what Abraham Lincoln said, that most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.
- Just for today, I will adjust myself to what is and not try to adjust everything to my desires. I will take my luck as it comes and fit myself to it.
- Just for today, I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study, learn something useful, and not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought, and concentration.
- Just for today, I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out; if anybody knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don’t want to do just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.
- Just for today, I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, keep my voice low, be courteous, and criticize not one bit. I won’t find fault with anything nor try to improve or regulate anybody but myself.
- Just for today, I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.
- Just for today, I will have a quiet half-hour all by myself and relax. During this half-hour, sometimes, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.
- Just for today, I will be unafraid. I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe that as I give to the world, the world will give to me.
Praying for a sober day
When I called him in the morning, David’s first question was, “Have you been on your knees this morning and asked for a sober day”? He didn’t seem to care if I believed in God or not. I had to do as he suggested to keep him as a sponsor. Despite being agnostic, I was so desperate not to drink again that I did it anyway.
David assured me this daily practice would keep me sober if my prayers were humble and honest. Although I had one relapse while I was in the “Vision’, being with David was the beginning of a full recovery from alcoholism. In his mind, it was all about surrender and obedience. This somewhat draconian style of recovery would disarm the alcoholic’s self-will.
Everyone in the “Vision” was expected to perform this morning ritual. Knowing that I didn’t believe in God, he strongly suggested that I pray to the power of AA itself. For me, an agnostic, GOD became a Group Of Drunks as well as a willingness to follow Good Orderly Direction.
Relationships in early recovery
If you were single, the suggestion was to remain so until you had finished the first nine steps. Sex relations while going through the steps were discouraged. David believed that “under every skirt, there’s a slip.” Any fraternizing with members of the opposite sex was not tolerated.
He believed that alcoholics were too mentally unstable to be in a relationship until they had completed the first nine steps. If you were already in a relationship, the suggestion was to stay in the relationship until you had completed the ninth step. David considered them too unwell to make an informed choice about the type of partner they got involved with.
David’s battle cry
“Misery is optional,” he would declare! At every meeting, he said, “I’ve never had a bad day. Since coming to AA, my recovery has been like a walk in the park.” This remark would infuriate non-vision visitors to the group, especially if they were hurting. In meetings, David often shared straight after someone shared about their pain. His message would invalidate what they just said.
His motive was to reinforce the idea that newcomers would benefit from taking suggestions. He sold the suggested actions as a sure way to not drink and be happy in their sobriety. He always reminded everyone at the meeting that misery was optional. If you weren’t grateful for the gift of recovery, you needed an Attitude Adjustment. (AA)
The pros and cons of hardcore sponsorship
Should I have walked away from David and his sometimes aggressive style of sponsorship? Probably!
Was it a violation of my boundaries as a human being? Probably!
Why didn’t I walk away? That’s a good question! At the time, I was between a rock and a hard place. I had the “Gift Of Desperation.” (Acronym for GOD) As an alcoholic, sick and tired of relapse, I was willing to put up with David’s strong-arm tactics to get sober. In the early 90s, I was fighting for my life. That’s why I stayed with David for two years. These groups were probably the best place for me at the time. I needed to be “policed” into the solution. David’s “Vision for You” group was the crudest type of behavior modification. Still, it was the most effective approach for those willing to do whatever it took to get well.
What kind of sponsorship is right for you?
I can understand why a thirteen-year veteran of AA, a diehard and chronic relapser like me, may have benefitted from David’s recovery style. There was no question about how much denial I was in, especially concerning my powerlessness over alcohol. There was also no way I believed that my life was unmanageable. I was dishonest to the core of my being. It was all that I ever knew.
All my life, I believed my way was the only way. “Self will run riot” is mentioned on page 62 of the Big Book. After my last relapse, the day finally came when my ego collapsed. As painful as it was, as a later sponsor remarked, the day my ego collapsed was a gift from the universe. As he put it, ‘a gift wrapped in shit’! On that extraordinary day, I was suddenly catapulted into the solution. For the first time in my life, I became teachable. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I became willing to follow David’s Good Orderly Direction. (Acronym for GOD)
I had to learn to make an informed choice when asking for sponsorship. It was all about discernment. My current sponsor keeps reminding me that AA is essentially a psychiatric hospital. Some people are reasonably well, and others aren’t. Some alcoholics are very damaged, even if they look and sound good at meetings.
Love, tolerance, and humility are highly desirable qualities to be present in a prospective sponsor. It can sometimes take time to find a sponsor that has grown into this level of spirituality. It’s well worth being patient until the right person comes along.
The AA literature instructs us about the importance of making a healthy choice when asking for sponsorship………
“Here, we ought to take much care, remembering that prudence is a virtue which carries a high rating.”
(12&12 p. 61)