Healthy Sponsorship Boundaries in AA
I came to AA on the 15th of May 1984 after twenty years of very 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 God word and a higher power was certainly one of them. These two words appear in six out of the twelve steps.
I used my intolerance of the God word as an excuse to not do the steps at all. Moreover, I was in complete denial of both my powerlessness over alcohol and my complete inability to manage my life; either drunk or sober. Every time I went back out drinking, I would have to find a new sponsor when I got back to meetings. 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 to be treated with kindness and respect. Trust never came easy to me and yet here I was, asking for help from a potential sponsor. More often than not, a complete stranger.
In this blog, I will describe some of the different types of sponsorship experiences that I have had; the positive and the not so positive. I learned something useful from them all. I am writing this blog to make the newcomer to AA more aware of the importance of making an informed choice when asking for sponsorship.
A “softly softly” approach to AA sponsorship; with no focus on step work.
The first sponsor I had was the kindest and most wonderful man you could imagine. We were together for about two years. Theo and I never did any steps work together because I wasn’t well enough. He was so kind and supportive. As a newcomer to AA, 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. Once I let go of the drink, in many ways, my life fell apart. It 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: Choosing a sponsor wisely.
There are many very kind and loving people in AA that are always happy to reach out a hand of support to the newcomer. There are also people who are very egocentric and not really well enough to support newcomers, let alone to sponsor anyone. I would like to offer someone new to AA, a better understanding of what to look for.
Different strokes for different folks
We all need different approaches to sponsorship at different times in our recovery. For me, the progression of my recovery was very slow. Initially, I had to have the softly, softly approach. Later on, I could handle a more disciplined approach to sponsorship. I think we all get better over time. The condition being, that we become teachable and learn how to follow the suggestions of a competent sponsor
Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness
In order to get well from the alcoholic illness, it became necessary for me to internalize the three main principles of recovery. These are honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. They are essential to the recovery journey. (Please see “Spiritual Appendix 2 on pages 567 and 568 of the 4th Edition of the Big Book)
I would meet sponsors that were suited to whatever level of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness I was ready to cope with. It was a slow and incremental process. When I was ready, I became willing to work the 12 steps. I learned something useful from every sponsor that I had. At times, I learned how not to behave towards the people that I ended up sponsoring.
Sponsorship boundaries for members with co-existing mental health issues
I can tell you in all honesty that when I first got sober; due to my dual- diagnosis, I just wasn’t well enough for the 12 step program. I was under the care of doctors who prescribed medication which helped me to function. I found sobriety overwhelming in my early days. This may be a controversial issue for some members who take a more fundamentalist view of recovery.
The 12 steps. A cure-all?
Some of them will tell you that no matter how mentally impaired you are, the steps are a cure-all. These fundamentalist sponsors 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” They belong to ‘the one spanner fits all’ brigade.
Following your doctors’ advice
Of course, they are not qualified to offer an opinion about who can and who can’t take medicine in recovery. 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. If ever there was a violation of boundaries in AA that was it. Initially, I needed medical intervention. Only when I got better mentally, could I honestly face myself in the steps.
The steps; the ultimate treatment for alcoholism
Ultimately, 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 to resolve some of the residual anxiety and depression that I still had. I can assure, not before I was ready. I always tell newcomers to AA that are on medication. “Medication enabled me to do the steps and the steps enabled me to come off my medication.” Some members will need to be on medication for the rest of their lives. Most of them are committed members and do great service work in AA
Dual-diagnosis in recovery from alcoholism
I began to understand that I had two illnesses; poor mental health and my alcoholism. Interestingly enough, the journey in early recovery was about learning how to separate the two. Where did my mental health issues end and my alcoholism begin and vice versa? That in itself was a challenging process.
After I had been in AA for several years, I received two specific diagnoses from health care professionals. The first was BPD; borderline personality disorder and the second was CPTSD; complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I wouldn’t have survived my early years in recovery without medication.
Boundaries with hardcore AA sponsors
My last relapse was a very hopeless and desperate time in my life. I knew that I wouldn’t survive much longer if I didn’t do the one thing that I had always feared doing; namely the 12 steps. Over 10 years of talk therapy failed to help me resolve my issues. I still kept relapsing on booze.
I got the “gift of desperation” and a sponsor. He was seen as a Big Book fundamentalist. That sponsor was David B; a well known and notorious member of the London fellowship. I asked David to take me through the program. David was the founder member of the “Vision for you” groups in London. They had a reputation of being a cult within AA. The “vision for you,” was also known for its tough approach to sponsorship.
AA cult watch
For more information, please see http://aacultwatch.blogspot.com/. There is a whole section on this website about David B and his “Vision for you” groups. My experience with David is very relevant to this blog. It will invite the reader to consider the question of what healthy and unhealthy boundaries may be in the sponsor/sponsee alliance.
The “Vision for you groups”
David B founded the “Vision for you” groups so that he could create his own style of AA. He wanted a platform from which he could 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.” What I share with you are my own memories of the two years I was sponsored by David.
What kind of man was David?
Unquestionably, David was a good man. He knew that helping newcomers to AA was going to keep him sober. He devoted his life to carrying the message of recovery to the alcoholic that still suffers. His style of recovery was David’s own interpretation of The Big Book. The “vision for you’ was undoubtedly a cult. They were very separate from the rest of the fellowship.
Within a few years, his 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 even had a ‘vision for you’ group in Sydney, Australia. I’m not sure if they ever got to America.
When I was in New York, some members of AA there had heard of David B. They knew that his approach to recovery was hardcore. He believed that only through a willingness to take direction, could a drunk overcome the self-centeredness of the alcoholic illness.
Asking for sponsorship in a cult within the fellowship
I asked David to sponsor me at the end of more than a decade of relapse. I was genuinely frightened that I wasn’t going to make it. My mental health had improved considerably but strangely, this wasn’t enough to keep me sober. Would I have been able to cope with David’s style of sponsorship when I first came to the fellowship? No chance! I would not have lasted a day with him in the early ’80s.
When I asked David to be my sponsor, his first question to me was “Are you willing to go to any lengths” Then he gave me 6 suggestions that I had to take every day. I was then handed a sticker to put on my shaving mirror. It read “You are now looking at the problem” It would remind me every day when I was shaving who the problem really was.
The sticker came as a shock, considering that I spent the last ten years in therapy blaming my childhood. It was the wake-up call that I needed to begin taking some responsibility for my recovery. Now that I was mentally stronger, I would at least try to give David’s style of recovery my best shot.
The daily phone call to your sponsor in the “vision”
David told me to call him every morning at a prearranged time. If I was five minutes late, he would put the phone down on me. All he was interested in was if I had done the six suggestions that he gave me. My feelings were irrelevant. He didn’t want to discuss my struggles. All that David wanted to know was if I had done the 6 things.
The “Six Things”
- Get on your knees and pray 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 people that you resent, wishing them everything that 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 appal me if I felt that 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 own 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, I will learn something useful, I will 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, 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, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.
- Just for today, I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.
Praying for a sober day
David’s first question to me when I called him in the morning was; had I been down on my knees to pray for a sober day? He didn’t seem to care if I believed in God or not. If I wanted David as a sponsor, I had to do as he suggested. Despite being agnostic, I was so desperate not to drink again, that I did it anyway. He was very confident about praying on your knees and asking for a sober day. He believed that by getting down on your knees and asking for a sober day, the alcoholic wouldn’t drink that day.
David said that this daily practice worked, whether you believed in God or not. In his mind, it was all about the surrender, required to 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 agnostics and atheists, GOD became: Group Of Drunks or Good Orderly Direction
David’s remedy for self- pity as he saw it
David did not believe that alcoholics could suffer from depression. If there was ever any hint of what he saw as self-pity in my voice, he would hurl abuse at me and tell me to get more grateful. “Have you had a drink today Lad”? (David called all the men he was sponsoring “lad.”) I told him that I hadn’t had a drink that day. He would then demand to know why I wasn’t more grateful to be sober. He always reminded me that the majority of alcoholics die from alcoholism. “Get grateful” he would command!
Can you see how that approach to recovery, wouldn’t work for a vulnerable newcomer, especially one with poor mental health? After shouting at me for not being more grateful to be sober, he would promptly hang up. I was usually too frightened to call him back with an amended gratitude list.
Attitude to medication in “The vision for you groups”
David’s groups were very opposed to alcoholics being on any type of mood-stabilizing medication. If you wanted to stay in “the vision” you couldn’t be on antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. If he found out that a member was on medication, he would promptly fire them. You were then ostracized from the rest of the “vision for you” groups.
Relationships in early recovery
If you were single, it was strongly suggested that you stay single until you had completed the first nine steps. Sex-relations whilst going through the steps were not tolerated. David was of the opinion, that “under every skirt, there’s a slip” Any fraternizing with members of the opposite sex was not tolerated.
David believed that alcoholics were too mentally unstable to be in a relationship until they had completed the first nine steps of the program. If you were already with someone, the suggestion was that you stay in that relationship. Until alcoholics had completed their ninth step amends, David considered them to be too sick to make an informed choice about staying in or ending their relationship
“Misery is optional”
“Misery is optional,” was David’s battle cry. He shared the same thing at every meeting: “I’ve never had a bad day since coming to AA and getting sober. Since coming to AA,” he would say, “my recovery has been like a walk in the park.” This would infuriate non-vision visitors to the group, especially if they were struggling and would share their pain in the meeting.
In meetings, David would share straight after someone who shared their feelings and pain. He would invalidate what they shared. His idea was to keep the tone of the meeting in the solution and not the problem. It was a complete denial of the reality of early recovery. It’s tough and it’s painful for most newcomers. It is quite normal that early recovery can initially be painful.
“Misery is optional”, he would declare! It was expected that everyone should share positively to give hope and encouragement to the newcomer. Everyone was expected to be super happy and grateful just because they were in AA and sober. If a “vision” member was having a bad day, they would keep it to themselves.
David had one sponsee who always determined to be happy and grateful. This person came into recovery having lost everything to alcohol. He lost his wife, his children, his house, his business and his car. I asked him once how he was doing? With a huge smile on his face and a grin as wide as the Cheshire cat, he told me that he was absolutely suicidal. That’s how David ran the “vision for you” groups!
The “vision” approach to sponsorship
David would instruct his sponsees how to treat the people that they were sponsoring. His message was clear. You sponsor others for your own benefit. The well-being of the person being sponsored was important but seen only as a secondary consideration. I remember David once said to one of the guys he was sponsoring. The sponsee asked David if he could take a newcomer through the steps. “Only If it makes YOU happy” was David’s reply.
Violation of sponsorship boundaries
Unquestionably, David violated the boundaries of many members of the “vision for you” groups. Being the classic charismatic leader of the “vision for you” cult, he had his lieutenants and favourites. They clearly received preferential treatment. This was only because they all believed in him blindly.
They were completely sold on his particular brand of Taliban like fundamentalism. It was only a specific type of alcoholic that could take direction from David. There appears to be those of us that needed a highly disciplined, military approach to recovery. At the time, because I couldn’t stop relapsing, I was one of them.
“All fundamentalism is born out of fear”
I once read a very interesting book by a well known British Methodist minister and social activist. His name was Lord Soper. He founded the West London Mission which helped homeless people and street drinkers in London. Later during his ministry, he was made a peer of the House of Lords, hence his title: Lord Soper. He made a remarkable statement in his book. He said that “All fundamentalism is born out of fear”
That was certainly true for me at the time. I was scared to death of drinking again. Perhaps my life would become even more chaotic and unmanageable then it already was. I didn’t want to end up paying the ultimate price. To the best of my ability, I fully complied with the “Vision” regime.
I am convinced that almost everyone in the “vision for you” groups was frightened of relapse. That is probably why they were all so attracted to this type of AA fundamentalism. I sometimes wonder if the person that was most frightened of drinking again – was David himself.
The pros and cons of hardcore sponsorship
Should I have walked away from David and his sometimes bullying style of sponsorship? Definitely!
Was it a violation of my boundaries as a human being, despite the fact that I was an alcoholic? Definitely!
Why didn’t I just walk away? Good question! At the time, – I was between a rock and a hard place. I had the “gift of desperation.” and was willing to put up with David’s unacceptable behaviour to get sober. At that time, 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 behaviour modification.
Do I regret staying with David and taking his abuse? As strange as this may sound to the reader, I have no regrets about being sponsored by him. I had already been in AA for thirteen years with a long history of relapse. I would not encourage a frightened and vulnerable newcomer to join the “vision” unless they were fully aware of what to expect.
Strange as this may sound, indirectly, the old bastard was probably instrumental in saving my life. I would only suggest the “vision for you” groups to other serial relapsers like me; members of the fellowship who had tried everything else and failed. No doubt some alcoholics, benefit from this style of a highly structured and disciplined approach.
It was the “shock therapy” that I needed. It got me out of the problem and into the solution. I had no idea what the solutions were, which is why I floundered for so many years in AA. All I knew, was how to live in the problem. I wasn’t even sure what the problem was until David made it very clear that it was me!
AA “Boot Camp”
The “Vision” groups were like a military-style AA boot camp. Despite being an angry, abusive and intolerant old scoundrel, he knew the alcoholic illness. He was aware that recovery from alcoholism was all about taking the suggested actions to feel better about their lives.
By insisting that his meetings only share a positive and upbeat message, he believed that he was giving the newcomer hope. Was it false hope based on a happy-clappy illusion? I will leave that for the reader to decide. David knew what actions were required to help alcoholics be more positive and stay sober
The dangers of ego in sponsorship
If David was still alive, would I go to his funeral? YES! I can assure you, not because of his over-inflated ego. To the best of his ability, he devoted his life to helping other alcoholics. He always had one of his sponsees at his apartment sharing their fifth step.
Unfortunately for David, as many alcoholics do, he succumbed to an ego-driven power trip. A need to believe in the illusion of power over others is just as addictive for alcoholics as alcohol ever was. It is not by coincidence that alcoholics are said to have “maladapted” egos. He ended up very angry and alone. He fell out with so many people.
In AA, we call this “untreated alcoholism.” or a “dry drunk.” He was lucky that he didn’t drink again. It can happen to the best of us. We can always withdraw our surrender and start running our lives on ego once again. It is so easy for alcoholics to lose the humility that they may have gained through working the steps.
My private thoughts about David
I have my own private thoughts about why David became so angry and intolerant. It’s not out of the question that he gave too much of himself to the people that he was helping. Perhaps, he burned himself out and was running on empty? In AA we call this type of emptiness ‘spiritual bankruptcy.’
The truth is that a sponsor seems to do all the giving and the sponsee all the taking. Maybe in sponsoring so many guys he ended up with nothing left to give. I guess we all need to keep recharging our batteries. Otherwise, we are all in danger of going on a “dry drunk” if we don’t continue working the maintenance steps.
Making AA your higher power
Some of David’s suggestions proved to be very helpful. When he agreed to sponsor me, I told him that I couldn’t do the steps because I was an agnostic and didn’t believe in God or a higher power. He referred me to page 27 of the 12 steps and 12 traditions.
There at the bottom of the page, it states clearly, that I could make AA itself my higher power. The 12 x 12 is AA conference approved literature. For an agnostic like me, this short passage on page 27, convinced me that there really is a place in AA for agnostics and atheists. It was the turning point in my recovery.
David offered me practical and credible alternatives to the God word in all the other steps where the God word is mentioned. This really impressed me about him. Considering David was a practising catholic, this showed that he respected everyone’s position on the question of God.
David was so full of contradictions. Sometimes he was very difficult; at other times he had the heart to show me that quote in the AA literature. It is so relevant to agnostics in recovery. It enabled me to get to grips with steps two and three and gave me the green light to proceed with the rest of the steps.
David’s attitude to counseling and therapy
David’s message was to take the prescribed actions to feel better and stay sober. Don’t sit and talk too long about your problems. In stark contrast to counseling and therapy, David believed that if an alcoholic was too focused on their feelings, they were likely to be swallowed up by blame, resentment and self-pity.
He saw counseling and therapy as self-indulgent nonsense. In his mind, therapists were just modern-day witch-doctors. If you took the actions that he suggested, you were living in the solution and not the problem. David believed that learning how to live in the solution was the only thing that could get an alcoholic on the road to recovery.
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 style of sponsorship. I was in a lot of denial about my powerlessness over alcohol and didn’t believe that my life was unmanageable. I was also totally dishonest in almost every other area of my life. Dishonesty was all that I knew.
All my life, I believed in the illusion of my own self-sufficiency. This was the “self will run riot” that is mentioned on page 62 of the Big Book of AA. After my last relapse, the day finally came when my ego collapsed. On that very special day, as painful as it was, I became teachable for the first time in my life. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
What I find difficult to understand is how this style of AA can possibly help a vulnerable newcomer. This is even truer of alcoholics with co-existing mental health issues. As mentioned before, I wouldn’t have lasted a day with David when I was new. Perhaps there is a place in AA for the softly, softly approach as well as the more disciplined and demanding style of sponsorship? We are all affected by the disease of alcoholism in different ways and to different degrees.
Love and Tolerance
On page 97 of the first edition of The Big Book in Chapter 6 “Into Action,” Bill W. tells us that “Love and tolerance of others is our code” I cannot say that I experienced much love or tolerance in the “Vision for you” groups. There is no doubt in my mind, that in the long run, a tough and disciplined approach to sponsorship is much more likely to be effective if tempered with love and tolerance
Conclusion: What is “Being willing to go to any lengths” in AA?
We all inevitably get to a place in our drinking and recovery when we have to be willing to go to any lengths to get sober and well. When we ask another alcoholic for sponsorship, they sometimes ask us if we are willing to go to any lengths. Each one of us has to answer that all important question for themselves.
What lengths are we willing to go to get sober and treat our alcoholism? For many of us, recovery is a matter of life and death. Are we going to get busy living or get busy dying? I had to answer that question with rigorous self-honesty after so many years of relapse. I also had to be willing to go to any lengths. Tough sponsorship was sometimes a part of my journey. It was necessary to break down my ego defences.
Can this ego-reduction be achieved through love and tolerance? Can it be achieved through unconditional positive regard for the newcomer? Is fundamentalist “Big Book thumping” the way to get the best results? It is a subject worthy of further discussion