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Originally Posted On: https://jameshaggertyrecovery.com/blog/become-sponsor-stay-sober/
One of the first lessons I learned during recovery was that, on their own, treatment plans usually aren’t enough to ensure long-term sobriety. After all, what about after the treatment is complete? What’s stopping the recovering individual from returning to substance abuse, if no one is there to hold them accountable?
For those in recovery from substance addiction, support groups are essential. I recommend looking into groups that follow the 12-step model, which includes Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). By participating in these groups, you’ll find yourself surrounded by peers who are also in the process of recovery. Just like I was able to, you’ll soon find yourself forming close bonds with other individuals, building up a support system to carry you throughout your recovery journey.
Remember, there are over two million current Alcoholics Anonymous members — and this is the case for a reason. People in recovery can get a lot out of regular support and engaging with those of a similar experience. I’ve seen, firsthand, a huge number of people in recovery benefit from this sort of system. That’s why I’m such a big proponent of support groups for those recovering from substance dependency. Similarly, I’m also a fan of the sponsor/sponsee system, as someone who’s seen the good it can do for everyone in recovery.
What Is a Sponsor?
For those who aren’t yet familiar, I’ll take some time to explain “sponsorships,” in the context of a 12-step program or support group. As I’ve explained, support groups are valuable for a good number of reasons, although community is certainly a big one. In fact, a study that was published in Alcohol Treatment Quarterly added further weight to this idea. According to this particular study, “support and acceptance” was the second most common reason that individuals began attending support group meetings. It wasn’t all about the practical or even the personal — community is significant, and its value can’t be downplayed. I certainly won’t be attempting to.
While experiencing an addiction, we tend to develop habits that only push away our loved ones and destroy personal relationships, addiction is a disease of isolation. For instance, some of these habits could involve lying or stealing, in one way or another. This is normal, even if the individual would never have done these negative things, prior to developing a substance addiction. Character defects do not automatically just disappear after a rehab or treatment episode is over.
When you become active in a recovery support group, however, you’ll be surrounded by other people who understand just what you’re going through. Much of the time, those in recovery can start to feel isolated and alone, due to the damage they’ve caused to their relationships. Recovery is already difficult enough, and a crushing sense of loneliness will only complicate the situation, even further. Minimizing your stress levels is always beneficial when it comes to maintaining sobriety and avoiding relapse.
So, why am I explaining all of this to you? Well, it’s because I want to make sure you have a clear grasp on just why the sponsor/sponsee system exists, in the first place. This kind of relationship is intended to help strengthen the sense of community during recovery. Sponsors and sponsees will form a close partnership with one another, where one half has some experience in the program, and the other is new and still adjusting. As a team, these two individuals will be able to experience the program of recovery, all while having someone at their side, helping to keep them on track. Personally, I believe that this simple system is one of the best tools for ensuring long-term sobriety.
Due to the values of the 12-step model, all members are highly encouraged to engage in service for their peers.
If you’re currently in AA, it’s important that you consider:
- How can you use your own knowledge and resources to help others in recovery?
- How can you help others in your support group continue to improve themselves, day by day?
By acting as a sponsor for another member, you’ll be able to accomplish all of these things, and more.
The truth is, sponsorship has become a huge part of AA and addiction recovery culture. So, it’s something that a variety of people willingly choose to participate in, at many stages in their personal recovery. We can all learn from each other, no matter where we are currently. This is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly believe. The opportunity to learn from others and their experiences is a gift, and not one that recovering addicts should overlook.
Why Should I Be a Sponsor?
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It’s important to remember that the sponsor isn’t just helping the sponsee — the sponsee is just as capable of helping the sponsor, in turn. This is intended to be a two-way relationship, and this is when it’s at its most beneficial, for both members. You’ll be given the chance to learn from each other, bringing your own unique experiences and resources to the table.
Whenever you choose to serve as a sponsor, you’ll be progressing your own recovery as well. Plus, you get the satisfaction of having helped someone else in a time of need, especially considering you can probably relate to their position. I certainly believe that this is something to be proud of.
Personally, whenever I can succeed at making another person feel good, I’ll feel good, in turn too. When you act as a sponsor, you can expect to develop feelings of independence, competence, and usefulness — this is all according to a study published in the Southern Medical Journal. During recovery, these sorts of positive feelings can further motivate you to stay on the path of sobriety.
Should I Wait Until Later in Recovery?
As I’ve mentioned, the role of the sponsor is to act as a guide for those who are new to the 12-step program. By this description, you might assume that sponsors are only people far along in their recovery, who are no longer actively struggling. I’m here to let you know that this really isn’t the case. You don’t have to be a decade into recovery to succeed as a sponsor. If anything, becoming a sponsor early on in recovery can be highly beneficial, especially when it comes to maintaining your own dedication to sobriety. The founders of AA actually encouraged early sponsorship.
Even if you’re still struggling in recovery, it’s possible for you to take on the role of someone’s sponsor. The goal should be to hold each other accountable, no matter where you are in your journey to long-term sobriety.
Tips on Being a Successful Sponsor
That isn’t to say that anyone can become a sponsor without putting in any effort, however. In order for the sponsor/sponsee relationship to be at its most fulfilling and productive, you’ll have to consistently tend to it.
The knowledge necessary to be a successful sponsor isn’t something that people are simply born with, or that they develop purely as a result of experiencing addiction. Before becoming a sponsor, it’s important that you’ve been an active participant in the 12-step program and have developed an understanding of the movement and its core principles.
It isn’t the case that the 12-step movement places any restrictions on who can become a sponsor, or on how long they should’ve participated in the program, prior to sponsoring someone.
“Every sponsor is necessarily a leader,” wrote Bill W. in The Language of the Heart (p. 292). “The stakes are huge,” he continued. “A human life, and usually the happiness of a whole family, hangs in the balance. What the sponsor does and says, how well he estimates the reactions of his prospects, how well he times and makes his presentation, how well he handles criticisms, and how well he leads his prospect on by personal spiritual example — well, these attributes of leadership can make all the difference, often the difference between life and death.”
No matter who you are or where you are in your recovery, here are some tips to succeeding as a sponsor:
- Make sure you’re encouraging your sponsees to not just attend support group meetings, but also to stay engaged during those meetings. This should be one of your priorities as a sponsor. Try to ensure that your sponsee is getting the most out of the program and allowing themselves to openly seek community and support.
- As a sponsor, make sure that you’re regularly keeping in touch with your sponsee. In order for this two-way support system to be effective for you both, you’ll obviously need to maintain an open line of communication. Haven’t heard from your sponsee in a bit? Well, then now is the perfect time to check in on them. This will also reassure them that you truly care for their recovery, helping to build trust between the two of you.
- Provide your sponsee with emotional support. If your sponsee feels emotionally supported and listened to, then it’ll probably be easier for them to maintain sobriety in the long term. This can also help your sponsee to reduce levels of stress, or to bring them back down when they’re starting to feel overwhelmed.
- Also, you should be providing your sponsee with practical support. Try to reach out frequently and find a balance between the personal and the practical. Think of recovery as a complex experience, rather than one with a straightforward solution. In order to succeed in sobriety, you’ll need to address a number of areas, whether that be emotional needs, or practical difficulties and uncertainties. Make sure you’re addressing both sides of recovery while supporting your sponsee.
- Be open with your sponsee and share personal experiences with them. Your own experiences have the potential to aid your sponsee’s path to recovery, especially if they’re facing a situation similar to one you’ve faced, yourself. Remember, it’s important for sponsors and sponsees to continuously learn from each other, and a large part of this is by opening up about personal experiences, related to your addiction and recovery.
Nonetheless, I truly believe that there’s no “right” way to sponsor someone. You’ll have to adapt to the needs, goals, and personalities of you and your sponsee. Find the system that works for the two of you, where you both feel like you’re benefiting from the relationship. So long as your sponsorship is productive and helpful to both parties, then it’s fair to say that you’re doing it “right.”
The Role (and Responsibility) of the Sponsee
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As I’ve probably already made clear, the relationship between a sponsor and a sponsee is a two-way street. If the support is only flowing in one direction, then the system isn’t going to work as it should. If you’re considering becoming a sponsor, it’s probably a good idea to brush up on the role of the sponsee, so you know what to expect.
Importantly, a sponsee should be providing recovery support to their sponsor, whenever that sponsor is in need. As a sponsor, don’t feel bad for seeking help from your sponsee. Your role isn’t to be the pinnacle of a perfect, smooth recovery — if that were the case, what wisdom or experience could you even provide to your sponsee?
Your sponsee should be making a genuine attempt to become involved in AA or group recovery culture. You could recommend that your sponsee attend daily meetings, read various recovery documents, volunteer to help set up meetings (or to clean up afterward), and participate in sober activities. Your sponsee should be putting in the effort to not just become familiar with the 12-step culture, but also, to provide themselves with the greatest chance of long-term recovery and sobriety.
Do you have any questions about sponsors and sponsees? Want clarification on something relating to the process? Feel free to get in touch with me, and I’ll do my best to help guide you. I know what it’s like to be in your position, and I want nothing more than to see you succeed and thrive in your recovery. Best of luck to all of you. Reach out and the hand of AA or another person in recovery will always be there for you, but you need to reach out. I pray for you to have the courage to do so!