A 12-Step program is successful for many reasons.
You’re surrounded by people who understand what you’re going through. You have a network to turn to if you need to work out a problem. You can socialize comfortably. You have accountability, and help others stay focused on their intentions as well.
Another benefit of a 12-Step program is you have the option for a sponsor. This individual may help you “work the Steps” and be your go-to person when you feel triggered or are coping with cravings. They provide the voice of reason that you might not appreciate at the time, but learn to respect later.
How do you create a sponsor partnership? With trust, an open mind, respect, and a willingness to let someone guide you to a better life.
The History of the Sponsor
While many people have a spiritual advisor, therapist, or another influential individual who can provide a strong shoulder of support, not everyone can relate to the particular challenges of drug and alcohol addiction.
The history of the 12-Step sponsor basically starts with Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA’s archives note that when Bill W. was in the first few months of sobriety, he “was stricken with a powerful urge to drink, and this thought came to him: ‘You need another alcoholic to talk to…you need another alcoholic as much as he needs you!'” When he found Dr. Bob, the two realized that “through sharing, their own sober lives could be enriched beyond measure.”
AA’s sponsor model is followed by many other groups. A sponsor and sponsee are considered equals. The person in the sponsor role has some success in sobriety, abstinence, or healing with a particular recovery program. A sponsee relies on this guidance to achieve the same.
You don’t need to be religious or even spiritual to benefit from a 12-Step sponsor relationship. You may also want to develop a sponsor partnership rooted in faith. These are characteristics you work out when choosing a sponsor.
The Role of the Sponsor
When a person assumes the position of a sponsor, it’s not a casual undertaking. A sponsor should be receptive to the needs of the individual he or she is mentoring. In some situations, a sponsor helps more than one person. Time management is important, as some sponsees might require connection once a day, at least for a while. Others do well meeting once or twice weekly.
A sponsor also has to define the boundaries of contact. After all, he or she is also nurturing recovery, so self-care is important. Often sponsors are a year or two into their recovery. It’s essential that a sponsor and sponsee discuss communication styles, forms of contact—such as meetings, phone calls, texts, and emails—and availability. Is a midnight call okay? Can a sponsee plan to meet for coffee each morning? What happens when a sponsor goes on vacation? Clear messaging at the beginning of the partnership provides a solid foundation so each individual understands expectations.
Depending on the guidelines of the specific 12-Step group, a sponsor might help an individual with homework or readings, answer questions about the process, and other interpersonal actions.
In most situations, it’s advised that a sponsor and sponsee not necessarily develop a friendship. For many people new to recovery, relationships need to be tempered so they don’t slip into aspects of co-dependency and neglected self-work. Instead, this connection is a safe space—one of mutual understanding and trust, a dedication to a healthy life, respect for different perspectives, and accountability to maintain intentions of wellness.
The Role of the Sponsee
As a student of sobriety and healing, a sponsee in a 12-Step program often struggles with emerging feelings and thoughts previously masked by their addictive behavior or overwhelmed by other challenges. Many people first encounter a support group during a stay in an inpatient rehabilitation facility or through outpatient services.
To ask someone to provide mentoring takes courage as you work through aspects of vulnerability, guilt, shame, insecurity, blame, and for some, redemption. Be assured that this next step on your recovery journey will provide the support and encouragement necessary for your success.
It’s critical to take your time when choosing a sponsor. At Willingway’s Georgia drug and alcohol addiction treatment center, we recommend the following:
- Avoid romantic entanglements. Your sponsor isn’t supposed to be your best friend, nor should you choose him or her based on attraction. Experts recommend asking someone of the same gender or a different sexual preference to be a mentor so the focus stays on healing, handling daily life, and other aspects of recovery.
- Meet a few people first. Casually meet with different people before asking someone to be your sponsor. This way, you gain a better understanding of communication and personality styles, their approach to sobriety and abstinence, and how well you feel they’ll support you. Also, make time to hear their recovery stories. Meeting first gives you both an opportunity to discuss expectations, hopes, and needs.
- Remember—your sponsor isn’t your therapist. You have professionals to provide the necessary guidance for effective behavioral change. Yes, you should be able to talk openly about what’s troubling you, but expect your sponsor to refer to the tenants of the program to help you.
- Keep an open mind. As much as we prefer it when someone agrees with us, your sponsor might present a differing opinion. Consider this with kindness. Likewise, your sponsor should demonstrate respect for your individuality, and not try to force you to do things his or her way.
Willingway: A Gathering Place
Throughout the Southeast, Willingway holds weekly continuing care groups to help people learn about freedom through recovery. We want you to trust that someone not only understands what you’re going through, but also wants to help. These groups are free and open to the public—use this list to find the one closest to you.