Addictions are best handled by teams of experts, armed with conventional and alternative therapies. The treatment plans they design attack an addiction from multiple angles, and the help and healing they deliver could be just what people need to start down the road to long-term sobriety.
But a short treatment plan alone can’t truly conquer an addiction. When that program is complete, people may still be tempted to go back into a life filled with the substances they once abused. That’s why many mental health specialists recommend ongoing care in the form of support groups. By attending meetings in the 12-step model, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), people can reach out to peers who are also in recovery, and they could form deep ties that help them to stay sober in the future.
More than 2 million people are members of AA, per estimates from the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office. Clearly, many people are taking the advice of their treatment teams, and they’re signing up for these programs and the benefits they can deliver.
Often, when people choose to attend meetings, they’re encouraged to choose a sponsor. And if members stay involved with AA for a long period of time, they might be asked to sponsor someone else. This article will provide information on what these relationships are designed to do, and why people might consider accepting the sponsor/sponsee role.
What Is a Sponsor?
When people are asked to discuss why they attend support group meetings, most talk about the need to get sober and protect that sobriety in the future. But in a study in Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, the second most popular reason cited had to do with finding support and acceptance.
The habits people use in order to maintain an addiction can ruin relationships. People in recovery might be surrounded by people they’ve lied to, stolen from, or otherwise disappointed. They may lack close connections and deep support. They may feel terribly alone.
People in recovery tend to understand this sort of thing. They’ve been through it, and they know what it’s like. So they can be a wellspring of support for people who are feeling low, sad, and alone. That’s a palpable sense of community people might sense as soon as the first meeting starts. When they’re in a meeting, they’re not alone.
The sponsor/sponsee relationship is designed to build on that sense of community. It’s a close, connected partnership between someone who has experience with the program and someone who is new to recovery. Together, they work the program of recovery and keep one another on track.
The 12-step model is built on a foundation of service, according to documents published by the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office, so people who participate are encouraged to think of ways to give to others and help them improve. Serving as a sponsor is seen as a form of service, so it’s something that most people do willingly. It’s just part of the culture.
But this is more than an obligatory role. Instead, it is a relationship that’s meant to provide a form of help that most people didn’t know they needed. And that help goes in both directions, from the sponsor to the sponsee, and from the sponsee back to the sponsor again.
Tips on Being a Sponsor
As mentioned, a sponsor works a little like a guide to the culture of the 12-step process and the methods that the group uses in order to obtain and preserve sobriety. This isn’t the kind of knowledge that people are born with. It’s the sort of data they pick up by being active, strong members within the 12-step movement itself. That means sponsors are typically well along the recovery path.
Research from Harvard University suggests that people who achieve five years of sobriety tend to stay sober for the rest of life, although it’s unclear why this would be the magic sober number. In general, however, most experts believe that it takes years for people with addictions to develop new habits and thought patterns that can protect them from the damage that addiction can cause. Most people need time to think about these things, and they need to practice them over a period of months or years until they become a force of habit, rather than a conscious choice.
The 12-step movement places no such time restrictions on the sponsor role. People who feel comfortable with taking on a new member or another person in recovery can do so. But often, people who do become sponsors have quite a bit of sober time behind them.
In a study in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers examined the attributes of people who became sponsors in the 12-step model. They found that the median length of time sponsors had participated in the program was 9.5 years, while the median length of sobriety was 11 years.
These study results suggest that most sponsors are experienced members of the sober community. They’ve likely worked the program, and they’ve come up with some personal lessons, too, that might be useful to people new to recovery. This is a role they’ve prepared for, and it’s one they probably feel comfortable taking on.
In this same study in Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers asked the sponsors what sorts of things they did in order to encourage their sponsees. The sponsors admitted to:
- Encouraging their sponsees to go to meetings and engage in AA activities
- Contacting their sponsees regularly
- Providing emotional support
- Delivering practical support
- Sharing personal experiences of recovery
As sponsors, people reach out to those in need, and they share messages that are both personal and practical. Some ask their sponsees to participate in research meetings, in which they talk about or read through one of the steps. Others simply meet up and talk at regular intervals, often before or after meetings. Some become so involved with their sponsees that they meet their families and become ingrained in their everyday life. Others work more like distant supervisors, providing support that’s a touch formal.
There’s no right or wrong way to sponsor, according to the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Conference. People working as sponsors can set up their own rules and requirements, and they can express their personalities through the help they deliver. But people with very strict or very unpleasant sponsorship methods may find that they don’t retain the sponsees they have. Again, it’s perfectly acceptable for people to move away from sponsors that don’t resonate. Using a method that’s abrasive is against the 12-step ethos of helping others. Effective sponsors work hard to reach out to those in need and provide help that really will make a difference. Sometimes, that means using an approach that might not be similar to one a person uses in any other situation.
Documents produced by Alcoholics Anonymous in the UK remind sponsors that they’re not addiction experts. They shouldn’t provide advice on medications, religion, or legal matters. They also shouldn’t lend money, offer jobs, or provide food. Their prime directive is to help people to understand how the program works and what has worked for them through the course of recovery. That’s a tiny slice of topics that could be up for discussion in recovery, but those sponsors who stick to those talking points may provide a great deal of help to people in need.
As sponsors help others, they also help themselves. As a study in the Southern Medical Journal points out, helping others in sobriety tends to boost feelings of competence, independence, and usefulness. Helping others just feels good, and it helps people to feel good about themselves. Those are worthwhile feelings for anyone, particularly people looking for sobriety, and sponsoring can foster those feelings.
People who want to be sponsors can simply make that fact known in a meeting. If they meet new people, they can make their services known. People who really want to take on a sponsee should also work on sharing their stories publicly. They can consider speaking up in meetings about their experiences and the lessons they’ve learned from the steps. They can hold small discussion groups about topics pertaining to recovery. They can make their phone numbers available on call lists handed out by the organization. It may seem a little like self-promotion, but it’s a great way to advertise the knowledge people have and the willingness they have to share that knowledge.
The Role of the Sponsee
Typically, people who are more active in the 12-step recovery process tend to achieve a more persistent form of recovery. That’s the conclusion of a study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, in which researchers found that people with an intensive referral to a 12-step program were more likely to be deeply involved in that program. They achieved abstinence rates of 51 percent, compared to only 41 percent in people who didn’t have an intensive referral.
Aside from an intensive referral, in which a provider insists that a patient attends meetings, there are things individuals can do in order to get more involved with the 12-step culture. They could:
- Read recovery documents
- Attend a meeting every day
- Participate in sober activities
- Volunteer to set up or clean up for meetings
Connecting with a sponsor is often seen as the prime way to really tap into the power of the 12 steps. A sponsor works like a guide to the culture and can help to explain and decode what the system is about and how it works.
Much of AA is self-explanatory, but there are some language barriers for new members. They may not know what a “higher power” is, and they may not know what “one day at a time” is all about. They may not know about meeting formats or speaking rules. They may feel lost in social situations.
A sponsor can work like a decoder during those early days of recovery when everything is new and confusing. This is a trusted resource that can help to explain the foundations of the program and all of the little things people are expected to do in order to make it work for them.
Sponsors have also been through a great deal of pain and suffering on their own, particularly if they’ve stuck with the program for a long period of time. Research in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment suggests that people who stick with recovery programs tend to have intense addiction problems. In other words, those with intense problems generally need intense help, and they get that through a deep and longstanding connection to the 12 steps. Sometimes, sponsees can help to ease that pain.
When sponsees enter the program, they’re new to recovery and their addiction wounds are fresh. Inadvertently, they can remind their sponsors of the tough days that come with addiction, and they can serve as reminders of why it’s vital to stay sober. Each story they share can resonate, if those stories could help to remind a sponsor to continue to do recovery work, even when that work seems hard.
A sponsee may also be able to provide addiction support for a sponsor in need. Everyone has low moments, even if people have been sober for years, and everyone might need a helping hand from time to time. A sponsee may be able to catch a sponsor on a tough day and provide the right words of support or the right expression of care that could help to turn things around.
There’s no screening program for sponsors, so it is possible that potential sponsees could reach out to people that aren’t safe for recovery. That’s an issue that’s been covered repeatedly in the mainstream media, and those stories could keep people from the help they need. It’s important to remember, however, that a sponsor/sponsee relationship isn’t set in stone. People can sign up, change their minds, and switch sponsors. That’s perfectly valid behavior, and it might be something people need to do from time to time.
Every time members need new sponsors, according to the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Conference, they can simply look around them. They may be inspired by a speaker, and they may want to meet privately with that person in a sponsor/sponsee relationship. Or they may meet someone around the coffee pot during a break and feel a kinship with that recovered person. Some people simply ask experienced AA members to set them up with sponsors that can help. It’s a very informal process that doesn’t follow specific rules and regulations. People make connections, and they ask.
Anyone can be a sponsee, too. Typically, it’s a role made for people who are new to recovery, but experienced members might also benefit from working with another member in a structured manner. Whenever people want to become a sponsee, they can do so. There are no restrictions on that.
The sponsor/sponsee relationship is a close and unique one, and it could be a vital part of the recovery process for people with addictions, but treatment should come first. That’s where The Recovery Village comes in. This facility provides comprehensive care for addictions, including aftercare, and teams are always ready to take on new patients. Interested parties can call the number at the top of the page to find out more. Operators are always standing by to provide help, advice, and support.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.