The Newcomer’s Guide: How to Choosing a Sponsor in Early Recovery

The process of developing an addiction differs for everyone because a variety of contributing factors underscore the disease. For some individuals, becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs is the result of social consequences due to one’s peers primarily being substance abusers. Others become addicted as a result of indulging in their curiosities. There are also those for whom substance abuse was a behavioral characteristic one gets from family members who have also struggled with alcoholism or drug addiction. However, no matter how it occurs, many repercussions tend to be experienced by most people who have an addiction.

After becoming addicted, individuals experience a profound transformation. Both one’s physical and mental health deteriorate as substance abuse becomes the central, driving force in an individual’s life. Throughout each day, an addicted person must continually seek the next fix to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay. Living in this way will eventually result in the loss of one’s job as well as many other opportunities, financial instability, damage of or destruction to one’s relationships, and perhaps even legal repercussions for criminal behaviors. In short, virtually every aspect of an individual’s life is significantly affected by the development of an addiction.

Fortunately, recovery is both possible and attainable. While many have achieved lasting success in addiction treatment programs, 12-step support groups have allowed millions upon millions of people with an addiction to reclaim their health and independence. Having first started in the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous is the first and original 12-step support group for which the renowned 12 Steps were created. The 12 Steps provide individuals who have suffered physically, mentally, and spiritually from the effects of addiction with a means of achieving a comprehensive recovery, emphasizing the role that spiritual awakening has in the recovery process. Moreover, an important part of the 12-step method involves a concept known as sponsorship. Therefore, the following will define sponsorship and provide basic tips for 12-step newcomers who are or might soon be looking for a sponsor.

Recovery the 12 Steps Way

In the early 20th century, a man named Bill Wilson was struggling with alcoholism and making the rounds in the addiction support groups that existed at the time, most of which were based on the principles of Christianity. Unfortunately, he hadn’t found one that could sufficiently rid him of his alcoholism and prevent his recurring relapses. Wilson started Alcoholics Anonymous—the original 12-step recovery fellowship—in 1935 out of his efforts to help Dr. Bob Smith, an associate of Wilson’s who also suffered from alcoholism.

In just a few short years, Wilson’s group has expanded exponentially, leading him to publish Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism, which is colloquially referred to as “the Big Book” by group members. In Alcoholics Anonymous, Wilson explained that the most basic goal of his recovery fellowship was to help individuals achieve sobriety while helping others to achieve sobriety. Additionally, the Big Book contained the first appearance of the renowned Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The 12 Steps, as envisaged and designed by Wilson and his early associates, are a sort of recovery checklist meant to be achieved, or “worked,” in numerical order by individuals who wish to overcome chemical dependency. Although the 12 Steps were created to combat alcoholism, they’ve since been used in the numerous groups that are derivative from Alcoholics Anonymous, such as Narcotics Anonymous and even Gamblers Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous. Over the course of the 12 Steps, people who have drug or alcohol addictions come to terms with and accept the reality of their illnesses, recognize their powerlessness to the disease, appeal to the higher power of one’s understanding of the ability to overcome addiction, take a moral inventory of character defects and previous wrongdoings against others, make amends, and help others to achieve recovery through the 12 Steps.

What’s unique about 12-step programs relative to addiction treatment programs is the focus on one’s social and spiritual recovery alongside physical, psychological, and emotional rehabilitation, which tends to be of greater emphasis in more clinical treatment modalities. However, the 12 Steps program helps individuals to be more accountable for their own recovery and is seen as being the more proactive approach as individuals put much effort into their recovery rather than receiving it through treatment.

What Exactly Is the Purpose of a 12 Steps Sponsor?

While the 12 Steps method has several important components, sponsorship is arguably the most important. After joining a 12-step support group, newcomers are encouraged to choose a sponsor who will guide them as they work each of the steps. Half mentor and half tutor, the sponsor help the sponsee to thoroughly learn each step, including its underlying or symbolic purposes as well as the role that each step plays in the cumulative 12-step recovery process. Moreover, the sponsor-sponsee relationship becomes and remains a very important, valuable resource for someone who has only just begin his or her recovery. A sponsee will learn that the sponsor always makes himself or herself available, which is particularly useful when the newcomer is experiencing cravings or is otherwise feeling tempted to relapse and begin using alcohol or drugs again.

In effect, an important part of finding sponsorship is having someone who will be an individual’s avid supporter, who will coach the newcomer through the process of recovery while also giving them straightforward advice when and where it’s needed. To an extent, the relationship is almost like a partnership as a sponsor becomes personally invested in the sponsee’s recovery. However, with the 12th step involving becoming a newcomer’s sponsor, the relationship is as important to the sponsor — who has already worked the 12 Steps and likely accrued an extended period of sober time — as it is to the sponsee still trying to overcome addiction.

What to Look for in a Support Group Sponsor

When choosing a sponsor, a newcomer should keep several things in mind. First and foremost, an effective sponsor should be very experienced in the 12-step method and be extremely secure in his or her sobriety as an individual who is still unsure of his or her sobriety is in a very poor position to reinforce anyone else’s sobriety. In fact, it’s often recommended that newcomers choose one of the individuals in the group who has the longest amount of time spent free from alcohol and/or drugs.

Additionally, it’s often recommended that heterosexual individuals don’t choose a sponsor of the opposite sex and homosexuals don’t choose a sponsor of the same sex. Because a sponsor and sponsee spend a lot of time together, one or both parties becoming romantically or sexually interested in the other will render the relationship less effective and could compromise the newcomer’s progress. In other words, an attraction between two individuals can interfere with the therapeutic value of the relationship.

It’s a good idea for a newcomer — especially someone who’s attempting 12-step recovery for the first time and, therefore, is inexperienced with minimal knowledge of the 12 Steps — to choose a sponsor who doesn’t already have a lot of sponsees. Although, on the one hand, this could be a sign of an individual being an effective or skilled sponsor, it also means the individual will likely be stretched incredibly thin, limiting the amount of time they can possibly devote to each sponsee. Finally, one should trust his or her instincts when choosing a sponsor. If a newcomer simply has an instinctive, “gut” feeling that an individual doesn’t seem trustworthy, he or she should not choose that individual to be his or her sponsor. Conversely, if a newcomer has a strong, positive feeling about someone, he or she should trust that feeling.

Watch Out: Common Pitfalls of Sponsorship

Everyone is different and has different ways of handling or dealing with certain situations. It’s important to choose a sponsor who has a similar style of conduct as the sponsee. For instance, a sponsor who micromanages his or her sponsors would not be the best fit for someone who tends to dislike authority or being told what to do. Unfortunately, micromanaging sponsees is reportedly somewhat common among 12 Steps sponsors. With the sponsor-sponsee relationship being such an important part of a newcomer’s recovery process, it’s possible that an immoral sponsor could use the relationship as an opportunity to take advantage of him or her, whether for sexual reasons or otherwise, making it important that individuals take note of misconduct.

Establish Boundaries and Respect Them

When you choose a sponsor, be clear about establishing boundaries with the person. Have an open conversation about what you would like to get out of a sponsor-sponsee relationship. Do you want to be able to call the person every day or reserve communication for check-ups and emergencies?

Many sponsors will encourage you to reach out to them when needed, but they may not volunteer to routinely check up on you unless you explicitly say so. Also, know when it’s appropriate to reach out to your sponsor. While your sponsor can be a good shoulder to lean on, the person is not your doctor, therapist, nutritionist, or lawyer. Reserve important, legal, and health concerns for a professional opinion.

Some sponsors may be overzealous or even overbearing with their communication and advice. It could be a power issue; it could be a reflection of how much they care. If you feel like your sponsor is stepping too much into your life to the point of being unhealthy (as opposed your resistance to confrontation), communicate this discomfort to your sponsor or considering changing sponsors.

Remember: Your Sponsor Is Human, Too

There is a possibility that your sponsor may relapse, which may require you to choose another sponsor for your own health and safety. With a new sponsor, you may try to help your former sponsor and get him back into treatment, but do not risk falling into a relapse yourself if the situation becomes too extreme or triggering for you.

Another point to understand is that your sponsor isn’t perfect. Maybe the relationship is better left at being friends than looking to person as a guide. Maybe your philosophies don’t match and aren’t beneficial to your happiness. Choose a sponsor who can help you grow, not hold you back.

Free Yourself from Alcohol or Drugs — Call the Palm Beach Institute Today

There are many ways to achieve long-lasting sobriety. While some individuals have had great success in 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, others preferred enrolling in an inpatient or outpatient program at an addiction recovery facility. If you or someone you love would benefit from learning more about the recovery options that are available, The Palm Beach Institute is here to help. Call us now for a free consultation and assessment. Don’t become another casualty of addiction; begin a life of health and happiness with just a single phone call.

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