Can you recover from alcoholism without a sponsor?
This is a good question. Many people who are early in sobriety and have just been introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous are curious about this.
How critical is it, really, to have a guide in recovery? A dedicated sponsor to take you through the twelve steps?
Let’s take a closer look.
The old days before sponsorship existed in AA
One point of interest: In the very beginning there were no sponsors.
There is a whole range of people are in AA today. You have some who are very die hard believers, and you also have a group of people within AA who believe that everything was better in the beginning. They cite the fact that the “first 100” in AA were wildly successful for various reasons, and that things have generally gone downhill since then as we have tried to scale the solution up to help more people.
Well, keep in mind a couple of things about those old days of early AA:
* Sponsorship did not really exist like it did today. One alcoholic was helping another, but not exactly like we see in today’s sponsor and sponsee relationships.
* AA meetings were not everyday occurrences. You could not just go to an AA meeting any time that you felt like it because they were quite rare. You would be lucky to attend more than three meetings each week in most locations. Contrast this with today when you can easily attend an AA meeting every single day in most cities and towns.
* They were willing to learn about recovery and they were open minded. Contrast this with attitudes today in AA that “don’t try to reinvent the wheel, this works, and if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it.”
Sponsorship is more of a modern phenomenon. It is not outlined in the Big Book of AA.
Can you work the program of AA without a sponsor? Well, read the book! You won’t find much mention of the importance of sponsorship in the big book of AA.
Start adding up some of these points, and it seems to point to the idea that sponsorship was never intended to be a crucial part of the recovery process. Transformation through the 12 steps, yes. Dependence on a higher power, yes. But depending on another human being to learn about recovery? Not necessarily.
That said, there is still great value in the idea of one alcoholic helping another. This is the essence of recovery in many cases. But I am doubtful today that the relationship structure of sponsorship is necessary for this to happen.
Can a sponsor help to motivate you?
Sure, a sponsor could help to motivate you.
But so could a lot of other people. For example, you could see a therapist on a regular basis who helps to motivate you. Or you might have a life coach who motivates you. Or maybe you have peers in recovery that help to motivate you and hold you accountable.
If you honestly need someone to hold you accountable, then does your recovery effort really stand a chance in the long run? That is a serious question.
The same can be asked about motivation. If you cannot find the motivation to do the work that is necessary for recovery unless you have a sponsor who is “cracking the whip,” then what does that say about the long term prognosis of your sobriety?
I don’t think that is a good thing. If you truly need someone to help you in these ways then I think your recovery is headed in the wrong direction.
There is a difference between getting help in early recovery and coming to depend on someone or something for your sobriety.
The idea behind the support that you receive in early recovery should be to say “OK, how can I get stronger against the threat of relapse?”
If you depend on people, places, or things for your sobriety then that is not necessarily strength. That is really more of a weakness.
Don’t get me wrong, it is good to be sober and it is good to get help from others, even to the point of dependency. But eventually you will want to become stronger in your recovery, no? Eventually you will want to be able to stand on your own two feet.
Because we will all face a temptation some day in our recovery journey when it is just us, our higher power, and our drug of choice. No one else will be there to help stop us. It even describes this phenomenon in the big book of AA. And they talk about how you have to have a level of self reliance, in the form of a connection with your higher power, such that you can defend yourself against this first drink. Because even with all of the cell phones and connectivity of today there will be a time when you will be all alone with your drug of choice and the people you depend on will be “offline.” It is not a matter of “if” this will happen, it is simply a matter of “when.” Eventually it will happen and you need to be ready for it.
So the question remains, can a sponsor protect you from this moment that I am describing?
The big book of AA tells us that the answer is “no,” they cannot protect you from this moment. In fact, they say that no human power can protect you from relapse in this moment of intense temptation. And they also predict that this moment is inevitable for every recovering alcoholic, given enough time in recovery. Each of us will face it eventually.
And so we have to examine our dependencies. Are we depending on other humans for our sobriety? If the answer is “yes,” then we might want to rethink our recovery strategy. Because we could be stronger.
We all need teachers in early recovery, but do we need a single teacher?
The very definition of alcoholism, in my opinion, is the inability to stop drinking without getting help from others.
I know that this is not really the medical definition of the disease, but it still seems to work for me as far as being a functional and useful definition.
In other words, if someone is drinking heavily and they can stop on their own without problems, then that person is not alcoholic. If there is no problem then there is no problem!
On the other hand, if the person cannot quit on their own then they need to get help. The need to get help from other people is really what defines the disease, in my opinion.
If you can quit drinking on your own then do you label yourself as an “alcoholic?” No, you don’t. You are a normal person who chooses to cut down on alcohol consumption.
Are you self motivated?
Here is another important consideration: Are you self motivated?
It probably sounds like I am really negative towards the idea of sponsorship. I don’t intend to come off that way, but on the other hand I do want to warn people about the potential hazards of depending on another human for your sobriety.
But if you really don’t do well in motivating yourself then a sponsor may in fact really help you out a lot.
I tend to be somewhat self motivated. I am not a super achiever or anything but I have pushed myself to hit some decent goals. For example, I trained myself up and ran three marathons over the last few years. I also built a successful business and left the world of full time corporate employment. These are not things that you are highly likely to achieve unless you can push yourself a bit. Or at the very least, I will say that I had to push myself a great deal in order to achieve these goals. I could not see myself doing those things if I really did not want to make it happen and someone else was bugging me to do it.
The more self motivated you are, in my opinion, the less you need a sponsor.
Now this does not mean that you can succeed in sobriety without learning anything new. This doesn’t mean that you can overcome your addiction through sheer willpower, because I honestly do not think that you can. It just means that you don’t need this formal relationship that is defined as “sponsorship.”
Take action and evaluate your results
If you really want to avoid sponsorship then here is what I would suggest that you do:
* First of all, get clean and sober and go to professional treatment. This is especially important if you are still struggling with alcohol or drugs on a regular basis. Get detoxed and get a firm foundation planted. Go to rehab. Start with a clean slate. Reset your life.
* Second of all, start taking suggestions from the people in treatment who are trying to help you. If you are already sober and you don’t need inpatient rehab, then find other forms of professional help. Go see a therapist or a counselor. Or talk with people in recovery who you trust. Or talk with peers in recovery who have been clean and sober for considerable time. Or simply talk with friends and family members.
Talk with all of these people and get suggestions. Now you might say “Isn’t that the same thing as getting a sponsor?” No it is not. Talking with your peers in recovery is not the same thing as having a sponsorship relationship with someone. Talking with a professional therapist is also completely different than sponsorship. They may share some similarities but they are also quite different. Realize that some sponsors have no real interest in seeing people become completely independent and potentially stronger than they are. This is also not something that most sponsors would admit to or acknowledge as being possible. I am not saying that sponsors are evil or that they don’t want to see people succeed, but sometimes they fall into a certain role and they subconsciously will keep the sponsee “underneath them” so to speak. They are not always encouraging strength, but rather they come to teach dependence. Again, this is certainly not true of all sponsors. It is just something to watch out for that can happen if you tend to depend on a sponsor to help motivate you.
* Third, start taking action in recovery based on the suggestions that you receive. I have done this in my own life and I continue to do this to this very day, all without attending AA meetings or depending on a sponsor. You can still get suggestions from people and take positive action without depending on those people to help motivate and guide your every move.
* Forth, evaluate your outcomes. You can go back to your feedback circle and get more insight about how you are doing at this point as well. You can talk to people and say “I did this, and it has been producing this result, what do you think?” This is not necessarily dependency. In the end all of the decisions are still up to you. Find what is working well for you and then expand on it. Find what helps to keep you sober and then delve further into it. You can seek feedback and advice from various people in order to get this sort of guidance. Keep doing this and eventually you will start to intuitively know the answers that you seek without going to get feedback first.
That probably sounds like I am suggesting that you get help from other people without formally getting a sponsor. In a way that is true. But really what I am saying is more about the idea of dependency. Because many people who have sponsors in recovery come to depend on them for their sobriety. This is not good.
Not anti-sponsor, just anti-dependency
Hopefully if you do have a sponsor, a mentor, a therapist, or just a group of peers in recovery who try to help you, that they move you closer to strength and independence for yourself. This is really important in my opinion and it is easy to lose sight of this idea of “strength against relapse” as your goal.
At one point I was living in long term rehab and we would have two therapy groups each week. The place housed 12 men who were struggling against alcoholism and drug addiction. I was one of them.
At one point I realized that we had drifted too far from the real objective. Here we all were, living in what was supposed to be “transitional housing,” and yet we had all forgotten what it was that we were transitioning to. Here we were in group therapy talking about what upset us during our childhood, and when it came right down to it, we were supposed to be gaining our independence again. So one day I said to the director: “You know what you should do? Next group session, tell us that you have an announcement. Tell us all that the place is closing up and that we all have two weeks to pack our bags and get out, go start our lives for ourselves. And then tell us that we are going to sit there and hammer out a plan for each of us, and figure out how we are going to make it and stay sober through it all.” And then of course you tell them five minutes later that you are lying, it was a complete bald faced lie in order to get everyone thinking. And what it got them thinking about was the entire point. It cut right to the chase. If you had to leave the security and safety of rehab tomorrow, what would you do in order to stay sober? How would you kick yourself into gear and get to work?
And most importantly, why aren’t you doing that stuff already?
When you check not rehab and do a 28 day program, you get pretty comfortable. Sobriety is easy when you are in treatment. Staying sober appears to be pretty simple while you are locked up. You have this nonstop support from all of your peers who are there in treatment with you.
But this is not reality. You have to realize that on day 29 when you go home, it is like hitting the ground after jumping out of an airplane. The ground is rushing up to meet you faster than you can ever imagine. And you don’t have anywhere near the sense of urgency that the situation truly demands. How are you going to stay sober when temptation hits? How are you going to resist the cravings and the impulses to go get drunk or high? What is your solution going to be? Are you just crossing your fingers and hoping that it all works out somehow? That won’t work! Really it won’t. Recovery takes serious effort. You have to have a plan and it has to be a good plan. And then you have to execute on that plan consistently.
And in the end you have to do the work. Recovery is just an awful lot of effort. It is worth it, don’t get me wrong. It is definitely worth it. But it is a ton of work and most people seriously underestimate it at first. This is why success rates tend to be so low. It is not because recovery is impossible, but rather because we tend to overestimate our own abilities.
I know it probably seems like I am giving a mixed message here: “Go to rehab, ask for help, get suggestions. But on the other hand, don’t depend on people. Don’t create dependencies. Don’t rely on a sponsor for your sobriety.”
It’s not a mixed message though. There is a fine line. This is why they tell you to get lots of phone numbers in early recovery and to use them. If you rely on one or two people then it is easy to get caught in a jam without any support. But if you have an entire recovery community then you have more strength to draw from. The same is true with sponsorship. If your sponsor is the only thing that is keeping you sober then you have some changes to make in order to get stronger. Reduce dependencies and grow stronger against the threat of relapse.
Anything is better than nothing
Again, I hope my message here is not too negative. I am merely warning about dependencies in recovery, and sponsorship is one of them. Depending on daily AA meetings to keep you sober is another. But these are tools, and you should still use them if they are helpful to you.
And ultimately, doing anything to try to recover is better than nothing. If you say “Screw it, I am going to just drink” then there is no way possible you can win. You have already lost if you give up and just continue to drink.
So by all means, get a sponsor. By all means, go to AA meetings every day and depend on them to keep yourself sober. These are not bad things initially. They only become dangerous if you refuse to grow, if you refuse to evolve in recovery, if you fail to become stronger against the threat of relapse. It is only then that these dependencies can hurt you.
So by all means, do something. Go to rehab. Go to AA. Get a sponsor. Try something. Try anything.
And as you go along, get stronger in your recovery. Become stronger an an individual. Become aware of dependencies and work hard to reduce them.
What do you think, is it OK to be dependent on another human being for your recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!