If you have been introduced to AA or NA then you have probably heard of the concept of sponsorship by now.
While sitting in AA or NA meetings, you are going to hear the advice that you should get a sponsor, you should use that sponsor, you should call that person every day, and you should work through the 12 steps with that person.
So you are probably wondering just how critical this piece of advice really is.
I am going to go against popular opinion here and say that, while the concept of having a mentor in recovery is certainly helpful and valid, having that person be a sponsor in the 12 step program is not really a necessity.
In other words, you probably do need someone to help show you the ropes, to teach you how to live a new life in recovery. But that person does not necessarily have to be a certified 12 step sponsor that you met at the tables of AA or NA.
Consider for a moment the idea that sponsorship was not originally part of the recovery movement, and it is a more recent development and inclusion in the program. The big book of AA has little to say about the idea, and if you listen to all of the stories from people in the fellowship, there are certainly cases where the role of sponsor has been abused. In other words, it is not necessarily all that it is cracked up to be, and there can even be some real negatives when it comes to sponsorship.
That said, you definitely need guidance in early recovery. So if you decide that maybe a sponsor is not the best place for you to look for this guidance, then you have to ask yourself the question: “From whom am I going to figure out how to live my life?” That is a serious question and you definitely need to have a good answer for it.
I would suggest that a therapist or a counselor can fulfill much of the same role that a sponsor typically fills. There are a number of reasons that you look for a mentor in recovery: One, you want to know the mechanics of actually living sober in recovery. What are you supposed to do each day, and how do you live your life so that you do not relapse?
Two, you want to know that you are not crazy. You need people that you can identify with, people who have been through your same struggle, or at least a similar struggle.
Three, you want someone who has your back, who will encourage you, who will root for you. You need a cheerleader who believes in you, who wants to see you do well.
Four, you need someone that you can lean on when the going gets tough, when you have a serious craving, when you are in danger of relapse.
So if you choose to forgo having a sponsor (or actually, even if you have a sponsor currently), you need to ask yourself the question: Are all of those needs being fulfilled in my life? Do I have some accountability with someone? Do I have someone that I can trust, someone that I can talk to on a regular basis? Do I have someone who can talk me down when I am on the brink of relapse?
Do you have someone in your life who will challenge you and push you a bit?
More than anything, this is what my sponsor did for me in early recovery–he pushed me. At the time, quite honestly, I thought that my sponsor was misguided. A bit batty even.
The reason I thought he was crazy is because I thought that I had to be laser focused on spiritual growth, and he was pushing me to get a job, go back to college, get a girlfriend, and so on. Meanwhile, I believed that I had to be laser focused on all things recovery, mostly spirituality.
Looking back, I can see that this was unbalanced, and that my sponsor was right. He was pushing me to get a life. I wanted to hide in recovery, focus on spirituality, and basically not build a real life for myself. He was pushing me to get back to something that resembled normalcy, and I could not really see that back when I was going through it.
This brings up a good point–when you are going through some serious personal growth, it will not feel good. It just won’t.
When you are going through something that you will later identify as serious personal growth, you are going to feel like you are floundering. This is really what defines growth–if you are not floundering then it is just normal life experience, and you really are not learning anything profound.
No, when you learn something profound and it turns out to be an intense life lesson, then there is always going to be struggle along with that. If there was not any struggle then you would not identify it as intense personal growth.
So you want a mentor in your life–whether it is a technical AA sponsor or not–who can both help to push you into growth experiences, but who also will give you the support that you need to be able to weather those storms.
I would also mention the issue of timing when it comes to sponsorship.
In very early recovery, say, during the first year or so, it makes sense to seek out a strong mentor in your life. Having a sponsor during the early stages of recovery makes a lot of sense.
However, if you have, say, 5 years clean and sober, and you are still relying heavily on a sponsor to be able to maintain your sobriety, then you might need to rethink your recovery. Perhaps you have missed something. This is not to knock the concept of sponsorship or having a mentor, but what I am suggesting is that you should be growing stronger in your recovery over time. You should not keep depending on another person to keep you clean and sober forever-that is just not healthy. Instead, the tools of the program and the things that you learn in early recovery should be enough to carry you through so that–while you can still benefit from having a sponsor–you will not be depending on one for your day to day sobriety forever.
Recovery is about personal growth. If you are not getting stronger in your recovery then you are not engaging in personal growth, and that is a red flag that you may be setting yourself up for relapse.
I don’t know if every person can get by without a sponsor in AA, and I am not sure that every person absolutely needs one either. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and what I would recommend is that every struggling alcoholic to go find a mentor, someone they can trust, who can help them during their early recovery. The concept of one person helping another in recovery is definitely a powerful tool, and it would be crazy to write the idea off completely. On the other hand, I do not believe that every single person in recovery will instantly relapse if they go without an actual sponsor from the 12 step fellowship. In fact, there are entire programs of recovery in which people succeed in sobriety without having a sponsor at all.
Do what you need to do in order to stay clean and sober. Go find someone that you trust, find a mentor, and let that person show you the way. Do whatever it takes to embrace your own recovery and find a path that truly works for you.