Many years ago in the late 70s, American Express had an ad about their credit card and their hopes for people who had one of their cards – “Don’t leave home without it.” With their credit card, a person would never be in a situation where if the spirit moved them to make a purchase, they wouldn’t be able to do it! So thoughtful of them! I have chosen this message from American Express to talk about a very important element of recovery. That is choosing someone to walk with in recovery. This kind of person can have different names – like a mentor, an advocate, a supporter, a recovery companion, or a sponsor. I personally like “sponsor,” and I will use this term to reflect upon why I see this as an important part of recovery. Recovery is difficult and even more challenging when we are traveling alone.
For the sake of transparency, I have a sponsor now, and our situation is unique in that we are co-sponsors to each other. We check in with each other most days by phone, which keeps us connected, and we are able to share what is going on in our lives. I have had a number of sponsors over the twenty-eight years I have been in recovery in a Twelve Step group. I also sponsor a number of men, some of whom are in the same city I am in, as well as some men in prison for whom I am a lifeline. I have found, and find, sponsorship a most rewarding experience – both in being sponsored and in sponsoring. That is the foundation for this article on sponsorship and why I think that it is important not to leave home without one!
What is a sponsor?
We live in a day where the word “sponsor” has some different meanings. Television and radio shows are filled with commercials for products that we should purchase – for example, for whiter clothes, whiter teeth, which food to eat, as well as for many other products. The company that produces these products hopes you will buy their products, and they pay to “sponsor” these shows. There is an odd Latin expression – “quid pro quo” – which literally means something is given in return for something or “this for that.” In some ways, this fits the idea of sponsorship in recovery. The person being sponsored receives experiences from the sponsor such as support and insights, and the sponsor receives the sense that she or she is doing something worthwhile for a sister or brother in recovery.
Another use of sponsorship in today’s society relates to asking another person to contribute some money to a cause that is important to the person – like a particular school or church or funding research for curing some disease. We contribute money to our great-nephew’s high school baseball team so that they can have uniforms and equipment. Money is given to help the project or cause of another. A similar use of the term is giving our time and talents to further a cause we see as worthwhile. This is similar to sponsorship in recovery. The sponsor contributes time and experiences to the person being sponsored – often called a “sponsee” which is a term I will use in the remainder of this article. The sponsee’s recovery is important to the sponsor, and the sponsor is willing to contribute time and experiences to the sponsee. There is one main difference in sponsorship for recovery programs in that no money is exchanged. Being in a Twelve Step group, I see sponsoring as fulfilling Step 12 – spreading the message of recovery to other addicts. I have found sponsorship to be a two-way street that helps both people.
Qualities of a sponsor
I want to share some qualities that I have found helpful both as a sponsor and as a sponsee. Let me say something important here – I believe that if a person is going to sponsor others, she or he needs to have a sponsor. I believe we never outgrow our need for a sponsor as each of us can easily be triggered by events as well as situations we find ourselves in. Having a sponsor helps me also maintain some humility.
Quality 1 – The sponsor is not an expert
The first quality for a sponsor I will express in the negative. A sponsor is NOT an expert! A sponsor is a fellow traveler with the sponsee on the road to recovery. I believe when someone views themselves as an expert, that person becomes more like someone who is leading the pack and knows lots of things and is no longer a fellow traveler. I see us as sisters and brothers in recovery, seeking to support each other on the road to recovery. Concretely this means for me that as a sponsor I need and can share my imperfections, struggles and mistakes as well as what I have learned that help me with the struggles I face. Again, sponsorship is a two-way street. As a sponsor, I am not superior to the person I am sponsoring; as a sponsee, I am not inferior to the person sponsoring me. I see in this sharing of experiences and reflections that there is the building of trust. Also, what is shared in sponsorship stays within the relationship. Confidentiality also helps to build trust in the relationship. Gradually, both people can let go of the need to be perfect and to know all. We can share our imperfections with each other because we know the other person is not perfect either. I express that this way – we are seeking to help each other become perfectly imperfect!
Quality 2 – Importance of listening
We are seeking to help each other become perfectly imperfect!The second quality of listening is important in sponsorship, especially when people are in the early stages of recovery. We need to give the sponsee the chance to speak and share their experiences without our need to be quick to offer advice. Some suggest that the fact we have one mouth, and two ears, speaks of the need to listen twice as much as we speak! I see being a good listener as a very important facet of building trust where the sponsee can share what they have kept hidden and, in the closet, possibly for years. I need to remind myself that time with a sponsee is their time, and one of the ways I see in doing this is inviting the sponsee to speak and share. It is their time and not my time to share all sorts of things from my point of view. As a sponsor, I can share my experiences with the sponsee only after the sponsee has had a chance to share theirs.
Quality 3 – Encouragement
The third quality I wish to raise is the sponsor’s commitment to encouraging the sponsee – especially in the early stages of recovery – when the sponsee is more apt to stumble and revert back to their addictive practices. This often is accompanied by loads of guilt and shame for failing. My belief is that the sponsor needs to be encouraging of the sponsee in these situations, for example, reminding the sponsee that recovery and changing addictive practices take time and are hard work. Also, it can be important to share that slips are often part of recovery. One of the ways that a sponsor can show encouragement is by sharing some of the struggles, and even slips, that he or she experienced in walking the road of recovery. Again, no one is perfect! And that is why we need one another and sponsors. In this regard, I am reminded of a phrase that was created by a fellow by the name of Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, who had his own struggles around addiction and recovery. He came up with the phrase “wounded healer.” This means that we become sources of healing for others through acknowledging and sharing our woundedness. Over the years, I have come to accept my addiction and what I did to others and myself as I have found people who have shared their experiences of addiction with me and what they were able to do. I have learned we do not have to hide our woundedness. In the right situation sharing our experiences can be a source of healing not only for others but for ourselves. I really see sponsors as wounder healers!
Quality 4 – Sponsors as accountability persons
I see accountability as an important aspect of recovery. Being accountable to someone or a group helps a person begin to connect with others and to share their recovery journey with others. As I have said before, addiction often flourishes in isolation. This kind of accountability can happen in the sponsorship relationship as the sponsee shares what she or he is going to do in their recovery program. The sponsor can ask how you did with what you wanted to do. Not completing what one said they were going to do is not automatic grounds for guilt and failure. The sponsor and sponsee can talk about what happened – possibly it was trying to do too much or talking about what they learned from this as a way to re-focus for the goals that they wish to set for the future. I have found accountability to another makes the recovery process more concrete and effective. Change happens for the better when people are setting goals and talking about steps that can be measured. I see accountability as a way to help people become aware of what they are and if they are moving closer to the goals that they wish to reach.
Quality 5 – Sponsors are not therapists or counselors
I think it is important for the sponsor to remember that she or he is not a therapist. The sponsor is again the fellow traveler with the sponsee. An important aspect of sponsorship is knowing when to suggest that the sponsee needs to seek out and work with a professional therapist for the issues that the sponsee is working with. Issues such as being abused, being severely traumatized in one’s youth, having difficulties making choices, struggling with authority issues – to name just a few problems. It is not a failure as a sponsor to suggest that the sponsee suggest finding professional help. I have found sponsorship and meetings can often be a good complement to professional counseling.
Quality 6 – Sponsorship relationships aren’t necessarily forever
From my experience as well as the experiences of others, sponsorship relations are not like committed, long-term relationships – in other words, until death do us part. Our needs as a sponsee can change and we realize someone else might be a better fit. Or as a sponsor, we feel we have gone as far as we can go in this relationship. I think it is important that both people can raise whether the relationship is continuing be helpful. I think an aspect of sponsorship is very pragmatic – is the relationship being helpful to both parties? I think it is also helpful every so often to step back and to evaluate what is happening or not happening. This can often help re-focus the relationship, especially for the sponsee. To use a football image – the teams have played one half and they retreat to their locker rooms to evaluate the first half and prepare for the second half. I think that this is a good image for sponsorship – every so often, the sponsor and sponsee need to step back and talk about what is going on and possibly re-focus on continuing or deciding that the two have gone as far as they can go. The ability to say goodbye is an important part of an on-going, life-giving relationship between the sponsor and sponsee.
I probably have just skimmed the surface of the many dimensions of the relationship between a sponsor and a sponsee and the importance of such relationships for recovery. I hope that this article has both stirred interest in these relationships and has stimulated you to think about a sponsor – if you do not have a sponsor. This is why I chose the theme that having a sponsor is like having a credit card that can allow you to do things you possibly could not do if you didn’t have one – don’t leave home without one – a sponsor, that is. If you are a sponsor, thank you! You are providing a very important service to the people who you sponsor. If you have a sponsor, this is great, and I hope that your sponsor is helping you continue on the road to recovery. If you don’t have a sponsor, I would encourage you to reach out and find one. Being a sponsor contributes to the journey of another as well as having the chance to give back to others in very concrete way. As I said earlier, for me this embodies Step 12 – spreading what we have learned in our recovery to others as well as receiving from others.
Mark T. Scannell is a veteran 12 Stepper who believes that the communities or Villages are essential in helping people recover from addictions. His most recent book – The Village It Takes: The Power to Affirm – explores this theme. He is open to feedback and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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