How to Become a Sponsor

The concept of the “sponsor” as it relates to treatment for drug and alcohol abuse comes from the Alcoholics Anonymous organization.  Founded in the 1930s through the dedication of Dr. Bob and Bill W., two alcoholics who discovered the benefit of one alcoholic helping another achieve and maintain sobriety, the organization works on the well-known 12-step program of self-evaluation, discovery and reassessment.  While these two men helped each other, and many others, find a path to sobriety, they learned that alcoholics helping alcoholics was a key to success for everyone.  Over the next few decades, the sobriety model for Alcoholics Anonymous was applied to narcotics and other drug abuse modalities and Narcotics Anonymous was born.  A sponsor is an individual in recovery who can mentor another individual who wishes to achieve sobriety.

Choosing to become a sponsor is a big step that has many benefits.  Volunteering as a sponsor has been shown to help both the sponsor and those they mentor.  According to a study conducted by the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior of Brown University Medical School, those individuals who choose to be sponsors in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous are “significantly less likely to relapse in the year following treatment.”

How Does a Recovering Alcoholic or Drug Addict Become a Sponsor?

Letting others in your support group know that you are ready and willing to become a sponsor for new members is certainly a step in the right direction.  Generally, however, the newcomers to an organization will ask you to be their sponsor rather than the other way around.  There are a couple of good reasons for this practice:

  • The sponsor must be someone with whom the newly sober individual is comfortable.
  • The newcomer must make the decision to seek help from a sponsor in their own time.
  • Not all newcomers want or need a sponsor, depending upon the stage of recovery they are experiencing.
  • Only the newcomer truly knows when they are ready to approach another about being their sponsor.

There is no formal training program to becoming a sponsor in an organization such as Alcoholics Anonymous.  In fact, AA prides itself on its casual informality as this makes the meetings and events friendlier and more conducive to building long-term relationships.

The best way to prepare yourself for becoming a sponsor is to live and work the philosophy of the program in which you have chosen to participate.  By living a sober and drug-free lifestyle, you will set a much-needed positive example for others in your group.  According to AA literature, every sober member of an individual chapter is, in effect, already sponsoring every newcomer that walks in the door.

Sometimes, deciding that you are ready to become a sponsor is an easy choice to make.  You may be asked to sponsor a newcomer and immediately feel a sense of pride that someone sees you as a person to emulate.  For some, however, the confidence to be a sponsor is harder to achieve.  If you have been asked to be a sponsor and you aren’t certain whether you are ready, AA suggests asking your own sponsor their feelings on the matter.

What Are Some Good Traits a Sponsor Should Have?

Remember, for a moment, how you behaved when you were using drugs or drinking excessively.  You probably were not the most honest individual on the block.  You may not have been reliable when it came to being where you were supposed to be and doing what you were supposed to do.  The issues you experienced, of course, are what make you a candidate to become a sponsor. One of the most important and beneficial traits that a sponsor can have is the ability to understand what the newcomer is going through.  A person who has never known the powerful tug and all-consuming control of addiction can never truly understand what an individual who suffers from the disease of addiction is experiencing on a daily basis.

Partnered with the ability to understand how an individual who is addicted to drugs or alcohol thinks and behaves, it is also important to be tough when a situation calls for it.  You must be able to be honest with yourself and your newcomer in order to give them the tools they need to succeed in their own recovery.  Refraining from enabling the newcomer’s addiction will do them far more benefit than making excuses for them.

Patience is a characteristic that will help anyone who wishes to become a sponsor.  When a newcomer asks you to be their sponsor, they are on the right track to recovery.  As you know, it is a long and difficult road.  By definition, addiction is a recurring disease and relapse is a very real possibility for anyone.  A sponsor must be willing to help their newcomer through the difficult times as well as the positive, reinforcing moments of recovery.  This might mean removing your newcomer from a dangerous situation where the urge to use drugs or alcohol has become too overpowering for your newcomer to withstand.  This is why it is important that you have reached a point in your own recovery that simply being exposed to drugs or alcohol will not immediately derail your efforts to remain clean and sober.

Being a Sponsor Is a Full-Time Job

Volunteering to be a sponsor for one or more newly sober individuals is a huge responsibility that should not be taken lightly.  A sponsor must be available around the clock to help and support an individual who may, or may not, have successfully quit drinking or using drugs.

Some newcomers will attend sobriety support meetings on their own.  They may visit with a friend, or they may simply be interested in getting help at some point.  The good news is that they are thinking about it.  This does not mean they are ready to make the huge, life-saving changes they need to in order to find success.  They may, in fact, still be using or drinking regularly, and call upon their sponsor after they have used rather than for support prior to using.

When a person agrees to sponsor a newcomer, they should expect phone calls at any hour of the day or night.  Cravings and temptation can be a problem at any time, and especially in the beginning, can be frequent and brutal.  When you decide to become a sponsor, you are agreeing to help another human being who is facing the consequences of the same disease that you have conquered; therefore, you must be in a position to weather the storm.

Responsibilities of Being a Sponsor

First and foremost, a sponsor agrees to do everything they can possibly do to help another person find and maintain sobriety. This is accomplished within the limits of each individual’s abilities, mostly through the sharing of life experiences and wisdom as well as by setting a good example of what is possible with sobriety.

In addition to being a mentor, the sponsor also has several tasks they will complete for each newcomer for whom they agree to sponsor:

  • Encourage the newcomer to attend various AA and NA meetings in order to expand the newcomers view of support meetings and member experiences.
  • Make suggestions and encouragements about various programs so the newcomer can keep their mind open to opportunities and possibilities for recovery.
  • Introduce the newcomer to other members to increase the network of support available.
  • Make certain that the newcomer has access to all available literature and support materials for the specific support groups.
  • Answers any questions the newcomer may have concerning how the program works and what they should expect.
  • Act as a liaison, if appropriate, between the newcomer and his or her family or employers by explaining the principles of groups like AA or NA.

There are also several things that a sponsor should not do when it comes to dealing with their newcomer.  It is important that the newcomer not feel threatened or belittled in any way, therefore the sponsor should not:

  • Impose their religious beliefs on their newcomer.
  • Answer questions they do not know the answer to; rather help the newcomer find the answers for themselves so that both of you will grow and learn.
  • Speak as a representative of the actual organization.
  • Offer professional services that are generally reserved for counselors, physicians or other medical staff.

Is There a Right Way and Wrong Way to Be a Sponsor?

According to Alcoholics Anonymous, there is no “correct” or “incorrect” practice of sponsorship.  Each individual will bring his or her own experiences and wisdom to the practice.  Some sponsors are tough with their newcomers, while others have a more patient or understanding method for helping others.  There are, quite frankly, as many types of sponsor as there are personalities in need of help.  When a newcomer asks for someone to be their sponsor, they will generally pick someone with whom they will be able to respond.

Because each individual newcomer is different and unique, each approach should also be individualized.  An individual who has experience as a sponsor may select several varying approaches to be used at any given time with the same, or different, newcomers.

Avoid Overdependence and Abuse During Sponsorship

It is possible in some situations that a newcomer will become overly dependent upon their sponsor.  In the very early stages of sobriety, an individual may be suffering from the detox process and physically need help to get to meetings or to make simple, everyday decisions.  It is perfectly acceptable for a sponsor to help their newcomer through these problems in an effort to get them the support they need.

It is equally important to realize that once the initial period has gone by, the newcomer should begin to stand on their own in many circumstances.  If they need a ride to a meeting, a sponsor should be willing to help with a ride if at all possible.  However, if the sponsor is the newcomer’s sole means of transportation suddenly, and they have become unable to make their own arrangements with others, the newcomer may have an unhealthy and damaging dependence upon the sponsor.  This can be counterproductive in the recovery process.

The question of whether a sponsor should loan money or property to their newcomer is also a common one.  There is no policy in place which prevents two people from making their own arrangements for such things; however, this practice might interfere with the overall objective of groups like AA or NA.

The goal of a support organization is to achieve and maintain sobriety for all its members.  If a newcomer is having difficulty meeting financial obligations, their addictions may have a great deal to do with their financial situation.  When a newcomer has not been sober for a long period of time, the cash they may need to borrow to buy groceries for their children might be spent furthering their addiction instead.  Loaning money or otherwise helping a newcomer financially is an individual decision and each sponsor takes their own risks in this regard.

Sponsorship can be rewarding, and it can help an individual maintain their own sobriety.  It can be an ego boost, and it can also be a difficult and thankless challenge. Making a difference in someone’s life is never a waste of time, even if one of your newcomers fails to continue their path to recovery while you are mentoring them.  Each step along the road to recovery counts for them, just as it counted for you.