Do You Really Need a Sponsor in Recovery?

If you've successfully completed rehab and are now in recovery, the first thing you should do is congratulate yourself on a significant achievement. You are now clean and sober and that's the key driver toward maintaining your sobriety going forward.

But if you are like most newcomers to recovery, this is an entirely new lifestyle you are now beginning. It's also more likely than not that you're filled with confusion, doubt, a little fear, anxiety and a range of other emotions as reflected in the following questions:

  • Will you be able to handle the cravings and urges that keep you up at night?
  • Will you forget what you learned during treatment and suddenly find yourself staring relapse in the face?
  • Will you be up to withstanding the temptation to go back to old friends and former haunts associated with your past drug and alcohol abuse?
  • What about facing your family again? Will you be up to that or do you feel you've burned all your bridges behind you?
  • How can you ever look at yourself in the mirror again and not be ashamed at what you see?
  • Does the prospect of putting your life back together again scare the living daylights out of you?
  • Are you afraid of intimacy because you no longer have the crutch afforded by drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you fear that you have lost the respect of your friends, family and co-workers due to your addiction?
  • Are you afraid of losing your job or, if you already lost your job, are you worried about being able to find new employment?

These are just a smattering of some of the questions newcomers ask themselves in early recovery, and they're all valid points worthy of consideration.

But here's a little secret: They are all things that you will be able to deal with IF you do what you need to do in recovery. What is that? Quite simply, you need to work the recovery program, and for that, you need to get a sponsor.

Hold on, I'm Doing Just Fine

Before you exclaim in disagreement that you don't need a sponsor, that you're doing just fine, revisit the questions in the previous section. Be honest in your evaluation of whether or not any of them apply to you. After all, you've just completed treatment. You're not exactly well-versed in the ways of recovery - yet.

Remember how your therapist encouraged you to examine the reasons why you drank or did drugs, what caused you to go down that road in the first place? Recall the soul-searching, the tumultuous emotions that were dredged up and how you needed to face squarely the reality that your life of addiction had become?

It is also quite common that those of us in early recovery went through quite a bit of self-denial, both during treatment and during the first few weeks and maybe months of sobriety. Many of us told ourselves that we could handle things just fine, thank you, and we really didn't need any more help, certainly not a sponsor. No, no, and heck no.

Not so fast, my friend. The truth is that you're still a bit raw from all you've gone through. You're not really thinking totally clearly yet, even though you are definitely on the right path. Every day, every minute that you are sober you are getting stronger.

But this doesn't happen in a vacuum. There are simply too many temptations, too much opportunity to fall back into your self-destructive ways if you try to go it alone.

And it isn't that your family, well-meaning though they may be, can be your sole support during your recovery. If they haven't gone through family therapy or received other forms of counseling or support through family 12-step groups, they're not going to be much help, let alone effective help. Yes, you do need family support. That's one of the two key support systems that help individuals maintain their sobriety in recovery.

What you do need to help guide you through the recovery process, learn how to navigate and work the Twelve Steps, is a 12-step sponsor. It's that plain and simple.

What Qualities Should You Look For in a Sponsor?

If this is your first time seeking a sponsor, the question of what to look for is a natural one. What sorts of qualities are important in a sponsor? What qualities do you value most? Here are some points to consider.

Sponsors come with a variety of talents, capabilities, experiences, and skills. Some are excellent communicators and others are more reticent, but equally effective in providing one-on-one support and encouragement. Some are natural leaders while others are more practiced at working in the background, keeping the network working smoothly.

Do you have to like your 12-step sponsor? There's no rule that says you do, although having an admiration for and liking the individual will certainly go a long way toward your acceptance of what he or she has to say relative to your recovery efforts. This includes when you are in the process of making decisions about goals that are important in your life.

Just think about it. If your 12-step sponsor is someone with whom you share things in common, such as education, religious or political affiliation, similar addiction, beliefs, fears, and so on, it may make your interaction and communication a whole lot easier. For example, you may find that you don't need to explain things so in-depth to someone who more or less shares your world view. But it isn't necessary to come from the same type of background to gain value from your relationship with your 12-step sponsor.

Here is something that you definitely should be on the lookout for: an individual who communicates and acts in a respectful, courteous, and helpful manner. You want for your sponsor someone with an optimistic outlook, a person who is able to separate your temporary setbacks and challenges from your long-term goals. In essence, what you're looking for is someone with the courage and wisdom to help you as you continue to make the sometimes difficult and painful choices that occur in your recovery.

How to Approach a Potential Sponsor

If you've come to the recognition that you do, indeed, really need a sponsor in recovery and are now ready to look for one, the next question becomes how do you approach one? You don't just sidle up and out of the blue ask, "Will you sponsor me?" While the individual may be flattered, coming at it this way isn't the best way to do it. What may make more sense is to try to find the right moment to approach the individual you are considering asking to be your sponsor.

It's probably best if you develop a relationship with the individual first. This is important so that the person you're considering can have time to get to know you as more than just a casual acquaintance. One way to do this is to interact with the individual over the course of several meetings. Being seen and present in the rooms is always a good ice-breaker.

Perhaps you already have established a friendship with the individual. If so, he or she may already know that you are looking for a sponsor. If you know a little bit about the individual, you also need to take into account what the person already has going on. If he or she already has several sponsees, taking on another at this point may not be in his or her or your best interest.

When you do feel the time is right and perhaps the individual seems receptive, you might consider taking this casual but direct approach. You might say, "You may know that I'm relatively new to recovery. I've been looking for a sponsor for the past few months and, based on what I've seen and know about your own situation and how successful you've been in recovery, I'd like to ask you if you would consider becoming my sponsor?"

Don't expect an immediate response. Allow time for your request to sink in. Also be prepared for a variety of responses, everything from an enthusiastic acceptance to a reluctant consideration of the request to an outright but politely stated refusal. Maybe the sponsor you hope to get isn't able to take you on right now. If this turns out to be the case, don't feel slighted or discouraged. Just thank him or her, regardless of the decision, and consider your next steps.

  • If the individual does agree, now you begin at the beginning. Start with how you're doing in your recovery efforts, any stresses or tensions you've experienced in the past week that have caused you discomfort or threatened relapse, how you're progressing on your 12 steps, etc.
  • Suppose you are not successful in getting this particular person as your sponsor, what then? You reconnoiter and go on to your next candidate.
  • If you don't have another choice yet, take some time to identify another individual you'd like to be your sponsor and proceed as before.

Been Sober for Years, Don't Need a Sponsor Now

On the other hand, let's say that you're not in early recovery any longer. In fact, you've been clean and sober for years and have completed all the Twelve Steps, don't have any recurring cravings or urges, are successful in your other endeavors, and so on. Do you really need a sponsor at this point in your recovery?

First of all, need is not necessarily the operative word here. When you have a 12-step sponsor it's a little like the stages of life you go through. In recovery, you, just as millions have before you, may go through several stages.

After a long period of time, your current and former sponsors may seem more like friends than sponsors. And that's as it should be. After all, you and your sponsors are involved in a lifelong journey of recovery. It's always good to have friends and allies all along the way. So, will you always need a sponsor may be better stated as will you always have a relationship with your sponsor? The answer depends on you and your particular circumstances, but if it is yes, that's certainly appropriate.

In any case, when you look back on a long life in recovery, among your most valued friendships and trusted relationships will most likely be the individuals who served as your 12-step sponsors. When you reach the point in your own recovery when you are strong and confident in your capabilities, you may wish to sponsor someone new to recovery who, just like you were at the beginning, are seeking support and encouragement from someone who's been there and made it.

There's also nothing wrong with having a sponsor and being a sponsor to others. Just as psychiatrists continue to meet with their own therapists, this is just good and healthy behavior that serves you, your sponsor and your sponsees well.

What if Your Sponsor Relapses?

Some individuals mistakenly believe, or have heard horror stories about sponsors that relapse and use that as an excuse not to get a sponsor in the first place. While there are no statistics on the number of sponsors who themselves relapse, nevertheless the question is valid about what you should do if your sponsor does slip. Obviously, they'll be back on the road to recovery starting all over again - if they do come back. But just as it is impossible to predict if anyone in recovery will relapse and quit the program, it is also impossible to predict if a sponsor will do so. No one can foresee what someone else will do or be capable of doing and when.

If your sponsor slips, what you can do is find another 12-step sponsor. You may be understandably crushed or concerned by what has happened to your sponsor, your friend, but you cannot take it as anything that you have caused. We are only responsible for our own addictions and our own recovery. We do not own that responsibility for another. So, while it may be painful and discouraging, it isn't your fault if your sponsor slips.

Look for a new sponsor and continue on your journey of recovery.

Summing Up

Here's the bottom line on the question: Do you really need a sponsor in recovery?

One, you need all the help you can get, especially in early recovery. With a natural guide such as your 12-step sponsor at your side, you're on the right path toward getting stronger in your sobriety.

Two, you should never feel as if you're in this alone. That's what your sponsor is there for, to help you navigate the often difficult and painful stages of early recovery. No, your sponsor isn't your therapist, but he or she is committed to helping you achieve and maintain your recovery.

Three, recovery isn't the end zone for a touchdown or the finish line in a race. Recovery is a lifelong journey. With a sponsor, you always have an ally available to offer support and encouragement when you need it and celebrate your victories along the way.

Four, recovery in the fellowship of the 12-step groups is a little like pay it forward. When you are strong and firmly established in your sobriety, consider offering to be a sponsor to another newcomer to the rooms. This helps you as well as your potential sponsee.

Five, remember that sponsors are human beings just like you. Everyone has their ups and downs and your sponsor isn't infallible. Also keep in mind that if you find yourself at odds with your sponsor, it could very well be that there's an issue you're trying to avoid or don't want to deal with. Talking it out can help resolve any differences, but if they become too much, rather than go without a sponsor, consider a change to a different sponsor.

The time is right and the moment is now. Start looking at the individuals you respect and feel represent the principles of recovery in the rooms. Give it some time and see if you and that individual may be a fit, or if you believe you can benefit from having this person be your guide in recovery. Finding a sponsor isn't an exact science, but it's not all that difficult, either. What is important is that you find one and begin working your recovery program.

Posted on February 14th, 2012
Posted in Articles

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