Up until about 30 minutes before the start of my meeting, I assumed a snow day was in effect. Having just weathered a blizzard 48 hours ago, I concluded there was no way the parking lot of the building had been plowed, and I started to craft an alternate post in my head.
Which, I need to write this down now so I commit myself: I will get back to writing that post. I swore I’d pen more posts this year, and I’m slow to fulfilling this promise. Yet since my WOTY is calm, I’m not going to beat myself up about it.
Here is some pictorial evidence of our the blizzard, as documented by my daughter and featuring our dog Dimple:
When I received the text that the parking lot had been plowed, I have to admit to a pang of disappointment… now I had to get out of my pajamas! Why I would ever begrudge attending something that always makes me feel better than when I started I do not understand, but there you have it.
Today was the first entrance of the new book I have introduced into the literature rotation. It is Forming True Partnerships: How AA members use the program to improve relationships. The book is a collection of articles from the AA magazine Grapevine that document how members use the principles of the 12 steps to improve all the different relationships in their lives. There is a chapter on pets that has me question the sanity of the publishers, but I’m keeping an open mind.
Fully anticipating sitting solo, I did not plan one iota, and was pleasantly surprised to see 9 hardy souls make their way out in this weather! Luckily, one of my favorite “regulars” has a passing acquaintance with this book and suggested a reading from the chapter on Sponsorship.
I am always happy when someone else voices an opinion on meeting subject matter, but I had a bit of apprehension on this particular subject. While everything about the 12-step program is a suggestion, and of course there are as many ways to get sober as there are sober members, conventional wisdom strongly suggests availing yourself of a sponsor as soon as possible, and maintaining that relationship throughout your recovery.
It now occurs to me that perhaps readers may not understand what I even mean by the term sponsor. From the AA pamphlet Questions and Answers on Sponsorship:
An alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through A.A.
Here’s how the process of obtaining a sponsor was explained to me:
- go to meetings, listen to people
- when you hear a woman speak (sponsor/sponsee should be same sex) who seems to “have what you want,” ask her if she would be willing to take you through the 12 steps of recovery
- follow her suggestions
A little vague, I know… it was for me too! I had transitioned through a few sponsors before I found the relationship that would work in getting me through the labor of the 12 steps. That experience, documented fully in earlier blog posts, was nothing short of transformational.
Here’s where I get apprehensive: in the years since, I have, no better way to say it, fallen off the suggested path of the traditional sponsor/sponsee relationship. It has been many months since my sponsor of record and I have communicated, and even before that, our communication was more on the social side and less on the business side of recovery. A few months back I reached out to another woman, but our schedules just did not gel, and I’ve done nothing about it since.
As far at the other side of the coin, my sponsoring another, the anxiety grows: I had two attempts at sponsoring other women, and if you judge success by actually working through the 12 steps, then each attempt was not successful. Both of these experiences are at least two years old, and there has been no further attempts by me since.
Therefore, the thought of having to comment productively on the subject of sponsorship had me flummoxed. I shared very little, and opened it up to the group.
Turns out, they had quite a bit to say, thankfully. The gentleman who selected the reading believed it to be an apt description of a sponsor: one drunk helping another drunk to stay sober by showing him/her how he/she did it. A sponsor is not your friend or parent; he or she is not there to hold your hand or make you feel better. A sponsor is going to show you how the same failed logic that had you drinking problematically is present in many other areas of your life. It’s often not an enjoyable process, but it’s possibly the most rewarding experience within the 12 steps of recovery.
A second “long-timer” echoed these sentiments, and recalled fond stories of how sponsorship was done “in the old days” (for him, the 1980’s): calling sponsees “pigeons,” setting up rules and tests for the sponsee to pass before he was eligible to sponsor others, speaking in shockingly appalling manners to get their points across.
I’m not thinking I would have done so well getting sober in the 80’s.
A woman new to my meeting raised her hand and said she did not like this topic, and did not want to talk about sponsors. She compares her sponsor/sponsee relationship to those around her, and finds hers coming up short. She spoke for a bit about the different ways she believe it to be true, growing agitated as she compiled her list of grievances. As she wound down, she mentioned she had a habit of placing expectations on relationships, and speculated that perhaps this tendency was contributing to her problem. Finally, she concluded that she might try a little harder to open up more to her sponsor, and in that self-disclosure she will develop the kind of relationship she thinks she ought to have.
Listening to this woman speak, I was reminded yet again of the value in shining a light on the dark thoughts in our heads. In one share she identified, defined and solved a problem, all by opening her mouth. Miraculous.
Finally, a woman shared who is normally reticent. I think I wrote about her recently, for regular readers… she is the one who lost a friend and opened up for the first time at that meeting. I wish I could do justice to the power of her speech. It is so painfully clear how difficult this kind of sharing is to her that there is a magnetic quality to her words. At least that is my experience each of the few times she’s spoken. The part of her share that hit me right between the eyes:
A sponsor is only as helpful as the sponsee is honest
That statement brought back some painful memories. The summer before I got sober I availed myself of a sponsor, went to meetings with her, went to her house, socialized… all while continuously relapsing and refraining from telling her. Thankfully, she stuck with me through it all, and was around in my darkest hours of early recovery.
So I can attest to the truth of the statement above, and its more universal application:
a relationship is only as healthy as the people in it are honest
The last thing she mentioned… she has a skeptical nature, and early on she told her sponsor she felt like she was being brainwashed.
Her sponsor’s response: that’s right, you are, because your brain needs a good washing!
I had a regular attendee call to tell me his driveway was blocked by 3 1/2 feet of snow, and therefore he could not attend the meeting (he is an older gentleman and could not climb it safely). I told him no problem, and he said, “It is a problem, I have not missed your meeting since I got sober, and I’m distressed I have to miss it today.” Heartwarming, and a little guilt-producing, since I was hoping for a snow day!
You’ve heard uttered, “I’m not much of a phone person.” I’m just wondering if the reverse is true, does someone make the claim that they are, in fact, a phone person?
No one I personally know, although by action I absolutely know people who are “phone people.” Now I’m going to have to ask them if they considered themselves “phone people.” I’ll let you know what they say.
What, you may be pondering, is the point of this rambling about the phone, and phone people (this expression is starting to make me giggle, good thing only the dog can hear me)? More importantly, what does it have to do with sobriety, recovery, and/or my Monday morning meeting?
Glad you asked! The chapter covered in this week’s literature selection (the book is Living Sober) is entitled “Making Use of Telephone Therapy.”
The chapter eloquently describes the reluctance with which many a newcomer to the 12-step program embraces the idea of calling someone instead of drinking. The notion here is not to pull out the yellow pages and start dialing. It’s not even to call up your Mom or your best friend. Rather, call someone who’s been in your shoes, who understands the feelings that come along with early sobriety, and sharing with them what is going on with you. In most cases, the simple act of uttering the words “I want to drink, and here is what’s going on (fill in the blank),” is enough to dispel the urge to drink.
The chapter selection falls into the category “entirely selfish decision that winds up being good for the whole group.” Maybe not the whole group (14 in all), but a good many of them stated that the topic was one they needed to hear.
It’s selfish on my end, because I am seeking the answer to the very whiny question, “But WHY do I have to call every single day?!?” This is in response to the directive issued by my new and incredibly awesome sponsor that I call her. Every. Single. Day. No exceptions.
People who know me personally are gasping in horror and whispering, “Holy shit! Her head is about to explode!”
Obviously, I am one of those people who have uttered the earlier expression I mentioned.
Your mind can be arguing two ways at this point:
1. What’s the big deal? If your sponsor says call, just call
2. You’ve got over 3 years of sobriety, why on Earth would you need to call someone every single day?
Clearly I am in the second camp, and therefore I selected this reading to gather real world advice from my comrades in the Monday morning meeting. Of the 14 present, 6 have more than 25 years sober, and another 5 have between 2 and 10 years sober, so a wide range of experience to uncover the hidden mysteries of the phone.
Yes, in case you’re wondering, my sponsor was present. And yes, she now clearly understands my position on this directive!
The answers I received really surprised me, although they shouldn’t have, since my crazy mindset is generally shared by lots of people in the rooms of the 12-step fellowship. Most shared that they experience the same anxiety in picking up the phone as I described, and most are reluctant to continue the practice much once over the hump of early sobriety. Some admitted it was ego at play: I’ve got this sobriety situation handled, I don’t need the help. Some are reluctant to impose on others. One person received bad one-on-one advice and is now hesitant to get involved personally with fellow 12-steppers. One long-timer said he never used the phone before, and now he feels like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I could relate to all of the above (with the exception of receiving bad advice, that’s never happened to me).
I got the final answer I was seeking, unsurprisingly, from my sponsor herself. She remembers well feeling that phone calls are unnecessary. She had double the sober time I did, in fact, when her sponsor insisted that she make the daily phone call to check-in. She had the usual litany of objections: but I am not fighting the urge to drink! I don’t have time for a daily phone call! I will have nothing to talk about!
The answer she received: it’s not about whether or not you want to drink, it’s about claiming your sobriety and acknowledging you can’t do it alone. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do this simple task on a daily basis, then how important is your sobriety?
Last Monday, when my sponsor issued this directive my immediate response (after groaning): can I start tomorrow since I’m physically speaking with you right now?
Today, after the meeting, I said, “I’ll be calling you later to claim my sobriety!”
That I’ll be calling my sponsor later to claim my sobriety!
The second class in my meditation series is tonight, and I can report that I’ve meditated each day last week!
Monday’s meeting, while poorly attended (only 4), was still exactly what this alcoholic needed to start the week!
Since my format is rotating literature, and this the is the second Monday of the month, I selected a chapter from the book Living Sober. If you have not heard of this book, and you are new to sobriety, I would highly recommend it. Short chapters, easily understood vocabulary, and very practical advice for how to live life without drinking. Anyway, the chapter I selected was entitled “Avoiding Dangerous Drugs and Other Medications.”
Some full disclosure might be appropriate here. One of the many benefits to running your own AA meeting is that you can tailor topics to suit your personal needs. This particular Monday was absolutely the case. I don’t think I have updated much on the topic of sponsorship lately, mainly because in the recent past not much has happened. If you recall, I have had 2 different women ask me to sponsor them. The first turned out to be someone who was asking in order to satisfy external circumstances (some legal issues, parents breathing down her neck, etc.). We started to work on the steps, and then she stopped taking my calls, she missed a get-together we had planned, and so consequently we have been at a détente for months. When I see her, which is very infrequently, I ask her how she is doing, and she always says she is fine, and that’s about it.
The second woman asked me after I spoke at her outpatient rehab. At the time she had about 2 months, today she has close to 7 months of sobriety. I have gotten to know her very well, and I am impressed with her commitment to sobriety in the face of some rather difficult life circumstances.
That said, I have been hearing from her a bit less than usual, and this week she cancelled due to pain from dental work. When we did reconnect later in the weekend, she let me know that she was prescribed, and had taken, prescription pain medication as a result of her dental work, and wanted to know what I thought about that decision.
I was momentarily flummoxed, for a variety of reasons. The first is that feeling I sometimes get as a parent, “Holy shit! I am supposed to have an answer, right now, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to say!!!” Another reason is that prescription pain medication is a significant part of my personal story, and, frankly the mention of it still hits a bit close to home. Finally, I felt that whatever came out of my mouth next was important, because prescription pain meds are also a part of her personal story, and I truly felt like she was treading on some seriously thin ice.
I’ll tell you what I said in a minute, but the real point of this post is to talk about the early days of sponsoring someone. For this sponsor, since I can only speak for myself, there have been quite a few moments of flying without a net, and shooting up loads of prayers that I’m saying the right thing. I went to bed mulling over the situation. The next morning, I ran into a mutual acquaintance of the first sponsee (the one who blew me off), and found out that she relapsed. So now, being ever-vigilant for God moments, I am panicked… oh no! Please don’t let this be a sign!
I guess I should get back to what I told my sponsee yesterday when she asked about her prescription for narcotics. I told her I am not a doctor, and therefore I am unqualified to tell her what she should or should not be taking. I reminded her of the details of my personal story, and why I would be extremely hesitant to take anything that is mind-altering in nature. But, at the end of the day, only one person can tell you if you are taking the medicine for legitimate reasons, only one person knows if you are taking it as prescribed, and only one person knows if you are disposing of it when you are done with it, and that person is not me, her primary physician, her dentist or her therapist… it is herself. I told her if she is telling me that she legitimately needs the medicine, and that she is taking it exactly as prescribed on an as-needed basis, then she has maintained her sobriety.
But I went to bed wondering if I am correct.
Monday morning, I deliberately chose the chapter I described above. The good news is this: the chapter says essentially the same thing as I did: that we in AA are not the medical community, we have no business telling people what to take or not to take, and we have no moral position on prescription or recreational drugs. We only know what the potential outcome is for people who suffer with the disease of addiction, and we can only share our own stories as cautionary tales to the newcomer.
So I guess I did okay, but I can’t say I won’t be a little worried in the immediate future…
Our hot water heater burst over the weekend, so the miracle is the joy of hot water… showers, dishwashers, washing machines, the gratitude list goes on and on (and at the top of the list is my Father-in-law, who spent the entire Monday getting us the hot water!)
The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. – Ernest Hemingway
Normally I would write about the lessons that come from my Monday morning meeting. While the meeting was as awesome as always, the topic of today’s meeting was Step 4, and since I am committed to writing about the steps each week for the next 12 weeks, I will save this topic for a future post.
Instead, I want to write about an experience I had yesterday. I mentioned numerous times in the past how instrumental my sponsor has been in helping my recovery. She spent many hours with me, one-on-one, taking me through the steps in the most in-depth way, more so than most people I encounter in the Fellowship of AA. She is always available when I need her for ongoing support. Most recently, she is a tremendous source of guidance as I stumble my way through the early stages of sponsoring other women. In short, she is a gift from God.
The one challenge my sponsor and I encounter is our geographical distance, because we live about 45 minutes from each other. Because of this distance, Anne and I do not run into each other in meetings, and our sober support networks are very different. There is some overlap, but not much. There happens to be one woman who attends the same Friday morning meeting I attend, and we are both lucky enough to be Anne’s sponsees. This woman mentioned to me, in passing, that she was planning a surprise luncheon to celebrate Anne’s AA anniversary, and that I was welcome to attend. I got the date, time and venue from her, and told her I would be there, but that is all I really knew about the celebration.
I arrived, yesterday, at the restaurant, thinking that it would be myself, Anne, and maybe one or two others that I probably wouldn’t know. What actually happened was this: we had our own room within the restaurant, and we needed our own room because there were 22 women all coming to celebrate the anniversary of the woman who had helped each of us get our lives back from the disease of addiction. 22 women!
I wish I had a picture of Anne’s face as she turned the corner into the room of women waiting for her. You know that play of emotions… first confusion, then shock, and then the tears start flowing? It was all there… she truly had no idea she was coming to a celebration just for her.
For me, the experience was just overwhelming… to see that much love, and that much joy, in one room, was awe-inspiring. These are 22 women who would not know each other in “normal” life… in fact, I thought I was the only “odd man out,” since I had come the furthest distance, but as it turned out, many of the women did not know one another. We had two things in common: we are all alcoholics, and we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the woman we were honoring that day.
I know, for myself, that I have thanked Anne numerous times, and felt I could never repay her all the time and attention she lavished upon me. Every time I attempted to verbalize these thoughts, she always told me that she was getting so much more out of the experience than I knew, and that someday I would understand how much she enjoyed teaching me the 12-step program. Spending time with all the women Anne has helped through the years, and seeing all the lives she has touched, I know one thing for sure: I am so blessed to have met this very special woman!
I wrote last week that I had a goal of getting to as many different meetings as I could in an attempt to market my own Monday meeting. Today’s miracle is that, as a result of my “marketing campaign,” I had 3 new attendees at today’s meeting!
We all know that, in theory, there are many times in life where letting go is the best, most sensible solution. I don’t know about anyone else, but knowing something in theory, and doing something in reality are two very different things.
I could give you as many examples of this idea as there are words in the English language: disappointment in the behavior of my children, fights with my husband, frustration with family members, the list could go on forever. Intellectually, I know that holding on to any of these things produces nothing worthwhile, solves no problems, and serves only to exacerbate an already negative situation.
But damned near impossible to do if I’m in the middle of it.
On a technical level, I currently have 2 sponsees. Emphasis: technical level. The second sponsee I will write more about in the future, we are getting together for the first time tonight, at a meeting, so I hope to have some wonderful, inspirational things to share about this relationship next week.
The first sponsee I have written about quite a few times. We have had a relationship for several months, but before this morning I have not seen nor heard from her in weeks. I have attempted to reach out to her, but to no avail. As of my last unreturned phone call, I was determined to let her go. I truly felt I had given it my best shot, and she was simply not ready.
So I run into her this morning for the first time in weeks, and we had a few minutes to talk. I asked her how she was doing, she said, “Terrible.” She then proceeded to complain about all the people in her life stressing her out, which is causing her anxiety, and all she can do is sit around the house and play video games. She is sorry she hasn’t called me, she feels guilty about it, but offered no real reason for failing to return texts, phone calls, or cancelling get-togethers. She also let some new information into the equation, such as she had started dating someone in recovery(breaking a cardinal rule in AA), now he has deeper feelings for her than she for him, and so they are fighting all the time, and her parents are upset with her because they want her to stay with the first “nice” guy she has ever brought home.
My thoughts: INFORMATION OVERLOAD, followed by, it is WAY too early in the morning for this!
What I said: I am here if you need me, we can start over anytime, try not to let other people’s issues get in the way of your recovery. Please call me, and don’t feel guilty about not calling me.
As I said, knowing you need to let go, and actually letting go, are two very different animals. I guess the most I can do is pray for her, and be there for her if and when she needs me. And pray, for myself, for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the woman I am meeting tonight has communicated with me almost every day this week, and is so excited to start step work, that her excitement is contagious!
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. –John Quincy Adams
A few weeks ago I wrote, very briefly, that I reached another milestone: I have been asked to sponsor someone in the AA program. I have not written about it since, primarily because not a lot has happened. We see each other several times a week on an informal basis. We attended one meeting, and shared our personal stories with one another. And that’s about it.
From my perspective, very disappointing beginning to the sponsor/sponsee relationship. Here’s what I imagined would happen: after seeing the serenity and joy emanating from me, she would want what I have, and so she would go to any length to get it. She would then take every suggestion I offer, thereby achieving the same joy and serenity I have. Shockingly, thus far things are not going according to my plan.
In the past few weeks, I have been doing my own research, and have “interviewed” many people in the program with long-time sobriety to find out how they sponsor people. And here’s what I have discovered: there are as many definitions of the word sponsor as there are people in the AA program. The good news is there is certainly room for flexibility. The less good news: absolutely no hard and fast rules by which to proceed.
My plan is to take my sponsee through the steps the same way my sponsor took me through them, which was almost academic in nature. Weekly sessions, multiple hours at a shot, homework assigned, and lots of personal discussion. This method worked brilliantly for me, and I still use the information I was given in this process on a daily basis.
Here’s the challenge I face with my new relationship: I am unconvinced (and that word is an understatement) that my sponsee has any real desire to be taken through the steps.
You may be thinking, but then why would she ask to even have a sponsor if she does not want to go through the steps? Unfortunately, there are many reasons someone would ask for help without really wanting the help… to get their loved ones off their back (been there, done that), because they want to appear as if they are serious about their recovery when in fact they are not (been there, done that), or they have some legal requirements that they are trying to fulfill.
Sadly, I suspect all of the above for my sponsee.
So where to go from here? Several proverbs apply, the most obvious being that I can lead the horse to water, but I can’t make her drink it. I have offered to get together, her schedule is an issue. I have been with her on a Monday morning and offered to take her to the meeting I started, and then take her wherever she needs to go afterward, but she has “other things to do at home.” We have made plans to do things, but a conflict arises and she must cancel. And now I sound like I’m complaining, so I will stop. I’m not complaining about her, I am just frustrated that I can’t give back what I have been so freely given.
Any advice is welcome, I am most certainly open to suggestion!
That I have the “privilege” problem of worrying about someone else’s recovery!
My favorite AA meeting occurs every Friday morning. It is 30 minutes earlier than my normal weekday meetings, and the location is a bit further from my house, so during the summer, it can be tricky to make it on time. Today was such day, and I realized that I would be late, but that I could arrive early at a different meeting that started a little later. I considered it, but decided that because it is my favorite meeting, and it is only once a week, I would rather be late to it than early for another meeting.
AA etiquette dictates that if you are late to a meeting, you should refrain from sharing. This is not a hard and fast rule, but I was not feeling any burning desire to share, so I figured I would respect it. However, because attendance was so low, it quickly came down to basically only me who did not speak, so I figured it would be more important to participate than to adhere to etiquette, and I shared my thoughts. I prefaced my comments by admitting that since I have not started the steps (the topic of the meeting was about step 7), I don’t feel like I have a lot of personal insight, and in the course of my speaking I mentioned that my sponsor would like me to wait until I have 6 months sober before I begin my step work.
As soon as the meeting ended, someone with whom I have a passing acquaintance approached and asked me why my sponsor was having me wait for 6 months to begin step work. An interesting question that I have asked myself numerous times, but have ultimately decided that I would follow her lead. I answered him honestly, and he gave me another way to look at it, a way that made quite a bit of sense. He wanted to introduce me to his friend at the meeting, because his friend’s wife is a long time member of the fellowship and often takes women through the steps. I looked over and the man to whom he was referring is someone I know very well, whom I have been inspired by since my first week in recovery, and whose AA words I hang on to every time he speaks. I know his wife by reputation, as she is very well-known in the various meetings I attend, but have never had the privilege to meet her.
My concern was that while I would love to go through the steps with someone experienced, as this woman obviously is, I would never want to hurt my sponsor in any way, since she has been an absolute godsend to me. Both understood my concern, they are both sponsors themselves, but explained that many people choose to go this route, working steps with one person, and yet having your sponsor for all other matters. I did not understand that was a common practice, and was elated… this was the perfect solution to a dilemma I have been mulling over for some time now, and I did not realize the solution existed!
I left that meeting amazed once again at how life works, feeling as if I turned a corner in my recovery, and filled with anticipation for the new chapter that I am about to start. It gives me a feeling not only of gratitude, but also of hope, and it is even more exciting to relive it by sharing with you!