“Each day, somewhere in the world, recovery begins when one alcoholic talks to another alcoholic, sharing experience, strength and hope” — Alcoholics Anonymous (Forward to Third Edition p. Xxii)
“Sponsorship is a bridge to trusting the human race, the very race we once resigned from. In learning to trust, we are strengthening our sobriety.” — A Means to a Beginning, Grand Island, Nebraska, February 1984, One On One: AA Sponsorship in Action
Day 14 of Sobriety
It’s rare to find an alcoholic who one day resolved to stay sober and successfully held this resolve in perpetuity. As many times as I’ve heard that alcoholics are stubborn people, this seems counterintuitive. If we’re stubborn and determined to do something, then it should be a given that we’ll do it right?
Apparently not. Success rates for recovery are hard to come by because study methodologies are inconsistent. But one thing is obvious, the statistics are dismal. A study published in the journal Addiction stated that long-term relapse rates of untreated alcoholics are as high as 80%. The study included “non-problem drinkers” which likely paints an even more dismal picture for alcoholics.
With a doom and gloom outlook like this, some people may think to themselves why try or hope? Well first and foremost because their very life depends on it! No child ever says I want to grow up and die due to alcohol, yet according to the Center for Disease Control, in the United States, almost 89,000 people every year do exactly that. By their estimation, alcohol steals 2.5 million potential hours of life every year.
I’ve been immersed in the fellowship of people trying to stay sober for the past year and there’s a common thread in all of our stories, loneliness wrapped in despair and we drank to numb this pain. Unfortunately, the lethal side effects weren’t obvious to us when we started this practice. Eventually, we became mentally and physically ill, dependent on this substance to function. Recent science indicates that binge drinking alters DNA making it even harder to abstain because your body is genetically programmed to fight you.
In a situation like this, you need a miracle to succeed. Luckily there is one, it’s connecting with other alcoholics. According to American Addiction Centers, people in AA stay sober longer and in greater numbers than untreated alcoholics. A 2014 study of 6,000 members by AA showed that 59% of members were sober (defined as abstinent) over one year (22% of respondents had over 20 years of sobriety).
People who are successful using AA are unwavering in their belief that the program saved their lives and those of countless others. I am becoming one of those people. In these quiet gatherings, people do something remarkable, they share the worst moments of their lives with a group of strangers. And even more remarkable, they are not judged, they are loved! Some people share the struggle they are currenlty facing and others talk about what their life was like when they were abusing alcohol and what it’s like now, becoming beacons of something every alcoholic desperately needs: HOPE!
At the end of each meeting, we join hands in a circle say, “Keep coming back, it works if you work it!” Newcomers introduce themselves so that those with long-term sobriety can (and do) introduce themselves. If a newcomer wants, they can get a sponsor, someone who will guide them through the 12-Steps. In my mind, this is the miracle of working together. Selecting a sponsor is one of the most important things you’ll do in AA. Suddenly you are not alone, you are understood and you understand.
Only someone who has completed the steps can guide another through them, it’s a sometimes painful and scary journey of personal discovery that when embraced, transforms the alcoholic into someone who doesn’t want to drink because they’ve built such a rich life. The benefits are equal to the “Sponsee” and the “Sponsor” and the numbers prove this. Anybody with over a year of sobriety in AA is a sponsor (*generally speaking*, as the requirement to sponsor is to complete the 12-steps and most people do this within a year). I’ve met people with nine “generations” of sponsees. Imagine knowing you helped that many people reclaim their lives and seeing them transform from broken and scared to confident and happy!
People are hard-wired to need connection, we are pack animals. Further, we are hard-wired to resist change. Anybody who’s tried to exercise more, eat healthily or cease a habit will tell you, it’s hard. Pack-animals want to fit in, and we are constantly on the look-out for our tribe. Once you decide to join the ranks of a tribe, you want to belong, so you follow the rules. In the case of AA, this gives members a strong incentive to stay sober. But there’s so much more.
For me, having a sponsor is having a living breathing person who I admire in front of me proving that it can be done. I can’t bullshit her into thinking my situation is “special” because it’s not. Looking at her and other sponsors, I can’t bullshit myself into saying sobriety is impossible, because clearly, it’s not. Sponsors don’t tell a fairytale that life becomes perfect when you stop drinking, rather they tell you that if you surrender, accept you are powerless against alcohol, and rely on a higher power to restore sanity, life becomes enjoyable and MANAGEABLE. My life was definitely unmanageable.
I like to write down tidbits of what people say during shares at meetings, yesterday a man said that he cannot talk to himself about himself because he has no perspective, so he talks to other AAs. DUH – our brains will do whatever it takes to convince us the thing we want is the right choice because of the need for immediate gratification. The reason tell our kids “Do as I say, not as I do” is because we know better – it’s just really fucking hard to do better. Sponsors are DOING better. Through connection, we help each other do the next right thing.
Another thing I heard recently from a sponsor is that every time they take a sponsee through the steps they learn about themselves too. Being a sponsor keeps the AA close to their journey. A lot of sponsors tell me that working with someone reminds them how hard recovery really is so they don’t want to relapse. I buy that, but I really think it’s ancillary to the continued self-discovery and the everyday practice of the steps and the wisdom. Human beings need to practice to continue to be successful. Elite athletes train with coaches to maintain their edge. Writers work with editors. Therapists see therapists. We have to get outside our own head and be reminded of the fundamentals. Almost every successful person says their “secret” is to stay true to the fundamentals. How simple is that — the fundamentals are called that for a reason. The 12-steps are the fundamentals and staying grounded in them is the only way to succeed long-term, the sponsor-sponsee relationship provides that grounding and practice.
Having a sponsor and trusting my higher power takes me out of the driver’s seat. Because if I’m honest, my life was a shit show when I was trying to be the ringmaster. So many things are out of our control but we still try to control them like crazy people. I personally accepted the steps out of order. I reestablished my relationship with God and began to trust his will, then decided to accept that I’m powerless. I haven’t felt this free in 15 years!
Shame, guilt, judgment — I’ve never seen those in an AA room. I’m new, I’ve heard it happens but not in my experience. If you find that, just find a new meeting. It’s this magic mix of people who you’d likely never see in the same room cheering each other on. Last week, I followed a man in a car worth a quarter of a million dollars to a meeting where I sat next to a person just out of jail living in a shelter. At meeting’s end, this motley crew held hands and cheered each other on. We found common ground and treated each other with compassion.
I know I can’t do it alone, and even if I could it’s so much better doing it with support.
*I’m working two programs right now. AA is helping me immensely due to the face-to-face connection. Additionally, I participate in Women For Sobriety’s online forums where I receive wisdom and support from many wise women.