My great-grandsponsor, Don, used to say that his job was to sharpen his knife so well that it wouldn’t hurt when he stabbed you. Don did some prison time, but to my knowledge he never actually stabbed anyone. The knife and the stabbings here are metaphorical. In fact, they are exactly the same metaphor that Howard Walter used in the classic Oxford Group handbook, Soul Surgery. Walter suggested that religious personal workers were like surgeons removing spiritual sickness from their converts. Don’s stabbing metaphor means the same thing. Sponsees are spiritually sick and must have their sickness removed, so a sponsor’s job will always require a bit of cutting.
Performing soul surgery on alcoholics is no easy task. It means saying things to your sponsees that you know they won’t like to hear. The truth is often painful. It can be embarrassing to have someone point out your personal failings, especially if you are one of these ultrasensitive creatures called an alcoholic. And we alcoholics are not just extremely sensitive, we are also extremely dishonest and stubborn and resentful. If our sponsors are not careful in the way they deliver the truth to us, we can easily become irrationally resistant.
It’s a bit like the Hasbro game “Operation.” In that game, you’re supposed to extract a plastic object from a plastic patient with a set of tweezers. The object is in clear view, but if you twitch even a little while trying to pull it out, the tweezers will touch the side of the opening, the patient’s nose will glow bright red, and he’ll make an awful buzzing sound. Sponsoring an alcoholic is exactly like that. You can see what is wrong, and you’d like to remove it. But if your tone or manner are even a little off the mark, the drunk will glow bright red and make an awful buzzing sound.
Once an alcoholic becomes resistant to the truth, there is very little productive work that can be done. Instead of seeing their failings and becoming motivated to surrender, resistant alcoholics become overly hurt and resentful, and may even decide they’d rather drink than tolerate any more of of this awful truth-telling. Occasionally, this initial resistance will soften, and the alcoholic will return to thank the sponsor for what he or she said. More often than not, however, once the nose is glowing and the buzzer is buzzing, your turn is over. You’ll have to wait for the sponsee to return, broken and remorseful from yet another relapse, before your words can get through.
So how do you stab alcoholics without hurting them?
I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for this question. As far as I know, Don didn’t give clear rules about how to insert metaphorical knives into sponsees while avoiding all their nerve endings. His metaphor was all the guidance he gave us, and it may be all the guidance we really need. He believed that his job was to name painful truths for people. And he believed that he shouldn’t hurt anyone. These are both good beliefs, even if they are hard to reconcile. Together they guide us toward the mean between two extremes. On one extreme, you have sponsors who will do no harm, even if that means failing to tell the truth. On the other extreme, you have sponsors who will name painful truths, even if that means doing more harm than good.
Neither of these extremes offers effective soul surgery. Both have the potential to cause real harm. The “do no harm” sponsors risk failing to name painful truths. If sponsees don’t ever hear the truth, they never get a chance to act on it, and so they are robbed of the opportunity to surrender and change. The “always tell the truth” sponsors risk missing their mark in one of two ways: they might be wrong in their assumptions about the sponsee (and so the “truth” they are telling won’t be true at all) or they may give the sponsee the impression that he or she is being judged. Sponsees who feel judged are not able to identify with us or to trust us, and so they become resistant. To return to the “Operation” analogy: the “do no harm” sponsor is the kid who decides not to play the game at all rather than face the red light and the buzzer. The “always tell the truth” sponsor is the kid trying to dig pieces out of the game board with a screwdriver.
I fall into the “do no harm” category. Most of my mistakes have been failing to name a truth for a sponsee even when I knew he needed to hear it. I have watched sponsees follow bad ideas into relapse without offering so much as a word of warning. I’ve pulled my punches. I’ve held my tongue and hoped for the best. My motives were not even as noble as “do no harm.” While it’s true that I did not want to hurt my sponsees, the fact is that I was less afraid of actually harming them than I was of being wrong and embarrassed, or of hurting their feelings and having them not like me anymore. The idea that I might say the wrong thing, piss off a sponsee, and have them leave with a bad opinion of me was unthinkable. The fear that this might happen often drove me to give up on my sponsees instead of confronting them with the truth.
I don’t want to give the impression that I failed to be honest with every sponsee. If that were the case, I’d be drunk. I managed to be mostly honest most of the time, and in the majority of cases, the situation never came up in which I knew I had to say something extra painful. Most sponsees went through the process of working steps without any need of additional intervention. They read through the book with me, took a third step, started writing inventory and reached a point of crisis on their own. They came face-to-face with the truth in themselves and either finished their 4th step anyhow, or walked away. In these situations, there was no need of confrontation from me. My job was simply to make the terms clear: you can keep getting honest and catch a recovery, or you can leave the work and fall back into into your pain. Those who were willing to endure the truth kept writing. Those who weren’t disappeared. The program does an impressive job of sorting these things out.
It was only every now and then that a sponsee popped up who was in need of correction. Normally this was someone who was going through the motions of being in the program without doing any actual work. I’ve had sponsees who wanted to call me their sponsor without ever talking to me. I’ve had sponsees who wanted to hang out without reading the Big Book or taking any steps. And I’ve also had sponsees who got some way into the work and tried to ignore the crisis it created in their lives. Instead of either pushing through or walking away, they stopped moving forward and tried to survive on whatever small progress they had made so far. They hoped, I guess, to stay sober by merit of meaning to do the work without ever actually doing anything.
For example, I once sponsored a guy I’ll call Howard. Howard was a funny guy, pleasant to be around. He came to me after dumping another sponsor who he thought was too strict. Howard had already made it up to his 8th step, and was writing regular 10th step inventory and reading it to me. We went over his amends list together, and he made a plan to start checking off names. Each week, I picked him up on Sunday morning to go to an 11th step group, and each week, I asked him if he’d made any amends. Howard’s answer was alway some very funny and disarming way of saying “No.” So I’d tell him to get into action, and I’d leave it at that. Next week, it would be exactly the same. No, he hadn’t made amends, but he could make me laugh about it. So I’d tell him to get working. He would agree and then change the subject.
This went on for weeks and weeks before my conscience started talking to me. I wasn’t doing this guy any good by letting him think that he was in recovery when he wasn’t making any amends. I didn’t want to upset him. I enjoyed joking around with him, going to meditation together, and hearing his ongoing inventory. I didn’t want to risk giving up our friendship by telling him off. But the weeks went on, and he never made amends.
Finally, my conscience won out. I called Howard up and told him: “If you don’t make an amends this week, you aren’t working a program.” I was right. It pissed him off. It pissed him off so much that he biked all the way across town to make an amends to a former employer. Just to show me. The amends went so well that he caught a bug for it and started cranking through his list. His program grew some legs and started walking again. And we got along just fine.
With Howard, I overcame my fear of angering him and spoke the truth. The result was good. The knife was sharp, and it did its work. But I haven’t always been willing to strike. There have been times when a sponsee was floating along without doing the work, and I didn’t dig into them the way that I should have.
The example that stands out is a guy I’ll call Jack. Jack was fresh from prison, living in a recovery house. He was desperate to get his many kids out of their various foster care situations and back into his life. He was also sunk deep in a life of crime. Jack’s plan was to continue to work in “collections” while driving a stolen car. He intended to visit his children in their foster homes whether the foster families wanted him there or not. He honestly thought this plan would allow him to get ahead financially and get his family back together as quickly as possible.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have asked God for the right words to make it clear to Jack that he could choose to follow his own plan, or he could work steps: the two were not compatible. At the time, I didn’t confront him on anything. I had him take a third step, and gave him 4th step instructions, trusting that, if his third step were real, his life would get sorted out one-piece-at-a-time through inventory. Better not to expect too much at once from a guy like this, I told myself. And anyway, who knows what he might be able to get away with while he was getting started on the program. First things first, and all that.
Here’s the problem: he didn’t write. We met weekly, and when we did, I’d ask Jack how his writing was going. He’d dismiss the question and tell me how frustrated he was that the many foster parents were giving him grief. He tell me how worried he was that the people running the recovery home would find out about the stolen car or would start to wonder how he was making so much money so quickly without a job. His stress and frustration grew each week. His moral inventory did not. I did encourage him to set aside time to write. I did tell him that the writing was the most important thing in his life and would solve all his problems if he would just sit down and do it. I did not tell him that his efforts to put his family back together were self-destructive, that participating in criminal behavior was the kind of dishonesty that is incompatible with recovery, or that his whole plan signaled a lack of surrender and a failure to admit that his life was unmanageable.
One night Jack called me with real desperation in his voice. One of the foster dads had pushed him too far, and Jack was losing his cool. He didn’t know what to do. He talked for a good forty minutes about all the people that were getting under his skin and how unfair it was that he was in this predicament. He was a man with family values, he said, and the world was unkind to him. I felt my conscience pulling on me to say something. But what? I could see what was wrong. I could tell that he was on the edge of the cliff with one leg dangling over. But what to say? How to say it? What words could possibly talk him off the ledge? He was too far gone now, I told myself. It was no use making things harder on him.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m sorry things are so hard for you right now.” And that was all.
I could feel myself giving up on him, and I could feel him slipping away. It was a cold and horrible feeling.
“Thanks,” he said. And that was it. He was gone.
Next thing I heard, Jack was back in prison for threatening that foster dad with a deadly weapon. I guess he had a stolen gun in his stolen car. Because of his record, Jack was looking at a lot of time. His kids would be already grown when he got out again.
To be clear: it is not my fault that Jack was an addict and a criminal. It’s not my fault that he got crazy and went back to prison. It’s not my fault that he put his kids ahead of his recovery, or that he was convinced that he could manage his life, or that he failed to write inventory. I won’t even fault myself for saying very little to him about his poor planning and life choices. I was convinced at the time (and still am) that he could be all kinds of crazy and still get well if he had enough willingness to get honest.
But I will fault myself for not speaking when my conscious told me to. He was at the point of crisis, and a simple stab at the truth could have made a real difference. He might have made bad choices anyway. He probably would have. But at least I would have given him an opportunity to surrender. The surgical moment came and passed. I had the knife in my hand, and I didn’t strike.
I can’t speak from personal experience about the kinds of mistakes made by the other camp, the “always tell the truth” sponsors. But I have seen those folks in action. When “always tell the truth” sponsorship goes well, it looks like being a no-bullshit, straight talking kind of person who doesn’t let his or her sponsees off the hook for their bad ideas. When it goes poorly, it looks like some poor shmuck trying to do surgery by punching people in the face. Some of their words may be true, but none of them are helpful. Sponsors like that need to be told to stop hurting people, or maybe even to stop being sponsors until they’ve got their own house in order. Sponsors like me need to be told to stab a dude, even if the knife isn’t as sharp as we’d like.
So what does a balanced approach look like? What is it like to be in the middle ground between saying too little and causing harm? These are not easy questions to answer. I suspect that a balanced approach can look quite different depending on the sponsor, the sponsee, their relationship, and whatever circumstances they are in. What might be too blunt for one sponsee will surely be too soft for another, so there aren’t many rules we can make that will hold true in all situations. I would suggest, however, three things: 1) Good soul surgery is both unflinchingly honest and perfectly loving. 2) The only words that can have both of those qualities in any given situation must come to us from God in prayer. 3) Inspired words always land just right. The more deeply we can rely on God’s guidance in tricky situations, the more clearly and painlessly will we be able to deliver the truth.
I’ll tell one more story, and then I’ll shut up. This is a story Don used to tell, one that I think does a good job of demonstrating what effective soul surgery looks like.
One night Don was woken up by the sound of his phone at 4 am. When he picked up the receiver, he recognized the voice of a sponsee, who said in a cold, gravely voice, “I’m outside the bitch’s house, and I’m gonna burn it down.”
Don prayed before he answered, which proved wise because what came out of his mouth was not something he would have thought of on his own.
“You dummy,” he said warmly. “You woke me up at four in the morning to tell me something I could have read in the papers in the morning?”
The sponsee, who had been in a murderous mood a moment ago, was suddenly embarrassed. He apologized to Don, and came to his home the next day to make amends to his wife and children for disturbing their sleep. The local papers carried no stories of arson that day.