No Advice, No Direction

My grand-sponsor is a guy named Jerry E., a banker out of Kansas. His sponsor was a guy named Don P., an ex-con from Colorado. The two of them met up when Jerry was on a business trip in Denver.

Jerry was an interesting type of alcoholic in that he came into the fellowship and, without ever working steps, stayed sober for 13 years. He just showed up at meetings, made coffee, befriended fellow drunks, and kept coming back. For 13 years. At some point along the way, Jerry became what we call a dry drunk. His disease got worse not better over time, and in sobriety that meant that he got progressively less sane in his thinking and less stable in his emotional life, so that by the time he arrived in Denver, 13 years later, his best thinking was to look around for the highest building, because he wanted to make sure the jump would kill him.

A friend of Jerry’s told him that he better come to a meeting they were having. Jerry reluctantly agreed, and it just so happened that Don was chairing that night. Don introduced himself as a guy “with a mind that doesn’t work right and a body that won’t die.” Jerry was sold. Something about the man’s presence spoke to a new level of recovery.

Jerry pulled Don aside after the meeting and asked Don if he would be his sponsor. Don said “You don’t need a sponsor, Jerry. You need an AA friend.” Jerry thought Don was putting him off, or pulling his leg. But Don seemed to be sincere about his reply, and he agreed to meet with Jerry to talk about the 12 steps.

When they first met as “AA friends,” Jerry was eager to start feeling better. He said to Don, “Okay, I’m ready. What do I have to do?”

Don just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”

Jerry was surprised and even a little offended by this response. He desperately needed whatever it was that this man had, this man who promised to befriend him, and now Don seemed to be refusing to help Jerry at all. Grasping for straws, Jerry said, “Well, Don, what did you do?”

“That,” said Don, “is an entirely different question. I don’t know what you need to do. I can’t manage my own life, so how am I going to manage yours? But if you want me to share my experience with you, I will do that gladly. My life is an open book to you.”

Jerry tells this story all the time because it perfectly illustrates the tone and spirit of sponsorship that Don handed down to him. Don didn’t give advice, and he didn’t give orders. He didn’t have a plan for your life, and he never pretended that he knew better than you did how you ought to handle your affairs. When Jerry had a problem and he wanted Don to give him answers, Don would simply open the Big Book with Jerry so they could read a relevant passage together. Then Don would ask him what he thought the book was trying to say. It was up to Jerry to have his own experience.

Don’s approach to sponsorship requires a great deal of humility and faith. Unfortunately, I’m not always on the ball in those departments when my sponsees come to me for help. Here comes a drunk full of trouble and worry, and I tell myself, “I have to fix this guy.” In my sick brain, the idea that it is my job to fix somebody quickly evolves into the even more misguided notion that I can. Pretty soon I’m telling myself, “I know how to fix people. In fact, I’m pretty good at it. This guy better listen to my advice if he wants to stay sober.” The ego kicks in. Humility is lost. I rely on myself instead of God to save my fellow addicts, so faith goes right out the window.

Don’s approach cuts out a lot of noise and misdirection from the ego, which shows how firmly grounded he was in the first step. He knew that he was powerless over his own drinking and that he was powerless over Jerry’s drinking. He knew that his own life was unmanageable, and that he couldn’t manage anyone else’s either. To sponsor from a place of powerless and unmanageability takes great humility. It means you have to say things like “I don’t know what you should do.” And you have to mean it.

Don also wanted to be careful not to allow Jerry to become dependent on him. He knew that drunks always prefer the easy way out, and the easy way out of surrender to God is to follow the orders of another drunk. “You tell me what to do,” says the newcomer, “that way I don’t have to worry about all this praying and meditating and seeking God’s direction.” Even good advice from a well-meaning sponsor can lead a newcomer down the path to sponsor-reliance. Don knew that he had better get out of the way as much as possible, so that Jerry could become God-reliant. He used to tell Jerry things like, “My job as a sponsor is to wean you off of me as quickly as possible.”

Sponsors like Don step out of the way and let God do the work. Their operating assumption is that God is already working in everyone’s life, so their only real job is to keep redirecting their sponsees back to that still, small voice within. The message they carry is this: “I’m too screwed up to fix you, but God will do it if you let Him.” And that is faith.

Not everyone would agree with Don’s approach. There are plenty of folks who subscribe to the “tell ‘em what to do” school of sponsorship, where they give advice, directions, and orders, and they presume to manage their sponsees’ lives. They point to the length and/or quality of their own sobriety and suggest that this is proof enough that they are in a better position to run things than their barely-sober sponsees are. It would be irresponsible, in their view, not to call some shots. Their sponsees need the direction.

I don’t generally argue with “tell ‘em what to do” sponsors. I even halfway agree with the idea that there might be some newcomers who would do better under that kind of sponsorship. But the approach lacks humility and faith. It places the ego and word of the sponsor in the place of the presence and voice of God. Even if “tough love” sponsorship may be good for a few hard-headed alcoholics, it can’t be very good for their sponsors. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be very good for me. I don’t think I could continue to grow spiritually if I was that kind of sponsor. And I know I never would have gotten sober if my sponsor had treated me that way.

Case-in-point: When I was approaching the middle of my 4th step inventory, I met a girl, and she and I decided to hitch-hike from Maine to Wisconsin together. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the idea, and had even convinced myself that it was a good, spiritual thing to do. Now that I’d taken my 3rd step, you see, God would guide us across Route 2, making sure we got all the right rides from all the right people. We could even help them get to know God. We could do Big Book in the car! And she and I would get to know each other really, really well. As I was explaining all this to my sponsor, he got a surprised look on his face. I could tell what he was thinking, and he would have been perfectly accurate if he had said something like, “You dummy! Don’t do that! You’re going to relapse!”

I’m a sensitive, stubborn, grudge-holding drug addict and alcoholic. If my sponsor had spoken to me that way, I would have left and never come back. I may have even decided never to take steps again, telling myself that those Big Book people were all big jerks on a power trip. They pretended to be spiritual, but really they just wanted to boss you around.

But he didn’t speak harshly to me. He took a deep breath, calmed himself, and said “In my experience, people who walk away from this work don’t usually make it back. Whatever you decide, I’d encourage you to be honest with this girl.”

That’s an impressive response. He managed to share his experience with me without telling me what to do. He did offer a gentle suggestion (“be honest”), which was meant to help me avoid hurting the girl in question, but he left the decision entirely to me: go on the trip or call it off. It is possible that I could have shrugged my shoulders and gone to Wisconsin anyway. If I had, maybe he would have wondered if he ought to have been more forceful with me.

But I didn’t go. For some reason, I took his suggestion, and I told the girl about my intentions. I said to her: “My reasons for going on this trip with you are less than pure.” She looked at me like I had three heads. Then she said, “Well, I guess we better not go then.” And so I stayed, finished my inventory, and made amends. She was on my list. She told me I could make good with her by buying her a cup of coffee. We started dating. Now we’ve been married for twelve years and have two kids together. (That honesty thing works out better than you might think.)

Instead of bullying me into doing what he thought was right, my sponsor provided me an opportunity to be honest of my own free will. And that one opportunity was worth more than any amount of cheap advice. Had I been forced to do the right thing, or had I blindly followed sponsor’s orders, I would have missed the boat completely. Recovery comes only to those who choose it freely.

When I work with people now, I don’t tell anyone what to do. I don’t give advice. I don’t give directions. I don’t call shots. The people I work with often make bad choices and get into trouble. They leave the steps and do not come back. Many, many more relapse than become recovered. I have often wondered if I have hurt someone by not trying harder to stop them from doing something stupid. It’s a fleeting thought, but a troubling one. In the end, I return back as well as I can to the truth that I can’t fix anyone, that my visions of saving all the unwilling alcoholics in my life vastly overestimate my powers. I try to remember, too, that God is still hard at work in their lives, even if they are not paying too close attention, and that if I stay present and willing, sooner or later I’ll get a chance to witness another hopeless drunk make a decision to be honest, and catch hold of recovery.

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