Finding a Sponsor, a Friend Who’s Been There

All support helps, but forming a bond with someone who has lived addiction and recovery brings a rare degree of understanding. Here's how the process works in 12-step programs

November 2, 2022
A sober man and his sponsor

“Alcohol isolated me from other people, even when I seemed to be right smack in the middle of them,” writes Caroline Knapp in her memoir, “Drinking: A Love Story.” When Knapp first gets sober, she worries that her life will become lonely; it quickly becomes clear to her how deeply lonely it had already been in her years of addiction.

The isolation of addiction, for many people, is the most corrosive part. As inherently social creatures, humans generally yearn to be connected to others. We want to share our achievements, struggles, joy and despair. This is especially true in recovery from substance use disorder (SUD), which often follows a period of disconnection and alienation.

Deciding to seek sobriety is a pivotal moment, but it is often accompanied by immense apprehension. Staying the course in recovery and maintaining sobriety comes with its share of obstacles and difficult moments. During these bouts of insecurity, doubt and frustration, we need to be reminded we are not alone.

The Importance of Social Support — All Around You

Being surrounded by supportive friends and family makes our lives richer and more fulfilling. Whether they help us decompress after a long day at work or share advice about issues we encounter, the people who support us cheer us on in good times and lift us up in bad ones.

Knapp describes “how much more textured and varied life seems” in sobriety, and indeed, engaging in positive social interactions is crucial to maintaining good overall health and well-being.

Research suggests that having a robust support system is vital to successful recovery from SUD. Social support is linked to a decrease in substance use and correlates with an increased willingness to make positive changes. Family support, in particular, has been found helpful in maintaining abstinence from substances.

Two women at a table laughing

What Is a Sponsor, and How Can They Help?

While friends and family members form an essential support network for those in recovery, there is something they might not be able to provide in full: understanding.

Part of the reason addiction is so isolating is that it can be hard to communicate what you are experiencing to the people around you. Substances can harm you physicallymentally and spiritually, and those on the outside might not be able to understand why you continue to use. They cannot grasp the pain of withdrawal and the risk of relapse in recovery, which might all seem like a choice to them.

Anyone who has experienced substance use disorder knows it is not quite so simple. Addiction is a mental and physical health condition, not a straightforward matter of choice, and it is helpful to be around people who understand that.

This is one reason support groups and 12-step programs are valuable resources. Members remind us that we are not alone in our journey, they get it, and they also understand there is a path forward — a life after addiction.

An important benefit to participating in these types of programs is the ability to develop a relationship with a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who has been there before, has been in your position and wondered if they would ever make it through addiction.

And they have. They have usually progressed through the 12 steps and found meaning in life outside the grasp of substance use. As part of their recovery journey, they are willing to give back by working with people like you.

(We’ll note here that 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are not the only support groups out there, but many in recovery find them invaluable. Other groups, like SMART Recovery and LifeRing, as well as more local or “unofficial” groups, may not emphasize “sponsorship” — but guidance and support from peers with recovery experience is a significant element of most recovery communities. Much of what we write here about sponsors can also apply more generally to any peers or mentors who may be a little farther down the recovery path than you.)

Sponsors understand your situation to a much greater extent than most people, including the barriers you face in achieving sobriety and any doubts you may have. They may demonstrate how the principles of the 12-step program have helped them. You can witness how they lead their lives free from substances, and in their example, you might begin to see what a sober, fulfilling future for you would look like.

Sponsors can also help integrate new members into the group, introducing them to a vibrant and vigorous support network. A sponsor will not attempt to control you, but they do provide a source of accountability.

Here’s How To Find Your Sponsor

Since sponsorship is a key component of 12-step programs, these programs often try to help newcomers make such connections. Attending meetings specifically for newcomers can be one opportunity. The organization may also have dedicated positions designed to foster these relationships.

Approaching more senior members and asking if they’d be interested in sponsoring you is entirely acceptable. You might feel like you are imposing, but sponsorship is seen as a privilege. When choosing a sponsor, you do not need to find someone just like you; working with someone who’s a little different can introduce you to new perspectives that can help you grow.

The primary qualities to consider in a potential sponsor are their willingness to sponsor, their respect for you, and their attitude toward sobriety. A good rule of thumb is to work with someone who’s been sober for at least a year. If you want to become invested in a 12-step program, your sponsor should be, too. Are they happy and fulfilled in sobriety? Then you can learn from them.

Plenty of folks enter sobriety skeptical about recovery programs, or at least apprehensive about the commitment and vulnerability of a sponsor-sponsee relationship. Some choose not to seek out a sponsor.

That’s fine, and it’s also fine to change your mind and decide that having a sponsor would benefit your recovery. Sponsors are not just for newcomers; you can ask for someone to sponsor you at any point in the process. You might also part ways with one sponsor and mesh better with another. It is never too late to ask for help.

A Partnership That Enriches You Both

If you’re new to the whole sponsor-sponsee concept, you might think it sounds pretty one-sided. You may feel that you stand to get a lot out of it, while your sponsor is only giving. But that’s not how it works. Sponsors can benefit tremendously from this arrangement: It is part of their recovery too. Helping others is a way of finding purpose in recovery. Many consider it the most powerful one.

If you’re embarking on recovery, you’ve probably lived with loneliness for quite a while. But you’re in recovery because that life wasn’t working out. Consider reaching out to someone who will be thrilled to make a meaningful connection.

More Help & Information

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

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