Unhelpful AA sponsors

I try not to be critical of other people’s recovery solutions. I feel is a private matter for the individual to decide which solution is best for them. I have been critical of those who call themselves anti-AA. I feel that they often exaggerate the problems in the fellowship. However, I chose to leave the 12-step world, because I did not feel it was the best solution for my recovery, and also because I was wary of some of the members. It is certainly not perfect.

Today I was sitting in a cafe in London and I witnessed both the good side and the bad side of the fellowship from my table. I was reminded why I left AA, and felt sorry for one of the group, I could overhear, who clearly had issues with working the steps.

I was sitting on my own, when three middle-aged women sat at the table next to mine. They seemed in good spirits and it became apparent that they had come from and AA meeting. Two of the group had obviously been members for sometime and seem to have done well. They were offering encouragement to the third member, who had not completed the steps, and had some concerns about step six. They were talking about this in a low-key way, and not attracting attention. I would not have heard their conversation unless I was sitting right next to them. They were helping each other, which is what the fellowship should be about.

cafe

 

Their little chat, and privacy, was broken when two men sat down next is them. One was obviously the Sponsor of the other. The Sponsor type instantly butted into the ladies conversation and offered his wisdom. Despite the fact that the ladies were obviously not impressed by his intrusion, he offered to drive them to another meeting. When they declined, he carried on, and suggested they attend a different meeting in another area later in the week that he thought would be good for them. This meeting was one of the cult type meetings that I remembered from my time in the fellowship, where are people go to impress others, rather than help them. He seemed to think going to one meeting after another was the norm.

They were saved by Mr Sponsor’s phone ringing. He answered it very loudly, and it was obviously a call from another sponsee. This gave him a chance to show off. He certainly took the opportunity. Instead of being subtle, he answered as loudly as possible, and made it’s obvious he was talking about AA. The whole cafe could hear him including the waitresses who are pointing at him, making comments in Romanian and laughing. He started talking about the steps and God, as if they were the only solution to alcoholism, which is often what devout members of AA actually think. He was making no attempt to emphasise with the other person on the phone, but just talking to impress the other members of AA in the cafe.

He was precisely the type of person that annoyed me during the period I went to 12-step meetings. He was somebody that likes to perform to a group, but does not have the sensitivity to really help others. All he can do is quote the big book, and tell people to go to meetings. He is critical of anyone who does not work the AA program in a strict way. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people like this in London meetings. He had completely ruined the ladies conversation with his intrusion. They were the ones helping each other and it was ironic, that it was the hard-core stepper that ruined things.

I certainly don’t think recovery groups are for everyone, but many do benefit from membership of a sober community. Unfortunately it is important to be on guard for people who want to dominate and control others, in these groups. I think this type of behaviour is more common in AA due to the sponsorship part of the program. I certainly felt a relief at not having to deal with the self-righteous critical types, who are often horrific gossips, after leaving AA. I valued my privacy, but people such as the man in the cafe, do not. For them AA has become a way of life, and they love to tell others that they are members, even anonymous people sitting in a cafe. They feel blessed to be members of AA.

This brought back a memory for me, as the first time I was embarrassed by a member of AA in public, was in this very cafe over a decade ago. That person was my sponsor, and I realised he was very similar to the man in there today. He would have used the same phrases, and was equally tactless. I had chosen him as my sponsor, as he had latched onto me at meetings and told me about other meetings that he felt were good. I realise now that I was being guided to hard-core 12-step meetings, rather than the more laid back meetings that I later found helpful. It was odd to experience this again. It made me realise how far I have come. I realise now that I was never going to fully fit in to AA. I’m not religious and I’m not spiritual. It suits some people, but is not the only way and as I value my privacy, I am better off not doing recovery in a group any more.

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  1. What a great post – can identify with it very strongly. Ashamed to say that’s the kind of sponsor that I was. AA Taliban, and proud of it.
    “People like you are killing newcomers” was my usual line when anyone was sponsoring someone not according to my own hardline interpretation of the programme. Spoken as loudly as possible so everyone could hear my conspicuous virtue signalling.
    Weren’t you tempted to intervene? I would have. Cult talk is cult talk, whether you’re in a hardcore AA group, Scientology, or the Socialist Worker’s Party. It’s all the same psychological mechanisms.
    That’s why, today, I’m keen on a more free-thinking approach. “The God Delusion” and Robert Jay Lifton’s “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China” should be on the literature table right alongside “Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”) and the “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” at every single AA meeting — especially the hardcore culty ones!
    Roy Eskapa’s “The Cure for Alcoholism” and the SMART Recovery Handbook would be good too.
    That would be an interesting podcast: “Books that should be available at every AA meeting”
    We could live stream it and ask for recommendations.

  2. By the way, he wasn’t “ruining their conversations” at all. Far from it. From his perspective he was “saving their lives!”

  3. I did think of saying something but actualy felt he was doing a better job of making himself look mad than I could do by countering his arguments. You could have done a better job with him and probably out quoted him from the Big Book as well, which would have really pissed him off.
    I did think of you and what you would say if you had been there and also what kind of cartoon Gary could have drawn about the situation. He would have had the ammunition for a masterpiece! Monica would have exploded!
    I tend only to talk about recovery to people, if they ask me about it these days. It tends to lead to an argument otherwise. I think we all need to take responsbility for our own recovery and the information is out there now if people want to look. They all seemed to be sober and functioning, so it seems to be working for them. The flip side is those that turn up to meetings, don’t find tem helpful and drift off doing nothing, believing AA is the only solution. feel Aa should ackowledge other solutions.
    We could do a live podcast, although I have not done one like that before. I suppose a google hangout would be the way to do that. If you are free we could do one.

  4. Good post. I can relate quite strongly to what you describe…. kind of like the self-elected guru… yeah, such people are quite dangerous, actually.

    Oh and I’m with you on groups or “groupism”. Not for me either.

  5. Enjoyed that, thank you! I’ve experienced the same scenario many, many times! Here in Bristol we have unofficial recovery cafes where it is important to be seen in after the meeting (almost as much as the meeting itself) where a lot of these ‘Alpha AAs’ congregate, swarming around for new disciples. Its very uncomfortable to watch. In the early days of my recovery, I was seduced by these types and i wanted their confidence and ‘swagger’ but It wasn’t long before i realized that these people (my old sponsor included) were Ego driven and dangerous! I never really fitted in either and i’m just so glad that i’m out of it now.

    • Sounds like we had similar experiences. My original sponsor had about 40 sponcees and I thought this was great at first as he must be really good. In reality he wanted his own little cult, following him about, and spent most of his time critiquing other’s recovery.
      Some of the meetings after a meeting were good for me, especially when I was travelling to different towns and staying over night, but too much of that can take you away from normal living. They certainly attract some Alpha AA types!

  6. Well done on those three Ladies working on true recovery!

    There are many paths up the mountain and sage like people push a lot of people off.

    “Today’s Rooster is Tomorrow’s Feather Duster” 😀

    • I love the Rooster quote!
      I certainly found being in a sober community helpful in my early days. The meetings after a meeting kept me out the pub and there were some people in the rooms who were level headed.

  7. Thank you for what you typed. I had a sponsor many years ago who acted just like that. Eventually, I figured out that if someone is giving me summands (demanded suggestions), ask for clarity on what they mean. So I HAVE to do it THAT way? It MUST be ONLY that way? Right? Ask them if I don’t do it that way if I will relapse. Then go out of my way to do the opposite of that while following the literature. If I stay sober, that pushy person is a blatant bold faced liar and is not to be trusted and when called out on that during the inevitable confrontation, hold them accountable on EVERY LITTLE DETAIL. I LOVE watching them squirm and the entertaining mental gymnastics they inevitably perform, just like Ringling Brothers lol. I ALWAYS tell new comers about that technique (only if they ask me, and I never push it on them). I also tell newcomers if I ever start acting that way (can’t fathom me doing that as I DESPISE people acting like that in ANY area of life, in meetings, on a job, friends, etc), do the opposite of what I say and see if I am lying to them. Anyway, I find going to meetings, the healthy non pushy ones I actually like, I do find them helpful to me. When someone in a meeting tells me they don’t want to work the steps, I point them towards SMART recovery or Rational Recovery and tell them that I combine the steps with concepts from both of those programs but those other programs by themselves didn’t work for me but in all honesty it might be a better fit for them. Ironic that that attitude is much closer to the Big Book if a person reads it verbatim…dogmatic fundies are INCAPABLE of rigorous honesty…I almost wonder if those dogmatic types are illiterate as they go on and on about “my sponsor says this my sponsor says that” lol…

    • Thanks Alex, I certainly found that using a varity of methods helped me,rather than just sticking to one such as AA and relying on the steps or a higher power. I think AA was originally all about sharing experience and that the importance of the steps has come after the growth of the 12 step rehab industry. People forget that sponsors are just other alcoholics trying to beat the booze. Some certainly get carried away, and attracted to culty type meetings rather those that are about helping newcomers. I think it is important to keep an open mind in recovery and try a variety of approaches or at least learn about them, in case extra help is needed down the line.

  8. I liked this post. Do you know that based on AA 12 steps philosophy many others groups have been created? Others groups to help with other addictions. One of those is codependency anonimos. Is for people who emotionally depend on others to feel worthy, loved or accepted. And this can become highly addictive. Is more subtle because there’s no substance being used, but it is an emotional addiction. Like love or sex addiction.
    Anyway I am attending one of those and they certainly use the 12 steps methods used in AA, you need a sponsor and definitely have to stick to the 12 steps and
    the program. From time to time they do refer to the AA blue book, they also call this addiction a disease and you have to have a higher power to help you.
    Fortunately I am spiritual not religious so I have no problems with that, but the rigidity they have about believing that only this program can help you overcome this problem is to strict and close minded in my opinion. Last time I asked if they knew about some literature outside the program that they could recommend to read, they reacted like I was not respecting what this program is all about, that no other book or literature could help me besides the literature from codependents anonymous. That this program is based on the successful program from AA and that I should stick to it if I want results.
    Another time I called a member of the group just to talk about an incident that happened with my spouse and also made comments that I was reading interesting literature about how to heal defeating emotions. Her answer was very judgmental, and she criticized the fact that I was trying to replace the program with outside literature. She said that I should find an sponsor and start working the steps immediately.
    Anyway I have been attending this group for like four months now, I have serious doubts that this is the only solution. BTW this program exists over 20 something years ago, is not that new, andnot as old as AA.
    I have had more succes by reading books about it, meditating and by doing affirmations on my own, like you said, recovery from any addiction dependes solely in what you do and if you take responsibility for your own life day by day.

    • Thanks for your comment. There are lots of 12 step spinoffs that are fairly similar and have their own devotees. Some people become mebers of many of these groups and tend to feel that the steps can solve anything. I think it is best to avoid the over zealous types in these groups who have made their support group a religion.

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