Confessions of a Bad Sponsor
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Confessions of a Bad Sponsor


This post was originally published on September 9, 2014.

It was 3 am and the phone was ringing. I had just fallen asleep, the light was on, and there was an open book on the bed next to me. I hate dozing off reading. I usually contort my neck, lodged against the pillows at a weird angle all night, and then wake up in pain. Yet as I checked my phone, I realized that was less of a concern. Because I was almost certain I knew who was calling, and I wasn’t too thrilled about it.

Earlier in the evening I had attended my home group where the secretary had asked if there was anyone there for their first time and a guy on the other side of the room had announced himself as a newcomer. And as is custom, we passed around a meeting schedule and everyone wrote their name and phone number on the back, and the secretary gave it to the new guy. We did this so he could find support, have people to call when things get rough, and because it would help him when he was eventually ready to look for a sponsor to work the steps with. Although I have to admit that lately I haven’t been giving my number out. I can’t really tell you exactly when I stopped but it was probably around the last time I got a late night phone call from an addict I didn’t know who was obnoxiously wasted and crying in his beer. And that night, as I’d looked across the room at this new guy, a twitchy crackhead I’d never seen before, I’d had this foreboding sense he’d be the type to call in the middle of the night. So instead of doing the right thing, I passed the meeting schedule along without writing anything on it. Unfortunately the person sitting next to me was an old timer with a lot of attitude. “What if that guy was you?” he asked, and handed it back to me. Even though I had a bad feeling, I caved in and wrote my information alongside everyone else’s.

There was a time when 3 am phone calls were a regular occurrence, back when I first got clean and was still a little confused about how to live my life drama-free. The company I kept was mostly newcomers that were equally unsure of their recovery and we all had our share of emotional meltdowns. But that was years ago and now if my phone rings early in the morning, it usually means bad news, or a family emergency. And yeah, I’m pretty sure that for this guy, it was an emergency. But I really didn’t want to talk to him right then. I was half-asleep, annoyed and fearful he’d sense my discomfort. This whole “call me when you’re in trouble” deal is a lot of pressure and I tense up. I get worried I won’t be of any help, or worse, my lack of enthusiasm will turn him off about getting clean.

The last time I got a late night newcomer phone call, the guy was already high and in a bar ordering his sixth drink, and I could barely hear his slurred words over the background noise. He said he was a mess and really wanted to stop using, but he couldn’t. I asked why he didn’t call before he got loaded, and his response was he didn’t want me to try to talk him out of it. Then he said that I didn’t understand what it was like to not be able to quit using drugs. And for two seconds I got irritated; what the hell did this guy think I’d done, stop drinking root beer? But then I remembered he was high, stressed out and scared as hell—just like I’d been in the beginning. So instead of getting angry, I reached deep inside for that little bit of compassion and told him that yes, I did know what it was like and it’s unbelievably horrible, but with the support of the fellowship he could do it.

“I need help,” high-in-the-bar guy said. But he really wasn’t talking to me anymore. He was just sort of stating the obvious. And instead of arguing or spouting bits of pithy recovery rhetoric, I asked if I could call him in the morning and maybe we could go to a meeting together. Because there’s not much anyone can do for people that are already loaded. If they’re going to call for help, it’s better if they do it before they use. The ensuing late night conversation really has no meaning if the other party doesn’t remember it.

Yet I did admire that guy’s bravery for actually calling. I myself have never been very good at it; just ask my sponsor. In an effort to be a better sponsee, I’ve set an alarm on my phone for every Monday afternoon—a reminder to call him on his day off—although I don’t always follow through. I find phone calls awkward. I never know what to say, and sort of stumble through a few minutes of forced small talk before mumbling goodbye. But it is better to make a habit of calling even when things are going well. Because that way it’ll be easier when things aren’t. Plus, I don’t want to be that sponsee who only calls when I have a problem.

Right now I work with two sponsees. One is tearing through the steps, and has no trouble picking up the phone. The other barely calls, but I see him at a lot of meetings. They are both working their programs to the best of their abilities, and I am honored to be their sponsor. No matter how stressful my life can become, I always end up feeling better when I’m of service to others. I may not always want to be, but it’s just like going to the gym. I know it’s good for me, I feel great afterwards, and then the next day I still have to convince myself to do it again. But like I’ve heard at a million meetings, “You can’t keep it unless you give it away.” And I really don’t want to lose what I’ve got.

The phone was still ringing. I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hey man.” His voice was shaky. I could hear the fear. “Is this Patrick?”

“Yeah, this is Patrick.”

“Um, you don’t know me. I was at the meeting. You wrote your number on a meeting schedule?”

“Hey man, no worries. I’m glad you called.”

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About Author

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books). For the past 17 years he has lived and worked in the recovery community as a recovering addict/alcoholic, a drug and alcohol counselor, a college instructor, group facilitator, and a narrative healer. In 2015 the State of California granted him a Certificate of Rehabilitation. In 2016 California Governor Edmund G. Brown awarded him a Governor’s Pardon. He has taught writing workshops in numerous correctional facilities and institutions and continues to be of service to his fellowship and community. O’Neil lives with his wife Jennifer, a rather large Maine Coon, and a squirrel, in Downtown Los Angeles. For more information, please visit: