Overview: What is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)?

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According to its website, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international fellowship of men and women who have or have had a drinking problem. It is nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, apolitical, and available almost everywhere. 

There are no education or age requirements to join AA. Membership is open to anybody looking to do something about their drinking problem.

In fact, according to a comprehensive analysis done by a researcher at the Stanford School of Medicine, Alcoholics Anonymous is the most effective path to abstinence.

What is an AA Sponsor?

People in AA have sponsors, a term that is commonly associated with AA. For effective alcohol addiction treatment, a sponsor is extremely helpful. 

A sponsor is a senior AA member who has been in recovery for at least one year. Sponsors help others navigate AA, answer questions, work on the 12-steps, and provide accountability. 

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The sponsor is also a confidant. They understand where the new members have been like nobody else can. New members can confide in their sponsor things they may not feel comfortable disclosing at meetings or to friends, family members, or loved ones. Sponsors offer help and guidance on an individual basis. 

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How Does a Sponsorship Work?

Alcoholics Anonymous started with a sponsorship. Suddenly a powerful urge to drink crashed over Bill W., only a few months sober at this time. The thought came to him about how great it would be to have another alcoholic to talk to in order to fight the urges. Bill found Dr. Bob, who was also desperately trying to stop drinking but was not having much success with his own recovery. Out of their shared need to stop drinking, AA was born.

Unlike other places, AA sponsors and newcomers are seen as equals. An alcoholic who has made progress in their recovery shares their experience regularly with another alcoholic trying to stay sober with AA.

So what does a sponsor do? People must choose AA members to be their sponsor with whom they feel comfortable and with whom they can talk freely and confidentially.

Over the years, AA sponsorship hasn't changed much from Bill and Dr. Bob's days. It's still built on the 12 steps, developed by the two men.

The 12 steps of AA are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

 Benefits of an AA Sponsor

  • When people are new to AA meetings, their sponsor is critical. They can see that at least one other person understands what they are going through, what they have been through, and what they're going to go through from personal experience in terms of alcoholism and recovery. The sponsor draws off their own recovery and their own sobriety and is an invaluable resource for the newcomer. 
  • New members have someone to ask questions or confide in without judgment. 
  • Sponsorship provides an understanding, sympathetic friend whenever a new member needs one most.
  • A sponsor helps improve substance use outcomes. A study found that at one-month post AA treatment, people with a sponsor were 33 or 50% more likely to not return to drug use, compared to those without a sponsor. People with sponsors also had a slightly greater likelihood of staying away from alcohol than those without a sponsor.
  • Accountability. The sponsor's role is to hold the newcomer accountable, especially when urges to drink get strong. The newcomer knows their sponsor is just a call away, even in the most difficult times. 
  • Provide sober resources. Newcomers to sober life will not have many sober resources; that's where a good sponsor comes in. They will provide all kinds of resources for sobriety, from literature to podcasts and prayers.
  • Source of motivation. Everyone can use a little extra motivation now and then. A sponsor is a perfect motivator because they are a living example of what recovery looks like and how a newcomer can attain it.
  • A sponsor will help the newcomer work through the twelve steps.
  • A sponsor understands firsthand the importance of sponsorship because they have also been on the receiving end. This leads to compassion and understanding.

Is an AA Sponsor Necessary?

There are so many benefits to having a good sponsor—scientifically-backed benefits and benefits on a more personal level. At the very least, newcomers always have someone to share their thoughts and feelings with when they have a sponsor. 

One researcher said that AA works because of the social attraction element. The emotional support and firsthand tips to refrain from drinking from an AA sponsor are crucial recovery elements. 

"If you want to change your behavior, find some other people who are trying to make the same change." 

Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences

How to Become an AA Sponsor

Becoming an AA sponsor is just as simple as everything else related to AA. There is no sponsor school or class that sponsors have to take. Often, a new member will simply approach a member with a longer length of sobriety than theirs and ask them to be their sponsor. However, sponsoring a newcomer at AA is a big responsibility and an integral part of the AA program.

A sponsor should be committed and dedicated to their sobriety journey, the AA recovery process, and to helping new members on their journey to a life without substance abuse.

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Resources +

Tonigan, J. S., & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24(3), 397–403. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019013 

Mounting Evidence of the Benefits of 12-step Sponsors. (n.d.). https://www.recoveryanswers.org/research-post/mounting-evidence-of-the-benefits-of-12-step-sponsors/

John F Kelly, Keith Humphreys, Marica Ferri. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs for alcohol use disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2020; DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD012880.pub2

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