The author on the need for boundaries when helping people in need.
Mood music for this post: “Ten Years Gone,” The Black Crows with Jimmy Page:
Being someone who has benefited greatly from the kindness of others, I’m forever trying to pay it forward. One way I do this is by sponsoring people in my 12-Step Program.
But if you don’t handle this blade carefully, it will cut you deep.
That’s what I’m learning, anyway.
I’m new at this sponsorship thing. I’m pretty sure I still suck at it.
Here’s how it works: In a 12-Step Program like AA or OA, the person in search of recovery from their addiction needs someone to coach them along. In the case of OA, you find a sponsor who has achieved recovery (long-term abstinence from compulsive overeating) and ask that person how they are achieving it.
For this to work, the sponsee has to be willing to toss aside all their stubborn thinking about what’s acceptable in recovery and essentially do what their sponsor tells them to do.
In this case, the sufferer checks in with his/her sponsor by phone just about every day for 10 or 20 minutes. You tell the sponsor what your food plan is for the day and what meetings you plan to attend. You also talk about any anxieties in your head that might cause you to go on a binge. When you reach a more advanced stage of recovery, the check-in calls can be more about discussing the 12 Steps and other things instead of running down the daily food plan. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
The sponsor typically has all their sponsee calls set up over an hour or two-hour period each day — time set aside just for this. If a sponsee calls even a few minutes early or late, the sponsor’s schedule can get screwed up.
A bad sponsor can be a nightmare for someone trying to find recovery. A sponsor who casually skips call-ins or refuses to adjust to any special food needs their sponsee has because it differs from their own food plan can do serious damage.
A common tactic for OA recovery is to nix all flour and sugar. It’s not a requirement. The only requirement in OA is to stop eating compulsively. But it’s something that’s necessary for a lot of people, including me.
Some sponsors have real trouble sponsoring someone who does not give up flour and sugar. The sponsor typically fears that they might slip in their own recovery by guiding someone whose food plan is different from theirs.
I have a problem with this, because if you have certain medical conditions, you need a specialized plan that’s inevitably going to differ from what the sponsor does. And I’ve met people struggling to find recovery who sink deeper into their addictive behavior because their sponsor was too stubborn to work with them.
This cuts both ways, of course. Sometimes it turns out the sponsee SHOULD ditch the flour and sugar, but they’re so desperate for those ingredients for their junk fix that they close themselves off to anything their sponsor is trying to tell them.
My first sponsor was brutally strict. But that’s what I needed — someone who would give me a deep kick in the ass.
But I was ready to do anything for recovery. Had I not been, I would have just lied to her on the phone every day about what I was doing. People like us tend to lie a lot, as I’ve mentioned before.
Right now I have two sponsees. One, in my opinion, should be off the flour and sugar, but he remains blind to that fact. I could be totally wrong about his needs, of course. But his behavior closely mirrors my own before recovery, and I’ve urged him to try ditching the flour and sugar to see how he feels for a bit. No dice.
My other sponsee is very responsive to my guidance. She has suffered enough that she is ready to do what she must. But boundaries are a problem. She sometimes misses the regular call-in time, then calls me several times later in the day. She’s the type that can suck the life out of you if you don’t set down some tough boundaries.
There are some people you try to help who will try to lean on you for things that are way outside your duty as a sponsor, like buying their groceries and running to their house at 2 in the morning because they’re having a bad night.
Am I screwing up as a sponsor somewhere along the way? Probably. I’m still pretty new at this.
My biggest fear is that instead of helping people, I’ll just make their damage worse. But I do warn those I take on that I’m not a doctor and any plan of recovery I suggest should be run by a real doctor and/or nutritionist.
So here’s why I’m bringing all this up:
Yesterday I went to pick up my sponsee to take her to an OA meeting. She has no car but lives only about 5 minutes from me so I was glad to do it.
But when I called her at the appointed time, she didn’t pick up the phone. I tried several times to no avail, then decided to just head to the meeting. I was almost there when she called. It turns out she fell asleep on the couch and didn’t hear the phone.
I wound up turning around and going to her apartment to talk over some boundaries I felt we needed to have. I was pissed about missing my meeting, but something still compelled me to change course.
I’m glad I did. Seeing this person’s environment was useful to me. And I turned the visit into a mini-OA meeting. During the course of the conversation, I set down some boundaries and she agreed to follow them. She is ready for the challenge.
Hopefully I am, too, because I’d much rather help this person get well than drive her further down the road to hell.
This business with helping others in recovery is tough stuff.
If I ever master it, I’ll let you know.