Sponsor-caused Relapse

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A friend in AA told me recently how a woman in his home group relapsed. Let’s call her Sue. Sue had completed an inpatient treatment program, found work and a place to live and had six months of abstinence when she took her first trip in recovery, all the way to Alaska. The flight layover was in Seattle, Washington where the gal saw her first pot shop and legally bought a marijuana brownie, which she ate later in her hotel room.

The next morning Sue caught an early flight to Alaska, visited friends, enjoyed nature, went to meetings, and had a great ten day trip. She was pleased to have made it home safe and sound and excited to tell her sponsor about her trip. She even mentioned the marijuana brownie and was stunned when her sponsor said she had lost her sobriety. The sponsor told Sue that her six months off alcohol no longer counted because she had used a mind-altering drug. Sue was shocked, got flooded with adrenaline, and said, “In that case I might as well drink.” She hasn’t drawn a sober breath since.

I wish this were the only sponsor-caused relapse that I have heard of. Unfortunately this kind of thing is fairly common. Let’s look at what happened here, consider the sponsee’s losses, and think about how a sponsor could handled this situation in a way that didn’t lead to relapse.

Desire and Unity

In my opinion the sponsor forgot the third and first traditions. The third tradition says that the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. This sponsee had six months of continuous abstinence from alcohol. She had a desire to stop drinking and so was a member of AA-- even as she ate the pot brownie.

The first tradition states that personal recovery depends on AA unity. There was nothing unifying about telling a new comer that she had lost her sobriety when she had not had a drink. There is no step or tradition that suggests sponsors should punish or humiliate their sponsees. In fact it is quite the opposite. The first tradition says AA “jealously guards the individual’s right to think, talk and act as he wishes.”  So why was a member shunned over a marijuana brownie? How could a situation like this be handled differently? How could this sponsor have corrected an erring sponsee in a way that doesn’t result in relapse?  

A Softer Voice

The sponsor could have thanked Sue for having the courage and honesty to tell her about the marijuana brownie. She could have congratulated her on staying away from alcohol during her trip but let her know that the brownie was a bad idea. She could also tell her sponsee that many would not consider her “clean and sober” since she had used pot. She could have said the important thing was that Sue had not taken a drink, and warn her that using pot again would interfere with her recovery.  

First Do No Harm

Why is it so important that sponsors be gentle with their sponsees? Well, research shows that the more confrontational a counselor is with an alcoholic client the more that client is drinking a year later. A year later! I believe the same applies to AA sponsors. Sponsors should avoid taking a hard or judgmental line with their sponsees. If a client gets drunk after you have confronted them you need to change your methods. As Sue’s story shows, a sponsor can badly harm a newcomer.

Before telling her sponsor about the pot brownie, Sue had an AA home-group, a community she belonged to, a job and safe place to live, six months of sobriety from alcohol, and pride and dignity. Now she is drunk, unemployed and living on the street. That’s an awfully high price to pay for a marijuana brownie. I believe that sponsor-caused relapse is preventable and avoidable. Sponsors have a responsibility to help not harm those who come to them for support. Judgment and confrontation have no place in sponsorship