Examining the Role of AA Sponsors in Alcohol Recovery

In an alternative to AA, alcohol recovery can be attained through a self-empowering approach.

The Role of AA Sponsors

Several previous studies suggest that participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is associated with less alcohol consumption, more sobriety, and improved quality of life. Few studies have focused on the role of AA sponsors. An AA booklet defines a sponsor as “an alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program and shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through AA.” The booklet states that the sponsor’s role is to help the newcomer get sober and stay sober, answer questions about AA, and provide an understanding, sympathetic friend. In a primarily qualitative study, researchers from Stanford and London collaborated to examine how AA sponsors view their roles in the alcohol recovery program (Whelan et. al., 2009).

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The researchers recruited 28 AA sponsors in the United Kingdom and conducted unstructured qualitative interviews. The participants also answered standardized questionnaires. Measurements included a content analysis of participant responses, Severity of Alcohol Dependence Questionnaire – Community version (SADQ-C), and the Alcoholics Anonymous Affiliation Scale (AAAS). The AAAS measures the degree of involvement in the AA alcohol recovery program. No specific hypothesis was tested in this preliminary study.

The results showed that the AA sponsors in this study had the following sample characteristics: 9.5 years as the median length of AA attendance (with a range of 5 to 28 years); 11 years as the median length of sobriety (with a range of 4.5 to 28 years); the median number of sponsees was 1; and the sponsors were highly affiliated with AA, with a median AAAS score of 8.75 out of a maximum possible score of 9.

As a surprise to the researchers, past alcohol dependence scores were fairly low for the sponsors. According to the SADQ-C, 18 percent of the sponsors had low alcohol dependence, 50 percent had moderate dependence, and 32 percent had severe dependence. The participants answered SADQ-C questions in regard to their times of heaviest drinking in the past. Recall bias may have affected the SADQ-C scores, especially since the average time of sobriety for sponsors was 11 years.

The content analysis identified 16 roles set forth by the sponsors, and the researchers broke these down into 3 primary or super-ordinate roles: 1. encourage sponsees to work the 12 steps of the AA program and engage in AA activity; 2. provide emotional support and practical support through regular contact; 3. carry the message of AA by sharing personal experiences about alcohol recovery.

Interestingly, the researchers noted that sponsors had high scores on the SADQ-C affective withdrawal symptoms subscale (but relatively low scores on other subscales). The authors report, “It was the first researcher’s impression from attending meetings that AA members’ affective responses to difficulties, be they day-to-day hassles (e.g. commuting to work) or interpersonal problems, were often intense. It is possible that AA members have unusually strong affective responses to life events, and this may be one explanation for the need for ongoing support through meetings.”

The authors also point out that the spiritual step of “letting go” and submitting to a “higher power” in AA is reminiscent of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): “Unlike traditional cognitive therapy, mindfulness-based CBT uses techniques, learned through meditation, to avoid engaging (i.e. ‘letting go’) in negative thoughts and other cognitive errors rather than trying to challenge them, the process of which can actually cause more distress to some clients.”

The researchers would like to continue this line of research and examine how AA members learn to become sponsors, how sponsorship styles differ, and how advice-giving differs among sponsors. However, as the authors note, “AA can sometimes be wary of professional involvement so we would advise others to consider conducting similar research to proceed carefully. We found attending ‘open’ meetings useful in this regard. Details of local ‘open’ meetings can be determined by telephoning the AA National Helpline.”

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Whelan PJP, Marshall EJ, Ball DM, Humphreys K. The role of AA sponsors: a pilot study. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2009; (44)4: 416-422.