Welcoming the Newcomer

This post also appears on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com.

In your opinion, what’s the most important thing you can say to someone who is new in recovery?

All summer, I’ve been soliciting your input, online and off, about the most important thing we can say to someone who is at the jumping off point—those sometimes-eager, most-of-the-time-very-suspicious people who are about to embark on the most fascinating journey of their lives and don’t even know it. So, what is it then … what is the most important thing we can say to the newcomer?

Here’s a sampling of the more custom responses I received:

“I hope it was bad. I hope it was so bad that you never make the choice to go back because you never have to drink again.”

“Don’t listen to your head. You can get and stay sober.”

“Don’t drink no matter what!”

“Are you done for good and for all?”

“Take one day at a time and seek support whenever you need it.”

“You are not weak; you have a physical allergy to alcohol.”

Accept the help you are offered and take it a day at a time.”

“It will get easier. It will get better.”

“Just stay.”

And then there were the more clichéd but always reassuring welcomes, such as:

“Keep coming back.”

“Don’t leave five minutes before your miracle.”

“You don’t ever have to drink again, and you don’t ever have to be alone again.”

And, of course, my favorites—the truly warm and heartfelt welcomes of the old-timers:

“Staying sober is easy: All you have to do is change your whole goddamn life.”

“Keep doin’ what you’re doin’, you’ll keep gettin’ what you’re gettin’.”

“Put the plug in the jug and find a sponsor.”

“Try taking some Good Orderly Direction.”

“Your best thinking got you here. Now try our way.”

“There are no big deals, and that is especially true of you.”

“Your life is none of your business.”

“Shut up and get in the car.”

At some point during my supremely unsophisticated data collection, however, I realized I might be asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what is the most important thing we can say to the newcomer, I wondered if I should have been asking, “What do you think people who are new to recovery actually hear?” What is it that truly resonates, permanently scratches the surface, plants the seed, sinks in, and, ultimately, makes a difference?

Personally, I heard all the niceties upon arrival at my first meetings—as well as the gruff and war-torn warnings. I was especially moved when my first sponsor told me I’d never have to be alone again. That was important. And I got it when old-timers told me I’d better change my playground and my playmates, or I’d never get sober. I also liked the idea that there was no problem big enough that God and I couldn’t handle it. Very cool. But I also kept getting drunk and high for the next seven years.

It wasn’t until I came back the last time, in 1998, and asked someone I respected a great deal to be my sponsor that my ears finally opened. They opened because he spoke one simple truth when he said, “There’s nothing more I can do to help you.”I was dumbfounded, and instantly full of fear. I had to listen.

This same person, who is my sponsor to this day, had tried to sponsor me before, or at least to guide me on my way, but I’d failed repeatedly to do anything he’d suggested. And he was right. There was nothing more he could do to help me. I was well beyond human aid. Nonetheless, full of fear, I was also flabbergasted. My ego couldn’t accept the idea that he wouldn’t reflexively leap at the opportunity to sponsor me … one more time.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know everything you need to know to stay sober, Kayko. Now it’s a matter of whether you’re actually going to do something about it.”

It was at that point that I finally heard not a cliché but the axiom that has come to guide my sobriety more intensively than anything else these past 14 years: “Are you willing to go to any length for victory over alcohol?” The man who spoke those words to me that day agreed to sponsor me for 90 days on a trial basis. (He never has told me if the trial is over.) He promised me a better quality of sobriety than I’d previously known, a greater sense of purpose, and a damn better shot at staying sober if I’d simply surrender my will every morning when I woke up and show the willingness to go to any length to maintain my sobriety on a daily basis.

He didn’t talk about spirituality, he didn’t talk about miracles, and he certainly didn’t rattle off any kindly platitudes or hard-ass directives. In fact, he didn’t talk much at all. He simply asked me to do this: Go to four meetings a week, two of which he attended; call him once a week, preferably on Monday nights because that was the one night he had free; and seize every opportunity to help people who were newer to sobriety than I was. It was that last part that mattered most. He knew I’d attend meetings; he knew I’d call faithfully if asked to; but he didn’t know if I would be consistently willing to do something for someone else since I had shown so little willingness to do anything for anyone but myself in the time we’d known each other.

What I have learned since that fateful day I thought he was about to refuse to be my sponsor is that maintaining a spiritual defense is all about actions, not platitudes. I still don’t know if I understand what it means to be spiritual, but I know what spirituality looks like when I bump into it. It’s evident in those people who always seem to be looking for an opportunity to be of service rather than an opportunity to talk about how much they know. They pick up cigarette butts left outside meetings, they make coffee, they set up chairs, they volunteer on committees, and they give rides—no matter how long they’ve been sober. Sometimes they give talks, but they aren’t necessarily circuit speakers, and their talks usually focus more on service and gratitude than themselves. No matter how long they’ve been sober, they’re always looking for more to do because they know full well it’s easy to slip up and not do enough. The kind of spirituality I’ve come to know and admire is “ever-clear” and present in those people who are willing to go to any length to stay sober … one day and one more action at a time.

4 responses to “Welcoming the Newcomer

  1. I think you’re right, it’s not about what people say to the newcomer, it’s what the newcomer hears. In my first meeting I went to hear about drinking, and they talked about acceptance. I burst into tears, the one thing I couldn’t do was accept the world as it was, I was broken trying to make it fit into my way of thinking. How on earth could a group of complete strangers in a smoky church hall 1000 miles away from my home instantly comprehend my underlying problem?? The cause of all my torment?

    I stayed because my ears were opened by the gift of desperation. I wanted to die. That night I stayed up all night, in utter hell. Knowing that I was at the jumping off point (without ever having heard that phrase in AA) it was accept help or die. I decided to give AA a chance.

    All we as members can do is stick to the traditions, share our experience strength and hope, and as you say, lead by example. It is our deeds, not our words that get us well. By being glowing examples of ‘it works, it really does’

    … that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help……


    • Thanks Barbara. You summed it up far better than I ever could have. The experience of that first meeting, I mean the one that brings us to tears, is where the surrender finally happens. All the best, Kayko.


  2. Kayko, You offer some good food for thought here. It’s hard to remember what worked for me because I was so driven within myself. I was so afraid of being like my dad that if almost pushed me into sobriety.

    From a coaching perspective the biggest fear I see in working with addicts is that they are afraid they can’t change even if they try, so they’d rather not even try. I let them sit with the feeling of life being this way … forever! It’s scary to feel powerless. Claiming power is the biggest fear I have ever known.

    Thanks for bringing back some good memories for me.Lisa


  3. Thanks, as always, for stopping by Lisa. I remember waking every day thinking things would never change. For me, that was 95% of the problem–all I ever did was think about it. Nothing changed for me until I finally did something about it.

    I also remember hating those people who spouted cliches like: You can’t think your way into right actions but you can act your way into right thinking. Or whatever their sayings were. They always had to do with taking action, living in the solution. It all sounded oversimplified and cliched to me at the outset. Now, I have to admit, the first thing I do when any kind of angst sets in is take some kind of action. Even if it’s just walking down the driveway to get the mail. I refuse to sit in my head anymore. It’s a booby trap, for sure.