Carrying the Message Under Any Circumstances

Talk about a life beyond your wildest dreams! I am writing this during the lockdown in Milan, and I haven’t been to a face-to-face meeting for more than two months – something that would have been unthinkable to me in years past. A friend and fellow member just called to share experience of taking someone through the 12 Steps online, and it occurred to me that it might be helpful to share with ArenA, too.

My copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous is the fourth edition and the foreword says ‘modem-to-modem or face-to-face, AA’s speak the language of the heart in all its power and simplicity’. The language of 2001 seems almost as quaint as the language of 1939 now! But as with everything in the Big Book, the sentiment is true and timeless.

I got sober in London, where there are hundreds of meetings and plenty of people available to sponsor. I was guided through the steps, face-to-face, in weekly sessions at my sponsor’s house. I could describe every square inch of her living room in minute detail. I spent hours on her sofa; reading the big book, squirming under the scrutiny of inventory, talking, listening, crying, laughing, finding the courage to be honest and the strength to make much-needed changes in my life.

When I got to Step 12 and it was my turn to carry the message, I tried to replicate the same experience with my sponsees. What I knew worked, so why would I change it? The trust that builds up from sharing physical space – a home or a home group – seemed an essential part of the programme. I was going to be a good recovering alcoholic and pass on exactly what my sponsor had passed on to me.

Then a few years ago, we had a call-out from GSO that there was a lack of prison sponsors, particularly females. At the time, I was travelling a lot with work and I had the time, so I decided to volunteer for this service and see if I could carry the AA message by letter. I sponsored two women in prison, and it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I sent them copies of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (after checking with the prison that this was allowed), and we read through together, sharing our experiences, reflecting on each page and chapter by writing to each other. They were able to go to one AA meeting a week which was held in the prison. I never met either of these women, or even saw their faces but I have such a deep sense of connection that I feel I would recognise them immediately if I ever met them.

This showed me that you do not need face-to-face contact to carry the message, and more was to be revealed when I moved to Milan a year and a half ago. As many of you know, it is not uncommon in English-speaking meetings in Europe to have a sponsor in a different country or even a different continent. This felt alien to me so I found a new sponsor here in Italy, leaving behind the comfort and security of my old sponsor and her sofa. We started reading through the book together on Skype, which was new to me, but since we were both already well-versed in the steps it felt like casual stroll along a familiar path.

Then last year I was introduced to a fellow member who was looking for a sponsor. She lives in a place where there are no local AA meetings, the nearest one is 40 miles away and in a foreign language. She had gotten sober doing online meetings and wanted to work the steps. Would I sponsor her? The only option was Skype and my gut instinct told me to do it, even though it meant stepping out of my comfort zone. The instructions at Step 12 are that we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, not to decide in advance that certain modes of communication couldn’t or wouldn’t work. Here was someone knocking at my virtual door asking for help and I had to trust that the programme would work under any circumstances.

The big learning from this experience (which is ongoing, we are still working the steps together) is that the key ingredient is willingness. If both sponsor and sponsee are ready to go to any lengths there will be no major obstacles. No human power could relieve our alcoholism, there is a power far greater than ourselves which works – in us and through us – when we practice the steps. I have not met my sponsee in person, but she feels as close to me as a family member.

This experience of sponsoring through Skype gave me a head start when everything suddenly moved online at the end of February. Our meetings switched to Skype immediately, thanks to the experience of other members who were more familiar with online formats than me and who were willing and available to take on this new service. I now do step work with all my sponsees on Skype and will continue to do so until the situation changes.

One upside to the situation is that it has enabled me to go back to my old home group in London, which is now on Zoom. I’m now a regular member again and it has been great to connect with familiar faces, many of whom have known me for my whole recovery.

I am writing this to offer some experience, strength, and hope to those who may find themselves outside their comfort zone while the landscape of AA is changing and we rely more and more on digital resources. Things are likely to keep changing and the programme has taught me that the more I accept life on lifes terms, the easier it is to adapt to them.

I think of the early days of AA, the little clusters of twos and threes and fives that sprung up and flourished into the fellowship we know today. They carried the message through great social, political and technological changes and the message remains the same today. Recovery begins when one alcoholic talks with another⁠—face-to-face or modem-to-modem.

E.G., Milan