Sponsor, Recovery Coach or Addiction Counselor: Which One Is Right for You?

Recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction is something addicts need to work on daily. It can be compared to a chronic disease like diabetes, which requires constant monitoring to ensure the affected person is maintaining their health. It’s not something that should be faced alone.

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The good news is that help and support are available to those in recovery. A sponsor from a 12-Step program, a recovery coach or an addiction counselor can provide assistance to people who want to live a sober lifestyle. How do you know which one is right for you? Consider all the options to decide whether you should get help from one, or all of them.


12-Step Recovery Programs and Addiction Recovery

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a treatment program that is available at no charge to participants. It has been operating since the mid-1930s to help those who are addicted to alcohol. This organization is completely self-supporting from donations made by its members and does not accept outside funding. It is non-denominational and open to people of any religious faith, as well as those who question their faith and people who are atheists. All are welcome. The only requirement for membership in AA is the desire to get help for a drinking or drug problem.

Anonymity is an important component at AA meetings. Members are not required to reveal their real names or provide any name if they don’t want to. They don’t have to self-identify to the group as alcoholics, although they can if they choose to. Anything shared or discussed during a meeting is to be held in strict confidence and is not to leave the four walls of the place where the meeting is held.

12-Step Program Model

Participants in a 12-Step program follow a series of steps, in order, to achieve sobriety and healing. There is no time frame for completing each step or the entire program. An individual completes each step in the time that he or she needs.


The heart of the program is a spiritual approach to healing. Each person is free to interpret it in their own way. A person who was brought up in a particular faith can understand the “Higher Power” as God, as they interpret Him, while others may decide to substitute the Universe or whatever idea they feel comfortable with.

Attending meetings and having fellowship with other members is an important part of the program. The number of meetings a member attends is up to the individual. Some members go to meetings daily, especially in the early stages of their recovery. With time, they may not need that level of support and may only attend weekly or a few times per week. However, no one takes attendance at meetings or keeps track of how often members decide to go.

Sponsors and 12-Step Programs

A 12-Step program is abstinence based. Participants are offered help to learn to resist the urge to use drugs or alcohol.

A sponsor is a fellow member who has made some progress in their personal journey to work through the 12 steps. Choosing a sponsor is not a requirement to be in or to continue in AA, and there is no time limit on when a member may choose a sponsor. The choice may happen shortly after joining AA or a member can decide at any point in their sobriety that they can benefit from having a sponsor.

The sponsor and the member are equals in the relationship and must feel comfortable with each other.


What Does an AA Sponsor Do?

An AA sponsor is someone the member can look to as an example of what AA can do in someone’s life. The sponsor can provide support by phone or email outside of meetings to encourage the member to stay sober. Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors also:

  • Encourage the member to attend several different meetings if they are not sure the first group is a good fit.
  • Make sure the recovering alcoholic attends AA meetings
  • Introduce the member to fellow group members.
  • Encourage the member to become involved in group activities.
  • Emphasize the importance of AA traditions and the 12 steps.
  • Admit that they do not have all the answers.
  • Offer advice and information when possible, or make the proper referrals when it isn’t.
  • Never impose their personal views on the member.

Sponsors do not offer counseling, legal, medical or social work services to members. They can offer referrals or assistance to a member in seeking out services, as appropriate.

If an AA group is large enough, it is recommended that a sponsor and the member be of the same gender. When they are not, it may lead to a situation where the primary purpose of the relationship (helping to maintain the member’s sobriety) becomes blurred.

Can Anyone Be An AA Sponsor?

There’s no set of requirements for becoming an AA sponsor. However, some members of your group may be better equipped for sponsorship than others. Someone who has maintained sobriety for years may be more valuable than someone who joined AA a few weeks ago.

Other qualities of a good sponsor include empathy and understanding, the time and willingness to devote to sponsorship, and a recovery that demonstrates the power of the 12 steps and Alcoholics Anonymous.

How Do I Choose an AA Sponsor?

Several people in your group could be suitable sponsors, but some are more suited to your needs than others. If you’re not sure how to choose an AA sponsor, narrow your options based on these criteria:

  • Experience — Find someone who has already been through the 12 steps. Whatever you’re experiencing, he or she has been through the same thing and can guide you through it as well.
  • Stability and Sobriety — Someone struggling with sobriety may find it difficult to guide you through your recovery. Look for a sponsor who has maintained sobriety for a long time.
  • Romantically Unavailable — A relationship with a sponsor is so intimate that romantic feelings could develop and interfere with your recovery.
  • Available and Committed — As you move through recovery, you may need to contact your sponsor at various times of the day. Your sponsor can’t be there 24/7, but should be available most of the time.

Narcotics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is a 12-Step program which was founded in 1953. Today, NA members meet in 132 countries, holding 63,000 meetings each week. This organization does not focus on any specific drug. People who are addicted to alcohol are welcome to attend NA meetings as well.

NA does not collect fees from any members. It operates independently from any type of religious affiliation or government sponsorship. People who think they may be addicts are invited to come to meetings, and the organization says that no one comes to them by accident. All you need to start coming to NA is the desire to stop using.


Narcotics Anonymous Sponsors

A Narcotics Anonymous sponsor takes on the role of a trusted confidant who can help the sponsee work through the 12 steps of the program. This does not mean the relationship is a friendship, even though the sponsee will likely be revealing some deeply personal information to the sponsor. Friendship implies that the sharing of personal information goes both ways.

The sponsor may choose to share information about their journey to sobriety and have a very caring approach to the relationship, but they may also decide to focus only on supporting the sponsee in a more objective manner without revealing much about themselves. Either way is perfectly fine. Each sponsor-sponsee relationship is unique. What is important is that the person being sponsored feels supported.

The sponsor is not intended or expected to take on the role of the sponsee’s counselor, social worker or parent. The sponsor is another addict in recovery who is prepared to open up about their journey in working the 12 steps.

The sponsee should be in regular contact with the sponsor by phone or e-mail. They can arrange to meet up at NA meetings. In between meetings, they can discuss any questions or concerns the sponsee may have. Some sponsors and sponsees have regular times for these discussions, while others keep their relationship more casual. The sponsee reaches out to the sponsor when something comes up that the sponsor can assist with.

Changing Sponsors in a 12-Step Program

As an addict moves through the steps of recovery, they will change and develop. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous encourage members to find a different sponsor if the one chosen initially is no longer a good fit. No one has to feel “stuck” with the choice they originally made.

What Is a Recovery Coach?

A recovery coach has a different role than a sponsor with a 12-Step program. They are community based and work with anyone who is seeking to break free from the influence of addiction, as well as people who have not yet made the decision to stop using their drug of choice.

This type of recovery support service usually takes place as part of an organization offering services. The recovery coach may be one of a number of staff members working in conjunction with professionals and others to serve clients.

To become a recovery coach, a person must have completed a program of study leading to a certificate or other designation. Each state may have specific requirements for certification, such as an applicant having completed a certain number of hours of ethics training. It is not a requirement to hold substance abuse counseling credentials to become a recovery coach, as these are two different types of careers.

Role of the Recovery Coach

The recovery coach’s scope of practice includes, but is not limited to, the following:


  • A recovery coach asks for and gets permission from the participant to offer information and provide resources.
  • They ask questions in order to understand the participant’s life experiences and to clarify information. The recovery coach shares information about their own experiences as well.
  • Recovery coaches are knowledgeable about 12-Step programs, but they are also familiar with other recovery models, such as moderation management, faith-based, abstinence and harm reduction.
  • The recovery coach uses skills like active listening, asking questions and communicating effectively with the participant.
  • Recovery coaches set up a productive, working partnership with a participant. The coach helps the participant to develop their confidence and motivation by providing encouragement to the participant. The coach reminds the participant that making positive changes takes time and that recovery is a process instead of a destination.
  • The participant and the recovery coach work together to develop a wellness recovery plan. This plan lists the participant’s recovery and life goals. The recovery coach reviews a number of options with the participant and helps them identify preferred options, keeping in mind that goals are attainable, measurable and rewarding to the participant.
  • If any barriers to achieving the goals are identified, the recovery coach and the participant use brainstorming and planning to address them.
  • The recovery coach provides lists of community resources available to the participant. The participant then identifies and works with the coach to find resources to fit their needs.


Do I Need a Recovery Coach?

You may decide that working with a recovery coach is the right choice for you if you want to be able to choose the types of issues you would like to work on. A recovery coach offers encouragement to set goals which will help to solve problems in practical ways. If you are looking for more guidance and less of a self-directed relationship with the person you are working with, then this may not be the best fit.

Although a recovery coach is someone a recovering addict can confide in and trust with personal information and concerns, the coach is not someone who can offer counseling services. A recovery coach will meet with a recovering addict to determine whether they are a good fit for coaching services. If not, a coach can provide a referral to a more appropriate arrangement.

Addiction Counselor

Most people who work as addiction counselors have a bachelor’s degree. In order to work in private practice, they must also be licensed according to the requirements in their state.


Licensing Requirements

Each state sets its own requirements for licensing addiction counselors. However, all of them require that counselors hold a master’s degree and complete between 2,000-4,000 hours of clinical experience (supervised).

Applicants for licensure are required to pass an exam issued by their state. Once the license is issued, addiction counselors must complete a specified number of continuing education hours or credits annually in order to remain in good standing.

Role of the Addiction Counselor

Addiction counselors meet with clients individually or in group therapy sessions. They provide clients with tools they can use to deal with interpersonal problems. Some addiction counselors use the principles of 12-Step programs, like AA, to get their point across when dealing with clients, while others use different approaches to treatment.


Other approaches that may be used include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. This form of treatment teaches clients that if they change their negative thoughts to positive ones, their behavior will also change for the better. Clients are taught how to identify negative thoughts that may lead them to drink or use drugs and replace them with different ones.
  • Contingency management. With this type of treatment, positive reinforcement is given when the client is able to abstain from using drugs. If, however, the client has a slip or a relapse, the positive reinforcement is not given. Instead, the client is punished and no reward is given. This is a simple example of the consequences fitting the behavior.
  • Family therapy. At times the client’s family can benefit from meeting with the addiction counselor since addiction can affect everyone, not just the addict themselves. It is not uncommon for an addict’s family to have struggled for a number of years before their loved one goes to treatment. Family therapy works by offering counseling to each family member individually, and then having the family meet as a unit to discuss the issues between them.

How an Addiction Counselor Helps

An addiction counselor seeks to get to the root of the addiction. When the counselor meets a new client, the first session, or the first few sessions, will involve discussing the addict’s personal history. Establishing trust between an addiction counselor and a client can take some time, and it’s natural for an addict to be guarded about opening up to a new person.

The counselor and the client will discuss the client’s treatment goals and what the client expects from the treatment program. From this information, the addiction counselor will know that type of issues the client wants or needs to work on.

Many addiction counselors work in drug and alcohol rehab centers along with psychiatrists and other health professionals. They can provide referrals to fellow team members as appropriate.


An addiction counselor can also provide treatment on an ongoing basis after an addict has completed an initial period of treatment. Depending on an individual’s needs, seeing an addiction counselor for follow-up care can include both individual and group therapy sessions and even checking in with the addiction counselor at certain intervals once the recovery has been established for some time. Scheduling and the type of sessions needs to remain flexible, depending on each client’s changing needs and personal circumstances.

Do I Need an Addiction Counselor?

Anyone who is going into treatment for drug and alcohol addiction will likely be seeing an addiction counselor. They are on staff at many treatment facilities and provide much of the individual and group therapy to clients.

The treatment model they work with, which is to get to the underlying cause of the addiction and deal with it, is a highly effective one. The addiction didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. It developed as a result of a need the addict had to avoid some type of emotional pain or issue.

If the addict can learn other healthier and more positive ways to deal with emotional issues, then it becomes less likely they will revert to old coping methods to deal with strong emotions going forward. Examining the old hurt and dealing with it will strip it of its power to continue to stir up strong emotions in a person. This is also an important part of the healing process.

Sponsor, Recovery Coach or Addiction Counselor: Which One to Choose?

In truth, a sponsor, recovery coach and an addiction counselor all have a role to play in helping an addict move from active use to sobriety. A person could end up working with all of them and find all of them helpful.


The important thing to remember is that all of them are on the same team. Once an addict goes to treatment, the addiction counselor is there to offer help and personal support. They deal with the emotional issues involved with the addiction and help to develop a treatment plan that may include going to a 12-Step program.

The 12-Step program (AA or NA) is where an alcoholic or drug addict can choose to have a sponsor. This is someone who has been with the program for a while and can provide some guidance as a newcomer works through their 12 steps.

After completing an initial treatment program, clients are encouraged to continue attending 12-Step meetings as part of their plan for continuing sobriety.

A recovery coach can enter the picture at any point. Some coaches work with participants who are still using or drinking. Others come into the picture after a client has completed treatment and wants or needs assistance with setting practical goals. The recovery coach is available to listen, provide encouragement and help the participant build confidence.

The commonality between each of these methods of getting help is that the goal is to see an addict enter treatment and make steps toward recovery, or continue getting the help they need to sustain recovery following their time in rehab. If you or a loved one need help, contact 12 Keys Rehab today.


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The Addiction Blog