David Gets a Sponsor
Understanding the Boundaries of the Sponsor/Sponsee Relationship
The muse is back and she ain’t leaving me alone. I’ve got a story to share with you exactly the way it happened many years ago.
I fell in love with the work of the German composer Max Bruch watching one evening here on a television broadcast of the great violinist Jascha Heifetz.
If you’ve never met Maestro Heifetz I’m sure he will charm you. His manner is commanding and he respects his peers. There is no conductor at Heifetz concerts late in his life. He both loved and respected his professional colleagues of the French National Orchestra and trusted them to know his cues without the need of a conductor.
What’s produced is a stunning performance of Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy” in E-flat major, Op. 46
This has given me my life-long love of Bruch and I thank Mr. Heifetz for taking the time to introduce us on his television show way back then!
I’ve also worked with a lot of tough street kids and brought them back with the help of a lot of things, but I never thought Bruch could give me a hand, until he did.
It was 1994 and David was this cute kid hiding in the back row at the Brentwood Recovery Home in Windsor, Ontario. He didn’t want to be noticed because if you noticed him he might have to say something, and if he had to say something…”WELL!” Just walk away!
But, I wouldn’t.
David had a voice so soft that the sound of a butterfly flapping its wings could drown him out.
He didn’t talk a whole lot when we met, but that was no problem because I could carry the conversation for both of us.
I’ve always told stories. “Good to have around a campfire”, I’m told.
My stories sometimes made David cry and that told me I was getting through to him. So, I cultivated the relationship.
This kid was a complex of contradictions. The more I got to know him, the more I tested my disbelief.
If I ever write a book about my work it will be filed under “abnormal psychology” because of things like this mute little boy, who on weekends sang the lead in a screaming Death Metal Band!
David wasn’t a psych case, he was a drug addict, and a bad one too!
I feared for his life if he relapsed! So, I agreed to take him on as one of my first sponsees.
A sponsor is someone who can guide you through the program of recovery. I was just off a one-year relapse myself (1993, yuck!), but my counselor told me to pick up where I’d left off and move on. So, David had a sponsor.
You get very close as a sponsor and sponsee and the boundaries have to be clear. Especially clear when you are “Mark Elliot”, THAT GAY GUY WHO WON’T SHUT UP ABOUT IT!
You see, this was in Windsor, Ontario. A town of about 200,000 people just south of Detroit which sounds really strange until you see it on a map:
This little sliver of Canada is the only place in Canada where looking across the Detroit River to Detroit City you are looking to the north.
Windsor is a blue collar town best known for manufacturing cars and trucks. Ford, GM, and Chrysler are all there.
Sadly, there was “The Happy Tap” (Ironically named) another one of those “Sad Gay Bars” like we had in Toronto in the 60’s and 70’s. We had “The Happy Tap”, and that was it. (Oh no, here we go again…) It was like being 14 again, only now I had the chance to liberate Windsor, one fag at a time…
David was never gay. I don’t think he ever spoke about even his adolescent experiences. He was surprisingly naive and the concern was that I was “evangelizing” this poor but incredibly handsome young boy.
I thank David for making it clear to all that this was anything but the truth. In a “small town” poisonous gossip spreads fast and I wasn’t used to this at all.
He even got into a fight defending my honor!
What a kid!
Meanwhile…Back to Bruch!
David eventually learned to speak more forcefully to make sure the conversations eventually went both ways and he had a lot to say about himself and the struggles that led to his addiction. He lived on the outskirts of Windsor so I gave him a bicycle to get around town on.
He also went back to school and was doing really well!
We spent most of that summer together in the heat of that part of Ontario. Windsor is akin to the desert midsummer with heat in the low 40’s Celsius (or low 100's Fahrenheit), punctuated by summer rainstorms of hellish fury, thunder, and lightning!
I had a pool and an air conditioner. The two items that made me SUPER POPULAR with the guys at Brentwood! We spent a lot of time together that summer at my apartment.
David noticed something peculiar about me.
When he came to see me I turned off the TV set.
He noticed because with his friends that was the first thing they’d turn on.
David got my full attention when we were together.
David gave up singing Death Metal after we got together and broadened his interests to Gaelic music which incidentally brought us together with Bruch.
I’ve always kept a vinyl turntable in the house along with my old Harman-Kardon stereo (now an antique). I put Heifetz on the turntable for David that day and watched his eyes bulge with wonder at the sound.
I only had to watch his eyes as Heifetz soared and dipped through Bruch’s melodies and saw the joy in David’s face. It lit up!
Bruch wrote a love letter to Scotland written in music and Heifetz and the orchestra played like angels. Heifetz’s violin sang in a true Scottish brogue and David fell in love.
Together, sponsor and sponsee: we fell in love. We fell into trust and respect.
We have these kinds of relationships in alcohol and drug recovery and it’s tough enough for professionals to keep their hands off their patients. The emotions can be overwhelming for a beginner. An old-timer knows this pitfall too well.
HELL! What do you do when you’re a civilian in the field?
David was sweet, kind, loving, caring, smart, good-looking and talented! He was also straight!
This wasn’t just a learning experience for David. I had a lot to deal with! My own sponsor was Father Paul Charbonneau of Brentwood who helped me to navigate the shoals and reefs of this port in the storm!
I made a promise to myself many years ago that I was not ever going to have sex with so-called “straight guys” ever again. (If they are doing anything in a bed with me except sleeping, they are NOT straight!)
David and I never shared a bed together. Never got sexual. It wasn’t that kind of love.
David trusted me and opened up the doors to his soul like he never had before. He told me secrets that had me squirming in my chair. Told me his fears and his pains which for a 17 year old boy were many.
I understood him and came to love him that summer.
It’s intense in the first months of recovery because you face life without Armour. The drugs hide you from pain with indifference, shutting off painful feelings, and you do it willingly because the alternative is so horrible.
The relationship goes both ways when you sponsor someone in recovery and it can be tough to maintain firm boundaries, but it’s needed. Anyone new to recovery is going to see their sponsor as bigger than life when they sincerely understand and help them.
Trust is built slowly, but in an alcoholics relationship it can be done more quickly. The alcoholic gives trust in an unhealthy way and a lot of times that trust gets abused.
David knew I was gay because he was in my recovery group when my counselor ripped the doors off of my closet! I’d given up hiding it. So here I had this sensitive and beautiful boy baring his soul and needing comfort.
He never left me that he didn’t feel wonderful about himself, and it showed. I compliment beauty male or female it makes no difference.
An old boyfriend explained once that “you couldn’t be around Mark that he didn’t make you feel like a million bucks!” I guess I’ve got that gift.
I did get to introduce David to that timeless gay ritual culture of the sauna. “C’mon kid!” I’d say “I’m gonna make you hot and make you sweat!” David laughed at the come on!
I didn’t say I didn’t flirt!