Sponsor, Recovery Coach or Professional Counselor: Which is Right for You?

Sponsor, Recovery Coach or Professional Counselor: Which is Right for You?

Are you are currently using an addictive substance and feel ready to quit? Are you currently involved in a recovery program? Have you previously been in a formal substance abuse program, but are now managing your recovery on your own? In any of these cases, there may come a point when you recognize that you need additional support. Where do you turn for help? Do you call a 12-step sponsor? Do you seek out an addictions coach? Or do you engage the services of a professional counselor or psychotherapist?

Today, there are a variety of options to help people in recovery find the additional support they may need. But which type of help, and which kind of helper, is right for the situation at hand? Learning more about the roles, expectations, limitations and guidelines related to each of these types of resource people will give you the information you need to find the best match for your specific case.

What are the Differences Between a Sponsor, a Recovery Coach and a Professional Counselor/Therapist?


A sponsor is a non-paid, peer helper who agrees to be a resource person and support person for a newcomer in a 12-step program.-Rita Milios

Most people in recovery are familiar with the concept of a sponsor. A sponsor is a non-paid, peer helper who agrees to be a resource person and support person for a newcomer in a 12-step program. A sponsor is the person who often helps the newcomer learn about the program, how it works, and what the expectations are. A sponsor makes him or herself available to the newcomer for support, providing a willing ear to listen when the newcomer needs to talk, and offering encouragement and advice on resisting temptation. Many sponsors and their “sponsees” become friends.

In addition, a sponsor is a mentor and guide, being someone who has more experience with both the 12-step program and the process of working the steps. They often actively assist their sponsee in navigating the steps, offering suggestions, encouragement and monitoring progress.

Wendy has been both a 12-step sponsor and a long-time sponsee; she also occasionally uses the services of a professional counselor. She says, “I like the fact that my sponsor is available for contact 24/7, but I recognize that she is limited to sharing her life experience. I use a counselor when an issue requires a professional viewpoint or skills that go beyond life experience.”

A professional counselor or therapist can diagnose and treat mental illness, and is therefore often the resource person of choice for recovering individuals who have a co-occurring mental illness, such as anxiety, depression…-Rita Milios

A professional counselor or therapist is a paid, clinical resource person, who is bound by ethical and legal requirements, such as the assurance of confidentiality in the counseling relationship and proof of expertise in the area in which the clinician provides their services (often validated by state licenses). A therapist must be able to maintain professional boundaries while still joining with the client to provide emotional support, guidance, and clinical expertise. A professional counselor or therapist can diagnose and treat mental illness, and is therefore often the resource person of choice for recovering individuals who have a co-occurring mental illness, such as anxiety, depression or bi-polar disorder. Professional clinicians may be associated with a facility, but many are also private practitioners. Most can accept insurance for payments.

It is often necessary, for long-term sobriety, to address the underlying issues that are associated with substance use.-Rita Milios

As a professional psychotherapist who treats people in recovery and those with co-occurring disorders, I recognize the benefits for clients who access this level of care. Addiction does not happen in a vacuum. Often clients have precipitating issues and/or life events that cause them to seek self-soothing options. Using substances is one way to both numb and avoid difficult emotions or mental experiences. It is often necessary, for long-term sobriety, to address the underlying issues that are associated with substance use. A professional therapist helps the client work toward a well-grounded resolution to both their underlying issues and their addiction.

A recovery coach is a fairly new professional within the recovery community. Branching off from the more general life coaching profession, recovery coaching evolved into its own niche in the early 2000’s. Life coaching focuses on helping people establish, incorporate and maintain general life goals, while recovery coaching helps people with goals that are specific to recovery and sobriety. Recovery coaches differ in their training, education, and the services they provide. Unlike sponsors, some recovery coaches do charge fees. Recovery coaches, like sponsors, often have close personal relationships with their clients.

Recovery coaches, at their best and most inclusive, provide a link between the services of sponsors, who are attached to a particular 12-step program, and professional counselors, who often provide specialized and/or time-limited interventions. Recovery coaches can (but do not necessarily) act as liaisons for clients to help them access a variety of community services, such as employment, housing, transportation, health care, etc. They can monitor a client’s goals over a longer range—from the pre-recovery stage, throughout active recovery, and long after formal treatment services have ceased. “Sober companion” coaches often escort people in recovery to 12-step meetings. “Recovery support specialists” work with recovering individuals to help them develop and follow a structured recovery plan.

Recovery coaches can (but do not necessarily) act as liaisons for clients to help them access a variety of community services, such as employment, housing, transportation, health care, etc.-Rita Milios

Cali Estes, MS, CAP, ICADC, brands herself as “The Addictions Coach.” She says her job is to help her clients develop an action plan, and then to hold them accountable for working that plan. “I work backwards from the therapy model,” she says. “My work starts with identifying a client’s passion and purpose and what it would take for them to be happy. My initial focus is to immediately get the client to set goals and take action, whereas a therapist would usually start by exploring the emotional blocks that are hindering the client from pursuing or progressing toward the goal.”

Finding the Best Support Person for You

Addiction is a complex and multi-faceted state of being. Likewise, the avenues to recovery are also complex and multi-faceted. There is no “one size fits all” solution. Finding the right resource person to help you navigate a difficult stretch of the path depends on where you are in your journey and what you are experiencing at the time. Fortunately, there are a number of different types of resource people willing and able to be of service. Learning about your options and considering them before you need them is the best way to assure an optimal match, should a need occur.




Photo Source: istock