I’ll never forget the first time I saw an AA sobriety token. Years ago, I was putting in another droll night as a bartender at a high-end restaurant in San Francisco. Early in the evening, before the dinner crowd had arrived, a well-dressed fellow sat at the bar, and as he downed a few shots of Jack, chasing them with beer, he politely told me how much his life sucked. A common occurrence of course; if you’ve ever bartended – or sat on the other side of the bar – you know that doing the job well requires an honorary degree in psychotherapy. I served up the usual long ears and nods of affirmation, and before long, he was on his way, leaving a hefty cash tip. As he stood up and turned to leave, he tossed a large coin on the pile of singles, and said “keep the change”.
The melodramatic irony of what he had just done honestly didn’t hit me a few minutes later when I gathered up the tip, and looked at the big bronze coin that had the Roman numeral “V” in a triangle on one side, with the words “Unity”, “Service”, and “Recovery” surrounding it, and on the other side had some prayer about serenity and courage. It didn’t really hit me until I shared it with a co-worker later. I had suspected it was some kind of sobriety thing, but as I talked to my co-worker – who had alcoholic parents – I suddenly understood for sure that this guy had just decided to throw away five years of sober time, and this was his personal and silently dramatic way of announcing it.
I view this all with a very different perspective at this point than I did in those days. Over the years I learned that I myself had a problem with alcohol and addiction, and finally, a little over a decade ago, I got “mostly” clean for about four years. I say “mostly”, because although I mostly didn’t drink for four years, I allowed myself an annual or semi-annual “drinking event”. Either around my birthday, or around the holidays. On a couple of these occasions, I just had one or two drinks, but more commonly I’d get pretty drunk, feel like crap the next day, and have no desire to drink for quite a while as a result. In spite of these “scheduled relapses” as I now think of them, my life pretty quickly improved during this period; I started a business, got my finances in pretty good order, and got seriously involved with what I thought was going to be a long-lasting relationship.
And then, for some reason, I decided it would be okay to start drinking again on occasion. Having broken my “no more than twice a year” rule, I thought I’d be smart and at least keep it to a once-a-month thing, just to be safe. Of course, pretty soon, once every couple of weeks seemed pretty reasonable, but only if it was for some kind of social reason – I wouldn’t just go out and buy some booze for myself. And frankly, once you’re drinking every two weeks, that starts to feel contrived. I mean, everybody drinks on the weekend, right? So soon once a week was just fine. And when you’re as busy and hard-working as I am, sometimes you just want to reward yourself in the middle of the week. You know where I’m heading with this. Within about a year, I was drinking every single day again, and before long the daily start time crept earlier and earlier into my day. A glass of wine with lunch was okay, right? It was only about a year later that I was having the occasional Mimosa or Bloody Mary with weekend brunch. Because that’s soooo cosmopolitan. And soon, I was finding it difficult to just plain function without a shot or a glass of wine in the middle of the day somewhere.
So I tried outpatient substance abuse counseling. Twice. And both times it seemed to help for awhile, but it wouldn’t “stick”. Finally, I put myself in inpatient rehab, because EVERYBODY knows THAT’S where they fix you for sure. And guess what? I drank four months later. So I bounced around my personal “bottom” for awhile, until I finally ran into an old friend who helped me get to some AA meetings – which I had resisted attending with any regularity or commitment – and now, a few weeks shy of exactly four years later, I’m still sober. And more at peace than I have ever been in my life. So I should be REALLY EXCITED to celebrate my four year AA anniversary in a few weeks, right?
Well, maybe not.
Most of what you hear about or read about regarding “sober anniversaries” is how it’s a great time to celebrate the sober person’s new life, and give some positive reinforcement to their new behavior. And that may be true in many cases, but in my opinion, it’s also another potential setup for relapse. My personal experience was that my first year anniversary was just plain annoying, since I felt I still had so far to go before I should celebrate anything. I thought I’d heard all the old-timer jokes by now, but when I shared this though recently, a woman at the table said “well, like they say, congratulating an alcoholic for not drinking is like congratulating a cowboy with hemorrhoids for not riding a horse”. And I have to be honest, my next two anniversaries were relative non-events. It felt kind of gratifying for my sponsor and my home groups to acknowledge them with tokens and whatnot, but frankly, I was so happily living day to day (one of the great results of working a halfway decent program!) that it was really just a blip in the course of things.
But with my fourth anniversary approaching, everything has been quite different. A few weeks ago, I found myself stuck for several days in that “squirrel cage brain” that most addicts and alcoholics know all too well. It took me a couple of days to even recognize it for what it was. Why? Probably because my life has been going so well that at most, I had been going to one meeting a week. Once I realized it wasn’t my hectic schedule and project delays that were making me nutty, about 50% of the uneasiness went away. And even more restlessness was alleviated when I simply went to a meeting the next day!
And then two things became glaringly evident to me. One I already knew on an intellectual level, but the other blew me away; I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it.
The first was something that a lot of people with long-term recovery experience know all about. There’s a common pattern for people in recovery that involves relapsing around the 4-5 year mark. People will talk about it in a lot of different ways, but the basis of this phenomena is probably rooted in the fact that for most people, 3-4 years is just enough time to get one’s life fully in order, and once your life is “in order”, there’s a fairly good chance you’re going to be hungry for something more than basic stability or financial success. This hunger may manifest as loneliness, restlessness, a bloated sense of self-satisfaction, or a myriad of other things. I followed this pattern like clockwork with my first period of “dry time”. Never mind the strict AA-based observation that I was relapsing annually, the fact was that I was naturally going through a lot of the cycles someone would go through working a twelve step program. Just not as thoroughly, and certainly in a way that was going to lead to a much larger fall when the five year wall came along. So what happens at this magic 4-5 year point? A failure to embrace and cultivate the emotional and spiritual maturity that’s finally in one’s grasp. Go read steps six and seven if you don’t understand why someone would choose not to pursue continued spiritual growth when it’s placed right in their lap.
So there’s that. But what was this other big epiphany I had missed? I had overlooked another kind of anniversary, the kind often discussed in therapeutic settings, that’s based on the human tendency to relive emotions or traumas on anniversaries. What I had failed to ponder as I approached this four year mark was that I HAVE NEVER BEEN CLEAN THIS LONG IN MY ENTIRE ADULT LIFE. No matter how you slice it, I’m in new territory here, and that wily addict in my head is rubbing his pesky little hands together in delight. For now I’m just winking at him knowingly. I think I have a strategy for this new phase of my sobriety, one that involves doing some better follow up on some step work, and re-energizing my connections with folks in the fellowship. Pretty easy stuff!!!
So what am I doing in a few weeks on the day of my four year sober anniversary?
I don’t know. It isn’t here yet.