Even though it’s long, I wanted to post this email and my answer today. If you’re not in recovery, it probably won’t apply to you. If you are, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I hope you are well. I want to ask you about a situation, if that is ok.
I recently had a “slip”. I drank late one night after 120+days, resumed my sobriety the next day.
My feeling is that, though not continuous, the transformation I have made in my life has been miraculous. I abused myself for years with booze, and though I feel disappointed that I drank, I feel like it is time to stop with the self-castigation. I screwed up…I am trying to learn to be kind to myself.
I don’t want credit for what I have not achieved. At the same time, I don’t want to be discredited for the changes I have made.
I have not found a lot of resources or support for this scenario in the recovery world. It has pretty much all been “you are back at day 1”. Is it only about the “days”?
Do you have any thoughts on the subject you would be willing to share?
Congratulations on your sobriety and your honesty. This is such a difficult issue and I’ve been tempted to post about it, but haven’t yet. I’ll see if I can try to be helpful.
As your note points out, counting continuous, unbroken days of sobriety and picking up milestone chips is an honored tradition in recovery groups. I think the purpose is threefold: to encourage people to stay sober, to celebrate hard work, and maybe more important, to show newcomers that long-term sobriety really is possible.
That said, this ritual rubs some people the wrong way, and I understand why. Whenever you introduce what looks like a system of reward, by default it can seem to punish, as well. For example, in some groups the chairperson asks at the opening of the meeting if there is anyone here with less than 30 days of continuous sobriety. The idea is to get to know newcomers and hand out “desire” chips. But it can also be used as a device to let the group know if someone has had a relapse. When a person with long-time sobriety raises their hand at this juncture, it can feel like they’re being publicly outed. When I relapsed after 6 months, my sponsor (I didn’t even get one til after the relapse) told me I should raise my hand at every meeting when this question got asked until I had more than 30 days. Regardless of the good intention, it felt humiliating, and almost like punishment. But because humility and rigorous honesty had been so stressed to me, it felt wrong to do any less. In the best of circumstances, this kind of public accountability can be helpful, I suppose. Some people say that the fear of having to tell everyone about a relapse keeps them from relapse. But I question whether that’s sufficient—or even a good—motivation to stay sober. Fear of humiliation only takes us so far.
A couple months after my 6-month relapse, I got in a huge fight with my husband while family was here and wine was out on the counter. On impulse, I grabbed an open bottle, planning to chug—but after one gulp, stopped. Halted by the horrible specter of yet another relapse, I corked the bottle with a sigh of relief. At the time, I was naïve enough—or blatantly in denial enough—to call it a close call, not a relapse. I didn’t tell my brand new sponsor and I forgot about the incident until many years later—actually, I came across the memory while writing my book. When I let my sponsor at the time read it, she felt hurt and deceived. She accused me of harboring a dark secret and insisted I change my sobriety anniversary date by two months (from Sept 2007 to Nov 2007) and tell my home group what happened.
I didn’t have any problem with her suggestion—and did so promptly. But I did object to her thinking the worst of me. Ironically, in retrospect, I’m so glad it wasn’t clear to me then that a gulp of wine is a relapse in the eyes of my program! Had I thought of it as such, especially given my recent relapse in September, I am absolutely positive I would have drank that entire bottle, been furious at myself, and would have decided that since I was back at Day 1 anyway, I might as well get good and drunk. And who knows how long that relapse might have lasted. Instead, my naiveté (or intentional denial—who knows?) sort of saved me.
So what am I saying or suggesting? I’m not sure, but here are some things to consider. The whole thing about chips and counting days can be helpful–or it can be harmful, depending on the person and their experience with reward systems, guilt, and the like. For me, coming from a conservative Christian background, it hinted at the kind of legalism I was trying to escape. It reminded me of how quickly churches or Christians erect all kinds of unwritten rules that have nothing to do with Scripture and everything to do with culture. Or human nature. I think it’s our egos that prompt us to set up systems that help to measure who’s doing it right or wrong, who’s losing and who’s winning, who is the “strong Christian,” or who is working a “strong program.” So we turn suggestions into commandments and value a practice we’ve come up with more than the principle that inspired it.
There’s nothing in the core literature of the most popular 12 Step program that suggests handing out chips and such. Or for that matter, that even talks about sponsors, much less sets them up to be the boss of another person’s sobriety. The role of a sponsor is to help take you through the 12 Steps and acquaint you with the program. Sponsors share their experience, strength, and hope. But given our human natures–both to want to be told what to do and to want to tell others what to do– you’re somehow a better recovery soldier if you have a hard-ass sponsor.
I’m sure you’ve noticed tons of other unwritten “rules” in recovery having to do with a myriad things. Some of these are helpful. And sponsorship, if you ask me, is extremely helpful, too. But we do ourselves and the program a disservice when we become strident about any of these things and let them take precedence over love and grace and yes, live and let live. We encourage folks to take what works and leave the rest—but we forget to warn them we might freak out if they do.
More and more, I find myself shying away from those who want to turn their recovery into a religion. Those who want to believe there’s only one right way to do anything. Given our diversity, we need more grace than that.
So what’s my answer to you about slips and chips and “days?” I know of many folks who simply stopped caring about or taking chips because they don’t want to participate in that aspect. I have a sponsee who hasn’t taken a chip in years because she feels an aversion to it—and since she’s doing marvelously, why would I try to force that on her?
That said, I do take chips. I enjoy celebrating my friends’ and my milestones. But those who love me know that I personally celebrate April 4 as my Miracle Sobriety Birthday—not Nov 24, my official sobriety date that commemorates that dumb gulp in the kitchen. The April date is the day my life changed, the day I walked into a treatment center, shaking in my bones, terrified but made brave by desperation. That’s the day that changed the course of my life and it’s also the time of year I experience all my anniversary feelings.
But out of respect for a program God used to help save my life, I take my birthday chip on Nov 24. And so maybe that’s the key thing here. Pray and ask yourself what action feels right for you today—and how you can honor your choice and the program you attend at the same time. Of course, if you have a sponsor, consider their suggestion. Hopefully it will be a suggestion or wisdom and not a direct command.
Personally, my wisdom is this: If you think publicly announcing a relapse and starting at day 1 will derail your sobriety, then just don’t. Just keep going. Just keep going and don’t take chips and then someday if you decide to change your date, fine. Your date is no one’s business but your own. And the objections of others who might get upset if they knew—those objections are likely based on a certain kind of competitive spirit–No fair!
Love yourself and your recovery enough to be faithful to it first. Check your heart and your conscience. And of course, while it’s fine that you keep your own and your sponsor’s counsel, I don’t recommend you lie. And maybe the most important thing I need to say is that it could be a big mistake not to publicly admit the slip, too—and if you keep relapsing, then it will be clear what you need to do.
In the meantime, if it’s just silly pride about having relapsed, then bite the bullet, bro.
As you know, we all only have one day at a time. I don’t have 61/2 years. I have today.
One last caution: It’s almost always true that every time you relapse it becomes harder to get sober again. I’ve seen it over and over. People get casual about a relapse or think they’ll just have a quick slip and get right back on the wagon–except they can’t. Some seed about the possibility of relapse gets planted and pretty soon they turn into chronic relapsers. And I don’t know of any group of people on the planet more miserable. To enjoy few or none of the benefits of recovery while also not being able to enjoy drinking is to live in a nightmare. Don’t go there, friend. Whatever you do. It might be life or death for you.
I hope some of this helps. Your sister in recovery, Heather
A related post in case you’re interested is here.