Why Is There Such an Emphasis on 'Sober Time'?

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There’s a bit of frustration you can pick up when an alcoholic brags about how much time they have in sobriety. Others listening wonder why, when we say “one day at a time,” it would be something to brag about. And how come they use that number (years or months sober) as a kind of badge of authority? Even AA has “sober time” suggestions to become a sponsor or group representative, usually starting at a year of sobriety.

The Upside of Sober Time

Recovery from alcohol abuse is seen as a stepwise progression moving from a constant user to a constant abstainer. But this isn’t like switching from taking the bus to taking the commuter train. There are physical and mental consequences that come along with alcoholism, real brain changes. There’s an interesting phrase attached: “Stinkin’ Thinkin’.”

Sober time (if it’s an honest figure) gives you an idea of how far along someone is in recovery. Are they too new to the process to know much or, after a few years of sobriety under their belt, are they more likely to have some useful wisdom to offer? Remember, everyone with a year or two sober also has the first month, and the second, and so on. The longer someone is sober, the greater the perspective they have on what it’s like to be sober and where the path will lead (as well as some of the traps along the way).

A careful ear will pick up a subtle difference between what someone with ‘time’ says when compared to another person who is relatively new to sobriety. Both may have a testimonial about drinking – it’s usually a lead-in for where they are now. Both may tell stories about how alcohol changed and ruined their lives and about how difficult the addiction and cravings can be. The subtle difference comes from the tone. The newly recovered often sounds a bit wistful, like they miss the drinking lifestyle a bit. You get the feeling they value all the adventures, despite the negative outcomes. Someone who has significant sobriety also has had new experiences, positive experiences, in recovery. This allows them to tell the “before I was sober” stories for what they are: miserable tales of what addiction leads to.

The Downside of Sober Time

Unfortunately, keeping track of time sober can come at a price. Some members will use it as a weapon, akin to: “I’m older than you (more time sober), so you have to listen/do what I say.” That’s a bit sad, since one of the key principles in AA and other programs is humility.

Someone who uses their sober time as a club or a power play is a jerk, plain and simple. In alcoholism, there are plenty of jerks. Some get less so with sobriety, others not so much.

There’s actually a bit of a hidden downside as well. Someone who has been sober for years and years may not remember clearly just what it was like when they first quit. The memories do fade. “Perhaps the cravings weren’t as strong as all that or perhaps I wasn’t really as close to death as it seemed at the time.”

It’s natural for memories to lose their immediate power. A story you’ve told a hundred times just doesn’t have the same force as one you are telling for the second or third time.

From Where I Sit

I’ve got time. More than a decade. I rarely think about it, but did for this article. Accumulating clean time is what happens when you don’t drink and don’t use. There’s nothing particularly honorable about it, it just piles up as birthdays roll around.

There is one hard part. It’s when you listen to someone relatively new who is very enthusiastic about staying sober.

I’ve heard so many; and so many didn’t make it. That’s the sad thing. Over the years, there are successes and people you come to know as friends, but you always remember how many you met who seemed to be doing well and then disappeared. Sometimes you hear later on about another arrest or a death. So it’s tough to really make a strong connection with someone new – in the back of your mind, you know the numbers aren’t good and you don’t want to be disappointed again.

For me, anything after a year sober is fine. If you have a year, you’ve been through most of it. A year is worth some real respect. After that? I think it’s just a numbers game.

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