‘Can I Stay Sober Without Keeping Track of How Many Days It’s Been?’

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Hi Ana, 

I see people celebrating sobriety milestones — like 90 days or a year — and I appreciate how great that must feel but I also kind of rebel against it. For one thing, after getting through an especially hard day, it’s like, Really? After all that, my number goes up by only one? That should be worth, like, ten! It’s discouraging. 

Also, starting over bugs me. I recently was at 62 days sober, but then I drank. Now I’m at 16 days. But I don’t want to be at 16 — I want to be 78 out of 79! That feels like cheating, though. 

I suppose the real problem is I’m frustrated I haven’t gotten to those bigger milestones and they feel so far away. How did counting the days work for you, especially early on? Do you think it helped? Maybe I just need a different perspective.

Counting Down

Dear Counting Down,

First of all, congrats on 16 days! And congrats on 78 out of 79! I know what you mean about those particularly difficult days feeling as though they should count as more than one, so a third congrats for whatever number you feel the more difficult days added up to. Whatever way you look at the past 79 days, you are further along in your journey of recovery than you were 80 days ago and I hope you can take that that in.

If it’s any comfort, you’re definitely not alone in struggling with the practice — when I talk to sober people who’ve not gone the Alcoholics Anonymous route, they often mention 12-steppers’ emphasis on counting days as one of the big turn-offs. But the day-count regime isn’t just an AA thing; tabulating time is an accepted, if increasingly controversial, metric for “success” in sobriety.

But counting days, especially if you’re a member of a support group that gives out different medallions or other awards for different amounts of time, can feel like a hierarchy.

Like a lot of alcoholics (and you), I instinctively resent hierarchies. Put me in a ranked field, and unless I’m at the top, my immediate response is a grudge against anyone doing “better” than me. This can happen when I’m in a slow check-out lane or even at a yoga class. As a recovering perfectionist, I also deal with the temptation to equate my achievements with my value as a person.

On the even uglier flip side, I have to really work to resist feeling superior to anyone not doing as well as I am.

These emotional responses to hierarchies are the reason I think a lot of hierarchies are artificial and bad. Ban grades in schools and purebred dog shows! More co-ops and fewer corporations! Bring on the participation awards!

And yet I carry my 11-year chip on my keychain and have an app on my phone that tells me exactly how many days I’ve been sober. But I don’t do it for the clout. At some point, I stopped thinking of my milestones as part of a competition. I’ll be honest: It took a while. I’m not sure the way I thought about day-counting during my first few years (see above) will be as useful to you as the way I think of my time now.

Today, I know that getting a medallion — or a round of applause or social-media kudos — for a certain amount of sobriety isn’t like winning an award. It’s more like acknowledging a birthday. Are you jealous, or do you feel like you’re part of a hierarchy, when some random person turns out to be older than you? Probably not, right? They’re just … older. Maybe wiser? Mainly, they started their journey before you did. If you manage to stick around for long enough, you’ll eventually be that old, too

The recovery tradition of emphasizing and celebrating the first few months, or days, is just a way of conceding the degree of difficulty that staying sober adds to the already challenging task of staying alive. When you’re first trying to get clean, a day can feel like a year. An hour can feel like an eternity. So we squish the celebrations closer together. We get more cake. As we get further along, we don’t need so much reinforcement.

Regarding only counting the “continuous” days of sobriety and not just the day we decided to start trying? Well, you don’t have to do it that way. Feel free to just use the “x out of y” formulation; celebrate the day you believe your journey began. However you define it, that day is important. My only caution is that you be transparent about your system; misleading people about one’s sobriety, in my experience, is one step on the road to losing it.

I like celebrating the continuous number of days because I think of that as my current journey. If I ever relapse, every single day I had before will still matter to me — and I will never forget 3/23/2011 —  but, in my opinion, that new stretch of sobriety will be a new leg of my travels. I also would gladly celebrate a new sobriety date because it would mean that I survived my relapse, which isn’t guaranteed.

All of this reframing revolves around redefining the central conceit of what it means to start your day count over. Whether or not you identify as a DSM-listed alcoholic or see yourself as simply trying to break a long-term bad habit, getting sober puts you up against powerful emotional, social, and chemical forces. Relapse is not a personal failure.

If I may radically anthropomorphize: Your recovery is the scrappy team of misfits, and your drinking is the rich kids from the camp across the lake. A good coach knows you don’t make a team better by berating them; a good coach finds strengths and builds on those. Or at least that’s what I learned from Ted Lasso — I was never very good at sports. I have been practicing recovery for a while, however, and I have never seen anyone beat themselves up into lasting sobriety. Are you sober right now? Have some cake and celebrate today.

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