Ask an Expert: What Does It Mean To Get Your Marbles Back?

By Janice Dorn 01/05/15
Today's question is on what people mean when they say you "get your marbles back" in recovery.

What does it mean when they say that having five years sober is when you get your marbles back?

Janice Dorn: Thanks for this question, which reminds us of how many of these bromides or common sayings there are in recovery programs, especially in 12-step programs. Actually, the complete saying is: “After five years, you get your marbles back. After ten, you know how to use them.”

From my point of view, this is pretty much nonsense. It might be helpful as a kind of “goal” for addicts in recovery in the sense of thinking that, if they can make it for five years, then they have a chance to make it for ten. As a general rule, it may be better to focus on one day at a time, instead of five years. For many addicts in early recovery, five years is simply not in the picture for them as they are struggling to get through the next hour!

Is there a biological basis to this saying? I believe there is, but more studies are needed. Current studies on brain function in patients suffering with alcoholism show that there are structural and functional changes in the brain that result in disorders of cognition. Such studies include that of three investigators from the University of Łódź, Poland, Katarzyna Nowakowska, Karolina Jabłkowska and Alina Borkowska. Their “Cognitive Functions in Patients with Alcohol Dependence,” Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 2008, reported disturbances of working memory and brain executive function in both short-term and long-term abstinent alcoholics.

There is a need for more definitive studies using current brain-imaging techniques (PET, fMRI) to provide more definitive information about the brain of active and recovering addicts.

It is my opinion that recovery is a lifelong process and that addiction is a biopsychosociospiritual illness that is treatable, but not curable. The good news is that addicts can recover and stay sober. It takes a lifetime to recover and it’s one day at a time…and sometimes (even with long-term sobriety of more than 20 years), it’s one minute at a time.  

Recovery is a deeply personal process, and no two individuals approach it or manage it the same way. So much depends on the individual personality, family and group support and the motivation to get sober. If addicts stay clean and sober for five years, they will most likely feel a lot better than they did five years previously. In that sense, maybe there is something to the five year marble business. There is hope!



Janice Dorn, MD, PhD, specializes in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. She holds a PhD in Anatomy and has done extensive research and teaching in brain anatomy and physiology. She is also an expert on addiction to stock trading and on stock trading itself. Her second book, Mind, Money and Markets, with co-author Dave Harder, is scheduled for publication in the fall.  Full Bio.

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