Getting My Marbles Back: Reflecting On Five Years of Sobriety

By Christopher Dale 10/20/16

I got a lot better by getting a little better – a little at a time. 

Getting My Marbles Back: Reflecting On Five Years of Sobriety
via author

Five years of slowly diminishing anger.

On October 10, I celebrated five years of sobriety through the program and fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.  

In AA, five years is a milestone associated with "getting your marbles back" - meaning that, after a half-decade of personal growth through the 12 steps, a recovering drunk like me can expect a vastly improved mental state to complement his physical sobriety. As another saying goes, we came to AA for our drinking, but stayed for our thinking.

Five years is seen as a benchmark in this process, a point at which those earnestly practicing their recovery should react and respond to the chaotic world around them with more calm, maturity and thoughtfulness. We should, per our expressed belief in Step 2, have been restored to some semblance of sanity. 

A person with five years of recovery shouldn't just act better, he should be better. Character defects, especially those earmarked as urgent at sobriety's outset, should be significantly subdued.

Anyone who knew me five years ago could easily diagnose my most pressing problem: seething, consuming anger. An outsized subset of my recovery from alcoholism, then, is an ongoing - and sometimes faltering - recovery from rage-aholism (some, including my wife, would say assholeism). And in five years of sobriety, I'm delighted to report that I've progressed from a persistently insufferable, incorrigible hothead...

... to a less predictable, more tolerable semi-curmudgeon with an excitable streak. 

Hey, we claim progress, not perfection. And what agonizing, snail’s pace progress it has been. But that, I think, is the spirit behind the five-year mark: We don’t simply wipe away our most glaring of character defects all at once. It takes years of trial and error – of negative reinforcement and recurrent attrition – to chip away at these boulder-sized barriers to true sobriety.  

For me and my belligerent anger, this has meant a repetitive yet gradually (very gradually) diminishing cycle of (a) finding myself in a situation where I’m prone to anger – traffic, for example; (b) eruptive anger; (c) realizing how silly and useless this anger was… and then getting slightly less angry the next time I find myself in “park” on the highway. 

In short: I got a lot better by getting a little better – a little at a time. 

Modern Marbles

Today’s world has ways of pissing us off that AA’s founders, writing the Big Book in the late 1930s and its primary follow-up, 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, in the early 1950s, couldn’t possibly have imagined. Bill Wilson may have sat in some Brooklyn bottlenecks in his day, but nothing like the incessant, snarling disaster that my NYC Metro Area home has since become. Dr. Bob, meanwhile, never had to restrain himself from engaging in a Facebook feud or Twitter war.  

Back then, the nation was not so sharply politically divided that Republicans and Democrats utterly despised each other. Nor were people so persistently plastered with sensationalist media telling them about products they should buy, dangers they should fear, and people they should blame. Jealousy, scaremongering and scapegoating: anger, anger and more anger. 

What’s more, we are on the go and interconnected in ways that present exponentially more trigger points for our most harmful character defects. It’s simple: the more times bait is dangled, the more chances there are to bite.  

For AA members, there is no situation-specific guide to navigating what Bill and Bob undoubtedly would have found an infuriating future; sometimes the AA program literature, as instrumental as it has been to my recovery, seems outdated to me for exactly that reason.  

We instead must rely on the essence of the program's teachings, along with our sponsors and fellows in recovery, for 21st century clarity. It's imperfect, and it leaves too much room for interpretation – especially considering the ever-recovering combatants and contrarians many of us AAers are. Still, through the program’s spirit, if not its letters, I’ve learned to analyze my reactions to these pitfalls – traffic, trolls, Trumpism – as bellwethers against which progress can be measured. 

From Incite, Insight

One of the hallmarks of progress in my struggle against anger has been a diminished need to win arguments at all costs. I used to care far too much what others thought of me, which in turn made me subconsciously subservient to them and, therefore, resentful. The need to be right was intricately linked to my need to be liked. 

These days I feel less and less obsessed, for example, with getting in the last word. This has especially played out on online forums such as Facebook - where we can scream at each other behind the safety of screens and where the inherently public forum carries amplified stakes. It’s amazing how difficult it can be to simply stop typing. 

I also am learning to carry my nascent restraint into the atypical circumstances in my life – particulars with which most people wouldn’t identify, such as my freelance writing hobby. More than anything, this means ignoring the idiocy that commonly appears in the comments sections under the pieces I write for various outlets, including this one.  

It also means writing with candor, popularity be damned. Loudmouths are free to spew venom when I contend, for example, that Donald Trump's values are incompatible with the 12 steps of recovery. My role as an essayist is to write with honesty; my role as a recovering alcoholic is to detach from the ensuing onslaught of vitriol with as much indifference as I can muster. 

But more than anything, it means gradually learning to relax in a world whose trigger points seem to increase and intensify with each new car on the road, story in the news and gadget in our pockets. My emotional energy is best spent elsewhere – on the more tangible life-affirming gifts that my five years of sobriety have provided.  

After five years, I’m more interested in being a good husband, father, friend and colleague than I am berating the moron tailgating me in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic. It’s a start. 

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.