Why I Don’t Have a Sobriety Date

By Elizabeth Brico 10/30/17

Ticking off each day that I don't take a drug requires too much focus on an aspect of my life that I am trying to leave behind.

determined young woman
My recovery is not only defined by abstinence from addictive substances.

Do you know your sobriety date?

If you're doing the 12 steps, you probably have a collection of chips ticking off the years and months since your last use. You probably have a "birthday." Even outside of the 12 steps, many people track their sobriety dates. It's supposed to be a way to quantify and celebrate how long someone has been in recovery, and to recognize our accomplishments. But I don't agree with that thinking. I don't keep a sobriety date, even though I'm in recovery from heroin addiction. If you're anything like me, maybe you shouldn't keep a sobriety date either.

"Relapse is part of recovery."

Heard that one before? It's repeated all the time. I've lost count of how many counselors, peer support specialists, doctors, and random people have told me that "relapse is a part of recovery." I get it. It's true. Just look at how the National Institute on Drug Abuse defines opioid addiction: "a chronic, relapsing brain disease." That means addiction to opioids causes long-term changes to the brain, which may manifest as behavioral recurrences throughout the life of the disease. Relapse is normal. In fact, 70-90% normal, according to several independent studies.

Despite the mantra, however, many people in addiction recovery are taught that relapse is the ultimate definition of failure. When we come down from that relapse, we feel gutted. We feel ashamed, like we’ve lost (or thrown away) something sacred. It leads a lot of people to continue using. But it doesn't have to.

I've been that person who relapsed and hated myself for it so much that I kept using to escape from the shame. Once upon a time, a single relapse meant a minimum of a three-month bender. A big part of the reason was my sobriety date. I looked at that brand new zero like it was the end of the world. All of my recovery was erased by one shot of heroin. So I'd go out and use more, until I became exhausted with the lifestyle once again.

Then I stopped keeping a sobriety date.

It's not a magical fix for addiction. There is no magical fix for addiction. By the time I decided I wasn't going to track my sobriety date anymore, I was already involved in outpatient recovery. I had professional support, peer support, and medication-assisted treatment to help me along. But I realized that by fixating on my sober time, I was setting myself up for devastation if a relapse happened. I decided to shift my focus from the length of my sobriety to the quality of my recovery, and it worked. I have relapsed since then, but it was just the one time. Not a bender. Not a drawn-out weekend of stretching rinses and scrounging for cash. Just a single incident of drug use. A blip on the canvas of my recovery.

I'm not trying to minimize relapse. Although common, the fear it inspires is legitimate. Taking an off-label opioid has the potential to re-trigger addictive behaviors, whether or not you're keeping a sobriety date. It can also kill you. Because our tolerance to opioids lowers with abstinence, judging a safe dose is harder after a period of sobriety. For those on drugs like buprenorphine or methadone, attempting to overcome the blocking effects may lead a user to take too much. Although it's hard to get an exact figure, relapse is known to be a definitive factor in many of the ~60,000 overdose deaths reported by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2016. So I'm definitely not saying that we should take relapse lightly. What I am saying is that letting ourselves become paralyzed by a relapse is equally dangerous.

Dr. Stephen Taylor, the Medical Director of the Player Assistance/Anti-Drug Program of the NBA, agrees that it's important to move on from a relapse:

"Even if you know you consciously made a choice that you knew better than to make, bottom line is that you make a mistake and then get past that. Move forward. Learn what you did right, and what mistakes you made leading up to your relapse. That's valuable time; you don't throw that away."

As a treatment professional, he has a more forgiving view of sobriety dates, stating that we can simply change the way we think about them in order to view that time before a relapse holistically.

As someone in recovery, however, I'm not confident that re-thinking how a sobriety date functions is enough to eliminate the zeroing effect. Part of the reason the human brain is susceptible to addiction is because we have a built in pleasure-reward system, which for many of us is strongly activated by opioids. Humans naturally thrive on reward. If you dangle a sobriety date as a prize, it's not going to be easy to view a relapse as anything other than a failure—especially for people like me whose brains are trained to react to instant gratification. I agree that relapse, and the time prior, offers lessons for the future, but tracking sober time is not essential to reaping those benefits.

My reasons for not tracking my sober time go beyond relapse preparation. Even if I never relapse again—which is the plan—my decision not to keep a sobriety date also relates to the general quality of my recovery.

Dr. Taylor defines recovery as “the emergence of a person into re-forming and redeveloping their life, so they are living a healthier life instead of one that is characterized by their disease."

"It's not just sobriety," he adds, "sobriety is a key component, but recovery is a very broad thing. It involves every aspect of your life, just as being caught up in the disease of addiction ruins it."

Recovery is about much more than sobriety. I don't know my exact sobriety date, but I do know that I've been in recovery about four years, which is considerably longer than the time it's been since I last used. That's because my recovery is not only defined by abstinence from addictive substances.

My recovery means that I have reorganized my priorities, and overhauled the general atmosphere of my life. It's about picking up the goals I dropped when I became consumed by my addiction, and healing from the trauma that I was using heroin to escape. Recovery means gaining back my life; it means having a life that is not defined by being "in recovery." Ticking off each day that I don't take a drug requires too much focus on an aspect of my life that I am trying to leave behind. I'm not dropping my supports, or disengaging from my outpatient treatment, but I'm also not spending every day obsessing about not doing heroin. That’s still a fixation on drug use, even if it is a negative fixation. If I spend my sobriety just as focused on drugs as I was during my active addiction, then what have I really gained?

When people celebrate their sobriety birthdays, it's supposed to be a celebration of their accomplishments. I think a more palatable way to celebrate recovery is to consider every day that I'm working toward a better future a success. Instead of one birthday, I celebrate myself every day, the same way I destroyed myself every day during my active addiction.

Recovery is an intimate relationship with oneself. My recovery isn't your recovery, but we can learn from each other. Maybe your sobriety date is important to you. Maybe it helps. But if you've been feeling the way I did—like the zeroing effect makes a relapse overly destructive, or as though your entire life is still focused on your drug of choice—it may be time to reconsider tracking your sobriety date. It is possible to have a recovery that's about more than being in recovery.

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Elizabeth Brico is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. She got her MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University, where she justified spending more time shooting dope than doing homework because William Burroughs once taught there. Now, she writes about trauma, addiction, and recovery on her blog Betty's Battleground. She's also a regular contributor to the PTSD blog on HealthyPlace, and freelances as much as she can for The Fix and Tonic/VICE. Her work has also appeared on VoxStatOzyTalk PovertyRacked, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction. Find her portfolio and ramblings about writing on eb-writes.com, or stalk her on Twitter: @elizabethbrico (if you're interesting, she might even stalk you back).