Why Stacking Up “Sober Time” in AA Can Be Dangerous

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Why Stacking Up “Sober Time” in AA Can Be Dangerous

By Tracy Chabala 06/22/16

Counting days and weeks and years is helpful to some, but for others it can impede recovery.

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Why Stacking Up “Sober Time” in AA Can Be Dangerous
Is starting over the clock failure?

When I had 11 months sober back in 2008, I took a sip of beer after getting into a big fight with my boyfriend. I had just returned from an AA meeting, and he called me a cunt or a bitch or something along those lines for commenting on the filthy state of his windshield (a real catch, I know). As a result, the internal dialogue of “I’m incapable of finding a healthy and happy relationship” and “I’m unlovable” started up, leading me straight to my roommate’s Tecate. I cracked open the can, poured what must have been just two tablespoons down my throat, and then abruptly stopped myself. 

“What the hell am I doing?” I said out loud. 

My brain didn’t get to a euphoric state with that tiny amount of booze in my system, so the irresistible urge to keep drinking didn’t kick in. I called my sponsor shortly thereafter, fessed up, and was immediately told, “You have to start over.”

What does it matter? You lost all your time. Who cares anyway? You only have 90 days. Oh, and by the way, you’re a failure.

Though I sort of expected this response, her words proved very disappointing. Here I’d spent 11 months schlepping myself to countless meetings throughout Los Angeles, religiously reading the books, spending hours going over the steps at her house, remaining sober for the longest stretch since I first picked up booze at 18, and now all that effort went down the drain.

Starting over, to me, meant failure. Starting over meant ignoring all the work I’d done throughout those 11 months. It devalued and dismissed it, especially given that AA points the blame at the relapser in these cases. Somehow, my program was defunct, I hadn’t been rigorously honest with myself, my fourth step hadn’t been sufficiently thorough—somehow it was my fault. 

“What is important, I think, is the self-blame and self-loathing that people go through when they feel that they have failed and have to report to their sponsor ‘I relapsed,’” Gabrielle Glaser, journalist and author of the Atlantic Monthly article “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” said in a phone call. She emphasized that her assessment of the problem grew not from personal experience with addiction, but through interviewing hundreds of current and former AA members.  

“Other methodologies and methods to recovery don’t look at [drinking or using] as punitively. They look at use as a lesson,” she said. “‘Okay, what can we learn from it? What caused the slip, and what can we do differently next time?’ Instead of ‘You’ve got to start all over.’”

But I didn’t question AA’s “start over” philosophy when I took a few sips of the Tecate, even though it did strike me as counterproductive. Ultimately, the goal of sobriety is to stay away from the destruction that alcohol brings on problem drinkers. The goal of walking through the doors of AA isn’t to stack up a bunch of time and medallions and cakes and accolades, but to get out of the danger zone and have a better life. Sure, I took a few sips of beer, but no harm came to me from that particular incident, except for the shame of “blowing my sober time.” And instead of analyzing the trigger and emotions that led up to cracking that beer, my sponsor told me to identify as a newcomer and start the steps over. 

So I fessed up in meetings about the beer and was met with warm “Welcome backs!” and newcomer chips, and lots of forceful hugs, and I was confused by all the drama. 

“Welcome back?” I thought. “But I never left!”

Not wanting to slip back into my binging pattern—I don’t call myself an “alcoholic”—I stayed put in AA and worked the program with more religiousness than before. 

Still, about 90 days later and while weathering a severe case of PMS, I thought about drinking. I was depressed and irritable about the boyfriend again, and I contemplated fighting the urge, but instead thought, “What does it matter? You lost all your time. Who cares anyway? You only have 90 days. Oh, and by the way, you’re a failure.”

So I went on a big bad bender, guzzling wine in my apartment and then calling up an AA pal who had also recently relapsed—and was still relapsing—to join me.

This pattern repeated as I continued to relapse for two years—putting together a few months, then going back “out,” then staying sober for a few days, then going back “out”—each time walking back through AA’s doors with my tail between my legs, each time dumbfounded by my relapses given I was hitting meetings nearly every day and was in daily communication with my sponsor (yes, I was doing the steps.) Equally dumbfounding were the scores of people staying sober for a year or more without any sponsor and without working one step. My relapses were supposedly a sign that something was wrong with my “program,” at least that’s what my sponsor and others in AA said, but these guys with no “program” at all succeeded. 

It made no sense. 

“Re-setting the clock entirely runs the risk of not giving oneself credit for the work that was done before that time, but some like to be very strict about recovery time,” wrote Dr. Tom Horvath, founder of SMART Recovery and a notable addiction specialist. “I think that strictness is motivating to some, and stifling to others.” 

It certainly proved stifling to me.

I’ve also found keeping track of “sober time” can make small slips worse. 

“Shit! I did it again,” I’d think after having just a few sips of a vodka tonic. With my wits still working strong I’d consider stopping, only to reason “I just blew my sober time away, so I might as well make this one count.”

I left AA a year ago, a move made after doing much reading and research on the problem, prompted by Glaser’s article in the Atlantic. Though initially angry with the piece (when I read it I was still knee-deep in the program and abstinent for some time), it forced me to consider the program’s history, its dangers, and its success rate, and from there I went on to read books by experts in the addiction field who don’t believe alcoholism is a disease, including The Sober Truth by Lance Dodes and The Biology of Desire by Marc Lewis

Now that I’m “deprogrammed” from AA, anniversary celebrations with cakes, medallions, accolades, and—at a women’s meeting in Burbank—the wearing of a tiara, seem not only silly but counterintuitive. I’ve taken these cakes and I’ve worn the tiara, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t puff me up. AA members say these celebrations are for the newcomer—to help people—but toward the end of my tenure in the program, it seemed more like an ego-feeding proposition. 

One sober “alcoholic” after another would wax poetically from the podium with each passing anniversary, gaining more and more clout and influence in whatever meetings they attended. Meanwhile, the recently-relapsed looked on in envy, confusion, or despondence for trashing all of their sober time. At least, that’s what I did during my relapse days. And this certainly didn’t help me keep the plug in the jug. 

It wasn’t just deprogramming that made me question the “sober time” emphasis of AA. A few months after leaving the program, I began attending SMART meetings—an abstinence-based program. I found the following passage on lapses and relapses in the SMART Handbook very refreshing:

“While not a stage or necessary part of change, they are common and may occur at any stage. If a lapse or relapse occurs, it doesn’t mean a person has to restart their journey. They can identify which strategies helped them and which ones didn’t, and use that knowledge to move forward with their recovery.”

It goes on to state, “Handled well, a lapse or relapse can be brief and provide another opportunity for self-empowerment.”

Horvath also stated in an email that “SMART does not track length of abstinence in order to leave the method of doing so up to the participant (or no method at all), and also to avoid reinforcing a hierarchy of participants based on longevity. In SMART everyone is working our approach in an equal way.”

Dozens of times I heard AA speakers declare from the podium that “Relapse is not a part of recovery,” and to some degree, I understand the importance of this statement. Relapse can definitely be dangerous, especially for problem drinkers like me who intentionally get as fucked-up as possible. Be it through drunk driving or, in my case, hitchhiking throughout Los Angeles at 2 a.m., these benders can lead to not only devastating consequences from one night of drinking, but they can also set off a downward spiral of yet more drinking. It’s these dangers that I keep in the forefront of my mind to stay sober, not the need to “keep my sober time.”  

Of course, if a desire to not throw away your “sober time” can also keep people safe, then that’s clearly a good thing.

Dr. Keith Humphreys, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Stanford University, explained in an email that the question of whether “sober time” in AA “created an ‘abstinence-violation effect’ that set people up to relapse worse than would have otherwise” was a contentious debate among addiction researchers in the 1970s.

“Clearly this happens once in a while,” he wrote, “but what the evidence shows is that overwhelmingly people benefit from the emphasis on sober time as a reinforcement for continued abstinence.”

On my personal experience with this problem, he added, “While I would not for a moment question your own experience, nor would I assume it is unique, I think the scientific evidence is pretty clear that usually AA's reinforcement of sobriety works out well for members (and we do the same kinds of reinforcement in treatment).”

It’s a solid enough argument, and one that I’m sure stands true for many in recovery.

For others, the consequences from relapsing alone are bad enough. Having to “start over” and confess my slip to a room full of strangers over and over again only added more pain and humiliation to what was already a painful experience (and one often accompanied by an agonizing hangover). 

As I’ve said, this is merely my experience, and as stated by Horvath, there are many different approaches to recovery. Not everyone reacts to AA as I do, and though AA may not be a one-size-fits-all solution for alcohol abuse, it certainly does help many get and stay sober. We all are entitled to recover however we want, and if that is through AA, then people have every right to choose to do so. But for those who are not helped by walking through the door with their tails between their legs, for those who have dozens of newcomer chips stashed somewhere in their car or bag or house reminding them of their “failure,” as I did, it’s helpful to know this hoopla isn’t necessary to get better and that other options for recovery exist.

I know I would have been better off when I sipped the Tecate if my sponsor had said, “Ok, you slipped. You’re safe, you’re sound, just brush it off and get back on the horse. We’ll take a look at what happened beforehand, to avoid it happening again, but you don’t have to tell the whole world or the whole AA community about it. Slipping happens. Let’s just move forward.” 

Tracy Chabala is a personal essayist and journalist covering addiction, mental health, technology, and food. Her work has been featured in the LA Times, Salon, VICE, and the LA Weekly, among other publications. She holds a Masters of Professional Writing from USC and has just finished her first novel.

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