I noticed this weekend in a local AA meeting that the group member list -- a document distributed for members to contact one another-- includes a column for sobriety date. It wasn't the first time I'd seen the list, but it was the first time I noticed the sobriety date column and it made me uncomfortable. It was not lost on me that when I had 11 years of sobriety, I probably liked it listed next to my name; now that I had 18 months, well, not so much. But there was more to it than ego.
Despite proclamations that "we've only got today" and "whoever woke up earliest has the most time," time is the most respected AA vital sign. Many people like to slip it in casually when they share, and it's often the first or second question asked when people meet someone in the fellowship for the first time (how much time do you have?). It's human nature--we want to know how we stack up. If you don't believe me, try to think of someone in your home group whose sober time you don't know.
On one hand, I get it-- the amount of time you've been able to stay away from a drink has to indicate something about your qualifications, right? If you're hiring, you want someone with continuous experience, not the guy who's been in and out of jobs.
But when I started to think about what it used to be like for me-- way back when I had double-digit sobriety and never hesitated to work it into a conversation ("'Hey, Jay, how you doin'?' 'Fine, thanks, for a guy with 11 years!'"), I started to see something clearly.
All I had was time.
In my first run through AA, it was all about time. The home group I belonged to was what I've come to view as "pass/fail AA"-- consumed with who was drinking and who wasn't and all the attendant drama. The only thing that mattered was abstinence, and it was better if it was continuous. We would shake our heads slowly at the people "coming back," pat ourselves on the back, and offer hollow, vapid advice like "meeting makers make it." Eventually-- and I saw a lot of this-- the chronic relapsers were ostracized. I heard people say things like, "Billy keeps relapsing. I can't be around him, it's bad for my sobriety. I need to stick with the winners."
And I participated in all of this without knowing it could not be more at odds with the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I believed in the correlation between time and sobriety, as if the mere passage of days, months and years instilled me with experience and wisdom that was of value to the newcomer. That "I have 11 years of sobriety" was a message of depth and weight.
The nasty problem with being an untreated alcoholic in Alcoholics Anonymous is this: the only way to know it's not working is by drinking. That's the high-stakes nature of pass/fail AA-- it's all about the physical compulsion to drink, not activating the allergy. So it's a bit shocking to the system when it fails-- instead of working through some resentments with your sponsor, you wind up in an Omaha motel with a woman named Lulu, a fresh tattoo, and a whole lot of explaining to do. I'm not speaking from experience (as far as you know).
For 11 years, I treated my symptom (drinking). I did not treat my cause (alcoholism). If you believe they are the same thing, you don't understand Alcoholics Anonymous.
My home group today expects people who don't work the steps to drink. Our job is to be present with the instructions when a moment of grace occurs. We do not celebrate anniversaries. When I reached a year, my sponsor told me with a smile to get my "own damn coin." He's far more interested in how I'm doing with my remaining amends, who I'm taking through the work, and am I being of service to Alcoholics Anonymous. These are the vital signs that matter to him.
I no longer confuse abstinence with recovery.
Cross-posted at Thump