Sober Anniversaries: Happy, But Tricky

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Last month I picked up a shiny new coin at a 12-step meeting, acknowledging another year of sobriety. I hugged the sweet, bespectacled gentleman who presented it to me, while my friends around the room clapped and cheered.

I sat back down in my chair, rolled the coin around in my hand and performed the math I do in my head every year around this time: When I checked myself into detox, I had been drinking about two bottles of wine a day. Many days it exceeded that and, particularly in the last two years of my spiral, my routine also included a whole lot of cocaine.

Two bottles of wine a day is 730 bottles a year. I just celebrated 11 years sober, so, theoretically, if I had continued, I would be 8,030 bottles of wine deeper into my addiction. That’s about 770 cases, or enough to fill a 20-foot shipping container. But the truth is, I wouldn’t have consumed all that wine because I wouldn’t have survived another 11 years of that life.

Gratitude definitely rules the day each year on my anniversary, but other feelings find their way into my brain as well. I remember the fear and shame that surrounded my using as I tried to hide it from the world. I can see myself back in my old apartment, alone, drinking, doing drugs and wishing everything would just end. I used to wake up each morning cursing the new day and swilling whatever booze was on my nightstand.

My bottom was high in the sense that I still had a job, apartment, friends and family. My bottom was low in the sense that I felt dead inside and had no plans to live to see my 40th birthday.

In the weeks leading up to my anniversary, I tend to flash back to those bottoming-out days more frequently than I do normally. It’s important for me to remember what it was like then, something I hear referred to as, “keeping it green.” If I ever forget how bad it was, I risk somehow thinking that it wasn’t so bad, which could lead me to thinking, maybe I can have just one. The truth is I never had just one and, if I remember my bottom, I don’t need any further evidence of my inability to control my drinking.

But anniversaries are happy occasions, celebrations of another 365 days of doing something that I previously believed to be impossible. A couple of months into my sobriety, I was at a meeting on the west coast. It was a Saturday morning in a beautiful church overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The place was packed. Near the end of the meeting, the celebrants of sober milestones were invited one by one to the front of room. They received congratulations, hugs and a piece of cake for their sober “birthdays.”

At first it struck me as over-the-top, this idea of birthday cake for staying sober. But there was so much joy and gratitude, not only on the recipients’ faces, but on the faces of everyone in the room who got to share in the moment, that it was impossible not to get swept up. Within two minutes, I wanted a piece of that cake. I knew that the people on stage had worked hard for it. I would have to do the same.

Earning a piece of that cake represented making the right decisions for 365 consecutive days, at least with respect to drugs and alcohol. After detox, when I first sat in rehab in the basement of an office building, I had 10 days “C&S” on the sign-in chart. I had to ask someone what “C&S” meant: “clean and sober.” The young heroin addict sitting next to me had 11 days. “Eleven days!” I thought. “I hope I can make it to 11 days!” That’s how daunting early sobriety was for me. Could I make it to 11 days? I only had 10. Eleven seemed a lifetime away.

So now, to have the opportunity to share 11 years with the group of friends that walk with me on this daily journey is nothing short of a miracle. I have to remember the past – look back, but don’t stare, as we say – but I also have to be grateful that I don’t live like that anymore. It definitely calls for a piece of very sweet cake.