For well over a decade, I have celebrated my “clean” or “sober” date anniversary with more gratitude and joy than my actual date of birth.
I have attached so much meaning to this date, in fact, that on more than one occasion, I even considered getting this momentous milestone tattooed on me; a big ‘ole “July 19, 2005” forever ingrained on my body as a symbol of my new life without the use of alcohol or other drugs. It seems that at some point early in my recovery journey, I learned to equate the amount of time I accumulated of continuous abstinence from alcohol and other drugs with the greatest benchmark of successful recovery. While I have long known that recovery encompasses so much more than merely abstinence, I have also viewed my date of initiating abstinence as the foundation from which everything else was built. It was the most important thing to me in the world and without it, I would have nothing else. To that end, for over 11 years, I have proudly clutched the date of July 19, 2005 tightly to my chest, determined to never let it go, to never give it up for anybody or anything.
Today, however, I am letting it go. Today I am giving that date up.
Before I share with you my reasons for surrendering this beloved date, please hear me out on two important caveats.
First, I am not giving up my “clean/sober” date as result of returning to alcohol or other drug use. For me, being present in my life and managing my wellness and recovery from a substance use disorder will always include continued abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. My decision to relinquish the tightened grip around my clean/sober date is with no intent or desire to replace it with alcohol or other drug use. While there are many varieties of recovery experiences, mine will always include a commitment to abstaining from alcohol and other drugs.
Second, I am also not giving up my “clean/sober” date with the hopes of modeling for others that they ought to do the same. For me, there were many moments in early recovery during which I was largely motivated to not use alcohol or other drugs simply because I did not want to give up that cherished date. I think there is a tremendous value in this driving force for many. I also think that there is much evidence to support the dire importance for many people who have lived with a substance use disorder to accumulate continuous time abstinent from alcohol or other drugs. I am a strong believer in each individual being empowered and supported to decide what works best for themselves. In turn, in no way do I aim to sway anybody else from celebrating a date or accomplishment that is important to them. My decision to no longer focus on my clean/sober date is a personal one. My decision to share this choice and rationale for it with the world comes from a commitment to being authentic and a burning passion to speak my truth through writing.
Now, on to the two main reasons for why I will no longer be holding onto and focusing on my “clean” or “sober” date.
While I have not used alcohol or other drugs for over 11 years, I have absolutely been consumed by another unhealthy addiction that for all intents and purposes has rendered me just as “active” in addiction as a person using alcohol or other drugs. To celebrate my “clean” or “sober” date while remaining consumed by another addiction has led to great cognitive dissonance and ultimately an in-authenticity with myself and the world.
For many years prior to my using alcohol and other drugs to escape my physical, mental and emotional experiences, and for the entire duration of my time abstinent from those substances, I have lived with an eating disorder. Binge eating has remained an ever present active addiction in my life, one that ignites the same exact pathway in my brain that alcohol and other drugs did and one that produces the same desired effects of numbing and escape. While food is legal and cocaine is not, the purpose and outcome of indulging in both is one and the same for me. While a McDonalds run for enough food for three won’t land me in jail but smoking enough PCP for three possibly would, in the end both are driven by an obsession and compulsion to indulge despite a nagging desire to not. Both binge eating and substance use have resulted in unhealthy and unwanted consequences in my life. To focus so intently on a date that marks the cessation of alcohol and other drug use while the use of food in the same manner has continued on does a disservice to myself and to my recovery journey in its entirety. Although the date on which I ceased using alcohol and other drugs will always be an important one to me, my recovery journey encompasses so much more than that. Until I stop using everything that ignites that same pathway in my brain, I am not truly “clean” in my heart, mind and soul.
Celebrating the length of continuous time I have been abstinent as the centerpiece of my recovery story is by default non-inclusive of the millions of people who recover through reduction or moderation of substance use. It also devalues the recovery experience of those who have experienced a lapse in continuous time abstinent but who have been no less engaged and/or successful in their recovery.
I was trained in using recovery messaging that begins something like this: “Hi, my name is Brooke Feldman, and I am a person in long-term recovery. What that means for me is that I have not used alcohol or other drugs for over 11 years and, as a result, my life, my family’s life and the people I have come in contact with have been transformed in countless ways…” This message of recovery in many ways is important to give in order to instill hope and provide evidence that long-term recovery is possible. While there is an enormous value and need for demonstrating that recovery is possible and worth supporting, investing in and aspiring for, we miss the inclusivity mark by focusing on time abstinent. For more people than not, recovery looks more like reduction or moderation of use. Countless individuals experience problem alcohol or other drug use at some point in their lives but are able to either naturally or with treatment and recovery support services go on to moderate their use of alcohol or other drugs. To give the impression that recovery requires abstinence not only prevents large numbers of people from engaging in treatment or recovery support services, it also alienates millions of people from the recovery advocacy movement who have found solutions to problem use without the need for abstinence. Although long-term abstinence is the pathway I have chosen and will continue to choose, I never want to alienate those individuals who choose different pathways to recovery. By no longer focusing on my time of continuous abstinence as the centerpiece of my recovery story but rather more so a part of it, I hope to be more inclusive of the millions of people who have found wellness and recovery without total abstinence.
Also, while sustained abstinence is possible and a reality for many who choose that pathway, we know that some people experience lapses in abstinence for a variety of reasons. Those individuals who have experienced a lapse are no less engaged in the recovery process than a person with 20 years of continuous abstinence. With the right resources and support in place, those individuals who experience a lapse do not automatically lose all they have gained in their recovery journey. To focus so much on length of time abstinent does a severe disservice to those who experience a lapse. To cultivate an attitude of “starting over” or loss of recovery status by placing such enormous value on length of continuous time abstinent is far from helpful for individuals, families, communities, organizations and policy makers. This practice is something I no longer wish to inadvertently contribute to by placing such high focus on my own continuous time abstinent.
While I will always have profound gratitude for July 19th, 2005, I am giving that date up as the centerpiece of my recovery and placing it up on the shelf with other personally significant milestones and accomplishments in my life. Just like all the rest, sustained abstinence is merely a lived experience and personal progress marker, not a definition of my full recovery or who I really am in all of my humanity. It is also not an indicator of what recovery can and does look like for millions of other individuals and families.
In closing, I recognize that my personal decision and rationale for no longer holding on so tightly to my “clean” or “sober” date is likely to spark mixed reactions among my peers who identify as being in recovery. If you are somebody who feels resolute in your attachment to and the value of your own clean/sober date, I support you wholeheartedly and do not seek to change your mind. I cannot emphasize enough how much worth doing so had in my own life for many years. My only hope is that if you have gotten this far, you were able to receive my current truth and perhaps even feel moved to explore any bits of it that resonated with you. Thank you for getting this far.