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The Peculiar Power of Sobriety Clocks

Tracking your sobriety is both the most important and least important part of the journey

Ask just about any sober person, and they’ll most likely be able tell you exactly how long they’ve been clean, or the very date their abstinence began. Tracking the duration of one’s sobriety has been part of recovery since at least 18th century temperance societies, which handed out medallions to those who swore to stop drinking (probably after incoherently crashing their covered wagons into the local tavern a few too many times).

In the 1900s, Alcoholics Anonymous caught on, inspired by a nun who gave out ornaments to pathological drinkers as they took the pledge, and companies began manufacturing the traditional AA chips. Now, we have an endless selection of recovery apps, where a guy like me can see he has one year, two months, 17 days, six hours, 30 minutes and 38 seconds of sobriety.

Many of us see this number as a testament to our journey. “Having it there as a milestone gives me hope, and celebrating it reminds me that I chose life over the fractured existence of active addiction,” says Loz, creator of the @brutalrecovery meme page. “It’s a reminder that on the darkest day of my life, I could choose recovery, and as the days and years go on, I can make that choice again and again, one day at a time.”

In the early days of recovery, knowing that you have even one day of sobriety can be massively motivational. “Being able to quit using these substances for 24 hours is a huge deal,” says Manuel Garcia, licensed alcohol and drug counselor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, an addiction treatment and advocacy organization. “If you ask a lot of our patients, ‘When was the last time that you were able to not use a substance for 24 hours,’ some will tell you, ‘Well, it’s been like 15 years.’”

“These people have experienced a lot of negative situations that have resulted in a lot of pain, a lot of loss,” Garcia continues, and being allowed to celebrate something as seemingly small, but in reality monumental, as 24 hours of sobriety can be the spark that motivates a life change.

Whether you use a coin or an app to track your sobriety, it also keeps you connected to others in the sober community, providing both comradery and accountability. You can share your sobriety dates, dish out praise, and if your number is significantly larger than someone else’s, lend a word or two of advice.

Deep inside of us, there’s a reason why the duration of our sobriety is much more than just a number. “Streaks, particularly sobriety streaks, are an important part of our psychology,” explains Rubin Khoddam, a clinical psychologist focused on addiction. “There’s symbolism behind it. A simple number can come with so much meaning. It can represent change — better health, mended relationships, etc. Also, streaks, records and numbers represent what’s possible. For those who are just gaining a single day of sobriety, seeing someone with two days or two years or 20 years of sobriety can represent the possible.”

Unfortunately, though, the significance we place on sobriety clocks — and all kinds of streaks — can at times be harmful and unhelpful. It can become obsessive, and the fear of starting at day one can grow into a constantly nagging anxiety that drives us back to the very vices we’re trying to kick. Pointing to a less significant but equally telling example outside of her sobriety, Loz says, “When the Duolingo owl tells me that my 185-day streak has finished, it feels catastrophic, as if the 185 days prior meant absolutely nothing.”

You can only imagine, then, how heart-wrenching and demoralizing that feeling of “starting over” can be for an ungodly hungover person who now needs to set their sobriety clock back to zero. “My first shot at sobriety was back in 2011,” says Dana Bowman, author of the Highly Functioning Is Highly Dangerous blog. “I can remember at that point trying to utilize some sort of app to track my days, but it never really worked for me. At that point in sobriety, my days were very ‘one day at a time,’ and looking into the big picture, the future and the long-term was rather terrifying. Then I relapsed — a short one over Christmas, and yes, nothing says Christmas like hiding vodka in your closet — and when I ‘started over’ with my days, oh my, that was tough. To think about all that lost time — I felt utterly drained of motivation and shamed.”

For this exact reason, while it can be constructive to hold our sobriety durations dear, it’s also crucial to avoid becoming overly attached to that number. “Although it’s important to celebrate victories, we don’t want to shame a streak when it’s broken,” Khoddam says. “We want to hold the number or the streak lightly. Mistakes happen. Lapses happen. As it’s been said, it’s not how many times you fall off the horse, but how quickly you jump back on.”

Many people in recovery already know this, because it’s almost guaranteed that they’ve had to start that clock over more times than they can count. “Every slip, relapse or bottom line I’ve broken has taught me something important about the size and shape of my illness, and I’m lucky that I’ve made it back to try again,” Loz says. And as much as it can feel like a restart means lost time, Bowman adds, “I learned a lot in my relapse and in my first three years of sober living, so it wasn’t totally gone.”

It’s also worth being cautious about a big number tricking you into feeling safer in your sobriety than you really are. “The pride I had at gaining three years, I think, was part of the reason I relapsed,” Bowman says. “I kind of got to a place where I thought I’d arrived at a safe place, and then I blew it.”

To that end, Dan Mager, author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction, says, “As important and meaningful as length of clean time or sobriety is, there isn’t a correlation between that and the quality of someone’s recovery. People who’ve been in recovery for many years, sometimes decades, still act like assholes. They may be maintaining their recovery in a technical sense — true to the letter of it — but not having done the work or gotten away from the work that speaks to the spirit of recovery, which is really about changing the quality of our lives and changing the quality of our character.”

No matter what your sobriety clock says, that means every one of us — those with 24 hours and those with 24 years — are faced with the same burden: We all wake up in the morning, and we’re all challenged to stay sober. “I have some good friends who’ve been in recovery for decades — 20, 30, even 35 and 40 years at this point — and some of them will say, ‘Because we do this strictly one day at a time, as far as I’m concerned, whoever got up earliest today and hasn’t used has the most clean time,’” Mager says.

Good thing I woke up before my alarm today.