At Five Years Sober, Do You Really Get Your Marbles Back?
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At Five Years Sober, Do You Really Get Your Marbles Back?


Handful of marbles

I remember seeing someone take a six-month coin at a meeting when I had less than a month and thinking they were the king of sobriety. I assumed someone getting their two-year coin had it all figured out. Five years sober seemed impossibly far off, but somehow I got here in the blink of an eye and don’t mind that I haven’t figured anything out. I also remember being obsessed with relapse in early sobriety. It was always the topic of one or two shares.  Those who had fallen spoke with the authority of hindsight yet apparent lack of foresight. That really scared me. I didn’t want to drink again, but would I anyway?

Sometime in the first year, I read that once a person hits five years sober, they stand a solid chance of maintaining lifetime sobriety and clung to it like a life raft. I also heard the phrase: At five years, you get your marbles back. At ten, you know how to use them. Five years held a hypnotic appeal. It was far off, but still nothing like a decade. But waiting around for five years to feel like yourself again seems like a cruel promise. The good news is you don’t have to wait anywhere near that long and you won’t feel like your old self again because you’ll be even better.

Did I have a full set of shiny marbles before I started drinking? I don’t think so, if only because I started drinking so young my brain was still developing. Still the idea of possessing a full set of anything at five years sounded great. I assumed it would come with a guarantee that I was free and clear of ever wanting to drink again. Boy, was I wrong about that part.

One marble I’ve gained in sobriety is an acceptance that things rarely turn out like I think they will. I started learning this early in sobriety, even though it should have been something I knew already. Who knows why drinking is a blind spot for big chunks of truth, but it was for me. Another marble I like is the one that lets me go to social events and not shrivel up inside myself. I am still not what anyone would call a social butterfly and most times I’d rather be home in my PJs, but I enjoy myself more sober than I did when I was drinking. This is a huge and welcome surprise.

I particularly enjoy the marble that lets me see what’s really going on. It’s like a pane of glass wiped clean of smears and smudges, which sometimes is not so great. A couple of weeks ago, summer breezes rolled in and brought curious longings for cocktail parties that I would never be able to attend. I observed familiar nostalgia and uncomfortable cravings from a safe distance and they passed, though not fast enough. I realized it had been so long since I’d had a craving that I was out of practice.

My favorite marble is probably the one that lets me slide things off the table with one satisfying sweep. If I can’t identify anything to fix a problem, I get to put it away for at least a little while. I got this marble a few years back but am really starting to learn how to use it. The awareness marble complements nicely because it’s hard to fix a problem if you can’t see it.

Sometime in the last year or two, I realized I never needed to drink in the first place. Even if someone invented a pill that completely removed that compulsion to keep drinking after the first drink, I knew I was no longer interested. It was an epiphany to understand the gifts of sobriety were worth far more than any half-assed romance with a drink. Still, while I am still very much in love with sobriety, this epiphany settled and ebbed as all things seem to and nostalgia crept back in. I waited it out and it faded too because if there’s one thing I learned in five years of not drinking, it’s that a craving always fades. I’m glad I know the romance of drinking can come back too. It’s a good reminder of all I have to lose.

Five years sober is a nice chunk of time and I feel really good about it. But it’s just a milestone. It’s worth noting that milestones have always given me trouble. I hit a rough patch at six months sober and then again at the one and two year mark. I had expected to feel a relaxed kind of relief, but instead found myself restless and unsteady. Milestones stir up feelings I hadn’t known were there until I had to deal with them. Feelings are a marble I’m still learning how to use. Awareness helps, but even so the intensity can be scary. Last week I found myself weepy at the sight of trees blowing in the wind. It was some combination of disappointment that things hadn’t turned out like I planned and that it didn’t really matter because everything was perfect. I had my own little double rainbow moment and understood the full range of emotions is frightening but awesome and also a little funny.

One thing I can say with authority is that five years of not drinking flew by. I think this would have been helpful to hear in the beginning since time flies when you’re having fun and that was something I was pretty sure I was giving up forever. We don’t wake up at five years with a leather pouch of marbles under our pillows (how creepy would that be?). Even if we do somehow regain the emotional and mental equivalent of our pre-drinking wisdom, let’s not discount the hard work that went into the previous 1,825 days. It’s a slow build to whatever course we set. We work really hard and one day realize somewhere along the way it got easy enough that most days it doesn’t feel like work. It doesn’t happen magically at six months or two years or five or ten. It happens in the connection of one day to the next and those rare moments when we aren’t looking behind or ahead.

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About Author

Kristen Rybandt has written for The Fix and blogs about recovered life at Bye Bye Beer. She lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania with her husband, two daughters and assorted pets.