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

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.



  1. Pingback: The sweetest 5 years * Live Clean And Sober

  2. It is helpful for me to hear that 5 years flew by quickly. I really enjoyed this piece. Congratulations to you.

  3. Lisa Neumann on

    Sweet Kristen, happy five years of sobriety. It seems impossible that this many days/months/years have rolled by us. Wow. It’s a joy to watch you grow (and grow along side you). I remember when you didn’t yet have your beautiful smile posted (LOL) … oh the torture we go through online. You are a huge part of my recovery. I’ve always been a fan and I always will be. Laughing on the 10 year sentiment. I’m at 12 now and I fear I know less than ever. ♥ Lisa @ Sober Identity

    • Thanks, Lisa. I’m proud to be alongside you. I hear you on the 10 year thing. While it’s nice to think we might one day have it all figured it out, where’s the fun in that? You’re doing sober and life beautifully.

  4. untipsyteacher on

    Beautifully written, Kristen!
    Getting and staying sober is hard work!
    That’s for sure!
    And time does fly.
    But I don’t want to hurry this time away, as it means I get older.
    (Which at my age, isn’t all that fun!)
    Happy 5 Years!!

    • I keep trying to figure out how to at least have the feeling of time slowing down. (It’s only in looking back that it seems to go too fast.) The older I get, the quicker it seems. Thanks for the comment, Wendy.

  5. Louise Rowlinson (ahangoverfreelife) on

    I have a solitary marble sat on my desk as a reminder not to drink and thereby loose my marble! Huge congrats Kristen on 5 years and I look forward to gaining more marbles as the years go by 🙂 xx

    • That’s a great idea, Louise. I like the idea of marbles as an alternative to the more traditional coins and chips one gets if they go to 12 step meetings, which of course not everyone does.

  6. Pingback: must share | dangling on the edge

  7. Debbie Menaugh on

    As always, a grand bit of writing. Loved it and needed to hear it. You are a blessing! Congrats on the big 5 xoxo Debbie

  8. I soak up your words like a sponge. The thought of regaining our marbles along life’s journey is so appealing and I loved how you shared your own journey in this space. You are such a beautiful writer, and even though I haven’t struggled with alcohol addiction, I’ve struggled in other areas where some of the same concepts can be applied.
    And, OMG…what is it about getting weepy at moving trees? I walk into my forest every night I’m home just to see the trees move and sway against the Tiffany blue sky. It makes my heart hurt in the best of ways.
    I’m so glad you told us about your articles today – it’s going to be a better day just because of your words. xo

    • Can I just tell you how much better I feel about my weepy-at-trees moment? You always have that effect on me. So grateful to have you in my life. And yes, these concepts apply in so many areas. It’s a human thing.

  9. Nice piece Kristen — thanks for sharing, and great to see your work published elsewhere. Loved the detail and honesty in this, though not surprised. Best, Bill

  10. Hi Kristen, I will have 5 years next month and I just wanted to tell you that I loved this article. It’s exactly how I feel now. I also feel so much pride in the fact that we’ve been this way for five whole years! The time does fly, but it never feels like that in the beginning, does it!!??
    I never dreamed I could be a nondrinker, but reaching out and seeing the similarities is a key factor.
    Again, congrats on your milestone dear!

    • It absolutely did not feel fast in the beginning, only in looking back. I’m excited for you too and your upcoming milestone. Reaching out has been key…thank you for the comment.

  11. Joanne Jamis Cain on

    Hi Kristen, Congratulations on five years and this beautiful post. When my family member got sober, I remember that he seemed to be firing on all pistons and I reacted to it. Thank goodness for my (codependency) program. Us each having our own program really saved our relationship.
    I am always inspired by those in recovery who tell their stories and yours is no exception. I love how you relate different aspects of your recovery to marbles. I can so identify with wanting to stay home in my PJ’s.
    Thanks for this great start to my day.
    Love and God bless,

    • Thanks, Joanne. It’s especially nice to hear a family member’s perspective of sobriety. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  12. Pingback: The sweetest 5 years | ByeByeBeer

  13. Congratulations on your sobriety Kristen! This is a well-written piece. I certainly list all my marbles before I could started collecting them again. One day at a time, marble by marble.

  14. Pingback: A Must-Read | themiracleisaroundthecorner

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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.