Five years is a big milestone in recovery. Sure, every single sober day is a victory. However, when I hit the five mile marker in 2012, I noticed a tangible difference in the quality of my recovery. My perspective felt alien, as though I was watching my life through a pair of binoculars. My body wasn’t my own. Although I’ve had a daily yoga practice for almost two decades and studied dance, I was suddenly clumsy. My arms and legs were bruised from walking into furniture, bumping doors. What was happening to me?
There was something about the five year marker that resonated with me. I’d read a study by the National Institute of Health that found that people who made it to five years had a 15% chance of relapse, compared to a 50% chance after only one year. The longer I kept my sobriety, the longer I was likely to have it. However, I’d been to enough AA meetings to see the people coming back after losing their long term sobriety. Their stories were chilling—it didn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to see myself cashing in a sober decade because I simply couldn’t handle a bad day. No matter what the statistics said, I knew that time wasn’t a tool. I wasn’t immune to a relapse.
In typical Claire fashion, I started trying to think my way out of my potential relapse. I worried. I planned. I made bargains with myself—if I went to a certain number of meetings, kept recovery commitments and prayed a Hail Mary every day, I would stay sober. If I said three affirmations and reposted an inspirational meme, I would stay sober. Wasn’t that how it worked? I told myself that if I’d been sober for so many years, I must have cracked the code.
My anxiety, which usually lurks somewhere in the basement of my subconscious, slithered into the forefront of my brain. Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed. I kept meeting people who’d fallen off the wagon after 20-plus years. I analyzed their stories, looking for the fatal flaw. One woman had stopped going to meetings; another one got into a bad marriage. More than one person got curious about other drugs and decided to give legalized weed a try. Goodbye, sobriety. I collected this data, hoping that it would reveal something about my own future.
“Aren’t you maybe overthinking this?” my sponsor asked me.
“No! It’s preventative.”
She laughed. “Are you sober today?”
“Yes. And yesterday, and the day before.”
“What are you doing?”
“The bare minimum,” I said. “I’m showing up. I help other people. I try not to be an asshole.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“What does that mean? Hmm?”
She laughed again. “It means hmm.”
My fear was that I was somehow overlooking the elephant in the room—that I was missing the critical element that would keep me from relapse. I thought about the hmm.
And then I thought, Fuck this. Worrying was exhausting me. It turned out that in sobriety, unfueled by cocaine, speed or other stimulants, I was incapable of obsessing about something indefinitely. I simply didn’t have the gas for it. Fuck this, I finally thought. So what if I relapse?
Which led me to the next thought: What if a relapse isn’t necessarily the end of the world? I had been sober for years. I had worked hard in that time, let my body and mind heal and learned new tools for maintaining my mental equilibrium. That knowledge didn’t go out the window just because I reached a milestone. If today was my last day sober, how would I want to experience it?
For so many addicts and alcoholics, addiction is a terminal illness. Active addiction kills: there’s no question about that. The consequences are in the news every day, and all around us. I myself overdosed multiple times, and ended up needing medical help more than once. I knew what it was like to come to in an ER. In those days, I drank and used like I was going to die, because I knew I was killing myself. In a sick way, I was totally living in the moment because I knew I might not wake up the next morning.
That, for me, was the key. Treating each day like it was my last one finally gave me the perspective I needed to start enjoying my recovery again. It was a new flavor of gratitude. Instead of feeling detached, always analyzing the world around me, I experienced my life’s colors and flavors as though for the first time. I hugged my friends more, thinking, What if this is the last time I hug you? I got very good at returning phone calls and paying bills on time. Make sure your affairs are in order. What if you don’t get a tomorrow? I appreciated my life, and instead of doing my “shoulds” by rote, I started to participate in my program again—not because I was afraid of the consequences, but because I had lost my fear of relapse.
My life—my recovery—was imperfect. Instead of seeing that as a fatal flaw, I accepted its impermanence. One day at a time, I could love my messy, wonderful, crazy, sober life.