Getting sober is the first, most important order of business for a person that is addicted. Traditional 12-Step groups have good methods to get you sober: get a sponsor, attend and participate in meetings, make phone calls, work the steps, etc. Being radical is encouraged; for example do a “90 in 90”—that is, attend 90 meetings in 90 days. Early in my recovery, I was so desperate to get sober that I was attending 5 or 6 meetings a week.
The saying is that the program “works if you work it.” But what if you are having trouble staying consistently sober? Why do relapses seem so horribly defeating? Why is it hard to get traction and maintain consistent sobriety?
Let me relate my personal experience. I entered my 12-Step program in May of 2016 and had 11 months of consecutive sobriety. At that point, I had become a little proud and complacent and allowed an “I got this” attitude to creep in. I went on a weekend retreat, stayed alone in a hotel room, and lost my sobriety.
When I got home, I did the difficult thing and confessed it to my wife. But the worst thing for me was the thought of attending my next 12-Step meeting and having to reset my sobriety date. In our group tradition, we introduce ourselves at each meeting and state our sobriety date or the length of our sobriety. And so I didn’t go back right away. I stayed away for months.
I am not saying that staying away was the right thing to do; in fact, it hindered my progress and slowed the momentum I had built up. And I am not being critical of stating the length of sobriety in our meetings. But as I meditated on my situation, I became aware of a different way to look at my sobriety.
As I bounced around a bit, struggling with periodic relapses, I realized that I was more conscious of what was happening before each episode. Unlike before, the addiction didn’t seem to be sneaking up on me and “jumping me” anymore; I was beginning to see patterns that were leading up to the unwanted behaviors. I understood that, in spite of my relapses, I had actually experienced some significant recovery. I had clarity and awareness that I didn’t have before.
So I decided to take an alternative measurement; in addition to the length of consecutive sober days (or my sobriety date), I calculated a percentage. For example, if I measured my first year and was roughly sober 11 out of 12 months, that comes out to almost 92%. I thought, that’s pretty darn good, considering that at some points in my life I was masturbating every day. More importantly, this was the motivation I needed to get me back on track in my recovery.
One way to implement this sobriety hack is through a visual means like marking an X on a calendar for every sober day. The idea is to give you a visual way of measuring your progress and to see the percentage of sober days increase over time. When you lose your sobriety and reset your date, it is easy to become discouraged and forget the progress you have made over time. But if it is just a blank spot on the calendar that has lowered your percentage slightly, just resolve to add an X on the next day.
In the best-selling book, Atomic Habits, James Clear refers to this method as “habit tracking”:
Jerry Sienfeld reportedly uses a habit tracker to stick with his streak of writing jokes. In the documentary “Comedian,” he explains that his goal is simply to “never break the chain” of writing jokes every day. In other words, he is not focused on how good or bad a particular joke is, or how inspired he feels. He is simply focused on showing up and adding to his streak.
“Don’t break the chain” is a powerful mantra. Don’t break the chain of sales calls and you’ll build a successful...business. Don’t break the chain of workouts and you’ll get fit faster than you’d expect. Don’t break the chain of creating every day and you will end up with an impressive portfolio.
And, don’t break the chain of sobriety and you will experience amazing recovery, growth, and healing.
The purpose of this hack is not to cheat the system or to rationalize bad behavior. Shoot for 100%. The goal is to become permanently sober and never look back. Use the tools of the program aggressively. But don’t be afraid to use the percentage hack if it helps to keep you on track.
“But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18).
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