I’ve Been Sober a Long Time – Now What?

By Jeanine Bassett

In January of 1986 I entered a treatment program for my alcohol and methamphetamine addictions. I did what was suggested and jumped into the rooms of recovery, and haven’t had a drink or a drug since. In February of the same year, I went to my first meeting to address the dysfunction I carried from growing up in an alcoholic household (along with the minor detail that I was still sleeping with my heroin addicted, drug dealing boyfriend and wondered how I could help him get clean). Measuring my co-dependency recovery isn’t as easy as marking abstinence, but over time, I’ve learned the value of staying on my side of the street. I’ve never regretted the decision to follow directions and make the 12 Steps a working part of my life.

That was over thirty-three years ago. Thirty-three years. I am amazed on several fronts.

  1. I truly went into treatment on the thirty day plan, with the notion that I could win back my ex, who’d already left the country and married someone else. I did have a tiny smidgen of hope that life could be different, but didn’t even imagine that would involve staying clean forever.
  2. This whole passage of time thing really freaks me out. Where does thirty-three years go? I’ve earned a couple of degrees, traveled, completed ten marathons, gotten married, am enjoying a long-term career as well as friendships over time – but thirty-three years?

What does it mean to be in long term recovery? When I hit the twenty year mark, I thought, “OK, this is my life. I am a recovering person.” It’s not that I felt less than sober all those earlier years, but I couldn’t argue with twenty. Twenty years felt as solid as anything I’d experienced in my life to that point, and then I blinked a few times and hit thirty. Crazy. Love comes and goes. People come and go, as do jobs, health and money. My recovery, one day at a time, can be a constant – as long as I remain mindful of my daily reprieve. And, it can be a challenge to keep it fresh, stay engaged, and continue to grow.

What strikes me is that if the next thirty goes as quickly as the last, I need to wake up and pay closer attention. Self-care is no longer a theory. “Someday” is NOW, that elusive here-and-now that I read about and glimpse from time to time. I cannot stay in recovery based on what I did ten years ago, or even ten weeks ago. What is it that I need to do today?

Having time comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I am an elder. What does that mean, and how does one practice being a wisdom keeper without veering into know-it-all land? A friend, who recently celebrated forty years sober, describes a stepping back in our groups, a turning over the reins to the younger generation. Maybe being an elder means sometimes keeping my mouth shut.

If I’ve learned anything in these thirty-three years, it’s that I don’t have all the answers. I’m not even sure of the questions sometimes. It remains important for me to connect regularly with others on the path – maybe now more than ever – those I walk with hand-in-hand and those leading the way. I can tell myself that I don’t need to pick up the phone, that “I know what she’ll tell me,” that somehow I’m supposed to know what to do. Ha! When did that ever work? I can now recognize these thoughts as my dis-ease in subtle action. My alcoholism rarely announces itself: “Hello! Let’s take a drink today!” No, these days it is more of a whisper: “You don’t really need to go to a meeting… Ah, don’t bother her… Let’s just stay in tonight.”

The “we” of recovery has a depth that is only just now beginning to sink in. I need do nothing alone. That certainly applied in early sobriety when I was inspired to stay clean one more day by the example of those in the rooms. It definitely applies today as I navigate a new(ish) marriage, think about retirement, relax into being a step-mom, learn to live with loss, and recommit to my recovery on a daily basis.

I need the new member, for certain, to remind me of the gravity of the disease, and enchant me with the wonder of early sobriety. And, I almost desperately need my peers – those who I share history with, and those I’ve just met. I get that in meetings, online, or in someone casually passing on the title of a book that rocks my world. My first sponsor always talks about remaining teachable, which involves humility and an open mind. One day at a time, it’s a glorious life – ups and downs, for sure, but compared to what it used to be like, every day is a gift.

Jeanine Bassett has worked in the addiction field for over thirty years, with teens, adults, in medication-supported recovery, and, currently, as Program Manager for a prison-based residential program. Helping to facilitate change and watching people re-gain their lives and repair relationships, continues to be her passion.

Jeanine began writing a weekly blog in 2016 on the joys and challenges of long term recovery. You can access her website by clicking here: Sober Long Time – Now What? Readers are invited to participate in the conversation by posting comments and their views of the various topics raised by Jeanine, each and every week.

In addition, she has published a novel, Shadows and Veins, available through most online retailers, based on her experience with crystal meth and those who manufacture it in clandestine labs. She is currently drafting a workbook addressing some of the concerns of the often-neglected recovery long-timer.


11 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    “You’ve been sober a long time. Now what?” Live life. Live life with all of its ups, downs, joys, sorrows, disappointments, heartbreaks… live life and embrace all it has to offer.

  2. Ed S. says:

    I have 33 years also. Life is good.

  3. Bob B says:

    I picked up my last drink on 06/20/1976 at the age of 24, the first year I was on medication for emotional/mental disorders but haven’t had any medication since. There has never been a time since picking up that last drink where I said ‘Now What’. The whole purpose of me not picking up that first one was so I could live my life, not let alcohol live it. I go to meetings occasionally because that person who I use to be seems like a dream and I need to be reminded that my drinking life had been real. Living a practical program of recovery in all my affairs has allowed me to take each day as it comes and experience it as I am meant to.

  4. Harry says:

    32 years past last December. Nobody close in my life today from my drinking days. Marriage ended with 13 years drinking and 26 years sobriety. New relationship 6 years this month; new home with partner from Feb this year. University at 5 years sober; new career followed until retired 2011.

    Loving life today; lucky me to be here on the planet at this point in existence. Living sober is how to live life for me. I too had my uncover, discover and recover in my earlier years helping set up ACA and CODA where I live. Did my work, integrated, and moved on, for me. Who knows with life?

    So, for me, I’ll just remain abstinent, not taking the first drink, and sharing my life in the fellowship of AA, giving and receiving support as needed. We live with our human condition, frailties included, and the inevitable demise and losses that that brings about. But the love and laughter comes along too to remind us of how good this living is. It’s life, and I choose a sober life, for me. As I firmly believe, if we could all see what’s waiting ahead for us down the road, none of us would sleep tonight. Today will do just fine, for me!!

  5. CathyM says:

    Thank you – the older I get the less I know (beginner mind, stay in my own lane).

    Good messages for me.

  6. John B. says:

    Jeanine – Today (August,4th) marks the 35th year since I took my last drink. This post by an “elder” is a nice birthday present. I appreciate your emphasis on the one-day-at-time principle. That is the most valuable lesson AA has given to me. Living one day at a time combined with the importance of building strong personal relationships, gradually became the foundation of my sober lifestyle, and after 35 years that foundation is still solid. My answer to Now What? is to make sure it stays that way.

    Anytime I see the word marathon in the same sentence with “completed” I am impressed. Throw in the number 10 and I’m in awe. I’m an old basketball jock out of the mid-1950’s and still get to the gym on a regular basis – but run 26+ miles – amazing. Nicely written essay, and you are certainly an example that all of us can look to for inspiration.

  7. Finding something well written to read is like someone else pouring a bath for me. It’s unexpected, it never gets old. Although, if that’s what turns my crank these days, maybe I’m what’s old.

    Elton John is 29 years sober; so much for sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. So much for “I hope I die before I get old.”

    I was listening to something about meditation and the nuances that are lost in translating Eastern philosophy, like Taoism, Buddhism, to English or more-to-the-point, to Western, Consumer World-ese. You write about the continuing importance of new people in recovery in your life; ditto. One of these Eastern translated words we hear in Refuge Recovery or mindfulness coaches is “compassion.” It’s true, I can’t hold both empathy (care for another) and self-absorbed existential angst in my mind at the same time. One mindset lets go of the other. The great thing about the recovery community – new and in long-term sobriety – is there is always someone who needs to feel heard. Freedom from my troubles is never far away.

    But what I heard last night was that what is translated as “compassion” in our language was “oneness,” originally. Isn’t that something? Compassion can slip into separateness: me the enlightened one, you the unfortunate. But oneness is different, isn’t it? I’m on a journey, you’re on a journey, I’ve been where you are, I continue to struggle with sabotaging or self-destructive distractions/challenges. Recovery is a balancing act. I tell my story and you identify. You tell your story and I identify.

    Thanks Jeannie, and to all the other fellow-fossils that have weighed in.

  8. Steve b says:

    Nice article. I’ve been sober for 39 years now, but I’ve lost much of my former enthusiasm about AA. I go to meetings now and then, but I don’t seem able to relate well to most of the people there, and my attending doesn’t seem to make much difference in how I feel or act. I quite frankly prefer the company of people outside of AA. At times I’ve tried to reignite positive feelings for AA, with little change in my feelings. Nowadays I go to meetings only if I’m bored or lonely, and then find that I often regret spending the time there.

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Wonderful article – thanks Jeanine for writing it and Roger for publishing it – I am also most grateful to be in longtime recovery, but I always remember and say so at the regular AA meetings I attend that I am exceedingly grateful for the latest 24-hour period of our “daily reprieve”.

  10. Jeanine says:

    Thank you to everyone who has commented. Such a gift, this “we.”

  11. Mike O says:

    It’s funny. When I first came into sobriety the biggest thing I wanted to be was one of those “old-timers” or “elders” with 20+ years of sobriety, sponsoring several other men, looked up to and spoken of reverently by others in meetings and around the AA community, sharing my well-honed story at large gatherings where others lapped up my hard-earned wit and wisdom, well-established in life and a model for others to follow. I thought that’s what I was SUPPOSED to want. A successful exterior that reflected a glowing interior.

    Now, closing in on 8 years of sobriety I honestly couldn’t care less about any of that junk. LOL I just want my OWN sobriety on my OWN terms. I genuinely agree with some aspects of the AA doctrine, openly disagree with other parts of it. I’ve seen all sorts of people come and go from the rooms and often the people I least expect to are the ones that stick around the longest. I’ve also gotten enough experience to see many people quietly leave the rooms and simply fold back into life, often positively. There have been people I used to see at meetings but haven’t in years that I later run into at the grocery store, at Target, at Meetups, at professional environments and other random unexpected places who look fine, healthy and sober. Are they? I don’t know, just like I don’t always know about the people who “keep coming back.”

    The best gift I’ve received from sobriety is the ability to find my own voice and my own perspective. I’m grateful that AA is big, wide and diverse enough to house secular, atheist/agnostic and even “non-spiritual” people (despite it being a “spiritual” program). I certainly don’t have all the answers and every day introduces ever more new questions. At the same time I’m more and more okay with that as time goes on. Maybe that’s just it. Time goes on. This too shall pass, as do we all. In the meantime, it’s simply a lot more fun to spend this life sober and without the drama and damage of addiction. It’s a bright sunny summer evening out right now. I’m going to go outside! 🙂

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