Sober a Long Time – Now What?

By Jeanine Bassett

A few years ago, I perused the literature table at a local AA conference (HOWL in Hood River, Oregon).  Noting the daily meditation books, many of which I’d been reading for years, and other titles geared mainly to those in early recovery, I said to my friend, “I’ve been sober a long time – where’s my literature?“ We chuckled, and moved on, but later at dinner with my spouse, I said it again – “Where are the books for those of us in long-term recovery?” followed by, “Maybe I should write something!” And like anything that is true and right for me, the thought kept coming up. Maybe I should write something for those of us who’ve been sober a long time.

The idea of a workbook for long term sobriety didn’t fade, and I started paying closer attention to what my peer-group talked about when we got together in confidential spaces, spaces where it didn’t feel like we had to merely give our spiel when asked to share in a meeting.  In my monthly step group, and especially with a group of women we dubbed, “Too Old to Give a ****”,  I heard my thoughts echoed in the voices of others. What do we do when going to meetings isn’t the desperate need that it was when we first got sober?  It sometimes feels like I’m not hearing what I need to hear in meetings.  And what about getting old sober – who are my teachers?

In May, 2016, I started a weekly blog in order to formulate my thoughts and feelings around what it means to live life on life’s terms while often being the person in the room with the most recovery.

As I got feedback from readers, sometimes on the page, but usually via email or in person, I started a mental “Table of Contents.”  What matters to those of us who’ve often been sober longer than we drank?  Meetings, sponsorship, medication and illness, other addictions, grief & loss, aging, and what about those who got sober young and now have decades clean?  Relationships & intimacy, our work life, and the principles of the steps came up time and again in conversations and as I listened to others share, both in and out of the rooms.

The result is a workbook, I’ve Been Sober a Long Time – Now What?  – 78 pages of topics each including a “member’s view,” processing questions and then space for the reader to write their answers in an 8 ½ x 11 spiral bound format. All of this is intended to be used for solo reflection, or perhaps in a small group or with a sponsor.

Following is an excerpt from the first chapter, as an introduction:

Chapter 1 – Taking Stock

When we first enter sobriety, most of us aren’t thinking of the long term. We come in to get the heat off, to save a marriage, a job, or both, to repair relationships with our children, or simply because we can’t go on living chained to the bottle or the bag or what the doctor ordered. Some of us may have wondered if we’d be taught to drink responsibly, without consequences, and were upset when we learned that total abstinence is the best prescription for alcoholism and addiction. But we listened and learned from the examples of those around us, from our sponsors, and from our new friends in the rooms of recovery. We began to grow up.

And then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, we wake up and find ourselves with long-term recovery. Ten years, twenty, thirty, go by in a flash of life-on-life’s terms. We look around the rooms of recovery and see people who were there when we came in, if we’re fortunate, and many who came after. By now we’ve likely developed long term relationships, sometimes with people whose last names we don’t know, and we are likely to have history with various groups, some of which we may have helped to start.

Long term recovery comes with a certain amount of responsibility. Being an elder doesn’t mean that we won’t have troubles, but it does mean that we are role models for walking the walk rather than simply talking the talk. How does one practice being an elder without veering into Know-it-All land? Someone who recently celebrated forty years sober described a stepping back, a turning over of the reins to the younger generation. Maybe being an elder means sometimes keeping our mouth shut and seeing where the enthusiasm of those newer to the path takes the group.

“How do I stay engaged in the recovery process, in my recovery process?” is a question to be asked as time moves forward. One of the biggest challenges of long term recovery is to keep it fresh, to keep growing spiritually and emotionally. That takes effort, effort of a different nature than that required of early sobriety, effort that may ebb and flow, but effort nonetheless.  Literature, trying a new meeting, taking on a new sponsee, or a new sponsor, hitting a meeting out of town – it is an individual journey, but one we don’t need to take alone.

A long timer’s view:
Catherine N. ~

Long term recovery comes to me one day at a time. Once, my counselor asked me if there was a recovery 2.0! Like do we ever graduate from AA? The answer is no, keeping my AA program simple like when I came in still helps me to stay sober today. I still have a home group, work the steps, have a sponsor and I sponsor.

Although it was all I used when I was young, AA is not the only way that I get what I need for my recovery or self-care anymore. I go to meetings now once or twice a week (as opposed to seven days a week for years!). Now I try and go to yoga three times a week, therapy once a month, pray & meditate, soak and get massage, make art and practice writing, travel, walk and spend time outside in the natural world. All things I would NEVER have done as a newcomer, or before I got sober. Spending time in gratitude on the days that I do it, keeps me young.

For reflection:

1. How is my life different today than when I first entered recovery?

2. What goals have I achieved along the way, and what dreams have I let go of?

3. List intentions or goals as related to recovery, relationships, health, work/retirement.

4. What are my strengths, my positive qualities?

5. What are areas that need my attention?

6. How would I describe the state of my recovery?

I got sober in January, 1986 on the 30 day plan to save a relationship with someone who’d already left the country and married someone else. I had absolutely no idea that, 34 years later, I’d be living life in recovery, nearing the end of a good career, happily married, with good friends, a little garden – all those things that were just out of reach when I was drinking and using.

What helps me today is what has worked all along – I go to meetings of like-minded others, I continue the self-reflection called for in Step 10, and do my best to practice “one day at a time” which includes staying teachable. And I wrote a workbook! Thank you all for your attention.

If you are interested in Jeanine’s workbook, or checking out her blog, you can click here: Sober Long Time.

Jeanine Bassett began writing a weekly blog in 2016 on the joys and challenges of long term recovery. 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.

Jeanine 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.


14 Responses

  1. Jeanine B says:

    I (belatedly) appreciate the conversation/replies. Sobriety/recovery is different with time. I really like the idea of a seniors sobriety group. Here in Portland, Oregon there was a group with the expectation that only members with 10+ years share. I’ve had many positive experiences over the years of holding small, in-home groups, either to focus on a particular piece of literature, work the steps, or simply have a safe & distraction free place to be real. Thank you all…

  2. Jeri says:

    Great read and great idea. I asked a group of friends once “why don’t we ever study the growth? Why just Bill at 3 years sober?”, and got blank looks. I’m 30+ years sober and I rarely go to meetings anymore, mostly because of the increasing focus on religious talk and on the BB. Sadly, I no longer have the same sense of peace and safety at an AA meeting as I did in my early years sober, and it’s pretty lonely for this heathen gal. Jeanine, I can’t seem to open the link for your blog – would very much like to read your work. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

  3. Lena R. says:

    What a fantastic idea!

  4. Joe says:

    Folks should look up the word, “peruse”. I too have been guilty of using it incorrectly to mean, looking it over.

  5. Pat N. says:

    Thanks, Jeanine. Seems to me as an old geezer (85 y.o., 40 years sober) that my current rewards, challenges, issues are pretty much the same as sober peers. Health challenges, adult grandkids who won’t do what I think they should, aging children. I do notice that longtime sober geezers tend not to view with alarm, obsess over personal issues, or preach as much as their age peers-a result of sobriety, in my opinion.

    Some of us started a Seniors in Sobriety AA group some years back, using a secular format. I’ve not attended it much in recent years, but it has retrogressed in format, reading How It Works and some godly daily meditation book, but overall, it’s just an ordinary AA meeting, pleasant and helpful.

    I can see an elder-focused AA group could be great in talking about such things as: anxiety over health issues and impending death; decline and/or loss of a long-term partner; worries about descendants of different generations; grief over loss of physical joys such as sex and driving; etc.-all in terms of how much or little difference our AA perspectives make.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. Cope C says:

    Jeanine — I appreciate your attention to this. It’s very much what’s up with me — somehow the covid pandemic and being shut in put a new level of struggle on top of everything that made traditional 12-step work not seem relevant. I’ve been working with sponsees to develop a sense of the steps that feels alive in their lives. I’m doing it at the same time for myself — this is what I need.

    I do depend on meetings to keep things real — being in the presence of people struggling at all different levels. I find they value my stories of what I struggle with as an older, long-sober person.

    As a non-typical AA-er, not in line with the big book or steps as written, for a long time I didn’t feel like a “valid” member of the fellowship — but over time, I’ve gotten my confidence “in the program”.

    I still find that newcomers want a take on sobriety that’s not religion-based.

    I focus on helping sponsees define “their program.” I find the fellowship valuable, but that there are so many different versions of what people do that works, it’s most valuable to give people the freedom to define what works for them.

    But I do need a vibrant “program” for myself — Jeanine, I’ll order your workbook and will be glad to hear what you have to say.

  7. Steve B says:

    I’ve got 40 years sober now, and I find that I’m not as interested in attending AA meetings as I used to be. I also find it questionable that if I strive to be a better person I will be happier or more successful in my sobriety. I don’t seem to have any problem in staying sober when I don’t do anything at all which will supposedly promote or reinforce it. I wouldn’t mind helping newer people in the program, but I’ve lost a lot of faith in it, to the point that I could not in good conscience recommend practicing the steps even when they’re sanitized by removal of religious language.

  8. John R says:

    Thanx, Jeanine. I remember a guy who came to me and asked if I’d work through the steps with him. He had about 25 years at the time and I told him I’d be happy to, but I don’t do the same things with those who have double digit sobriety as I do with newcomers if they’ve already done the steps. Never heard from him again :-). It seems that a lot of us get to a point where we just want to rehash the same thing over again rather than digging any deeper or trying something new. As for me, I enjoy continuing on in uncovering and discovering. Expanding my perspective and perceptions of not only my “self” but the people, world, and multiverse around and within me. ymmv, I always say.

  9. David W says:

    I find AA is encumbered largely by an insistence that we stick strictly to stale old literature readings, and an intolerance of anything contemporary. And don’t you dare change any of the original wording in the decades old AA scriptures. Don’t mention any addiction other than alcohol and certainly don’t bring up root causes of addiction like childhood abuse and mental health issues, lest we upset the elders who are sober but haven’t dealt with their own inner deprivations. I have no idea how AA is going to survive ignoring advances in addition and recovery and sticking strictly to what Bill wrote during the depression. Recovery is a life time commitment and those newly sober can benefit from knowledge sharing about how those in long term recovery deal with day to day problems. I think we in AA need to get over the irrational fear that if we don’t obsess with the way AA was years ago, we’re in danger of losing it today.

  10. Larry G says:

    Hands down this is the best thing I have read in a long while. Its mystifying that traditional AA hasn’t addressed this. I hope you can post a few more chapters from Jeanine’s workbook. Gratefully yours. Lar.

  11. Mary M. says:

    Thanks so much. I ordered the workbook from your blog and fortuitously a bunch of us long-timers were organizing a weekend away (post Covid) to ponder and share our LT sobriety and I was working on some kind of outline and here, you’re done all the work. Thank you so much!

  12. What a journey; thanks for sharing, Jeannie.

    When I was north of 25 years, I found myself more useful and relevant in service than sponsoring newcomers. The people drawn to me where what I call fallen-angels. These were people in long-term recovery who’d fallen away from what felt like the monotony of their peer-to-peer grind-some stayed sober, some did not, all were suffering. Others slipped into other process or substance-use disorder. It can be humiliating to go from power-of-example in AA to starting from scratch with sex, food, relationship, or some other substance use disorder, in a familiar self-destructive cycle. I guess I was helpful because I’d been there. I have gone to several 12-step programs – not as a guest, lending support. I never celebrated the 20-year anniversary I (am embarrassed to say) had rehearsed as a teen and young adult life in recovery. I was at an all-time low in 1996 and I had no interest in being paraded up to the front of any meeting as an example of “if you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it.” Who would want what I had?

    Of course, I had the wrong idea. My view of long-term recovery was naive. I though I should expect – and everyone else would expect of me – a socioeconomic uninterrupted climb from stopping drinking to the stratosphere of the emotional sobriety. That’s maybe the case for some. For the rest of us, sobriety is no shield from trauma, loss and further consequences of our underlying issues that were not caused by drugs/booze (they were merely masked by them).

    You’re right; who’s writing about that? There’s the odd Grapevine story about troubles in long-term recovery but the bulk of it is regaling the early struggles with drink. I would eventually come to see my story as a sample of staying sober no matter what. Some of the people I was working with had fallen back on drinking after decades of sobriety but I could relate because I was no better than them. Because my debauchery was more novel than going back to whisky, was I any better? Any wiser? Not at all. In time I could see that me inner critic’s commitment to perfectionism made it hard for me speak out or even look for fellows who were going through what I did. I felt alone and if I was anywhere near a meeting, I felt phony.

    So good for you, for filling an unmet need. One 1/2 of AA is sober over ten years. Our early literature was written by people, all with less than five years of sobriety. It’s good to know you – and your work. Thanks again.

  13. Doc says:

    What now? The easiest answer is to say what doesn’t really work for me now:

    Rehashing the past—commonly called drugalogs. At this stage of my sobriety (51 years) I’m more interested in living sober rather than listening to people brag about how much they drank, what they drank, what they did while drinking, and so on. At this point in my life, I’ve had more exciting adventures sober and I’m more interested in hearing people share their sober stories.

    Not drinking/using: my life today isn’t really focused on drugs and alcohol. Conversation about how not to drink, not to use drugs, were important in the beginning, but not now. I have grown beyond that point.

    Magical thinking: let me be blunt about this—I’m an atheist and talking about mythical beings is not particularly important to me.

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