Milestones in Recovery
I had sober sex for the first time. I didn’t completely lose it when someone cut me off on the train. These aren’t the sort of recovery milestones that get celebrated with coins, but they are just as important. Days and months between soberversaries don’t have to be dull or dreary. For me, these are the days that matter more. There’s less expectation and pressure to feel or appear a certain way by a particular date, though I now realize a lot of that pressure was self-imposed. As I was handed my six-year coin last week, I felt emotionally hungover from days prior and a bit depressed, so I was honest about that and when asked how I did it, I spoke about learning to show up imperfectly. In that moment, I let go of the pressure to look like I had it together and trusted that it was enough.
My relationship to recovery milestones has shifted to become more inclusive of the nuanced, everyday victories that might be easy to overlook. There is no timeline for recovery and healing. The reflection and introspection that can be expected of one on one’s sober date can be stifling, and that kind of self-study may not happen for days or months later, so I’m learning to celebrate each day with its own set of milestones.
What Is A Milestone?
As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a milestone, or milepost, is “a very important stage or event in the development of something.” An obvious milestone in substance use disorder recovery is one’s sobriety date, also known as a sober birthday or “soberversary.”
A more generous definition is a self-defined marker that refers to a variety of achievements or checkpoints of progress. In project management, milestones are defined as deliverables, high-priority tasks, and checkpoints, which feels nicely aligned with what an elastic, all-encompassing definition of a recovery milestone can mean.
It’s important to have a balanced perspective of celebration and humility, of acknowledging progress as well as the areas that might need a little more tender, loving care. In recovery, I’ve learned to lean into humility but also celebrate the seemingly minor victories even when it feels like everything has hit the fan (low self-esteem is a kind of egotism as well). It might feel awkward to share your milestone with close friends and acquaintances through personal messages or a post on social media, but do what feels right. There are no rules. Sometimes I need to remind myself, over and over, that the person whose approval and love I need the most is that of my own, and sharing that with others is gravy.
Acknowledging milestones requires a delicate balance of zooming in and out, acknowledging how far you’ve come, and sometimes this may not be obvious. I asked a recovery friend what he thought about when I mentioned the word “milestone,” and he said that so much of recovery is unearthing long periods of pain and demoralization, which comes out to years, or decades, for some of us, so milestones can happen over the course of time rather than in an instant or a day. I was reminded of slogans like “Easy Does It.” Both of us moved abroad to experience recovery and life in another country and we both laughed at the fact that we don’t give ourselves enough credit for this.
In recovery, I’m learning to go from feeling like “the biggest piece of crap in the center of the world,” otherwise known as an “egomaniac with low self-esteem” to “right-sized.” Sometimes perspective comes from talking with other recovery friends and sometimes it can look like a rabbit hole of reading online about other people’s experiences with the milestone I’m approaching or experiencing (recent Google searches have included Late 20s, Saturn Return, and Sober 6 years).
Sharing Milestones with Non-Recovery Communities
I was recently reminded of the eerie but useful idiomatic expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Sometimes I have a tendency to explore emotions and feelings with my recovery community only, bifurcating and separating that part of myself from my other local communities, but recovery is about integration and integrating all aspects of myself with those I choose to spend time with. I don’t want to feel the need to furiously coat-switch from one friend to another, thinking one aspect of myself might be acceptable to one person and abhorrent to another. Sure it’s important to practice the art of discernment, but all of my non-recovery friends and diverse communities have their own unique perspectives that are beautiful and helpful to drink in as well. We’re all sharing this human experience and celebrating all kinds of milestones, recovery-wise or not. That old voice of terminal uniqueness can hurt me in ways that may not be obvious. Most 12-Step Programs have a list of promises that is read out loud at the end of a meeting (these ways of thinking and being are promised to you should you follow through with a program of recovery). Sometimes I joke that the 13th Promise should read, “We will learn to make friends with people who are not in recovery.” My relationship to communities can best be described as an accordion, expanding and contracting as needed . In early recovery, I really only felt safe in recovery communities, but with time, the communities I engaged in grew.
Cause For Celebration
Shortly after being granted a two-year visa in a foreign country around the holidays, I remembered that my soberversary was coming up. One of the questions I dreaded as it approached was, “What are you going to do to celebrate?” A recovery friend suggested I have some friends over for food, games, and good ol’ company, which sounded exciting but stressful. I could feel my inner critic hijack my mind: Would people show up? Getting a visa and sober time aren’t unique accomplishments. Too much work. I recalled earlier years when I’d hosted and felt restless and dissociated the whole night; my codependency and need to make sure everyone was having a good time would be simmering and I didn’t want a repeat of that this time. Yet I decided to do it anyway, readying myself for the challenge (milestone #1).
I knew I was already making progress because I sent out the invite about two weeks ahead of time as opposed to two days, which is what I would have done in the past, wondering why people couldn’t make it (milestone #2). When people asked what they could bring or how they could help, I let them know instead of trying to shoulder every last thing (milestone #3). I made a large vat of daal and masala chai for the first time (milestone #4). See how the milestones pile up? Although my day-of preparations felt last-minute, I hadn’t slept enough, and drank way too much caffeine, I showed up to chair a morning meeting and my restlessness and anxiety during the party wore down as I realized we were all adults and that I didn’t need to manage anything or anyone. Without my trying, people were dancing, trying out acro-yoga, competing over games of Dixit, Bananagrams, and helping themselves as well as helping clean up as the night wore on.
I can attribute the initial hesitancy to celebrate as a moment of forgetting that I deserve to recognize myself and let others celebrate me as well. I even prefer to frame it as a celebration of everyone because without support, I wouldn’t be able to do any of this recovery thing on my own. John Donne said it well in Meditation XVII: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
For those in a traditional 12-Step recovery, there are many kinds of “soberversary” meetings. In early sobriety, my women’s homegroup in the West Village held anniversary meetings on the last week of the month, whereas my other homegroup in Astoria, Queens did the same in addition to announcing anniversaries every week for the whole neighborhood, not just that particular meeting.
The structure of anniversary meetings can vary greatly as well. In some, you pick up your coin and say a few words alongside other celebrants for the month; in others, there’s cake and the celebrant can choose another recovering fellow to speak the length of a regular qualification on their behalf. Some choose to pass their anniversary coin from the prior month or year to someone who is newly sober. Coins range from celebrating 24 hours of sobriety to 30, 60, or 90 days, to 6 months to years. It can be fun to explore different meetings in different cities or countries and still feel a sense of camaraderie, which is especially important for the newcomer to witness as they’re trying to figure this sobriety thing out and if it really works.
Whereas sobriety time in substance-related recovery groups can be quantified by length of sobriety, other kinds of recoveries, such as therapy or trauma-recovery cannot be reduced to a number on a coin. The recovery is qualitative and a feeling more than a number of days, months, or years off a substance or behavior. There is an inner knowing of progress and self-worth that builds with time, ever-expanding. Even in moments of slips or relapse in ways of thinking of being, I maintain a daily list of items I’m proud of from that day. Claiming our successes is pivotal in achieving balance, getting perspective, and developing resilient relationships with ourselves and others.
One of my regular meetings dedicates a section to celebrating recovery milestones. The literature states, “It is essential to recognize that even on our worst days we do things that are right and good and supportive of our recovery. Milestones -- which take myriad, and often, surprising forms -- are bright spots in our meetings that inspire us with their honesty and reality..our milestones express how we are working the principles of the program in our lives.” I love this insistence that nothing is too small to celebrate. Recovery milestones can include leaving a toxic friendship, refusing to let someone tell you what to think about CBD oil or ayahuasca, venturing into a new hobby, acknowledging obsession or overthinking instead of identifying with it, expressing “ugly” thoughts and not shaming yourself after, and letting yourself feel sad instead of distracting yourself.
“Remember when you wanted what you have now?”
This phrase invites in the texture of introspection and reflection, even when I don’t want - or have the energy - to do it. It’s easy to remember intense cravings from the days of yore. I remember no longer wanting to feel enslaved to having alcohol and drugs in my purse at all times. Check. I wanted to be financially independent and move out of my parents’. Check. I wanted to leave New York City and experience life in a new country for a little bit. Check. I wanted to find a creative community that saw, heard, and challenged me in beautiful ways. Check. The list can go on. Cultivating gratitude for what has already occurred is crucial.
Celebrating milestones is not selfish but necessary, yet they are not the be-all and end-all. If they were, that would be awfully boring! Dates and numbers are arbitrary but necessary to communicate significance to those around. In the throes of my drinking and drugging disorder, I didn’t think it was feasible to make it past 30 years old. I was on a runaway train, going nowhere fast, but I didn’t know quite how to stop and I didn’t really want to, either. Learning to trust the promises of sobriety that were modeled for me in early recovery was my first milestone. Remember to claim as many milestones as you can - you can never have too many. Upon hearing a milestone of yours, someone else might realize that they can own up to the same milestone, that they’re doing a lot better than they think. Positive self-acknowledgment is a muscle that grows with time.