Speaking at a meeting not long ago, I made a point I often make, which is that "Time is not a tool" -- meaning that of the many tools Alcoholics Anonymous suggests we use to stay sober, however long you've actually gone without a drink or a drug, however long you may be continuously sober -- that length of time is not one of them. The number on your chip is no ward against relapse. Nor does it confer any authority, be it moral, spiritual or actual.
I believe this very strongly, in fact. I don't often talk (here or in meetings) about my time sober unless it's to give context to a larger point. I think that when people sharing mention how long they're sober, usually (not always, but often) they are grasping at credibility, perhaps trying to give themselves or what they're saying a certain gravity (which may not actually be warranted).
Having been to AA meetings on both coasts, and in more than one country, it seems to me that different regions place greater or lesser emphasis on "time." Where I live it feels (to me) that more is made of it than maybe there should be. Yes, yes, yes, the point is to stay sober, not get sober over and over again. If you do then the days add up to weeks, months and years. But it's a human foible to sort people into better-than's and less-than's -- and putting a number on each person does that more than I care for. I think it can make it more difficult to listen with open ears, as well. If I know that someone is ten years sober do I unconsciously give more weight to what they're saying than if I know they have one year sober? Perhaps. Time sober is of value -- yes -- because without time sober I cannot accumulate sober experience -- but the time itself is not the important thing.
Part of the point I'm making is the difference between dry and sober, but we've covered that territory pretty well already at Mr. SponsorPants.
Back to the aforementioned speaking engagement I opened this with ...
As the sharing went around, a hand was raised in the back, and I called on a dapper young man, who looked like perhaps he'd just come from his office job straight to the meeting. "Good for him." I thought. Mr. Dapper shared about a few things, and then looked at me, his voice going up a bit with that tension which comes from heightened emotion, and said "I really disagree with you about the Time Sober thing."
I arranged my face in Warm Listening Expression #4 (The #4 is a good one. Very Santa Clause. Chin up a tiny bit, small smile, no teeth showing, bit of a squint -- really just a crinkling around the eyes -- head tilted to the side, and a slow nod yes once in a while. I make no secret of the fact that I'm an old fraud, and always have been, even when I was a young fraud). I kept Warm Listening Expression #4 firmly in place and thought to myself, "You cross-talking little prat." Nod, nod, smile, crinkle, crinkle.
He spoke with a fervent passion about this very thing. He was talking about the value of sober experience (and not time itself), and how it can, should, must be used to help other people. Where I'm not sure he and I lined up was the assumption he seemed to be making that time automatically equaled sober experience. (Dry/Sober. See above.) But when it comes to using our experience to help others stay sober, well, I couldn't agree more with him on that score. Here was a young man who took the 12th Step to heart. Took all the sting out of the confrontational way he framed it. (Ok, ok, almost all.)
It is a particular flexing of the humble muscle not to directly respond to something like this. To not yield to the sweet, gravitational pull from the (very human) need to set the record straight, and correct what they thought they heard you say with the facts about what you were actually trying to say. In my opinion, to do so is to do a disservice to the group. Go ahead, sit there and be corrected, even if it's not really warranted. Because if you respond, the point they're making gets lost in the "No, no, no, what I meant was ..." The whole exchange becomes about the whole exchange, and not about the point of what you said, or what they said. No one is helped when I try to prove I'm good or right. Everyone is helped -- myself most of all, perhaps -- when I just allow things to be, and don't force my day in court, no matter how deeply the pull to do so. Should you find yourself in this situation, remember:
Nod, nod, smile. Crinkle. Crinkle.
After the meeting I didn't get a chance to thank him for sharing, as he ducked out pretty quickly. And I sincerely wanted to thank him, I thought what he said -- regardless of how he said it -- was spot on.
So it comes back to this: Time is not a tool.
There is a lot written and discussed in AA for the newcomer, or people early in their journey of recovery -- and rightly so. But this next part is for the other codgers out there:
The other point which must be addressed here is the slippery slope of ego. The danger of making your years sober a part of your "identity" in the room. Not only can it make you an insufferable boor, constantly trotting out stories from your early sobriety, hiding behind the years rather than discussing who you are and what you struggle with -- or no longer struggle with -- today, but it can become a wall you cannot (or, more accurately, will not) breach when you need to ask for help.
Because one thing I can assure you of, even if you haven't felt like you had to ask for help in some time -- you absolutely will need to again some day. That is a skill we must never let atrophy, and although we ask often for help from a Higher Power (whatever that may mean to you, personally), a silent plea to a cosmic entity can become a face-saving stall, when you're really in trouble. In my experience God works most expediently through other people. In asking for help directly from other people I am, in fact, asking for help from HP. (Again and again, it seems, humility is the secret ingredient in almost every aspect of my sobriety).
If you're all wrapped up in being the Grand Poobah in your meeting, with XX years sober, whom people always listen to or defer to (which, I can also assure you, is almost completely in your mind) then you are not only afraid and ego-based, you are selfish as well. Consider the joy felt when helping other people. Who are we to avoid taking our turn at being helped, and thus deny others that same opportunity to experience such joy themselves?