AA Grapevine, May 1949, Vol. 5 No. 12
They Can Boomerang–and Often Do
CELEBRATING anniversaries is an old American custom and no one should be surprised that it is being perpetuated in A.A.
Unfortunately, however, anniversaries in A.A., or particularly the emphasis put on them, can boomerang–and often do-into something far more serious than the harmless birthday fetes held elsewhere. There’s dynamite in A.A. anniversaries.
To begin with, the celebration of anniversaries runs contrary to several of the fundamentals of A.A. philosophy. One of these is the idea embodied in “the 24 hour plan” that we should not try to look ahead of the present in measuring our sobriety. We do not set out to stay sober one year, three or a lifetime. Our goal is just 24 hours–just the present–and if necessary we break the 24 hours into even smaller units of time.
CELEBRATION of the personal anniversary inevitably turns thoughts not only backwards but ahead to the next anniversary, again setting up the psychological yardstick which the founders of A.A. found they did best without.
Another bit of A.A. philosophy which the personal anniversary contradicts is expressed in the wise observation that it’s not the length but “the quality of your sobriety that counts.” How often that has been proved! Over and over, again and again, events have demonstrated, sometimes tragically, sometimes happily, that the test of security in sobriety is not how long in A.A. but how well founded in A.A. Everyone knows of those unfortunate cases of the “oldtimer” who has been in several years and then has a slip. He knows, too, on the other hand, of “newcomers” who in a shorter span of time have progressed much farther along the road of personal recovery.
CELEBRATION of anniversaries also tends to build up an “aristocracy of oldtimers,” a kind of class system by which one is supposed to move up from the ranks of the herd into a more select group whose prestige depends on the number of years they have been around. That certainly is inconsistent with the democracy of A.A. Likewise, the implication that through this “aging” process one is graduated from pupil to master does not jibe with the premise that one does not arrest alcoholism by himself. The whole curative fundamental of A.A. is that he must get help. So how can he become master, ever? It doesn’t make sense.
Celebration of personal anniversaries puts an emphasis on time that is not justified by A.A. experience. Rare is the new one in A.A. who does not start counting years for himself when he attends a meeting at which some member’s fourth, fifth or X anniversary is being celebrated by the group with figurative trumpets, orchids and fanfare. Rare, too, is the old one in A.A. who, when he finds himself deferred to and looked up to as an “oldtimer,” does not begin to get at least a suspicion that maybe he does know more, maybe he is a little apart from the herd. From that point it’s not a long step to a recurrence of ego-itis, the same old disease that had a grip on all of us.
WHAT good purpose is served by celebrating personal anniversaries? Does any member who is really participating in the opportunities of A.A. and enjoying the blessings of sobriety need to have others bring him bouquets for a thing from which he himself benefits, first, and which he undertook for himself, first? We think not–not if there is anything to A.A.’s “unselfish selfishness.”
The observation that it’s not the years but the “quality of your sobriety” that counts is solidly founded on the record of experience.
16 thoughts on “Do We Make Too Much of Anniversaries?”
I have never celebrated any of my medallion birthdays. It’s not that important to me. Some of my AA peers tell me its important to show the newcomer that the program works, but my retort to that is, "I’d rather sit down with the newcomer and show them "how it works".
Far too often one’s time in sobriety is used as a "fellowship currency" to establish status and hierarchy in the group. I have seen too many "dry drunks" with substantial sobriety time, strutting about the meeting, posturing themselves above younger members rather than mentoring them in sobriety.
However, I do like the ritual of handing out newcomer chips. It lets me know who I should be approaching later in the meeting.
For someone with double digit sobriety, I couldn’t agree more…
Countless of us with long term "sobriety" have been just abstinent; the typical untreated alcoholic…dry but miserable inside…So who cares about "how long without picking up a white chip"…
Thank you God, for helping me understand the huge difference between abstinence and sobriety. For a couple of years now, I have intentionally stopped talking or mentioning my sobriety time for the purpose of "qualifying" myself…My only qualification is my experience.
There are those who think of this practice as selfish, as it robs the newcomers of the example that the program does work. When confronted with this situation, I am reminded the words my sponsor shared with me on this subject: "experience is not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you" (from Aldous Huxley)…
Today, let I my actions speak for myself rather than the number of years since my last white chip…
I I totally agree. I’ve seen “Old Timers” that act terrible in meetings but everyone is slow to say anything because of how much time they have. Newcomers have said some of the most profound and enlightening things I’ve ever heard in meetings. Sober time does not necessarily coincide with learning or change.
Clearly AA is the mother-ship program of all addictions. Can an addict who never drank but used AA 12 steps to stop, celebrate his birthday in AA? How about a gambler? What about a smoker? I attend open AA mtgs as a practice to work my outside issue that does not get the luxury of abstinence. I praise AA and do consider myself an AA member because I work the same steps and do not wish to start drinking alcohol or do drugs. But i get resentful because no one ever praised me for my abstinence in all my years “sober” or is it “dry”? I dont consider a crack addict sober if he stopped crack, but drinks every weekend; the same as i dont believe an alcoholic can say he is sober if he just beat his girlfriend. I have seen a guys get cake after such an event. Celebrating time of abstinence seems more of an ego trip when it comes down to it. None of the steps even suggest this as a practice. Why it is bad is because it creates a false sense of accomplishment, and creates a sense of expectations- which may or may not ever get met. As a result it violates the steps and traditions themselves, and probably is the cause of many shameful relapsers dying instead of returning to the program. As it is explained in the 12&12 about trad 12: anonymity expressed as humility is spiritual foundation of the program. Cakes & chips, are symbols of dogmatic religious social constructs of which AA is an alternative option; otherwise we are simply a cult using cult like tactics to brainwash members to “sanity”. Positive reinforcements can have negative consequences, AA has no such opinion on such outside matters. A person has the right to celebrate sobriety with their families and friends outside AA, but once they bring it inside then is simply “personalities over principles”.
I celebrate my anniversary to let those who came after me that it can be done and to thank those who have helped me. This article smells of the art of over thinking
Yes, it might be “overthinking” but I was really glad to come across this very reflective and sensible article.
I have been really frustrated about the AA anniversary chips and how AA members constantly applaud the length of time a person has been sober. It is a TOTAL contradiction to what practicing “One Day at a Time” actually means.
We do not set out to stay sober for a year, or three, or a lifetime? Not what Dr. Bob said in his story in the Big Book. He said if you really want to stop drinking for good and all that A.A. Has an answer on how to achieve that. Too many today have a defeatist attitude and don’t have goals, and too many argue with the founders. None of us would get in the car with expectation of never arriving at our destination. We hear nowadays that relapse is part of recovery. Yeah, just like fatal accidents are part of driving. None of us wants that or expects it, and we don’t brush them off like they are OK. As has been said, celebrating an anniversary should be an occasion of humility but should be done because it shows that we can recover when we actually do the program, just as it says in the Big Book.
We need to celebrate AA anniversaries. It’s a big deal, particularly for the newcomer who gets to see that this program works. It is also very important for those celebrating their first few years to realize where they are now compared to where they were then.
Amen, Amen. AMEN! Vidal Key West
Well of course we make a big deal out of anniversaries. We AA’s are always looking for a place to grab the spotlight.
Try getting AA’s to do PI/CPC speaking. Where they’re SUPPOSED to talk about what AA is and isn’t, and not about themselves. Not their drunk-a-log.
AA Grapevine 1949? Early on members saw that like everything else in the world that man gets a hold of will have both a Yin and a Yang. All of the comments below have already said all things that I have thought about. Where my heart lies is in man cannot handle anything that “ego” is attached to and history has shown us that AA Anniversaries have taken on the same human construct that VIP or Celebrity has taken on and that has no use in AA and does not align with 12 step principles. What does though is to each his own we all have a God of our understanding and I’m not it. I choose to not celebrate or to even mention the time I have away from a drink. The only thing I have done consistently since I came to AA is to not pick up the drink. If they handed out white chips for character defects and acting out, I could build a mansion even though my years would have others thinking I can walk on water. I live my life One Day At A Time.
This year I decided to not celebrate my AA “sobriety” birthday. It occurred to me that it wasn’t right to claim x amount of years as sober. I went to an AA meeting and haven’t picked up since. But I suffered from alcoholism. The various character defects and mental disorders plus I clinged to my selfishness and self-centered behaviors. I was miserable and very sick. But I was “sober”! And became proud of my years of recovery. So I quit counting. I was never comfortable with the yearly celebrations. And the bottom line is this; I feel as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Now I can truly take it one day at a time. Thanks for letting me vent.
I agree with the article. Celebrating time in the fashion of making a big to-do out of it is hierarchical and ego-driven. Members who have a significant amount of time can share with newcomers in casual or private conversation that the program works in a humble manner, rather than standing behind a podium and giving a speech, or mentioning their years of sobriety everytime they share. Focussing solely on time I believe stirs up jealousy, resentment, among members and depression, discouragement for newcomers. One thing I love about my home group is we don’t give our sobriety dates when we go around the room and introduce ourselves. We are all on equal ground, having a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. I avoid talking about how much time I have under my belt. It doesn’t matter as much as what I’m doing right now, andhow I am as a human being.
Very thoughtful post. As a member who had 24 years and relapsed I now have a very different view of anniversaries. I get the impression that I am supposed to feel devastated I lost my “tally”. I am not. Yes years have passed again but I am
not counting and I dont “write” off 24 years of my life and begin again. AA’s linear recovery model is flawed and has led to suicides.
Fearful of posting another AA opinion (lol) I simply accept fellows personal choice. For me, I do not celebrate days, weeks, months or years. What I celebrate is the fact that I found AA and a spiritual way of life :-)
P.S. Today I celebrated 5 days without a family size bar of chocolate – Do I get a chip for this????
Yours In Fellowship,
What about the phenomena of the increasing number of chips? At my old group we had a pink cloud two week chip! And a chip for every single month up to 12 and then and 18 month chip. It seems totally focused on an extrinsic reward like getting a cookie each month for being a good dog.
When I got sober, there were anniversaries and the coin was the reward and the clapping was the celebration, maybe there was cake. But now people are having big sobriety parties and dinner parties celebrating each and every month at my group. It’s completely over the top, making a big deal out of the time.
The way we used to do it was reasonable, but what I am seeing happen now seems excessive.
I think it’s ok to recognize members for their hard work each year to stay sober. We do work hard to stay sober. Why not recognize it? I go to meetings and help newcomers and do service, and often it’s an inconvenience to my family and me. I did way more work for others in my later years of recovery. In my early years the only work I did was on myself. In later years I can be trusted to take on a two year treasurers post. No person without time can do such a thing. I know everyone wants everyone to be completely equal but we aren’t the same. AA can’t run without the oldtimers either.
The pandemic has made a lot of meetings not have any old-timers to carry the traditions, and the result is that AA is becoming unrecognizable in some places. Not everything in our traditions is written down. Many things are carried by word of mouth and actual tradition. For example the idea that marijuana maintenance is not true sobriety. Well it doesn’t specifically say that in the Big Book but it was the tradition forever before now. But with no old timers to carry that tradition, it has changed. Maybe because pot is legal in many places….but alcohol has always been legal since Prohibition. Now folks claim all kinds of things are ok in sobriety because the Big Book doesnt say anything about smoking pot or doing cocaine. So maybe you’re actually sober as long as you just don’t drink.
I’m being sarcastic. And I am very sad for everything that was lost in the pandemic. AA has suffered a huge loss of traditions. And the people running things with only a year or two…it’s not great, and it’s not the same and the recovery is not as good in my opinion.