Help. Hope. Healing.

Counting Days of Sobriety and Staying Sober

By Tim B


Everybody has tried counting days of sobriety. It’s easy. It gives you a tangible way of measuring your progress. When your day counts get larger and larger, it’s encouraging.

But then comes the dark side of counting days. It can be a problem when you can’t get past a certain number of days, be it one or three or seven or fifteen or thirty or one hundred. When you have a day that you plateau on, it becomes very discouraging to approach that day and feel the anxiety that you’re going to blow it again. That anxiety can make failure a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it adds to the anxiety you’re feeling from not using your most reliably coping skill. And the more you focus on your day count, the more this danger will present itself.

Another dark side of counting days, which is related to the first, is when you allow yourself to think that reaching your day-count goal deserves being rewarded with some acting out. I can’t tell you how much sense that can make to the inner addict, but the inner addict loves this idea. I also can’t tell you how much sense this doesn’t make to anyone who is sane. The point of sobriety is that you always want more and more. Staying sober longer than you have before means you’ve got a shot at staying sober for a lot longer than that if you’ve reached that goal through a good program of recovery. Allowing yourself to act out is not sobriety, nor is it an outgrowth of sobriety — it means you’ve learned how to abstain for longer than before, but you haven’t really been working a program of sobriety. If you’re reaching your goal day with white knuckles and anticipation of your “reward,” you haven’t been sober, and this has been your problem.

Adding to the problem comes the notion that, as your number of days adds up, you begin to feel like you’re beyond the problem, and that this time you’ve got it licked. This is an ugly lie dressed up nicely. It is not the case that you put this addiction totally behind you to the point that you don’t need to be working on your spiritual program constantly. When this is going on, you start to feel superior to those who have shorter periods of sobriety, or who continue to slip while you aren’t slipping. That is pride, and it will sabotage your sobriety every time. You also start to feel like you can skip a day of praying or reading scriptures, or you can skip your Step meeting, or not call your sponsor for every little thing, because none of them build up to the point of acting out. These are the tools you used that got you the sobriety, and they are not merely training wheels. They are the tools that will keep you sober, as you continue working your program of allowing God to change your heart. They build your relationship with God and help keep you on track, both when it’s easy to be on track and when it’s hard. You never, ever know when easy sobriety is going to become hard sobriety, but you can know that it always will.

And there’s still more dark side. Counting days builds its own momentum under the notion of “I have X days, and I don’t want to blow that.” The flip side of that comes after you act out after racking up a significant number of days, and it sounds like this: “I acted out yesterday. I only have one day of sobriety. If I act out now, I’ll still have that much sobriety tomorrow. So why not? I’ll take a little break from sobriety, and then try again.” This can turn a multi-year period of sobriety into a multi-month binge of daily acting out, that takes a year or more to turn into significant periods of sobriety again. Especially if that first long period of sobriety was the prideful version described in the previous paragraph.

Counting days has quite a lot of dark sides to it, and only a few light sides. It is handy if you’re in a repentance process with your bishop, and it can be useful at an SA meeting when they ask you to report how long you’ve been sober. That’s about it. The focus of sobriety needs to be in the process of the program of recovery more than it is in merely counting the days of sobriety. So, here are some thoughts on ways of counting days that might work better:

  1. Count the days you’ve followed your program of recovery. If you prayed at least once, read at least a verse of scripture, participated on LDSR, and built your relationship with God, then you count that day. You can also track if you were sober that day. This means you’re counting something you positively did, rather than something you didn’t do. A day of not acting out might be because you were in solid recovery, or it could be that you spent the whole day alone with a child and didn’t have an opportunity to act out, but a day of working your program always shows that you made the effort to make it work.
  2. When you slip, or when you don’t follow your program of recovery for the day, don’t reset your day count to zero. Instead, say that you’ve had X missed days in the past Y time period, with your last slip on Z date. This keeps the emphasis on accumulating more success, rather than on your last failure, while satisfying those few occasions where knowing the exact time since that last failure is useful.
  3. Build rewards into your recovery program which reinforce your recovery and are appropriate. Acting out isn’t an appropriate reward, but going to watch an appropriate movie or play can be. Binging on video games or food isn’t appropriate, but visiting a museum or gallery and having a nice dinner might be. Addicts usually have more than one unhealthy habit, and substituting one for another isn’t really recovery, so choosing rewards needs to be done with care — talk to your bishop or sponsor or the good folks at LDSR to make sure your rewards and goals are appropriate.

Counting days can be a dangerous practice, but putting these small changes to it can transform your recovery by changing your focus from failure to success.

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10 Responses to “Counting Days of Sobriety and Staying Sober”

  1. Rex Goode said:

    This is great, Tim! I especially liked how you use the term “sobriety”. So many people who count days say something like, “I’ve been sober for x days.” That’s not sober! That may be abstinent, but it’s not sober. Sobriety is a state of spirit and mind, not just the absence of acting out.

  2. Tim B said:

    Abstinence is easier to count than sobriety. I almost don’t claim sobriety anymore (but, then, I’m not really counting either).

    I’m more interested in the spiritual program than I am in my day count.

  3. julie said:

    Good article Tim. You gave some great things to count instead of sobriety. I’ll have to try that.

  4. harveyfo said:

    thanks Tim
    great article !!!!!!!!!!!!
    It has been a subject of interest in our pasg 12 step group. Bishops always use the calendar approach, measuring days without sinning as about their only means of determining worthiness. We have also challenged our group to stretch further every 12 weeks. I so much agree with the down side of counting only. Our compromise it to go by the following more as a sign of recovery that abstinence only.
    Frequency of porn and acting out: attendance at meetings: length of time to get up after a slip: amount of time elapsed between slip and confession: willingness to submit to church discipline: amount of time elapsed between a slip and prayer: willingness to turn temptation over to God: motivated to attend to basics (read,study,pray): Tolerance of weaknesses in others: lack of blaming others and being the victim. We do count our days and we give out the following at the beginning of a 12 week program.

    Determine where you are on your road to recovery, on the list below, and set a goal for just ONE level higher than where you are now. Write that goal down, work on just that ONE forward step for the next 12 weeks. Recovery is a process and not an event!
    Level 0: No acting out, porn,or dwelling on unclean thoughts in last 12 months
    Level 1: No acting out, No porn in last 12 months(probably receive a service missionary call with the pasg program)
    Level 2: No acting out, No porn in last 6 months (probably receive a facilitator calling in the program)
    Level 3: No acting out, No porn in last 3 months (receive a plaque)
    Level 4: Slipped once with porn or acting out or both in last 3 months
    Level 5: Slipped twice with porn or acting out or both in last 3 months
    Level 6: Slipped three times in 3 months or once in a month
    Level 7: 30 days without a slip (receive a ctr ring)
    Level 8: slipped twice in a month
    Level 9: slipped three times in a month
    Level 10 slipped 4 times in a month or once per week
    Level 11 slipped twice per week
    Level 12 slipped 3 times per week or every other day
    Level 13 slip once every day
    Level 14 more

    Unless we are on a binge and we are making an effort at recovery, most starting out on recovery are probably at level 9 ,10, or even 11, some are making a real effort and are only at level 12. We are all at different levels but we are only competing against ourselves, find where you are at NOW and make a goal for at least one level higher for these 12 weeks. Setting goals for the rest of your lives, or for a year, or 6 months, is just too much. It is too easy to get discouraged and lose sight. One day at a time is wise council.

    Thanks again I hope it is ok with you if I share your article with our group
    thanks harvey

  5. Tim B said:

    Harvey — Thanks for the response. By all means, feel free to share the material, although I’d prefer you include the uri to the post, so they can come check out what’s available here beyond that.

    My bishops have always had a “time since last offense” approach as well. It’s somewhat useful, but I wonder what they might think if they considered a more thorough report having to do with what the spiritual program is, how it has been followed, in addition to the time since the last offense. I might bring that up with my bishop, actually.

    I like your levels, and like the idea of 12 week goals to go up a level. Those sound doable if you’re working a good program with good support, even — it might not happen every 12 weeks, but I think it can happen more often than not. I think it would be good to turn that into a post of its own, even.

    It’s cool how the blog is becoming a useful resource in terms of the posts that are collecting, and especially now that we’re getting comments as well. I think we might be ready to let a little more of the rest of the world know we’re here.

  6. urb0123 said:

    “If you prayed at least once, read at least a verse of scripture, participated on LDSR, and built your relationship with God, then you count that day.”

    I remembered the author of the post wrong and thought it was Rex, so I asked him this question first.

    I realize that there must be a difference between praying and building my relationship with God based on that quote, but I don’t know what it is. I always felt that prayer was when I built my relationship with Him. Would you explain to me how I can accomplish the building of my relationship with Him (I would prefer that, but if not would you explain what you meant?) Pretty please?

    And thank you, I’ve copied down a good chunk of your article and have been referencing it.

  7. Tim B said:

    Urb — You’re welcome. I’m glad if this is useful.

    Building your relationship with God is a category of things, just like building a relationship with anybody else. Building your relationship with your spouse involves many thing beyond just living in the same house and sleeping in the same bed — it involved conversation and listening, but also respecting them and making choices that respect your commitment to them.

    So prayer is not separate from building your relationship with God, but there’s more to it than that. I usually talk about “talking with God” rather than “saying prayers” because not every prayer is really talking with God. Building your relationship with God involves talking with him (prayer and capturing), listening to him (scriptures, pondering and capturing), thinking about him, and keeping your commitments and promises to him. He said “Draw near unto me, and I will draw near unto you. Seek me and you shall find me.”

    So doing what you’re doing that’s good is good, so keep doing that. If this gives you an idea of things you can add to your life to help build it further, then do so. I keep adding things to my life — this past year, a big focus has been paying tithing, where I’ve gone from sporadic payment to more consistent net-tithing to consistent gross-tithing this past few months. It’s been a slow build, but I think it’s something I can keep in my life, and then add more things.

    Does that answer your question?

  8. urb0123 said:

    Wow, thanks for the response, and the speed of it too! My terminology for the difference was/is “prayer” and “sincere prayer”. Thank you very much, that does answer my question, and helps a lot!

  9. Latter-Day Sexual Recovery » Quitting. Again. said:

    […] really need God, because you’re doing so well on your own. I deal with this in more detail in another post, and this post isn’t really about staying […]

  10. dstanley92 said:

    “Another dark side of counting days, which is related to the first, is when you allow yourself to think that reaching your day-count goal deserves being rewarded with some acting out. I can’t tell you how much sense that can make to the inner addict, but the inner addict loves this idea. I also can’t tell you how much sense this doesn’t make to anyone who is sane.”

    Oh how true. I can remember having the urge to celebrate with acting out.

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