Saturday, June 20, 2009

And a Chip To Mark the Best Birthday

A good friend passed her first birthday in AA yesterday and I'm simply thrilled about it. Her chances of ever getting that far began at such a low degree of possibility that, had she known, she probably never would have tried. She talked yesterday of the struggle and the triumph with an excitement I've heard over and over in my 15 years of sobriety. It never gets old.

We mark a lot of birthdays, anniversaries and milestones in our lives, but for me the first year of sobriety outstrips them all for sheer impact on the lives of those of us who've done it. Without that year and the ones that follow, there is no other milestone of importance because our lives are full of failure, heartache, disappointment and sorrow.

My friend talked about the difficulty of measuring progress over that first year because it is slow--a day at a time and sometimes closer to a minute at a time when the demons are crowded around and howling to slake that thirst. It can be a crushingly lonely and uncertain time: "Will I be interesting again? Will I ever have fun again? Can I make friends?" Hundreds of questions and so few answers, save from the important one from the newbie's sponsor: "Don't drink and go to meetings."

As my friend noted on her birthday (and in AA, we have a "belly button birthday" and a "real birthday," much as the Christians are "born again"), the year gives perspective. She can look precisely at where she was and where she is. There's a dramatic difference that some refer to as "the miracle."

The last three years I drank, I couldn't get high. I was simply sodden and incomprehensible, a man with no mission, no concern, no energy, no ambition. I cared for nothing save the next drink, which did nothing but leave me immobile. I was listless, unengaged, unconcerned and disinterested in anything--save that drink. I was a blowhard without resume. In sobriety my life is full, interesting and involved. I am surrounded by people I love and who--talk about miracles--love me. I'm still a blowhard, but I have a resume. Some things don't change.

The brass one-year AA chip (pictured above) is my talisman. I carry it on my key chain and it is nearly always with me. I have had others ask if I would present them my one year chip on their first birthday--an AA tradition of sorts--and I have simply said, "No. You need to earn and keep your own. Your sobriety has nothing to do with me or my chip. It has to do with you and how you choose to work your program." It is a symbol of taking personal responsibility and, in my case, finding a higher power to lean on when I'm not strong enough to exercise that responsibility.

I'm truly proud of my buddy for her year, but this effort and growth doesn't stop. I recall the elation I was feeling when I slid my one-year chunk of brass into my jeans pocket. My late friend and sometime mentor Matty Kargl--a tat00-covered, motorcycle-riding, Brooklyn-born veteran of the drinking wars--leaned over and quietly said, "Don't get too smug. It takes five years to get all the shit out of your system and to be really sober." It was a sobering moment ... so to speak. Matty gave me my five-year chip.


  1. I wish the brass chip did not quote Polonius in Hamlet: "To Thine Own Self Be True." Polonius was a blowhard. But maybe it's appropriate. Alcoholics are blowhards. We talk a lot. We especially like to talk about ourselves. That's why we go to meetings. That's why we write. That's how it works.

  2. Jill: My old pal Jesse, an AA veteran, used to say, "I'm not much, but I'm all I think about." He might have added, "and talk about." Dan

  3. I need your kind of courage to stop smoking--one would think I had it before you. You got that from your mom!!!She is reponsible for your talkative nature also and you can keep that!! Great job-now about the exercise program--

    I'm proud of you!!

    Dear old dad

  4. Dad,

    You think you're not talkative? I would beg to differ with you, if I could get a word in edgewise.

    Thank you for being proud of me! It means a lot to me.

    And thank you, Dan, for writing this wonderful post. I carried my brass chip around with me all day today. It fits so well in my palm. It's nice and heavy. I'll meditate on it when things get tough.


  5. Thanks Dan for cheering Jill on as she runs the race...I am one of her biggest fans.


  6. Aw, thank you, Mom. I am running "the race" one day at a time.

  7. Congratulation Sis and I am so proud of you. I knew you could do it. I think you get the talkative nature from both mom and certainly do debate things like dad......

    About that excercise program... come workout with me...ha ha!