A little after midnight last night I got a blast from my ENDORPHIN POWER COMPANY past. A woman who had been sober since 2008 called me for help because she relapsed 2 months ago, and now just wants to get her life back again. She was distraught by all her sober time “lost” as well. In her state of intoxication and my being a time zone away, I really didn’t have much to offer other than advice to put the bottle down and sleep. Apparently she’s been following our posts here, so this one’s for her in case she’s reading today. It’s something I wrote in 2009.

Periodically I think about “chips”. Not potato chips, casino chips or micro chips. Rather the coin shaped ones people carry around when they reach recovery milestones… as in “I just got my 90 day sober chip.” Being a “normy” I’m sticking my neck way out here. But my job is to stir the pot. So here goes.

What’s the deal on these things, and where’s my 44 year sober chip? What’s in the addict’s psyche that such things matter? In kindergarden, gold stars were the manipulators. Gold medals and trophies get older people motivated in sports. So I can see how chips in the recovery world may motivate, but I wonder if they truly help.

Addicts are self proclaimed narcissists. I don’t think it’s universal, but I’ve heard enough say this that I can safely type it. So maybe the chip system is a logical tool to have emerged from the minds of a narcissistic population to manipulate a narcissistic population. “Look what I’ve accomplished… 90 days sober!”

I realize sobriety is a never ending Everest for some, and I know many people live moment to moment fighting cravings. So small rewards may be useful. Unfortunately, I think the wrong things are being rewarded and spanked.

For individuals who relapse the chips can massively amplify the despair of failure. “Not only have I relapsed, letting myself down, along with my sponsor, my family and friends, I’ve also thrown away all that clean time, plus I’ve lost my chip!” Amy (now dead) writes “I’m still kicking myself a bit for losing 6 months of sobriety, but I’m trying to take the lessons to be learned from it with me this time.” (She didn’t.) Those months aren’t lost and our lives aren’t video games where we start from square one fighting the same gremlins all over again with each relapse. 6 months sober is just that, and proof of potential for going 6 more. I’m more interested in what’s actually accomplished in those months than the number itself.

If the AA/NA/CA/CMA boards of anonymous directors ever asked for my opinion, I’d suggest some policy changes:

  1. Chips should be awarded not for sober time, but for useful things done for society. Clean a park… get a chip. Tell your story at a high school… get 2. Counsel guys in jail about where to go to stay sober and find employment on release… get 5-10. That way, relapse doesn’t negate positive memories of good deeds done, and the pride comes from real contribution.
  2. Sponsors should receive chips for time spent counseling their sponsees. Many will decline saying it’s part of their own recovery. That’s fine. But I find sponsors to be the true heroes in the addiction world.
  3. Lastly, no chips for sober time, just friendly supportive pats on the back by sponsors, family and friends, for time spent not crashing cars, not screwing up at work, not destroying relationships, not burning life savings.

I’ll summarize this way: Relapse, followed by sense of failure, with added regret for lost sober time is wacky. Don’t show me your chips. Show me your good works done… (I’ve heard many for you from 2008-2015 T.)

All that said, for those of you reading in California, maybe consider a call to my friend Ken Starr MD Addiction Medicine Group. Sadly, my ability to help in New Mexico is fading rapidly. Addiction is a tough nut to crack everywhere.


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