When I was newly sober the old-timers in my Baltimore home group would say I should not be impatient with my recovery because, “It takes three to 5 years to get out of the woods.” Of course, like many, I thought five years was forever.
Later, near the five-year mark, I realized that it took just that long to get into the woods and to make a real dent in changing my thinking and behavior. I remember when I celebrated my five year anniversary I joked that I had by that time come to in the woods and I was just beginning to identify the plants and creatures that made up the true nature of my character defects, other subtle addictions, and just plan bad habits.
At the five to seven year phase I began to really understand that recovery is a life long process, that there would be no prizes other than a decent life and wonderful community and so I could stop trying to get an “A” in AA.
Of course that meant more changes to my program, like trying a different kind of sponsorship, taking advantage of outside help, and looking at my work and health and family as part of my deeper recovery issues.
By year ten I began to actually have the life that I had dreamed of in the early years. But I also saw that there were fewer and fewer people in the rooms who shared my number of years. At first I felt bad, and I said, as many do, “Where are the old timers?” “Where are the people with ten or more years?” In Baltimore where I got sober it was common to run into people with 15 years or more than 20 years but there was definitely a gap in the ten to 15 year range. What was going on?
When we ask: “Where are the people with ten or more years?” The answer is: They are living sober lives, with new careers, working in their community, often in new relationships and sometimes with new families. We have added the PTA and the Rotary and new children to lives that were once filled with two meetings a day, making coffee and sponsorship. At ten years sober alcoholics start to have what many of us wanted and failed at miserably when we were drinking. It is this very new life, the one I acknowledge with tears of gratitude, which takes me away from AA the way I used to be part of it. Managing the gifts of recovery is part of coming out of the woods.
Yes, it is a paradox, and a subject worthy of sober reflection. We need people with more than ten years to show up at meetings so newcomers can have their power of example, and because no one it automatically “fixed” AA remains a lifetime process. But it is also a time worthy of celebration as sober people are well enough and committed enough to take what they have learned in the rooms and practice that in the world outside AA.
The truth is that there really is a time of coming “out of the woods”, and often this happens as we reach double-digit sobriety. It’s an important time, and one that deserves care and attention. Just like adolescents who have to leave the nest and test their wings we still need a place to recover and to celebrate being in the world with relationships and careers and community service. But we also need to find ways to maintain our commitment and membership in AA and to still make our contribution there, though sometimes in new ways.