How To Observe A Soberversary, According To An Expert

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

Getting and then staying sober is anything but easy, and the journey is rarely — if ever — linear. Social events and commercialized celebrations that emphasize drinking over all else certainly do not make it any easier when you’re trying to reconstruct your life around something besides alcohol or other substances. For many people, keeping track of how long they’ve been sober is both cause for celebration and a solemn reminder. Soberversaries are anniversaries of someone’s sobriety, and they come in all shapes and (quiet) sizes. How to celebrate a soberversary is a deeply personal, yet also deeply social, matter.

Dr. Colleen Dell, PhD, Centennial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness at the University of Saskatchewan, tells Bustle that soberversary recognition is, indeed, intimately individual. "A lot of people through the AA/NA/CA communities have it recognized at their local chapter meeting, with a cake," she tells Bustle. "Sometimes a medal. Sometimes there are presents involved. I have seen its recognition as varied as any approach to a birthday."

Soberversaries are testaments to how far a person has come, and how far they have yet to go. In this way, soberversaries — particularly early markers of days, weeks, or months — can be complicated emotional processes. They can celebrate the forging of new identities and life adventures, but soberversaries can also be experienced as a form of mourning an former identity. Observing a soberversary is an immensely personal process, so of course, there is no right way to be with yourself on those days — if you even choose to keep note of them at all.

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Sound Recovery Solutions — a series of treatment programs developed by people who are in recovery themselves — also offers a few different ways to observe your soberversary on its website:

  • Try Something New
  • Hang With Friends And Family
  • Travel
  • Learn Meditation
  • Reflect

If you choose to reflect, it can take the form of writing and sometimes even sharing that writing with an online community. To observe her 300 day soberversary, writer Danielle Dayney reflected that on the idea of freedom and the future on the mental health community website The Mighty. “I’m hesitant to say I am free because I know I’m not,” she wrote, “The days ahead of me will be long and filled with uniquely challenging pressures that I haven’t yet prepared myself for. Yet, I will figure them out, one by one.”

For many people, part of figuring out how to prepare for these challenges comes from honest media representations of sobriety. Actor Todd Grinnell, for example, has been sober in real life for 17 years, and he plays the goofy but lovable white man next door on the hit show One Day At A Time. His character, Schneider, is in recovery on the show, and the episodes focusing on his relapse reveal honest representations of pain without fetishization. So, for many, watching relatable characters and people — or avoiding these storylines altogether — can be very important parts of observing a soberversary.

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Seeking representation in media during your soberversary can help people feel seen. That recognition and identification with characters can also help restabilize a person's sense of identity, especially for people whose sense of self is shaken while getting sober.

It is this need to escape — often, from the social structures around and within us — that can make it harder to keep and observe soberversaries. Societally-enforced community gatherings like family holiday celebrations — especially with the added expectation that everyone performs socially-expected happiness — can lead to alcohol or substance use.

And while coping with holiday family gatherings can be extremely triggering for people in recovery, so too are many year-round social settings. Office happy hours, for example, can be very difficult to navigate for those who are trying to stay sober while avoiding both pressure and stigma. Soberversaries can also be difficult to reach and observe in LGBTQ communities because LGBTQ social spaces are so often relegated to bars.

Yet sobervsersaries can be especially significant markers for people who are systemically denied access to recovery support and care. People with various marginalized identities — like Black women or transgender people — are often at greater risk of developing alcohol and substance use disorders due to the same marginalizing forces that make recovery care nearly inaccessible. Perhaps because of these experiences, soberversaries can mark remarkable victories.

So whether you choose to forge new aspects of your identity through travel, reflection, or a long session of Netflix-watching on your soberversary, know that someone else out there is going through the same thing. However you observe — or don’t observe — your soberversary, you are more than valid, and every day can be a reason to celebrate yourself.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).