Sobriety is often tracked in hours, days, months, and years, but counting days isn’t the only way to celebrate your recovery journey.
“Any amount of time sober, down to the minute, is precious and important to acknowledge,” says Letisha Rice, MA, LADC. But the milestones that can occur along the way to getting sober aren’t always about how much time it’s been since you have stopped drinking. Instead, a lot of these events mark the transition from sobriety (abstaining from a substance) to recovery, and that’s where a lot of the growth happens.
“Recovery is the part where the things in your life that were neglected due to addiction begin to come together,” Rice said. “So many things happen to celebrate in recovery, and these milestones really depend on the individual.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to recovery. “It’s where feelings of self-worth begin,” said Rice. We’ve compiled a list of 13 of these milestones (straight from YOU!) but it’s okay if your own are entirely different from anything listed here. Use this as an inspiration to be open to your own “aha” moments.
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1. Attending a wedding without drinking.
Weddings are one of the most common hurdles in sobriety. The big day comes with plenty of tricky navigations to make and a lot of alcohol to turn down. “I always blacked out at my friends’ weddings,” said Anneliese. “I was afraid they wouldn’t think I was fun, but I danced the night away, continuously with all my friends, and didn’t wake up to a shame hangover the next morning.”
2. Your first trip or vacation without a drink.
Traveling is another common trigger. Making it through the airport, flight, and trip entirely sober can be a huge milestone. “I traveled to Rome at four months sober,” said Lisa. “Traveling without alcohol is so much more relaxing. It was a great hurdle to tackle early on in sobriety.”
3. Feeling the discomfort and doing it anyway.
Even if you know sobriety is the right choice for you, there will still be moments of discomfort. Sitting in that feeling and allowing it to pass can be very empowering. Meghan experienced this while attending a booze-fueled party. “My skin was crawling and I had to really make an effort to pay attention when talking to other people,” Meghan said. “I remember feeling so proud going to bed that night, and waking up the next day without a hangover. That feeling became more important than the feeling of being intoxicated.”
4. Death, ending relationships, and other difficult events.
Unexpected bad news can be one of the hardest events to navigate, regardless of where you’re at in sobriety. But these are often the moments that can provide the greatest clarity and strength. “It sounds morbid, but early in my sobriety, my gram passed away and I didn’t drink,” said Jillian. “Being fully present with my gram in the hospital during her last days and actually feeling all of the feelings—love, grief, gratitude—was an incredible milestone and prepared me to live through important life experiences without drinking.”
5. Spending a quiet night alone without drinking.
A quiet night alone may be some people’s idea of a peaceful night, but it can also be a highly triggering moment for others. Loneliness can be a real issue for those quitting alcohol. “I was in a house where there was hard alcohol,” said Katie. “No one would know, it wouldn’t affect anyone, I wasn’t driving. And not only did I not drink, I didn’t want to drink.”
6. That first belly laugh.
It’s easy to think we were funnier or more vivacious when drunk, but alcohol is ultimately a depressant. Experiencing the first true moment of joy without a substance can be transformative. For Aspen, that milestone was laughter. “The first time I rode a bike in many years and laughed like a child.”
7. Saying “no”.
Being able to say “no” to something—and sticking with it—can be a great source of strength. “I took a trip with some people who were patronizing and couldn’t empathize with my sobriety,” said Sumita. “When I got home, I realized how much of a toll it took on me and I set some clear boundaries.”
8. Saying “yes”.
On the flip side, sometimes saying “yes” can be the hardest part of sobriety because it usually involves getting out of your comfort zone. Maybe it’s starting that passion project you’ve been putting off. For Mary, it was keeping commitments. “I haven’t changed any plans due to a hangover!” And Cheryl hit a milestone by singing karaoke without booze.
9. Unwinding after a stressful day.
Reaching for wine at the end of a hectic day is such a cliche in the media at this point that it almost seems like a parody. Being able to unwind without a substance is an important tool for maintaining sobriety. “I experienced significant work stress and didn’t drink,” said Mackenzie. “I felt empowered that I wasn’t exacerbating my mental health issues with alcohol and turned toward healthier coping mechanisms.”
10. Hanging out with people you used to drink with.
It’s not uncommon to end relationships in sobriety, whether it’s a toxic friendship or an unsupportive partner. But sometimes it’s just as freeing to allow space for relationships to change with us. “Having my heavy-drinking siblings over for dinner and games,” was Elizabeth’s milestone. “I was sober and anxious but I stayed strong and was so proud of myself.”
11. Enjoying a summer day.
It can be tempting to think a substance will enhance good feelings. Being fully present for these moments can remind us that alcohol wasn’t the part that made things great. “The milestone I never thought I could do was the first summer late afternoon: laughing with friends, sitting in the sun, toes in the pool, without booze,” said Skye.
12. Establishing a consistent self-care ritual.
There are some milestones that can’t be pinpointed to a single event but instead mark the culmination of healthy habits. “I didn’t realize that alcohol was the thing keeping me from fully engaging in therapy,” said Jes. “Now I’ve never missed a session and my mental health is in the best state it’s ever been.”
13. Realizing what a consistent sleep routine feels like.
Similarly, feeling the long-term effects of quality sleep (rather than passing out) can be life-changing. “I care that I’m rested, that I have energy, and recognized that it felt good,” said Jess. “I allowed myself to feel this joy. From there many more things in my life began to flourish. I thought, ‘Oh wow, I am doing it.’”
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Although entering sobriety is not easy for many, recognizing your own milestones can be just as important as the days you mark off on the calendar. After all, being fully present to the experiences—whether positive or negative—is why you quit alcohol, right?