Clean Time in Alcoholics, Narcotics Anonymous: Harmful?

August 24, 2015 Kira Lesley

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) both emphasize clean (or sober) dates and time: but does this focus of addiction recovery programs harm or help group members? This question necessarily wanders into the perennial debate around abstinence versus moderation in addiction recovery. So, is clean time in alcoholics and narcotics anonymous helpful or harmful?

Potential Harm from Clean Time in Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous

According to Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide's information on abstinence versus moderation, most research shows that a person's ability to moderate drinking Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous emphasize clean time. But does clean time in AA and NA help or help recovery?depends on how severe her alcohol abuse is. AA and NA are not programs of moderation; they are programs of abstinence. The emphasis on clean time makes sense in an atmosphere of abstinence. I am, in general, in favor of 12-step programs, and I believe they are more helpful than harmful. However, I can see where AA's and NA's emphasis on birthdays and clean time (or sober time) could increase feelings of guilt, embarrassment and self-loathing when a member does drink or use drugs again. It could make that member too embarrassed to return to meetings. He also may be more prone to engage in a harder, more destructive relapse because he feels he has "lost his time" so what is the point of trying?

How Commemorating Clean Time in AA and NA Helps

On the other hand, celebrating clean and sober time and speaking in terms of clean dates provides accountability. It also provides something to cling to--both conceptually, like a date, and physically, like a coin or a keytag. I have often heard people say they might have relapsed if it weren't for the thought of having to change their sobriety date. Commemorating milestones can serve to help remind us where we used to be and where we are today. They are on opportunity for reflection. In addition, keeping track of clean and sober time can be helpful to newcomers by showing them long-term sobriety is possible.

If a person wants to learn to control his drinking or drugging, AA and NA are not the programs for him. But there are folks who truly want to stop using or drinking and they can't seem to stay on the wagon. Is the emphasis on clean time hurting their chances of lasting recovery? I discuss an idea for addressing this problem below and I welcome your thoughts and opinions on the matter.

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APA Reference
Lesley, K. (2015, August 24). Clean Time in Alcoholics, Narcotics Anonymous: Harmful?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Kira Lesley

August, 26 2015 at 4:30 pm

I didn't know that there is such a thing as using drugs in moderation. Alcohol is one thing, many can drink without becoming addicted and others can't. However drugs are much more addictive and that is why we abstain from using. No person that I have ever met can use drugs in moderation. Sorry but that is the most ridiculous concept when there are so many out there that are dying because their moderate use snowballed out of control. Maybe research addiction and what it really means.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kira Lesley
August, 31 2015 at 10:35 am

Hello Linda, thank you for your comments. I disagree with your distinction between alcohol and drugs. Chemically-speaking, alcohol is a drug, NA is very clear about that. While some people are able to drink alcohol in moderation, it is still the most widely abused drug in this country. At the same time, some people are able to use marijuana in moderation. Likewise with prescription drugs, some are able to take ADHD drugs (stimulants) or anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) effectively while other, like me, avoid them because we do not trust ourselves to use them in a non-addictive way.
Do you believe that every other drug besides alcohol cannot be used in moderation? I do agree that some substances are more addictive than others, but also believe they all have the potential for addiction.

August, 29 2015 at 12:26 pm

Linda, your understanding of addiction appears to be very much incomplete. Please research 'harm minimisation' and what that means.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kira Lesley
August, 31 2015 at 10:39 am

Thanks for your comments Georgie. As I've written repeatedly in my blog, harm minimisation (which I've usually seen referred to as "harm reduction" here in the U.S.) is not the path for me, but I believe it may be the path for some people. Of course it can be difficult to determine whether one should take the abstinence path or try harm reduction. My story was quite dramatic, but I know many people who had "higher bottoms" who have struggled with this question.

August, 29 2015 at 2:26 pm

AA and NA Do not emphasize sober dates, they rather celebrate individuals who have achieved them through the true emphasis of the program which is "one day at a time". There are literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in the U.S. Alone who have earned long time sobriety and a quality of life so much greater than they could have imagined while actively addicted to one substance or another. Those people have not only a right to celebrate their mental, physical and spiritual growth once a year, but they also have an obligation to the newcomer to show that it is possible to recover. To address your point of "possible embarrassment", let me just say that no one gets a warmer welcome in a meeting than a returning addict/alcoholic. The only embarrassment comes in relapsing and not seeking the help you need, and then seeing someone who knew you when you were sober. Let me just say I'm speaking from experience, this to me sounds like an excuse created by someone who has relapsed and rather than seeking help decides to blame the program by saying that the way it's structered creates "embarrassment" upon return. To that I would reply "If you've got a better idea I'm all ears". One final note would be that if you are as the AA literature describes a "real alcoholic"(which I am); in that you suffer the allergy to alcohol(and other drugs) that causes the phenomena of craving upon the first taste, then the only proven method of recovery to date is complete abstinence. There is no moderation for us. If you're allergic to shellfish you don't eat shrimp because it could kill you right? It's the same with drugs such as alcohol and cocaine. Sorry to be so long winded but the program saved my life as well as the lives of countless others, And I can't wrap my head around this argument against it being the slightest bit valid.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kira Lesley
August, 31 2015 at 11:43 am

Thank you for your comments Dylan. You are correct, both programs do emphasize one day at a time. I thank you very much for sharing your firsthand experience about returning to the rooms. The embarrassment argument, as well as the idea of "well I lost my sobriety date so I better go all out" is something I've heard both from people in AA and, perhaps more often, people outside of AA. I tend to agree with you, having people celebrate their sobriety can be truly inspiring for the newcomer. As for the allergic reaction to alcohol, I do feel that is the case for me and for many others. That does not mean that every person who has a problem with alcohol is of the hopeless variety. The literature says that if a man can do the right about face and drink like a gentleman, our hats our off to him. I take that to mean that 12-step members ought not determine for anyone else whether he or she is a "real alcoholic." That being said, I think most of the time if someone ends up in a 12-step meeting, they probably ought to be there.

August, 29 2015 at 8:00 pm

A.A. does not say "Clean Time", it's Sobriety = Freedom From Alcohol (Nothing else!) through the practice & teaching of the 12 Steps.It's the "Sole Purpose" of an A.A. Group.
And of Alcoholics Anonymous it's self!
Try reading Problems Other Than Alcohol sometime!
Sober since 10/30/87.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kira Lesley
August, 31 2015 at 10:44 am

Anonymous, thank you for your comments. Although AA does not use the term "clean time," I used that term, as well as sober time, because I was trying to discuss the issue of commemorating dates and time, whether it's sober time in AA or clean time in NA. I sometimes used the terms interchangeably because it was too clunky to repeat both phrases frequently. On the other hand, if my intent is not coming across, perhaps I should think about tailoring some posts specifically to AA and some specifically to NA. Thank you for your perspective.

Katheryn Stavrakis
September, 4 2015 at 6:42 am

It seems to me that in many, if not most cases of alcoholism, people have already "crossed a line" when they get to AA and going back to drinking in any form is not possible. I won't say it never happens--I assume there are people who just decide they need to stop, and they can cut back. But my point is: for those who have made it to AA, NA, or a treatment center, substance abuse has already taken hold of their minds and bodies (in a physiological way), and abstinence is the only choice. As someone mentioned above, it can be a matter of life or death, or at the very least a matter of living a productive, healthy life, or the opposite.
Having said that, I do think that people should not be made to feel like failures when they relapse. The 12-step way of life is too good to throw it away because of embarrassment or a sense of failure.

mr duke
September, 5 2015 at 5:07 am

Very interesting post. First off, I agree with the majority of comments here regarding Linda's misinformed opinion on drugs v. alcohol. I know many people who can recreationally smoke weed without becoming hooked.
As far as 12-Step recovery goes, my personal experience is mixed. Yes, fellowships like AA and NA have helped millions remain clean for a year or more, the approach does NOT work for everyone. The usual response you get from those in 12-Steps is that the individual failed, NOT the program failed. That thinking Must be abandoned. There are people, for whatever reason, cannot maintain a "recovery" life as AA or whatever "suggests." They may be turned off by the heavy God/religion component of 12 steps or they may have severe depression struggles that such approaches don't work.
Before anyone responds about the God/religion comment, research the facts: AA and NA originated in relgion via the Oxford Group. And requiring members to constantly remind themselves they are worthless, flawed human beings whom will only be saved by a higher power, does not work for everyone.
I, for one, just began SMART recovery. So far, so good...

February, 20 2016 at 9:35 pm

i believe that the steps of the program Are benifical for healing.sponsors help guide us thru them.meetings help us hear of others experience strength and hope. we meet people, we have a safe place to go. we build friendships. gain accountability. and the chips we recieve are mini milestones. it shows our progress, we can touch our accomplishement and have proof not only for ourselves but our loved ones. and yes I went on a 12 year relapse and now have 5&1/2months clean. I did not stay gone because of embarrassment but of the simple fact I WAS NOT REALLY DONE WITH DRUGS AS I WANTED TO BE... AND THATS THE SAD TRUTH. ANYONE CAN TRY THERE HARDEST WITH LOVE AND COMPASSION AND DEEP DESIRE BUT IF UR NOT DONE IT WILL TAKE U BACK OUT....

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kira Lesley
February, 21 2016 at 4:36 pm

Hi Susan and thank you for your comments. I'm so glad you are back and that the halls of 12-step meetings are a good place for you. I wish you well on your journey.

August, 17 2016 at 7:06 am

Clearly different people have varying opinions, but I, personally think that if you are debating whether or not consuming any amount of alcohol will compromise your personal,social, moral or physical well being, chances are you are better off without it.
It is not the abstinance that changes ones life, it is a series of things as previously mentioned.
Free will can be unruly and for some it is easier to focus and progress when we have an outline of what has worked for others.
I know that if i have to spend any amount of time debating whether or not i ought to have a drink, or if it will compromise my personal constitution, then I probably should not indulge, because its already taken up too much time in my relatively short existence. Lol
Sorry for the misspelled words, and whatever else i politically ,grammatically or scientifically amputated.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kira Lesley
September, 2 2016 at 4:54 am

Hi Brawlerina, and thank you for your thoughts. What you are saying seems to make sense to me too. I have had to do that with other things in my life, specifically when I tried for a short time to take a potentially addictive medication. After a month I found that I was spending so much time thinking about it that it was better to just not take it!

David Roppo
May, 1 2017 at 8:23 am

I would agree Kira. I think that does put an awful lot of pressure on people and many people don't return. If you count days of sobriety, you are just waiting for failure. If you have a couple of drinks, you shouldn't be shammed or ostracized.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Tammy L.
April, 25 2018 at 7:05 am

The emphasis is on abstinence from all drugs (alcohol included). You cannot begin the process of recovery, until you are clean . Celebrating these periods of abstinence gives hope to the newcomer and reminds us that we are all miracles ! If one relapses, obviously there is a hole in their program. Abstinence opens the opportunity for recovery, and we learn recovery as we find those in working this spiritual principles of the 12 Steps & 12 Traditions!

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