the plural of anecdotes is not data

In yesterday’s micro-email RM asked me about the number of people with drinking problems… [and if you’re not signed up to get the micro-emails, you can do that here].

Today i got a reply from Tim that said, “from somewhere I stole a default put down for those who seek to extrapolate small samples into a general picture … ‘the plural of anecdotes is not data’. Emphatically not directed at you…”

and it’s true. I get asked all the time to quantify things. to put numbers to ideas and feelings.  So i usually give a gut-based answer, drawing on instinct or a well-educated guess, and experience from reading emails from whacks of people.

But when i give a number, it’s not really ‘data’, it’s a guesstimate.  Like, how many emails do i get per day (50-100 – when really i never count them, i just know that i answer what comes in and i enjoy every single message – it’s like christmas morning every day in my inbox).

How many people have signed up to do the challenge since last year (700+). How successful is the challenge, as in what percent get and stay sober? (my guesstimate is about 25-50% with another 25% really actively trying, who have new day 1s but who have not given up; that leaves 25% who sign up and then disappear forever or for extended periods of time – someone emailed me 2 weeks ago who had first contacted me a year ago. she’s sober now. what category do i put her in? 25% disappeared? or 50% successfully sober?).

How many times do people relapse (anywhere from never to as many times as it takes).

How much is too much to say you have a real problem that you need to get serious about (Is 1 bottle of wine a night too much or is 3 bottles a wine a night too much).

When should you decide that what you’re doing isn’t enough and you need more support? (are you repeatedly relapsing? then you need more support! you can’t just quit harder, try harder; instead you may need to consider what more support would look like for you).

The answers to most of these questions might be “I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Are you drinking more than you want to? Yes? Then that’s the answer to the question.”

Do you think that alcoholism is a disease or a bad habit?  my reply: Are you drinking more than you want to? Yes? Then that’s all you need to consider. It’s too much for you. Doesn’t matter about definitions or percentages or probabilities. 

The questions continue with: how many people do i think have a problem with drinking in the general population (more than you realize). How long should i feel this bad? (usually it’s better by 30 days). Shouldn’t i be losing weight in the first month (so terribly sorry, but not likely). Can people moderate after some time spent sober? (in my experience – and this is NOT data – i have found that very very occasionally some people do work at ‘controlling’ their drinking after a period of sobriety. but they don’t spring back to being normies. and for me, i’ve just found that being 100% sober is easier and less tiring and more successful for me 🙂 is that data? no. does it resonate with you? good. if not, you have my permission to stop reading now :))

Do i sometimes feel like this sober penpal thing doesn’t ‘really’ help, it just looks like help. Yes i do feel that sometimes. But anecdotally i know it works – well something is working for some people. some combination of the posts, the emails, being a sober penpal, the podcasts, the optimism and the get-real-ness.

And i get emails like this one every single day, hundreds of times a month. And maybe, for now, Lindsay30 is all the DATA I need.

Lindsay30 (day 1): “Finding this blog may be the best thing that has happened to me in a long long time. I woke up this morning hangover and feeling like total crap. I feel so much guilt. I feel so powerless. I feel shame. Like so many other mornings I woke up thinking “this is not who I am. How did I get here”? I stumbled across your post about the 100 day challenge and found myself needing to read more and more. After 2 hours of reading I took the plunge and signed up for the 100 day challenge. Suddenly I feel optimistic. I realize that I am NOT alone nor am I the only person who is going through this. What a wonderful support system you have created for so many people who need this. Thank you thank you!”


I want to put this online, to hold myself accountable. I want to document the noise in my head. I'm tired of thinking about drinking. date of last drink: june 30, 2012

  • Wow. I am 2 days sober and feel more support and a sense of community than I ever imagined. Belle, seeing my raw and unedited feelings on your blog for everyone to see brought tears to my eyes. I never thought I would feel this, but I have a profound sense of pride. I am actually proud of myself for taking control of my addiction and cutting the bull shit. No more lies, no more hiding, no more pretending. I can be totally honest about who I am and the decisions I have made, and I like that. It’s like a massive weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I have had a problem with alcohol on an off for 5 years now, the last 2 years being the worst. This is the first time I have ever attempted sobriety or reached out to ANYONE! I’ve got to say that this is a damn good way to start out. I say all of this knowing that I am going to face some rough days ahead of me. Im sure I will want to roll over and die some days. At the end of the day “data” doesn’t really matter. I found Belle and that is the reason I am on the journey to living a sober life. Data schmata 🙂

    • glad you feel pride. it’s a big deal, reaching out. it’s a big deal to actually get help. it’s a huge deal to be sober. and you’re doing all that! hugs from me.

  • well said. What Belle is doing is not unlike sponsoring, how is that really different from AA? The commonality found in these blogs is important, I am also discovering that understanding oneself is part of recovery, what sets one person off may not bother another…we have to identify our own patterns of behavior, patterns, triggers etc and learn new coping mechanisms etc. the relative anonymity of the web allows for honesty, it also allows access any time of the day or night when one is looking for help, answers, comfort in the words of others that are struggling

  • “Doesn’t matter about definitions or percentages or probabilities. ”

    And you know, you’re right, Belle. One can make stats say anything. Hell, one can make words say anything.

    There are statistics that show those that have support networks have better success rates than those that don’t. (just google relapse rates in alcoholics).

    In the beginning, most of us want to define, to understand, to dissect … because we think we can control. But Belle’s right. If you think you have a problem, you probably do. If you want to quit, quit. If you’re tired of stopping and starting over, stop giving up.

    Hang in there for a while, let your body adjust. Let your brain heal. Then see for yourself how good it can be.

    You can make stats say anything. But you, nor you, nor you, not even *you*, are a statistic.

    Keep up the great work Belle and everyone. I’m happy and proud for you all,

    • thanks for being here Christy, i really appreciate you dropping by! it’s true that statistics can say anything, yet we cling to numbers, like they represent hope. let’s say this instead: i’m 100% committed to being sober. whatever it takes. that’s a statistic i can be! : ) ~ hugs from me

  • In my opinion Belle has extracted a key concept from AA: Support! Reading other people’s blogs and exchanging emails with Belle is a form of support. It’s similar to going to meetings and sharing with AA’ers at a meeting, it gives people a sense that they’re not alone in this weird experience that is alcoholism. Our individual case is not so unique after all! Whether its an AA meeting or an sobriety blog, hearing other people’s similar stories make it easier to identify and feel more normal. Hearing how other people successfully quit gives us inspiration that maybe we can achieve that too! Learning the common pitfalls that lead to relapse helps us to identify those things in our own lives and hopefully avoid them.

    Maybe support is the active ingredient that helps people recover in AA , and all the extra stuff (admitting powerlessness, dependance on higher power, working the steps) is just extra fluff. Then again maybe it isn’t. Perhaps this basic communication is a potent enough medicine for people who were ‘mild alcoholics’ and the extra elements of AA ARE in fact necessary for those alcoholics who were more severe. I don’t know, probably very hard for anyone to say for sure. One thing I do know is that people are different. EVERYONE is different and unique in thier own way, yet by and large we’re all fairly similar. Something about reaching out and helping other people, and conversely receiving /accepting help from other people seems to contain one of, if not THE secret ingredient to sobriety.

    • I think there’s also something magical about being anonymous, like really anonymous. on the internet, no one sees your face. I know that AA is anonymous, but it’s still a bit to scary for lots of folks. the internet gives us a new way of connecting, from all over the world, with a common goal.

  • It’s Christmas day in my inbox everyday too Belle….that’s what has kept me going for 63 days! Hugs and thanks!

    • For me it’s constant Christmas day in my inbox too katiebelle & Belle, also 60 something days 😉 A personal record! And sending mails is great too, like a confession. For the first time I feel completely free just to mail/say what is on my mind without any shame and it’s such a relief! To have found Belle and all of you out here is just wunderful!
      Love, N. Maya

  • Belle is right, it’s about what works, not what doesn’t. I never thought in a million years I would go to AA, but I am attending some meetings to see if I can find face to face support for my continued sobriety. I like many things about it so far, and the topics and shares are very informative. In this, I subscribe to take the best, leave the rest. It’s not that I relate to everyone in the room, or everything in the program, but unquestionably there are some people there who have really worked and succeeded in long term sobriety. I am gravitating towards them to get a better sense of how they did it, and are doing it. At the end of the day, much of this journey is in our heads, so it’s nice to have a place to go to pretty much anywhere and anytime where we can see people working on sobriety in all of its diverse forms. Not a plug for AA – just my 2 cents…

  • I think the telling statistic is that the AA success rate is about 2%. It is great for some but not for others and most definitely not for me. I have read lots of blogs and different things work for different people. I read recently of a lady who had done a year with AA, she had a really minor blip – might not even have been alcohol can’t recall, a one off smoke or something, she told her sponsor and she didn’t get her one year chip and is told to go back to day one – that to me is harsh beyond words. it would certainly not help me stick with it. this works for me : )

    • i don’t want to get into AA bashing, or even comparing programs. Let’s just agree that different things work for different people…
      Committed, your anecdote probably had to do with drug use. clean and sober means no booze OR drugs. i know that AA is strict with this, and rightly so. My blog doesn’t specifically address drugs … so, certainly, giving up booze but continuing one’s cocaine use would indicate some problems! But to be fair, i don’t address drugs here at all, mostly because i have no experience with them (as i’ve never taken them).

      let’s focus on what works, not what doesn’t work.

  • To be honest, one day is a miracle and so are 30… But it’s to me, not long term sobriety. I can get in on a pink cloud and rest on my laurels. When you have 5 10 20 years without a drink, now that’s what I want. Only place I know where those people dwell is aa. I really like this blog. Good luck to everyone here 🙂 staying sober isn’t a game, it’s a way of life

    • nick, thanks for being here : ) i worry that your comment though is just this kind of ‘there’s only one right way – AA’ thinking that makes people reluctant to go to AA in the first place. We want to come to our own choices – AA or not. there are other ways to be sober long-term, of course there are. Hang out more on the blogs and you’ll see. don’t judge what we’re doing. sure, this doesn’t work for everyone. but AA doesn’t work for everyone either. there’s room in the world for more than one ‘right way’ …

    • Not to be a muckraker, but look at Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He had 23 years sober. A long chunk of time is great but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll always remain free from the beast. One of the criticisims that people have with AA is the prevalent attitude that ‘AA is the only way to stop drinking’. I believe a better mentality would be ‘AA is a good way to stop drinking’ If other people are experiencing success using a different program, why knock it? It doesn’t invalidate your positive experiences with AA, it just means there is more than one road to recovery.

  • Whatever the numbers, the data the percentages etc etc – all I can say is that finding Belle is the ONLY thing that got me started on a real genuine attempt to sort myself out and for that I will be eternally grateful – in 35 years with the exception of pregnancy I have done 3 days – with signing up to this I am on day 35 and I would never have achieved that were it not for the 100 day challenge, the accountability, the not wanting to let myself or Belle down, the e mail each day and particularly the e mail which made me cry at the start which said I am not broken when I have felt so broken for so long. I am a bit wobbly at the moment but I think I am at that stage of the journey and I am not giving up!

  • Lindsey, as mentioned, you could find yourself saying to yourself, “this sober person is me, and I like me this way!” You, like I, might wonder if there will be a day when you can drink “normally.” I have to keep telling myself, “not now; maybe later.” Really, this time around for me, keeping on top of being accountable (thanks, Belle) and reading the words of others on this journey is a good thing for me.

  • Lindsay:

    Re: “this is not who I am. How did I get here”? What’s kind of cool is that after awhile sober these thoughts start turning into “wow, THIS is who I am. So glad I got here!” Much better.

  • Sociologically (hmm, is that a real word?), Belle, you are creating a whole new approach to alcohol cessation. I’ve heard (is this anecdote or data?) that with AA, the long-term sobriety rate is in the 5-10% range. Whatever data you look at, the recidivism rate is very high for alcohol.

    So, what you have developed/grown/allowed to grow organically- is an approach that is helpful for people for whom more traditional approaches do not resonate. I am as likely to go to an actual AA meeting as I am to, say, jump off the roof, or eat a quart of bird seed. In other words, not. And for others, who find the more traditional approaches helpful, your blog and emails provide a supplemental shoring-up, increasing (in my anecdotal opinion) the chances of long-term sobriety.

    As you say- in a very important sense the numbers are NOT important. In another sense, this may turn into a model that is replicated elsewhere, by others, to magnify the impact of your approach. And if that develops, some sense of numbers may be useful. That may come later, or it may come never.

    In the meantime, the tiny speck of humanity that is me? Is most gleeful and grateful that you and your approach exist, for they have made a profound difference in my life!