One Day At A Time
For an addict contemplating sobriety, a huge obstacle is the “forever” part, giving up your medicine-of-choice for the rest of your life. To someone who’s spent a substantial portion of every day for years making sure he doesn’t run out of alcohol, for example, the proposition that he can never again have a beer with a hot dog at a ballgame, wine with dinner or a glass of champagne at his daughter’s wedding seems like a punishment too far. It’s unimaginable and overwhelming. To the addict brain, used to giving up one day at a time with the first drink or drug, forever means inevitable failure so why bother starting?
To counter this impulse, the founders of AA focused sobriety in a way that’s psychologically manageable: one day at a time.
Instead of forever, you’re taught to focus “just for today.” Just for today you will ask yourself who you want to be, an alcoholic who’s out-of-control or someone who’s sober and gets a one-day reprieve from addict insanity. You pledge you won’t drink or use just for today. Just between waking up and going to bed you’ll remember all the reasons you can’t give up on yourself and take whatever action is necessary to get through the day without using. Just for today you’ll go to a meeting, call a sponsor, pray, meditate, make a gratitude list, forgive yourself by not drinking.
In early sobriety, many alcoholics and addicts struggle to make it through the day. I did. I made little mental deals with myself just to get through the next minute, the next half-hour, the next hour, however long it was until I could get to a meeting. I counted the hours until I could go to sleep and often retired early just to end the day.
The most important thing for newcomers to know is that it gets easier to make it through a day the longer you do it. That was my experience. But I needed constant positive and negative reinforcement: reminders that I was improving, albeit slowly, and recalling how dead I was inside while I was drinking. One other prompt from my support group helped: they told me that no emotion, no anxiety, no craving, no panic attack would kill me. But drinking would.
In rehab we were instructed that the one-day-at-a-time program was about much more than not using, however, it was about living. They made us concentrate on how we lived today, this single day, reminding us there was nothing we could do about all our yesterdays and we weren’t guaranteed any tomorrows.
My most memorable lesson in this didn’t come from my rehab counselors but from the hospital’s head cook, an alcoholic with more than 10 years of sobriety when I met him. One evening I was bitching and moaning to everyone in the dinner line about something I was dreading the following morning when the head cook stopped doling out entrees and interjected, “Tomorrow? You worried about tomorrow? What’s worrying about tomorrow gonna do for you today? Way I see it, yesterday’s a cancelled check and tomorrow’s a promissory note. Today, it’s all just cash.” (From then on, we referred to him as “Cashman.”) Another way I heard it put at AA meetings was, “If you’re standing with one foot in yesterday and the other in tomorrow, you’re probably pissing on today.”
Today is the only day you have. Today is the opportunity to change. Seize it.
One day at a time is the Spirituality Prayer applied: recognizing what’s in your control today and what’s not, and “doing the next right thing,” moment-by-moment. Likewise, AA’s spiritual program isn’t something you do once in a while or once a week by going to a mosque, church or synagogue. It’s a daily practice that leads to a daily reprieve from the disease of addiction.
One day at a time doesn’t mean you ignore the future. Like anyone, you still have to make plans. In fact, a big part of sobriety, particularly early on, is planning to deal with known relapse triggers — it’s a fool’s errand to attend your first cocktail party without anticipating how sipping seltzer instead of double vodkas for the first time will feel. But the primary focus is living sober today.
It sounds easy but it isn’t, because it’s difficult to break years of addict habit stewing over the past and dreading the future. That’s another reason why AA is a “we” program, meant to be done in fellowship with others. It takes instruction and practice to learn how to concentrate on today rather than on guilt and remorse for the past or future-tripping on all the problems you face down the road. People who have succeeded at putting together a lot of sober days in a row are the best teachers.