One Day at a Time: Solid Advice, In and Out of Recovery Circles
By Jeff Vircoe. This article was originally published July 7, 2017. Updated February 10, 2021.
If you judge the advice “live life one day at a time” by how often it is said, it has high value. Spiritual and religious leaders, philosophers and psychologists, and all kinds of self-help advocates frequently offer up the suggestion of living life in manageable increments.
When it comes to recovery, the One Day at a Time philosophy is a staple of wise counsel. Certainly, the co-founder of the 12 Step movement, Bill Wilson, understood the therapeutic value of such a simple but inspiring idea.
“On a day-at-a-time basis, I am confident I can stay away from a drink for one day. So I set out with confidence. At the end of the day, I have the reward of achievement. Achievement feels good and that makes me want more!” Wilson is quoted saying in the A.A. conference-approved book, As Bill Sees It.
One Day at a Time, Now More Than Ever
As we enter the start of a second year in an unprecedented global pandemic, we continue to struggle with questions most of us never thought we’d have to answer. It’s the new normal to ask, when will schools resume safely and businesses recover? When will most of us return to in-person work? Will I remember not to stand up during a Zoom call and reveal my sweat pants?
How much longer can I continue to cope with the physical risks and mental strains that are burdening me and my family?
Why am I always tired? Am I worrying too much?
How much longer until I can finally go back to an in-person A.A. meeting?
In modern times, most people seem to associate recovery and One Day at a Time as being synonymous. Asked about his prolific writing history, Canadian rock icon Neil Young once said, “I just wrote one song at a time. Kinda like an alcoholic. One day at a time.”
However, now more than ever, the idea of “one day at a time” is applicable to all of us, all the time. COVID-19 may not be resolved today or tomorrow, but it will be one day. Until then, we can all treat ourselves with compassion by staying in the moment and focusing making the most of the day we have ahead of us.
Taking Sobriety One Day at a Time
One Day at a Time is found in A.A.’s basic text book, the Big Book, of course. On page 85, Wilson reminds us that, as individuals with addictions, we are not cured of our illness just because we have abstained for some time.
“What we really have is a daily reprieve,” he wrote, “contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”
When you ask people in the business of addiction treatment who are also in recovery themselves, you quickly find that One Day at a Time is advice they sincerely give and live by.
“For me, it’s about that freedom to start over. There’s a real freedom from the shame and guilt that would immediately hit me. It’s about gratitude of having that gift of a daily reprieve,” says Rebecca P.*, a woman with over 25 years in recovery in family programs.
“It means being present in the moment and focusing on now. Letting go of the past and, especially for me, God, I want to control the outcomes, I want to worry about the future and I want to live in my self-centered fear. This is an alternative to that.”
“It’s about gratitude of having that gift of a daily reprieve”.
Sergio O., a man with over 29 years clean in Narcotics Anonymous, sees One Day at a Time as essentially being the same as N.A.’s frequently used mantra “Just for Today.”
“Just for Today to an addict means there is a responsibility to stay clean just for today. The addict mind always worries about what? I’m going to have to stay clean the rest of my life. So, he never stays in the moment. Just for Today helps the individual to stay clean just for today,” says Sergio, who has been helping addicts find recovery for over a quarter century.
“As you go on deeper into recovery, then the second stage of recovery, as I call it, happens,” he says. “Life gets real. We try to solve the problems of the future. So, that’s when we start learning to take responsibility just for today. When it comes to people, places and things we learn to be responsible, just for today. To stay in the moment.”
Living one day at a time does not mean swearing off drinking or drugging with other substances or behaviors forever, even though we know that’s what we need to do. In the A.A. Pamphlet This is A.A.: An Introduction to the AA Recovery Program produced by the fellowship in 1984, the authors put it this way.
“We take no pledges, we don’t say that we will ‘never’ drink again. Instead, we try to follow what we in A.A. call the ‘24-hour plan.’ We concentrate on keeping sober just the current twenty-four hours. We simply try to get through one day at a time without a drink. If we feel the urge for a drink, we neither yield nor resist. We merely put off taking that particular drink until tomorrow.”
It goes on to say:
“Today is the only day we have to worry about. And we know from experience that even the ‘worst’ drunks can go twenty-four hours without a drink. They may need to postpone that next drink to the next hour, even the next minute — but they learn that it can be put off for a period of time.”
One Day At A Time for Everyone: You’re Not Alone
One Day at a Time has more than its share of recovery angles, but it also has practical meaning for many not in recovery.
Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki, wrote five affirmations that became the principles of Reiki.
Just for today:
1) I will not be angry
2) I will not worry
3) I will be grateful
4) I will do my work honestly
5) I will be kind to every living thing
Powerful suggestions to live by, one day at a time, Usui advised. A host of others echo similar sentiments.
“Life is like an ice cream cone. You have to lick it one day at a time,” Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the rest of the Peanuts cartoon gang once said.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln once referred to the slogan this way: “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”
Even Pope John XXIII, the top man in the Vatican from 1958-1963, believed in the same principles contained in the slogan. He released a Top 10 list of tips for living a better life day by day, known as The Daily Decalogue of Pope John XXIII:
1. Only for today, I will seek to live the livelong day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
2. Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
3. Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
4. Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
5. Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
6. Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
7. Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
8. Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
9. Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
10. Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.
The Importance of Staying In the Moment
In practical terms, those with the disease and those without it seem to understand that the slogan One Day at a Time is all about calming one’s self down long enough to do the next right thing. It’s about staying in the moment so that you don’t give yourself time to be overwhelmed by the future.
Michael B.*, an Edgewood counsellor with 30 years in Al-Anon and another 28 in A.A., has been counselling people with addiction for 26 years. “One Day at a Time really just breaks it down. I can get overwhelmed when I think about the future. Crazy making. I want to control it. Run it. Panic about it. My anxiety goes up through the roof. But when I just stay in one day at a time, I can manage that.”
He also recommends taking it deeper, if necessary.
“Sometimes I break it down even more to just this hour. Or the next five minutes. So, it helps break things down to manageable segments, a manageable load.”
“Life gets real. We try to solve the problems of the future. So, that’s when we start learning to take responsibility just for today. To stay in the moment.” – Sergio O.
One day at a Time is a philosophy and counsel that can be applied by people with any kind of addiction, their family members, as well as people without an addiction. The overwhelmed, anxious moments all humans face can be eased with getting grounded, and this slogan provides that relief.
“Is it common for addicts to feel overwhelmed? Oh yeah. Incredibly. It crosses all forms of how addiction acts out. Addicts and alcoholics, myself included, we are so used to having to manage and control and figure out and second guess.
‘So, being able to just breathe and figure out what’s the next right thing, instead of two weeks from now, what’s the healthy thing that I can do right now? It makes all the difference in the world.”
EHN Canada Can Help You
If you would like to learn more about the addiction and mental health treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enroll yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC
- 1-866-860-8302 for virtual outpatient support, available wherever you are
*Name has been changed
Managing to stop using alcohol or drugs can be a major milestone in the life of someone struggling with an addiction. However, remaining abstinent from substances is only a part of recovery. After quitting, a person can be in a state called “Untreated Sobriety,” or as it is often called, “Being A Dry Drunk.” This means that while the person is no longer using substances, they still manifest many of the thoughts and behaviors as if they were still in the midst of their addiction. Unable to use drugs or alcohol to cope with their emotions, people with untreated sobriety often feel a sense of anger or resentment due to the fact that they had to give up the one thing that seemingly made them feel better.
Addiction often serves a purpose whether as a coping mechanism, or as a means of escape or avoiding boredom. If the underlying emotional needs are not being addressed, simply removing the substance is not enough. Recovery is not about going back to the way things were before the addiction reared its head. The person has to uncover the reasons for picking up a drink in the first place. Chemical dependency is often a symptom of a larger issue, similar to an iceberg where most of the problems are underneath the surface.
It is also important to consider the psychological ramifications of letting go of a certain way of life or routine. What happens when we give up or lose something that has been a huge part of our lives for a long time? Something that we believe made us happier? We begin to grieve. Grieving the loss of alcohol or drugs can be as powerful as losing a loved one. If the person does not begin to actively work through this grief to get to the acceptance stage, relapse is a lot more likely. Very often people get stuck in the anger stage asking: “Why me?” or “Why can’t I have just one?” This type of thinking is what can precipitate relapse. This is why it is important to ask for help and guidance, learn about the disease of addiction and begin to explore personal reasons for using substances.
Recovery is about progress and many make it through the process to the final stage. They can finally accept the loss and with the help of others, grow through the experience and move on. Others never make it through and remain stuck, feeling angry, bitter and resentful. They may not have used drugs or alcohol for a while, but are hanging on for dear life, “white knuckling it”, and screaming in anger, “I HAVE QUIT!” all the while feeling miserable. How long can this go on before drugs and alcohol looks like a good option again?
It is important to note that it is not necessarily the person’s fault if they were not able to progress in their recovery. Some people may have underlying mental health issues that have not been addressed. Other times, environmental stressors and triggers may be too overwhelming especially for someone who is early on their path to recovery. That being said, it is important to be mindful of how recovery is being approached. Recovery is about making changes that go beyond staying sober. It is about feeling good about life and the ability to meet life challenges rather than feeling deprived. Getting to the acceptance stage by quitting AND being in recovery, is what makes life beautiful again.
By: Kim Holmgren, Recovery Counsellor &
Iryna Gavrysh, Research Assistant