One Day at a Time
“One day at a time” is one of the most well known 12-Step slogans of all time. Visit any Alano (a place where 12 Step meetings are held) in the world and you are likely to see it prominently displayed in a bold, decorative script. It was one of the first of many 12-Step phrases to become part of popular culture. You hear it everywhere now: bosses say it to employees, teachers to students, friends to friends. It’s become kind of a universal cliché to express the idea of persevering or having patience in difficult situations. This is true as far as it goes, but it is an incomplete understanding of the phrase, which is really about developing the quality of self-discipline.
At first glance, this may not make sense. How is “One day at a time” about self-discipline? Well, it provides a way to control impulses by keeping focus in the present: the impulse to get high is immediate and forceful, so it makes sense that controlling it must be immediate, too. (As any addict knows, thinking about quitting at some point in the future is futile.) The thought of maintaining sober habits for a lifetime can be overwhelming to a newly sober person who hasn’t fully integrated them yet. But if a person says to himself, “One day at a time,” or, in times of extreme stress, “One hour at a time,” or even “One minute at a time,” he feels much more capable of resisting his impulses. Anyone can do something for a day that might scare the hell out of them to try to do for the rest of their lives.
So “One day at a time,” then, is a mental tool that helps addicts resist impulse, and resisting impulse is a form of self-discipline. When a person discovers this tool and is able to practice it successfully, it has all sorts of beneficial results. He feels better about himself. He feels strong, capable, and hopeful. And he creates space in his psyche for other positive thoughts and feelings to sprout and grow, creating a sort of upward spiral of personal development. In general, people who overcome addiction are people who’ve incorporated this self-discipline into their lives. (And not just in AA or from ODAAT—such self-discipline can come from many different sources. But that is another topic.)
If it makes sense to you that ODAAT is a tool that helps addicts learn self-discipline (and what else could it be, really, when its very utterance is intended to help a person refrain from giving in to their urges?), then this brings up an interesting aspect of addiction, which is this: What most people call addiction is really just poor impulse control. People know they should stop or slow down; they know they are not behaving in a healthy, self-loving manner; they feel remorseful about it or know they will feel remorseful about it eventually, but they just can’t make themselves refrain from taking that next drink, that next hit, or placing that next bet. Even in the case of physical addiction, beyond a few days’ period of withdrawal (which may require medical supervision), the real challenge is psychological, as almost any heroin or nicotine addict who has gone through that process can tell you.
I realize this sounds harsh, but it isn’t. I am not by any means saying addicts are weak-minded or bad people. Not at all. They come by their behavior honestly. They typically have deeply rooted psychological issues that are extremely difficult, and often extremely painful, to address. For what I hope are obvious reasons, such a psychic burden typically results in depression, feelings of hopelessness, low self-worth, and poor coping skills. When a person with these issues discovers the diversion of compulsive behavior, particularly in the form of psychotropic relief, it makes sense that he could learn to depend on it and that it could become difficult to live without. Why would he want to try, particularly in the absence of something to replace it? Seen in this light, poor impulse control is something to be understood, not judged, and addiction seems to be a perfectly rational response to dealing with one’s anxiety. Unfortunately, it is also a powerful, self-perpetuating cycle of behavior that a person usually gives up only when the pain it causes becomes worse than the pain it is trying to cure (known, in recovery jargon, as “hitting bottom”).
12 Step programs, and indeed all other addiction recovery programs, succeed to the extent that they are able to make addicts address the issue of impulse control. They may not define it that way, but that is essentially what they are doing. ODAAT successfully holds off urges so people can adopt new, more mature—and thus more effective—methods of dealing with their issues. They do this by acknowledging their problems, taking responsibility for them, trying to right wrongs created by them, and learning to incorporate all of these habits into their daily lives in an ongoing fashion. In short, they stop behaving like impulsive children and start behaving like disciplined adults.
ODAAT is a prime example of why addiction is not a disease, and 12 Step groups are not medicine. Rather, they are places you can go to learn impulse control and grown-up values and receive support and encouragement while you do so. Why else would there be so much emphasis on having a psychic change, one that involves developing honesty, willingness, humility, and personal responsibility? These are the traits that allow a person to pursue his dreams, desires and goals. They also make addiction a very unattractive option, because when you have good things going on in your life and have been able to come to some sort of peace with the demons of your past, self-destructive urges go away with much more of a whimper than a bang. They simply lose their seductive power.
Just because it’s fashionable to attribute immaturity to a disease doesn’t mean it’s correct, or helpful, to do so. Such characterization obfuscates the real issue and makes it more difficult, not less, for people to get themselves on track. Sobriety is a decision we make, evident in the fact that no medical procedures or treatments can make it happen. We can only make a volitional choice; this is the “psychic change” referred to over and over in AA. And this is good news, because it means we are not at the mercy of our biology. We are not victims. We are capable, rational people who are always able to do the next right thing and create the life we want for ourselves, if only we choose to.
How ironic that 12 Step programs provide the right tools, but under the completely incorrect—and invalidating—assumption that addiction is a disease. If you take the time to analyze 12 Step language and methods (and that of most, if not all, other recovery programs), this fact will become obvious to you. There is no other “disease” in the world, for example, that requires you to make amends to people you’ve wronged. The very idea is absurd in a medical context; it only makes sense when seen as a moral problem. So, if you’ve found relief in a 12 Step program, celebrate its strengths, but please, please, please be cognizant of its shortcomings, as well.
The disease label is seductive, but it is not rational, and it will never get you where you want to be in life. You must learn self-discipline, one day at a time or some other way, to achieve that. Remember this, whether you are struggling with impulse control or any other temptation to see yourself as a victim.
Categorised as: 12 Step Cliches