One Day at a Time: Solid advice, in and out of recovery circles

By Jeff Vircoe

The value of living life one day at a time is high, at least if you judge by how many places the advice can be found. 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, One Day at a Time is a staple of wise counsel. Certainly, the co-founder of the 12 Step movement, Bill Wilson, understood the therapeutic value.

“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 is found in A.A.’s basic text book, the Big Book, of course. On page 85, Wilson reminds us that, as addicts, 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 Patty Robertson, a woman with over 25 years in recovery in family programs and a long-time counselor at Edgewood.

“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.”

One Day at a Time has more than its share of recovery angles. The Al-Anon book, Courage to Change – One Day at a Time, is affectionately called ODAT by many. 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. He was seconded by a host of others.

“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, was sold on the importance of the principals 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.

Reiki masters, presidents and popes notwithstanding, 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.”

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.”
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. John M., an Edgewood counselor with 30 years in Al-Anon and another 28 in A.A., has been counseling addicts 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.”

One day at a Time is a philosophy and counsel that can be applied to all sorts of addicts, their family members, or non-addicts. 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.”

 

 

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KEEP IT SIMPLE: A mainstay slogan for addiction recovery, but one with time tested roots

By Jeff Vircoe

Leonardo da Vinci is often credited with saying that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Albert Einstein put it this way: If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

The message behind both? Keep it simple.

The history of recovery from addiction tells us that if ever there were two men who had reason to be losing their minds to sophisticated chaos, it was William Griffith Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith.

The two co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (pictured above) launched an anything-but-simple, volunteer, not-for-profit organization with no rules and no president. Through growing pains, which included rejections, salutations, anonymity breaks, scientific and religious praise and plenty of scathing reviews, too, there was nothing simple about it. With membership including rubbies, rummies, pill-poppers, atheists, agnostics and mentally disordered crackpots from all walks of life, it wasn’t exactly a recipe for success. Yet, somehow, though they didn’t get to see the current version, the baby which Dr. Bob and Bill W. birthed blossomed to over 2 million members around the world.

Yet, as complicated as the story of A.A. has been, the Keep It Simple slogan has become closely associated with the fellowship that has saved countless lives.

Variations of the Keep It Simple term were not invented by Da Vinci (1452-1519) nor the A.A. co-founders, of course. They weren’t claimed to be. The concepts and origins of the value of simplicity are thousands of years old. Around the year AD 55, the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:3, “But I fear, lest somehow the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”

Half a century before that, in 551 BC, the great Chinese teacher, Confucius, had this to say: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” He also advised to “Keep it simple and focus on what matters. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed.”

So, the idea of keeping things simple has long been in the lexicon of mankind’s languages. Contemporary advocates of keeping things simple included the prolific author Tom Clancy, whose complicated novels included The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger. Though his stories were teeming with complex political and military intrigue, the writing of the books themselves required a whole lot of simplicity.

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process,” he once said. “I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”

One look at the online store eBay will tell you how popular the slogan Keep it Simple is; Judge Judy Sheindlin wrote a book titled Keep it Simple Stupid about amusing true crime cases. Keep It Simple was also the name of books from Weight Watchers, gardening buffs, breast feeders and even NFL quarterbacks – Terry Bradshaw wrote Keep It Simple in 2002.

It’s a pretty flexible slogan. In the 1960s United States Navy, Keep It Simple was a design principle advocated for weapons systems. Their Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) acronym was a way of saying most things work better if made simple instead of complicated. According to Wikipedia, lead engineer Kelly Johnson was credited with coining the saying after handing a team of aircraft designers a handful of tools and explaining that, under combat conditions, the average mechanic had to be able to make repairs with just the barest of equipment at his or her disposal.

To those who owe their lives to the fellowships of recovery, the term Keep It Simple comes with some serious historical 12 Step cache. It’s one of the most revered sayings in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It goes back to at least two instances of note, both involving the co-founders.

The first happened in the summer of 1950. Dr. Bob Smith was dying of colon cancer. Alcoholics Anonymous was hosting its first ever International Convention, in Cleveland, Ohio, just an hour’s drive from Dr. Bob’s home in Akron. Many thought he was too sick to speak at the event.

Al S., a friend and A.A. member from New York, drove Dr. Bob to Cleveland.

“All he said was, ‘I’m tired. Please excuse me if I don’t talk,’” Al recalled in the A.A. book Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers. “I didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Nonetheless, though he had been bedridden for five of the past seven months, Dr. Bob steadfastly stood at the podium in front of 3,000 people on July 30th for his farewell talk to A.A. members.

In a speech which lasted mere moments, he explained how he could not miss this first convention. And he shared on the slogan on which this story is based.

“There are two or three things that flashed into my mind on which it would be fitting to lay a little emphasis,” he said to a hushed crowd. “One is the simplicity of our program. Let’s not louse it up with Freudian complexes and things that are interesting to the scientific mind, but have very little to do with our actual A.A. work,” he said. “Our 12 Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words ‘love’ and ‘service’. We understand what love is, and we understand what service is. So let’s bear those two things in mind.”

Seeing the man who had saved so many lives in that condition was not an easy sight, the book reports.

“As he finished, those who watched could easily see that the exertion of saying the brief words had left him physically weak and spent. Try as he would, he was forced to leave. In consternation, thousands of eyes followed him as he left the stage.”

Dr. Bob was to succumb to the illness less than four months after that talk, on Nov. 16, 1950.

The second moment of clarity, as far as Keep It Simple goes, happened when Bill Wilson, the other co-founder, got a final up-close and personal sense of Dr. Bob’s energy a few weeks later when he went up to Akron to see his old friend. Wilson was forever struck by the vision of his peer dying.

In his book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, written in 1957, Wilson recalled that final meeting, when he and the doctor agreed that an annual conference featuring sober A.A. delegates from around the world was the way to lead the fellowship into the future.

“A few hours later I took my leave of Dr. Bob, knowing that the following week he was to undergo a very serious operation,” he writes on page 214. “Neither of us dared say what was in our hearts. We both knew that this might well be the last decision that we would ever make together.”

“I went down the steps and then turned to look back. Bob stood in the doorway, tall and upright as ever. Some color had come back to his cheeks, and he was carefully dressed in a light gray suit. This was my partner, the man with whom I never had a hard word. The wonderful, old, broad smile was on his face as he said almost jokingly, “Remember, Bill, let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple!” I turned away, unable to say a word. That was the last time I ever saw him.”

In closing, Keep It Simple was a classic Dr. Bob saying. He urged members to stay away from overanalyzing the program, and to stick to love and service and spiritual matters as the answer to their dilemma.

 

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