“Live life one day at a time” is arguably the most commonly used recovery mantra. You hear it all the time. It’s in the recovery literature. It’s in movies. It’s stitched into decorative throw pillows and slapped on coffee mugs. But what does it actually mean? Perhaps a better question: does living this way help at all, or is it just another platitude devoid of any practical use?
The unending present moment
The concept of living life one day at a time is not new. Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t coin the phrase, though they did popularize it. ODAAT has been taught as a spiritual concept for thousands of years. Jesus told his followers: Therefore do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:34, NIV). It’s a central teaching of Zen Buddhism and the essence of meditation and yoga. The message is clear: Focus on the present moment, not the future nor the past.
It’s a simple concept but it’s anything but easy in practice. Most of us struggle with the present moment, oscillating between worrying about the future and dwelling on the past. At times the present can seem like a nuisance, an obstacle to overcome. But any time dwelling on the future or past takes away from actual living. The present is all we ever get to experience, so it’s odd we spend so much time ignoring it.
The principle of staying in the present is useful to everyone, but one could argue it has heightened importance for those new in recovery. Early sobriety can feel like waking up on a strange planet with stronger gravity. Time is distorted. Thoughts are scattered. Strong emotions and cravings come without warning. Taking it one day at a time becomes a necessity because everything is new and overwhelming.
Thinking about the future at that time can cause anxiety. You find out quickly that the world doesn’t stop to accommodate your newfound sobriety. Holidays and birthdays and wedding receptions with open bars still exist. Once you come out of the fog of the first few weeks, it dawns on you that the days are just going to keep on coming. There’s nothing you can do to stop them, and you’ve got to find a way to stay sober through them all.
It can be terrifying. It’s too much to think about. You start to wonder: What am I going to tell people when they ask why I’m not drinking at the wedding? How am I going to get through Thanksgiving with my boozy family? How the hell am I going to go on a date and not have a drink?
That’s why ODAAT is so powerful. You don’t have to answer those questions. You leave those challenges for later and take care of today. As long as you hit the pillow sober, you’ve won.
The problem with one day at a time
You can see why the ODAAT perspective is great for newcomers. I do believe, however, there comes a time when you should shift gears. In fact, taking ODAAT too literally for too long may even be harmful.
In some ways, it keeps the door to addiction cracked open. You can’t truly commit to long-term sobriety when you only commit to a day at a time. If you say, “I won’t drink, just for today,” then the idea of drinking tomorrow is subconsciously planted into your brain. The possibility of relapse is baked into the cake.
The practice of counting days is also part of the ODAAT mentality. AA gives out chips for days, months, and years of sobriety. Online groups like Reddit’s r/stopdrinking offer day-count badges so you and others can see your progress. There’s nothing inherently wrong with knowing how long you’ve been sober. I don’t disavow the practice (I know my day count), but I do think it’s folly to define success this way.
My issue with obsessing over a day count is that you are counting away from something. The counting goes on indefinitely. And if you slip up, your day count goes back to zero, which is disheartening, to say the least. These resets could be enough for some to stop trying. Sure, a long streak can be comforting. It may give you a sense of accomplishment, but it does not define you. The guy with 3 days of sobriety is just as sober as the one with 3,000.
I also think the ODAAT mentality can keep you locked in a state of fear. I once attended an AA meeting in one of my early attempts at sobriety. An older man spoke and mentioned he had been attending the same meeting for 30 years. He made it clear that AA saved his life and he would not be sober without the weekly meetings. While I was impressed with his length of sobriety and his commitment to the program, I couldn’t help but feel a little depressed for him. Is that really what long-term sobriety required? That I attend AA and take my life one day at a time for the next 30 years? I knew AA helped a lot of people, but I wasn’t interested in scheduling the rest of my life around it.
I wanted another way of thinking about addiction and sobriety. I didn’t want to spend my days thinking about how I don’t do something anymore. I didn’t want to avoid parties or make the sign of the cross every time I walked past a bar. If sobriety was going to be a lifetime of white-knuckling, I wasn’t interested. In short, I wanted to be sober and not have it be such a big fucking deal.
Don’t count the days, make the days count
Instead of living one day at a time, I have decided to choose sobriety once and for all. Instead of counting the days, I aim to make each day count.
Declaring you’ll never drink again shouldn’t be the forbidden utterance some recovery circles make it out to be. People allergic to peanuts have no problem saying they won’t ever eat a peanut butter sandwich again. No one would find it odd for you to declare you’ll never eat a full tube of toothpaste again (college is an odd time). Why can’t drinkers declare they’ll never drink alcohol again if that’s what they truly desire?
Yes, relapse rates are ridiculously high. I understand committing to lifelong sobriety could result in a broken promise. But so what? It’s the intention that’s important. It’s the attitude in your heart. A vegan might succumb to the occasional slice of cheesecake. A bodybuilder may skip a leg day. Does that mean they can no longer claim a commitment to their lifestyle? Of course not.
I believe sobriety is a choice, not a shot in the dark. There’s no need to live in fear of tomorrow or next year or to base your self worth on a number of marks on a calendar.
In the end, taking life “one day at a time” is just a saying. Unless you’re a time traveler, no one has any choice but to live a day at a time. ODAAT is simply one way of looking at things — a mental perception.
If you are brand new to sobriety, by all means, use ODAAT if it helps you. Get through the day without worrying about tomorrow or Christmas or a lifetime of resisting temptation. Worrying about these things is not helpful. But once you get some time and confidence under your belt, there’s no need to rely on that mindset. It’s possible to live freely, to make plans, and to declare yourself a sober person. Not just for today, but for good. That doesn’t mean you are immune to messing up. You’re still human. But once you’ve got your mindset right, any slips are just bumps in the road. They don’t reset your progress or send you back to day one. You just keep going.