My buddy Hank (not his real name) has been reaching out to me, off and on, for the past year, worried about his drinking.
He hasn’t been arrested. He’s not sleeping over under the Greenbelt Bridge. He’s gainfully employed, well-respected and for all outward appearances, has a pretty good life. But more and more often, he’s found himself staggering home, bleary-eyed and drunk, and the next day, he’ll swear off doing so again, only to repeat the cycle a few days later.
I get it. Really. I was right where he is at one time, and like so many addicts and alcoholics after a particularly brutal binge, I, too, would swear off our drinking and drugging for good. I would hit these metaphorical outcroppings on my long descent down the spiral and know that they were warning signs, and I’d pledge to stop for a week or a month or even a year. I made promises to get and stay on the wagon.
The thing about addicts and alcoholics is that no matter how many times we make those pledges, to others or ourselves, we mean them every single time. We’re determined to grit our teeth and give it our best, because we truly, sincerely never want to get drunk or high again, if for no other reason than to never see the hurt in our loved one’s eyes again. We don’t want to feel like a failure or a disappointment again. We’re through. Or so we think.
And yet … we keep going back. We get clean and sober, feel better, mend relationships, excel in our jobs and eventually reach a point where, at a birthday party or class reunion or a company picnic, we think, “I can have just one.” And once we take the first one, it’s game on. One becomes two becomes 30, and eventually we find ourselves worse off than before.
Sometimes, our pledges come with a private reservation: We’ll stay off of liquor and stick to beer. We’ll quit doing bumps of cocaine in the bathroom at the bar, but some weed out back is alright. Unfortunately, after our addiction has developed an appetite for heavier drinks and drugs and more of them, the buzz we get from trying to indulge in moderation quickly becomes frustrating. It’s never enough, and in our inebriated state, we give up on our vows and plunge headlong back into the abyss without a second thought.
For me, after I got clean and sober, I had to revise my thinking. I made so many promises to stop only to break them that another one sounded empty and hollow, and pledging to never do so again often reminded me of how often I’d set myself up for failure. Instead, we use the term “just for today” frequently in our recovery. By setting such a goal, we teach ourselves to be realistic, which increases our chances for success: “I’m not drinking or getting high just for today.”
Even if we did so yesterday, we don’t have to today. Even if we might tomorrow — which is never guaranteed — we don’t have to do it today. For one 24-hour period, we can remain steadfast in our determination. No matter the temptation or the provocation, we can focus on this small window of time and go to any lengths necessary to avoid drinking or getting high today.
We avoid making another promise to family members or employers who have heard them time and time again, because this 24-hour pledge is designed for us and us alone. It’s our lives and our recoveries that are at stake, so it’s entirely up to us to do the work necessary to maintain it.
Sometimes, the cravings come at us, especially in early recovery, so strongly that even 24 hours seems like an interminable length of time. Then, it helps to break down the day into smaller increments. We commit ourselves to staying clean and sober for the next hour; we tell ourselves that we can make it through the temporary discomfort for 60 minutes, and then when the hour is up, we reset the clock and start it up again.
Sometimes, it helps to give ourselves permission to get drunk or high “tomorrow” — not a specific day, but always “tomorrow.” Even then, we can fool our brains into quietening the storm, because if we’re always in today, then “tomorrow” will always be the day after.
It all comes back to the ability to control our day through the tools recovery teaches us. And we can always start that clock at any point, whether it’s at home or in a bar, at 4 p.m. or 3 a.m. In any of those places and at any of those times, we can make a commitment to ourselves not to take a drink or use a drug for the next five minutes, or the next hour, or the next 24 hours.
We avoid the fallibility of those old methods and promises, and we put all of our efforts into the here and now — right here, today, which is where we’re taught to live life when we first come to a program of recovery.
All we have is today, and for one day, anybody can go without getting drunk or high. By living life in the now, the mantra of “just for today” takes on new meaning, and we can eventually put it to work in other areas of our lives as well.