When I was growing up, One Day at a Time was a TV show; now, it's a motto I try to live by. A catchphrase and major tenet of Alcoholics Anonyous, it's also provided for me a way of looking at life that recognizes that life goes on, whether we like it or not. I find that the end of the year and beginning of a new one is always a good time for self-assessment, yet major life changes happen for me on their own anniversaries. This year was a big one for me in many ways, but two of the biggest are that I stopped drinking alcohol (February 13) and, even more challenging, gave up my 4-6 liter-a-day Diet Coke habit (October 4).
I'm not an alcoholic (though I come from a family that's struggled with alcoholism) yet when I found myself doing a podcast interview in February, drunk on martinis, my mind reeling as I tried to stay coherent, I knew something had to change. I decided that that was my last night of drinking, and so far I've kept to that promise. The toughest part hasn't been abstaining from alcohol so much as dealing with people's ideas about a girl who doesn't drink. When I'm out at a bar and a guy offers to buy me a drink, asking for a seltzer seems to signal that I'm no fun. "What do you want in it?" a guy asked me recently.
"Seltzer," I replied, receiving a look of disappointment from him. Drinking has so become the norm that those of us who choose not to, whether for a day or a lifetime, set ourselves apart from the crowd. If someone asks and I attempt to give an honest answer as to why I don't drink─because I'm trying to lose weight, because it makes me feel out of control, because I feel like I'm a better person when I don't drink─they often hear my responses as accusations, like I'm saying there's something wrong with them for drinking, when nothing could be further from the truth. I envy those who can casually sip a glass of wine, indulge in a cocktail or two (or more), and have it not be a big deal. They drink for pleasure, whereas while I've had some delicious drinks in my life, I always drank to get drunk, to get buzzed, to become a better version of myself. I've discovered that I may not always like the person I am sober, but grappling with her, facing her with all her flaws and insecurities, is preferable for me than trying to blot them out with another vodka cran.
I'm not surprised that researchers have recently found a link between impulsiveness and alcoholism. I know that for me, it's often much easier to leap before I look, and worry about the consequences later. Well, perhaps "easier" is just my way of soothing my conscience when I make bad decisions, whether it's spending too much money, going out late when I should be working or otherwise shirking my responsibilities. And it all goes back to being able to take things one day at a time. If I were able to do that, I could allow myself to realize that whatever fun, rash, impulsive thing I want to do can always wait until tomorrow, that the world won't end if I miss one party or leave a pretty dress on the rack. I'm glad I've been able to avoid using alcohol as a crutch, no longer making it a convenience excuse for misbehavior, as in, "Oh well, I was drunk, I can't really be blamed for my actions." But I still haven't quite figured out a way to deal with myself when I get completely overwhelmed, verging on panic, multiple thoughts and to do items and fears scrambling together, clamoring for my attention. When that happens, I still reach for something soothing, usually food or a shopping spree, to get me through.
For me, "one day at a time" extends far beyond the use of alcohol. I tend to have a very all or nothing way of looking at things, so for instance, if I'm behind on one project, I stress about it so much that I can't seem to motivate myself to work on another project, because I know I won't be able to finish both. The idea of making incremental progress, of accepting that I cannot complete everything, but can do something, is a challenging one for me. Likewise, living life "one day at a time" forces me to stop fantasizing about a brilliant, perfect, utopian future in which I have no problems, and instead focus on the practicalities of what I can do right now to improve my life.
I can say that while I'm proud of sticking with my resolutions not to drink alcohol or Diet Coke, ultimately, that satisfaction has been fleeting. I don't miss either of them all that much, though I do occasionally miss the feelings I associate with them. But even more challenging has been the realization that for the most part, my life has stayed pretty much the same. I still have debt, a messy apartment, deadlines that come and go without my meeting them. Simply giving up a few vices hasn't miraculously turned me into the hyper-organized on-the-ball person I had hoped it might. Sure, I'm proud to have made a goal and stuck with it, but if all I do is sit around and feel self-congratulatory, I miss all the other ways I could be working on myself. Because for me, both alcohol and Diet Coke were both physical cravings, and symbols of something bigger than just a beverage. Taking them away means I'm often left feeling empty, looking for something, or someone, else to fill those empty places inside me.
Reaching those goals certainly doesn't mean I've conquered my demons; it often means I just find other outlets for self-destruction and negative thinking. In my worst moments, I'm miserable and can see now way out of my current mess. Even if someone assured me that in a day or a week or a year, some of my burdens would be eased, I wouldn't believe them. What do they know, anyway? is what I tend to think when someone offers me a ray of mental sunshine like this when I'm intent on feeling awful. I recognize that I do this, but, at least some of the time, I continue to do it anyway. Like the author of "The Nasty Four-Letter Word That Keeps You From Writing," (which I highly recommend to any writer), I often live in constant fear, thinking that my career, my life, any success I may have is just a fluke. This kind of thinking never leads to a positive outcome; if it's indeed a fluke, then why even bother trying?
One of my favorite songwriters, Elliott Smith, who struggled with his own addictions, wrote a line that helped a fellow fan and I right after his death, that goes, "You only live a day/but it's brilliant anyway." Sure, that sounds depressing, but only if you look at it in a glass half full way (which is my natural inclination). But if we make the most out of each day, while also recognizing that, literally, tomorrow is a new day that will very likely yield a new perspective, it makes it easier to cope with today. At least, that's what I'm counting on in 2008.