Within the first couple of months after I surrendered to my addictions and joined a Twelve Step fellowship, now some twenty-plus years ago, I began to learn the first of many lessons that would save my life. It was a profoundly simple lesson, and though I am often a slow learner, yet once something is in my head it pretty much stays there. Which is good: for, recently I have had a sharp need to access the practical wisdom of those first days in recovery.
That first lesson was, and is, this: one day at a time. Just one day. People outside the rooms of recovery often hear this phrase, but my sense is that they do not realize its full power for the addict new in recovery. “One Day at a Time” is not just advice, it is a mantra, sacred and salvific wisdom to be absorbed deep into our marrow. “You can do anything, survive anything, as long as you can just stay present to the next 24 hours.” Now remember that we addicts and alcoholics tend to live compulsively in guilt or in fear—in the past or in the future—and have a hard time showing up for the now. So an idea that might be simple and common sense for others is like algebra to the addict.
I remember early on I was explaining to a friend in recovery how much I had lost, how much I had thrown away, how much sadness and pain I was carrying, and that I was afraid I could not survive it all. He said this, which still rings in my ears: “no one ever died from pain, but plenty of people died running from pain. One Day at a Time.” Well, my reaction to this, upon first hearing, was that he didn’t understand; that my pain was different, worse, more tragic than anyone else’s (oh, the grandiosity of the addicted mind), and that I really would die of heartbreak and grief. “One Day at a Time,” he said again. I walked away thinking him a simpleton and grumbling unconvinced that I would give it a try. But in this, as in so many things, I was out of options and ideas and so I decided to stay in the One Day and see what happened.
Now, I hate to give away the ending, but it turns out that I did not die—though I thought I would. Every night for several months, I would go to sleep sad, some part of me actually believing that I would die of the pain—“they’ll do an autopsy in the morning and declare that ‘he died from grief’”—and then, whaddya’ know, I woke up the next morning, alive as I could be. And then, the next night, I’d do it again, with the same result. And again, and again. Then, one day, I don’t even remember how far down the road it was, I woke up in peace, with the beginnings of gratitude for what was happening to me. For my wounded soul, it seems, my deep brokenness, slowly was healing, like some putrid infection being gradually cleansed by daily washing in a sacred pool.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about those early days in recovery and the miraculous realization that “pain will not kill me,” because these last few weeks I have experienced sharp sadness and grief—this time not for myself, but for my lovely wife, my bride of seven months, and for our whole family. Just before Christmas she was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a cruel, debilitating, eventually fatal illness that has come on aggressively and in the short space of three or four months, has attacked her body relentlessly and mercilessly.
I should mention that I have my wife’s permission to write about her illness—at least as it pertains to the faith and spirituality in which we both live and move and have our being: the truths of the Christian faith as seen through the lenses of the Twelve Step programs. Being the gracious woman that she is, she wants to use this illness to be of help to others, and so she is glad for me to write here about her journey as it intersects with my journey in recovery. But I don’t need to go very far into her illness, or make public things that are sacred and private, to make my point here. And that is this: even in the sadness and pain of my beloved’s fatal illness, there is a deep and practical consolation for me in the grace of Christ, received gratefully as daily bread, enough—just enough—for today. One day at a time. Just today.
Each day, it seems, if I will but pay attention, I am given what I need for the day: the right thought, a practical insight as to how to be helpful, a joke that lightens the moment, a surprising winter sunset that joins us in awe and quiet joy, tears of sadness that now must flow for awhile. For the fact is, that I now know how to grieve, I know how to be sad, how to let myself mourn a little bit at a time. I know what I did not know twenty years ago: that this sadness will not kill me, but that running away from it—drifting into unconsciousness, pursuing the old escape routes—likely would. And then, if I run away from these hard truths we are facing, I am of no use to anyone, especially not to my family, who need whatever it is that I have to bring, now—now or never.
C.S. Lewis, the great Christian thinker who knew more of deep grief than is commonly understood, somewhere wrote that when people say that they cannot bear the thought of great suffering, what they really mean is that they cannot bear the idea of unending suffering, the sum total of all the suffering that might lie ahead. Which is why, Lewis said, God made us as creatures to live daily, with blessed sleep dividing each day from the past one and the next one, to be fed by God’s daily bread. And of course, Jesus Himself reminded us not to worry about the morrow, but like the lilies of the field to reach out to the warmth of the sun now, while it shines. For the morrow will take care of itself, said Our Lord, and so we ask our Father which art in heaven to give us this day our daily bread.
We who have decided that Jesus is our Lord and that we will walk the difficult path of discipleship, find once again that we can see the great truths of our faith anew through the wisdom and insights of the Twelve Step fellowships—what I call the Gospel of Bill. And the first of these truths is that we are called to live one day at a time, that if we do so, then even heartbreaking grief will not bring destruction, but instead will lead us to rely even more completely on the grace of Christ, which brings us closer to those we love—in peace or in joy, in suffering, in sadness, as each day may bring.