"When addicts and codependents fully grasp the one-day-at-a-time concept, they have begun their recovery."

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Episode 162 -- November 11, 2021

"Any Time I Want:" How Addictive Thinking Distorts our Concept of Time

Remember when we thought we had control over our substance use? We told people we could quit at any time. It turns out that belief was a part of the self-deceptive thinking that comes with our disease. In active addiction, the only timing that mattered to us had to do with when we could next drink or use.

In his book Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception, Dr. Abraham J. Twerski discusses the origins of addictive thinking and how self-deceptive thoughts can continue in recovery and threaten our sobriety. He explains how we can learn to identify our thinking processes and overcome addictive thinking.

In this excerpt, Twerski shares how addictive thinking leads us to develop a distorted concept of time We could not take a long-term view of the future—we only thought of the next moments or minutes before us. Now that we are in recovery, we must learn to view time in a different way. At first, we may need to stay focused on the very short-term, taking our sobriety just five minutes at a time. Later, as we gain time in the Twelve Step program, we can adopt a "one-day-at-a-time" approach to recovery.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.


If there were a contest for the most common sentence used by addicts, this one would win. Anyone who has observed addicts knows they "stop" countless times and make innumerable resolutions. Abstinence may be for hours, days, or, in some cases, weeks. But, ordinarily, before long the active practice of addiction resumes. This vicious cycle may continue for years.

Addicts simply are unable to stop any time they wish. Others can see this, but the addict does not. Family and friends may be bewildered, asking themselves, How can a person insist that it's possible to stop at any time when it's obviously not true? Even seasoned therapists, used to this reasoning, may ask themselves, How can an intelligent person be so utterly oblivious to reality? How can first-rate intellectuals, women and men with positions of great responsibility who can analyze and retain scientific data, not add two plus two in regard to their addictive use of substances?

The answer lies in an understanding of addictive thinking. Addicts may not seem as illogical as they first appear if we understand one thing: the addictive thinker's concept of time.

Addicts make perfectly good sense to themselves and others when they say, "I can quit any time I want"; an addict simply has a different concept of time than a nonaddict.

For everyone, time is variable. Under certain circumstances, a few minutes can seem an eternity, while under other circumstances, weeks and months appear to have lasted only moments.

Addicts who claim they can quit any time actually believe it is the truth. Why? Because by abstaining for a day or two, the addict has stopped for a "time." Indeed, having often abstained for several days, addicts may wonder why others cannot realize the obvious: They can stop any "time."

You may tell the addict, "No, it's obvious that you cannot stop any time you want to." Your statement and the addict's, although seemingly contradictory, are both true. The key is that each person is using the word time differently.

The Future in Minutes and Seconds
For the addict, time may be measured in minutes or even seconds. Certainly, in the quest for the effect of a substance, the addict thinks in terms of minutes. Addicts are intolerant of delay for the sought-after effect. All of the substances addicts use produce their effects within seconds or minutes.

The addict does think about the future but only in terms of moments, not years. When drinking or using other drugs, addicts do think about the consequences: the glow, a feeling of euphoria, relaxation, detachment from the world, and perhaps sleep. These consequences occur within a few seconds or minutes after drinking or using, and these few seconds or minutes are what make up "time" for the addict. Cirrhosis, brain damage, loss of job, loss of family, or other serious consequences come as the result of a long process and are not likely to occur within minutes. So they simply do not exist in the addict's thoughts.

Understanding the Way an Addict Thinks
People involved with a Twelve Step program showed me how the misconception of time is prevalent in addictive thinking. Program people like to use the powerful slogans "One day at a time" and "Time takes time" to combat the forces of addictive thinking.

Recovering people intuitively know that one of the ways they must change their "stinkin' thinkin'" is to deal with their distorted concept of time. Most people are comfortable with the idea that one day is a convenient, manageable unit of time. Often, however, people in early recovery must take it five minutes at a time and eventually work up to longer periods.

The idea of time takes time is used to counter the addictive notion that change can happen fast, such as the addict who prays, "Higher Power, please give me patience, but give it to me right now!"

One of my patients wrote to me: "It is four years since I was taken into your office, utterly beaten, wanting to die, but not having the courage to take my own life.... The first two years, the only thing I did right was stay sober and go to meetings.... I want you to know that it took me four years to finally feel different about myself."

When addicts recognize that part of their downfall was intolerance of delay and when they become willing to wait for the rewards of sobriety, they are on their way to recovery. If they want "instant" sobriety, they get nowhere.

Old-timers in the program think of their sobriety in terms of twenty-four-hour segments. They celebrate sobriety anniversaries but with great caution because they know it's risky to think in terms of years rather than days. That's one reason many recovering people rely on meditation books that focus on a day-at-a-time approach.

"One day at a time" is not just a clever slogan. It is absolutely necessary for recovery from addiction.

When addicts and codependents fully grasp the one-day-at-a-time concept, they have begun their recovery. They must proceed cautiously, however, because a recurrence of time distortion is reason to suspect the possibility of a relapse. The time dimension of thinking is thus an important consideration for both the recovering addict and the professional in understanding and managing addictive diseases.

About the Author:
Abraham J. Twerski, MD, is the founder and former medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A rabbi, former psychiatrist, and former addiction counselor, he is the author of many journal articles and books, including Self-Discovery in Recovery and When Do the Good Things Start? with "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz.

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