By John L.
For me the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous has always been the 24-Hour Plan. A day at a time we stay away from the First Drink. I first heard about it as a boy — from my father over the family dinner table. A friend of his had joined AA and described it to him. My father was fascinated by the power and simplicity of the 24-Hour Plan. If you don’t pick up the first drink, you can’t get drunk — you won’t have to struggle against drinking the second, or third, or sixth, or tenth.
Years later that boy — I — would almost die from alcoholism, and then recover in the AA Fellowship. In my first year of sobriety in New York City I must have heard thousands of times: “It’s the first drink that gets you drunk.” “Don’t drink today.” “You don’t have to drink.” These are what I needed to hear. Now, since February 1968, about 17,670 days have gone by without my ever picking up the first drink.
Of all the books published by Alcoholics Anonymous, Living Sober is the only one I could recommend. It offers sensible advice on how to lead a good life without alcohol. When Living Sober was published in 1975, I and my fellow freethinkers (yes, there were a number of us) were thrilled to have an official book that described our AA — one written in plain English, free from the moralizing “spirituality” of the Big Book and 12 & 12. After a general introduction, the first two Living Sober chapters are: “Staying away from the first drink” and “Using the 24-hour plan”. In contrast, the Steps are relegated to Chapter 30, where it is suggested that they might be tried; the Steps themselves are neither described nor listed (although they made a comeback in the revised edition of 2012).
While other members back then regarded the Steps and Higher Power more favorably than we did, everyone knew about the 24-Hour Plan — if not necessarily by name, at least by the first drink and day at a time elements.
The concept of staying away from the first drink goes back at least to the temperance movement of the early 19th century and is prominent in the writings of the Washingtonians in the mid-19th century. However, the first full description of the 24-Hour Plan that I’ve found is in A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous, published in 1939 or 1940, the first year of AA’s existence. (Clarence Snyder organized the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Cleveland, Ohio on 11 May 1939.) In the version below I have edited this description slightly for style and coherence and have eliminated gratuitous references to a “Greater Power” and to the Sermon on the Mount:
The 24-Hour Plan
One of the easiest, most practical ways of keeping sober is the day-by-day plan, the 24-hour plan. Live in today only. Forget yesterday. Do not anticipate tomorrow. You can only live one day at a time, and if you do a good job of that, you will succeed.
You are only one drink away from trouble. Whether you have been sober a day, a month, a year or a decade, one single drink is a certain way to go off on a binge or a series of binges. It is the first drink — not the second, fifth or twentieth — that gets you drunk.
You know that it is possible to stay sober for 24 hours. You have done it many times. All right. Stay sober for one day at a time. When you get up in the morning make up your mind that you will not take a drink for the entire day. Then go to bed at night, grateful for a day of sobriety.
Repeat the performance the next day. And the next. Before you realize it you will have been sober a week, a month, a year. And yet you will have only been sober a day at a time.
[Edited by John L. from A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Akron Manual”) first published in 1939 or 1940. Found in hindsfoot.org
In my opinion, this statement could appropriately be read or handed out in beginners meetings. It sums up eloquently what I heard in my first year of sobriety in New York City.
Knowledge of the 24-Hour Plan seems to be fading. In the past few years I have informally queried Boston AA members, and found that most of them have never heard of it, although they are familiar with the first drink concept and with “living in the now”. This is cause for concern. There seems to be an inverse relationship between sobriety and “spirituality”, with the latter on the increase.
In the past decade I have heard AA fundamentalists apply the expression “dry drunk” to someone who is merely staying away from a drink, but who is not “working” the Steps. A pamphlet from Hazelden proclaims that “dry drunks” lack spirituality. This disparaging of sobriety is not just wrong, but vicious. For recovering alcoholics, sobriety is the most important thing in our lives, because without sobriety there is no life. As a low-bottom drunk physically, I know that picking up the first drink would be signing my death warrant.
In the first year of my sobriety, I remember hearing two men in the Perry Street Workshop describe dry drunks they had experienced. Although both of them had solid sobriety, they would sometimes feel drunk, and their coordination would be affected. Their “dry drunks” were entirely physical. After a few hours or a day, the dry drunk would go away and they would be back to normal.
In the forty-eight years of my sobriety, I have had dry drunks on perhaps three occasions, and am grateful for the shared experience that informed me what was happening. My last dry drunk was about fifteen years ago, when I was living in Provincetown. In the morning — without warning and for no apparent reason — I felt very drunk. After some confusion I recognized that this was a dry drunk, and decided that I would not drive that day and would have to be careful. Even just walking down hill to the post office I took my time and was unusually cautious crossing the street. By evening the dry drunk was gone. To the best of my knowledge, these dry drunks were not related to anything at all — not weather, situations, psychological states, diet, or anything else. They just happened.
Alcoholics Anonymous has always, and rightly, been based on abstinence. There are no chips or medallions for drinking “in moderation”. Unfortunately, AA is currently under attack, not just for things that are wrong and ought to be changed, but for its bedrock principle of abstinence. Although AA abstinence is ostensibly attacked as being rigid or irrational, such criticisms covertly reflect vested interests: the therapy, liquor, or pharmaceutical industries. Some “research” claiming benefits of “moderate drinking” proved to be blatantly fraudulent. (Maltzman, Milam) This is a big topic, which I deal with in two chapters of my book.
We have known for two centuries that true alcoholics can only recover through abstinence. In the words of James R. Milam:
MYTH: Some alcoholics can learn to drink normally and can continue to drink with no ill effects as long as they limit the amount.
REALITY: Alcoholics can never safely return to drinking because drinking in any amount will sooner or later reactivate their addiction. (Milam and Ketcham)
Total abstinence is foolproof: you can’t get drunk if you don’t pick up the first drink.
You don’t need alcohol; you can lead a good life without it.
Total abstinence is easier — physically and psychologically. You don’t need to count drinks or fight the craving that the first drink reactivates.
Total abstinence is cumulative. As the length of sobriety increases, the physical craving for alcohol diminishes and the habits of sobriety grow stronger.
Finally, alcoholism causes physical harm. Time and abstinence are necessary for the body to heal itself. Even “moderate” drinking hinders physical recovery.
So, the traditional advice to beginners still holds true: “Don’t drink. Come to meetings. Help others.”
Alcoholics Anonymous [Barry Leach], Living Sober, 1975.
James R. Milam and Katherine Ketcham, Under the Influence, 1981.
Irving Maltzman, “The Winter Of Scholarly Science Journals”.
James R. Milam, “An Open Letter To All Concerned With The Drug-Crime Epidemic”.
About the Author, John L.
John was born and raised in Nebraska. He attended Harvard College (AB 1963), majoring in Social Relations (Sociology, Anthropology and Psychology). In New York City he worked as a market research executive, writing on the side. He was in the antiwar movement since 1965 and the gay liberation movement since July 1969. He founded Pagan Press in 1982. For a decade, beginning in 1985, John was a leading writer for the New York Native, which was then the foremost gay paper. He has twelve books to his credit. John dates his alcoholism from his first bender in 1958 to his last drink in 1968. He considers himself a loyal, but by no means uncritical, member of AA. John now lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts.