The 24-Hour Plan

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.”

References

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.

freethinker in aa-john l

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share:

Comment

  1. bill_d89 December 5, 2017 at 10:17 pm - Reply

    “A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous” went through many (different!) printings; the first and oldest dates to 1944 (NOT 1940.) There are a great number of textual clues: see the OLDEST VERSION (linked below) and compare that to your greatly revised 1960s version quoted above.  Content has changed!

    http://aaagnostica.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/A-Manual-for-Alcoholics-Anonymous-Compressed.pdf

    Of note, the “24-Hour a Day Program” concept first appeared in the 1940 articles and 1942 Houston Pamplet of Larry J.* This meme didn’t really gain much traction until the mid-1940s; popularized nationally in the 1950s (but only alluded to in the 2nd Edition of AA 1955); now wrongly assumed to originate in Oxford Group in the ’30s.

    That is false. You might love the concept, but let’s not mislead anyone: “24-Hours” is familiar to the ‘Comes of Age’ period (1950s) and not the original, old-school OG/AA 1935-45. We should try to be accurate, not conflate, and tell the truth (however unpopular) when discussing AA history.

    *Larry J. didn’t even stay sober three years; no, the author of this particular concept died of alcoholism in 1944. It didn’t work out for him, actually.

  2. Tony Lavelle September 7, 2016 at 9:01 am - Reply

    Thanks John Great read inspiring

    I am getting a bit fed up of hearing people sharing nearly a the time how if they hadn’t Done the steps they would not be sober Many of the shares are obviously regurgitated So even more boring

    Tben I hear the line “If your sober a decent length of time and you haven’t done the steps you were never Alcoholic!

    This is dangerous talk imho as I spent 25 years trying to convince myself I was not Alcoholic Just a heavy drinker despite all the evidence to the contrary

    Incredibly 10 years ago I stayed around long enough to realise I was & am alcoholic & I’ve stayed sober ODAAT By Attending meetings not drinking & helping others were possible

     

     

  3. Dave B September 4, 2016 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    Great article, John.  One of my favorite slogans is “Don’t Drink No Matter What”.  We can always give ourself permission to drink tomorrow.  Of course, when tomorrow comes, we don’t drink, no matter what, again.  Pretty much the same thing.  In my secular group, some of us like the steps, some don’t.  Some of us have had sponsors, some haven’t.  But all of us believe in the 24 hour program and the fellowship.  I know that for 6 minutes, I can talk about whatever I want and nobody will interrupt me.  Not a lot of guilt.  After everybody gets a chance, we usually have a bit of crosstalk before we say the responsibility pledge.  Pretty simple, pretty brilliant.  And thanks for the reminder about the original edition of Living Sober.

  4. Larry K September 4, 2016 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    Excellent article!

     

    Every idea needs a voice in the choir.

  5. Annette K September 4, 2016 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    Thank you John for a great read. I’m lucky to actually hear stuff like this at my traditional AA meetings. I wish there was more of it, but I try to take what I need and leave the rest.

  6. John S September 4, 2016 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    When I came to my first AA meeting this was the experience that was shared with me as well. All that I needed to do was not drink one day at at time. That, and going to meetings was the bedrock of my recovery, and still is. It’s simple, and it works.  Don’t drink, go to meetings, work with others -that’s the AA program that I practice.

    Thank you John. This was beautifully written.

  7. Iain September 4, 2016 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    Hi John.

    Fantastic read. Thank you!!!! Is it really 41 years since AA last published a book?  How insane is that with all the changes that have happened in this mad world of ours! Here’s a thought – maybe AA could actually re write the big book so that it’s as up to date as we are! Come on AA, give this a thought as alcoholics are not joining the fellowship as it’s so outdated in a modern world. I tride for years to get help and almost died until I found my non religious free thinking group here in Bristol, UK

  8. Joe C September 4, 2016 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    For me, A Freeinker in Alcoholics Anonomous is one our best examples of AA by design-take what you like and leave the rest.  Readers won’t agree with everything but they can’t help but identify with much of John’s thinking and experience. And isn’t that the point? We are a fellowship

    of common suffering and our solition, while ripe with commonality, is as individual

    as each of our thumbprints.

  9. Lance B. September 4, 2016 at 10:06 am - Reply

    Thank you John.  I’ll use the article as my suggestion for meeting topic in an hour.  There were several things you describe which I had not recognized in my own 29 years of sobriety including the dry drunk as a physical manifestation.  Yes, at a meeting on the reservation and a few other times in the last week I’ve heard people describe themselves as being  a “bit dry.”  I suspect they meant they were testy and irritable with their fellows.

    For some reason the 24 hour plan never played a very large part in my understanding of sobriety.  Maybe introduced in a way which did not work for me or maybe I just figured the drinking part of my brain would so easily overwhelm the tricky part sooner or later that it just didn’t seem all that practical.  As chairperson today I would like to bring your message to some of the newly sober members who have not heard about the 24 hour plan in such a way that it may become practiced and practical for them.

    You have done a yeoman’s job on that.

  10. Thomas B September 4, 2016 at 9:56 am - Reply

    Ah, John, so good to read your clarity of expression about the essentials of recovery in the AA Fellowship. i.e., as you conclude your article, ” Don’t drink. Come to meetings. Help others.”

    I also particularly appreciate your discussion of Living Sober, as being the only AA publication to effectively deal with the pragmatic, practical and essential elements of staying sober, which includes staying away from the first drink a day at a time. I wish this would change, but it’s my observation during the last 40 years or so, since Living Sober was published, that mainstream AA has become considerably more religiously oriented, emphasizing an absolutist interpretation of the steps as they are precisely prescribed in the language of Oxford Group Christianity in the Big Book as being necessary for recovery — it was a considerably different AA, when we were gifted with recovery within the AA Fellowship in the late 60s and early 70s.

    The great majority of AA members today throughout North America are unaware about how inclusive and open-minded AA was during its beginning years. Robert Thomsen, Bill W’s first biographer, whose book, Bill W. was published in 1975 and was derived from tape-recorded conversations with Bill Wilson, perhaps states it best:

    There were agnostics in the Tuesday night Group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some time each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then — whatever it was that occurred between them — was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves.

    I discern that we in the secular AA Fellowship are more faithfully and truly “Back to Basics” than those who proudly and arrogantly proclaim that they adhere to the one and only true way to be “recovered” members of AA through the grace of their higher power, Jesus Christ.

     

  11. Doris A September 4, 2016 at 9:27 am - Reply

    This is something I will read many times again.  It’s a good start to my day.  Thanks John.

  12. Oren September 4, 2016 at 9:01 am - Reply

    Thanks, John. Shortly after I got sober in 1973, I was driving somewhere–feeling good, feeling healthy, feeling free, and feeling happy that I was sober. Suddenly I thought, “I’m only 29! Maybe I’ll live a long time! How am I going to keep this going?” I had a moment of panic that hit me physically in the stomach.

    Then I remembered what the old-timers had been telling me: “You only have to do this today. This program works 24 hours at a time. You don’t have to worry about tomorrow or next year.”

    The panic immediately receded, and again I felt relaxed, content, serene. It worked, and it has worked every day since then.

    Not long after that I heard another old-timer speak. He started by saying, “My name is Eldon, and I have been sober for 24 hours. This is the only way.”

    For me, Eldon was right.

  13. HIGH BOTTOM JOHN September 4, 2016 at 8:33 am - Reply

    BEAUTIFUL  KEEP IT REAL SIMPLE AND PRACTICAL…

  14. boyd p. September 4, 2016 at 8:21 am - Reply

    Thanks for the “keep it simple” reminder.  One of the reasons I go to meetings, eh?  And “use what works, discard the rest” works for me, IF a humble point of view is currently functioning.  Just ordered two used copies of the first edition of Living Sober from my favorite smaller book seller.

  15. Tommy H September 4, 2016 at 7:34 am - Reply

    Very well put.

  16. Pat N. September 4, 2016 at 6:24 am - Reply

    Good article, John. You’ve captured the essence of recovery, I think-if I don’t take a drink, I can’t get drunk. All I wanted was to stop getting drunk. I knew that would help me solve all my problems. I didn’t want a new set of friends (at that time), nor a religion (I’d abandoned a couple of those). I just didn’t want to drink, and ODAAT was the key. The friends turned out to be the ones who taught me to live Now, and spiritual growth came from that.

    The best book I have on the subject is “The Power of Now”, by Eckhart(?) Tolle. It’s like a book of meditations. You can dip into it almost anywhere and get reminded that the past and the future exist only between our ears. I don’t want or need a drink Now.

    Thank you.

     

     

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.