June 7, 2019

7 Cliché—but Surprisingly Wise—Lessons I Learned in AA.

When I was new in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), I heard these corny phrases spoken by old-timers (people with many years of sobriety).

They were mostly silver-haired older folks who looked at me with a slight smile as they leaned back in their folding chairs.

“Just take it one day at a time.”

“Fake it ‘til you make it.”

“Easy does it—but do it.”

They weren’t preaching per se, more like stating facts (like, the weather outside is sunny and 80 degrees).

I thought the mottos of AA were simplistic and silly. I didn’t understand what they had to do with not drinking. Many of them hung on the walls—gold-framed prints with gothic lettering. They were usually unevenly spaced and crooked. But, much like everything I’ve learned in recovery, I eventually realized how important these distilled bits of wisdom were.

Although there are so many things to be addicted to, such as alcohol or drugs, sex or love, gambling or shopping, video games or Instagram, overeating or overexercising, some people just don’t have an addictive bone in their body and would never dip their toe into The 12 Steps recovery world. I’ve learned there’s much to these phrases that can be of benefit to all beings in our modern world.

Here are the expressions that have helped me find my way, time and time again:

1. Keep it simple.

In 551 BC, Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. Keep it simple and focus on what matters.”

When I first got sober, I needed to focus on the basics. My fuzzy brain wouldn’t stop swirling. I had no idea where to start to get my sh*t together. I was advised to set an alarm to wake up in the morning, make my bed, shower, brush my teeth, eat, go to work, eat, go to an AA meeting, eat again, and then sleep. It turned out to be great advice, as doing those simple actions was simple but not easy. I had neglected self-care for so long that everything felt like a chore. The good news was that, as long as I focused on the basics, I gave my brain a rest.

I would breathe deeply in the shower, the water cascading over my head, down my face, and onto my lips. Briefly, I’d forget what a mess I’d made of my life.

I’d make my bed and arrange the pillows so I’d have a big, clean space to stretch out on in my tiny bedroom.

If I was cranky, I’d remember to check in with myself to see if I was hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. There was a simple solution for each of these triggers.

Keeping it simple is still a great rule of thumb, as my brain likes to complicate the simplest things. I can stress out over what to wear in the morning when the weather is uncertain. It’s no wonder Steve Jobs wore a “uniform” of a black turtleneck and blue jeans every day. When I have too many choices in any area of my life, I worry one is “right” and one is “wrong.” I’m working on the thought that perhaps neither are right or wrong—and that’s okay.

2. Wear life like a loose garment.

Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Wear the world like a loose garment. Barely touching, floating around you, unattached.”

I translated this to mean try to relax and go with the flow. I share in meetings all the time that I used to wear life like a wet suit. That usually gets some laughs. What I mean is that I always fought and resisted everything that happened in my life. I would also cling to things that were not a good fit for me. I would hold so tight to something I didn’t even want (a job, guy, piece of clothing) that I’d leave claw marks.

I went to my first real job at a literary agency hungover and miserable, but didn’t understand why I was singled out to discuss my work ethic or my lateness. I thought, why me?

I was always a victim. I always had to be right.

Nowadays, when something happens in my life that’s unexpected and unwanted (like, say, the category five hurricane that destroyed my home), I stop to consider if perhaps some good can come from it after all. I can later see that perhaps it was for the best in some ways.

Of course, in the moment it can be traumatic. The old recording in my head starts to play. It says I’m a victim. It says I always lose. But I work to stop the recording. I work to explore these feelings and let them go.

It takes effort to imagine this loose garment that is my life and for me to think of it as the sea, swirling around and buoying me, instead of pulling me under to drown.

3. Acceptance is the answer.

The idea behind this is similar to number two. Fighting “what is” is exhausting. I used to always want things to be some way they weren’t. I wanted to be skinnier, have thicker hair, and be wealthy. I never wanted to work out regularly or dress the body I had in a more flattering way or get a second job to make more money. I just wanted it to happen automatically without effort on my part.

When I was newly sober, I joined an American Buddhist sangha (community) in NYC that was recovery-friendly. It made such a huge impact in my life to hear dharma teachers like Ajahn Sumedho say things like “Right now, it’s like this.” It was an echo of hearing “Acceptance is the answer” in the rooms of AA. It made it irrefutable.

Whatever is happening is happening—with or without my consent. I have a choice whether to accept it, but it’s still happening. There are ways to practice this in my life every day. The traffic accident that made me late for work, the relationship that isn’t working out, how a friend is annoyed at me for something I said, that change is inevitable—all require acceptance.

Resisting what is real and true never got me anywhere.

Acceptance is hard. So I work on it every day.

4. Live and let live.

This is the phrase where I learned about codependency, judgment, and minding my own business. It means I get the freedom to live my life as I choose, while allowing others to do the same. This is obviously a hot topic right now, as some states are opting to reverse a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body.

As a culture, we in the United States are heading away from all of us minding our own business. If we practice live and let live, we may not agree with someone’s politics, but we still give them space to be who they are without trying to convince them to see our way of thinking. We don’t have to like everyone, but we can have enough respect for them to realize their life is their own. It requires being open-minded and tolerant of others.

5. Don’t take yourself too damn seriously.

This “rule” was made up by an early AA group in 1946 who tried to fund a multifaceted recovery center with a hospital and an educational department, all spearheaded by a real self-promoter. When they realized that they were venturing out of the realm of traditions of AA (of keeping it simple), they scrapped the whole idea. They realized they got carried away and reserved the right to be wrong. They laughed at themselves for creating unnecessary drama and made up special cards that said, “Rule 62: Don’t take yourself so damn seriously!”

I have always taken myself, my problems, and my worries really seriously. I’ve even had worry lines between my eyebrows since my 30s. An acupuncturist I used to go to would always poke her finger in that spot, saying “too much worry,” and would then stick me full of needles to bring some flow back to my chi.

I once read a story about a Buddhist monk who wrote the word “smile” in large, lettered pencil on his ceiling. He said he wanted it to be the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes. It set the tone for his entire day to start with a little joy. To me, it’s not about spiritual bypass, but more of a nudge to just lighten up!

6. Make friends with your fear.

“FEAR stands for F*ck Everything And Run.” ~ Doctor Sleep, Stephen King

I’ve run before. I denied my problem with alcohol, yet used booze to hide the fact that I was afraid of everything in my life. I was scared to fail and scared to succeed. I wanted to be a glorious, drinking writer, and instead just became a drunk who didn’t write. It is only by grace that, when I walked into AA, the urge to drink lifted. It’s only by a lot of hard work that I haven’t had a drink since. When I see people come and go from AA, in and out of sobriety over and over, I know they get the “f*ck-its” as they run from the feelings sobriety brings forward.

“When you make friends with fear it can’t rule you.” ~ Anne Lamott

I like to think of FEAR standing for “Face Everything And Recover.”

I used to have so many fears about money, men, sex, friends, work, writing, my body, my brain, my future, and my past. It was bewildering. I had to learn how to sit with uncertainty and face my problems. Understandably, this worked out better than avoidance and pretending they didn’t exist, while simultaneously drinking myself to death.

Even after a bit of long-term sobriety, I’ve been so fearful of many of the categories listed above—sometimes I’ve been immobilized. This is when a talk with a sponsor, a friend, or an expert in that specific area has helped me face it head-on and begin to take the steps to move through it.

After the loss of my home to the hurricane, I went to a therapist to unpack all the feelings and trauma of what happened. I wrote about it and talked to people who went through the same thing. I shared about it in AA meetings in a mindful way.

As a friend said to me today, “It’s hard work when you no longer have a buffer between you and your feelings.” But the work is the very thing of life, so we do it!

7. Progress, not perfection.

This is about acknowledging where we’ve been and where we are now. When I first got sober, I thought that as long as I didn’t drink, everything in my life would get better. And it really did get so much better. I was clearheaded, got to work on time, started working out, went to a sangha, and meditated. And yet, I was still in debt, made bad choices with guys, and lost my best girlfriend due to living circumstances. I even had a couple other friends tell me they liked me better when I drank.

I had to be constantly reminded to celebrate the small wins at moving toward a better life for myself. I let the fear of imperfection stop me so many times. I hated the idea of being a beginner. I thought if I couldn’t ride that fixed-gear bike, meditate, do yoga, or write easily, it was better to quit before I could fail.

I did my step work, taught myself how to ride the bicycle, got meaningful tattoos, ended relationships that were not right for me, started looking at my finances—and I did all of it imperfectly and awkwardly. And that’s okay.

I love that I can now have a meditation practice, yoga practice, and writing practice. The key word for me is practice. I give myself the freedom to have “beginner’s mind” and practice things that are new or hard for me. When I focus on perfection, it takes me out of the here and now.

I’m trying to be flexible instead of rigid. I enjoy and see value in the process as well as the outcome. I do my best, and really that’s all I can ask of myself.

These corny (or maybe not so corny) mottos from silver-haired old-timers have saved my ass now for many years. When I step into a church basement and see the crooked gold frames on the walls of an AA meeting, I’m comforted.

May these distilled bits of wisdom be of benefit to all who seek their meanings, whether in recovery or not.

But don’t take my word for it—investigate for yourself.


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