The Recovery Clichés

By Jared Mazzaschi 10/06/14

Smug solutions—the shrill, pedantic, annoying and ultimately quite helpful messages of sobriety.


One thing you can count on never running out of in recovery circles are pat words of wisdom or wit: idioms, also known as the “AA clichés.” If you’ve ever been “in the rooms,” you know what I’m talking about. “First things first,” and “One day at a time,” come to mind as two of the most popular and potentially the most useful.

These turns of phraseology are myriad, of varying utility and truthfulness and are constantly being invented, dug up and reformulated. Sometimes they exist simply because two words rhyme, “The past is history and the future is a mystery,” or maybe they get made up to get a laugh during a group share (although I can’t think of one that makes me laugh). And while some of them have certainly served me in my recovery, “Just for today,” comes immediately to mind, others make me gag; just because I want to stay sober doesn’t mean I have to devolve into living via sayings authored to fit in a nursery-rhyme-like-instruction-booklet, does it?

Bumper Sticker Sobriety

As a kid, I remember seeing bumper stickers that had the clichés on them. They used that scary, religious-looking font and I wondered what the fudge they meant. My parents filled me in. They probably said something like, “those are expressions alcoholics use to stay sober.” I distinctly remember thinking that, (feel free to read the next sentence in a Beavis and Butthead voice), “Man, what a bunch of idiots! Of course you live one day at a time, Duh!”

If I sound negative about this aspect of recovery, it’s because I am. I won’t fault anyone else for gleaning utility from any of these phrases, but I hate them for the same reason I hate puns in general. They just feel like a low form of human expression. Can’t we at least dress the wisdom up a little bit? I get it – the 12 steps are a “spiritual” program, but can’t we at least impart it to one another in a vaguely intellectual sounding way? Pretend we got an A in English perhaps? G.O.D. (Good Orderly Direction), must all things devolve into acronyms to be properly understood?

But then again, despite my contempt, the idea that in order to get sober one should avoid over-analysis—there is something to that.

Let Go and Let God

When I was half-heartedly trying to get sober in my 20’s this kind of specialized recovery language ran a strong second place in keeping me out of AA. I wasn’t in any way, shape, or form ready to consider there might be a “higher power,” aka GOD that might relieve me of my problem. That word, “god,” spoken out loud at a meeting was the number one reason I wanted nothing to do with AA.

I realize in retrospect that my inability to stay sober had very little to do with refusing to accept god. Rather it was my inability to admit that I wasn’t god that was the problem. Unfortunately I’m not the fount of all wisdom. The god thing was an excuse, just as hearing the clichés was. I refused to admit that there wasn’t a problem I couldn’t solve by thinking it through. Further if you were talking to me like I didn’t have a firm command of the English language you were saying, in not so many words, that you weren’t convinced I was the smartest person you’d ever met.

This “God” dilemma though, it’s at the root of this scourge of the clichés. Bill W and Dr. Bob knew that the mere word “God” raised the hackles on a good number of people. So as to appeal to as many as possible, they softened some of the language in the big book. They use terms like “higher power” and “god of our understanding” in places as opposed to straight up GOD. Thus they started the ball rolling.

On the flip side, if, as someone with an aversion to the word “god,” I can come to understand the wisdom in a given philosophy by simply swapping out a vocabulary word, then why not? Potato, potahto, god, higher power.

Terminally Unique

Me? It was my own outsized ego that led to my difficulty in stopping my drug use. I liked (and continue to like) to think I’m an original guy, a smart dude, somebody capable of having a thought that might change the world in some (however small) way. Somebody that smart must have a million and one reasons for continuing to pummel his body with narcotics, benzos and whiskey - despite his intermittent desire to stop; reasons that some shriveled-up, old dude in a church basement could never begin to understand. It took a while but once I realized that it wasn’t a great freaking mystery – that I was just numbing myself – suppressing fear of one flavor or another, I was able to stop.

I was finally able to realize this, despite the juvenile perception – that I held onto for far too long - that drinking and using drugs is not the most sophisticated behavior that human beings can display. While in reality, it’s not. It’s basic. The less you complicate things, the fewer words you have to misinterpret, the clearer the translation.

It’s like the bumper sticker concept. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple stupid.

It’s Human Nature, Dumb-ass

It’s not just recovery; we humans are born with an irrepressible need to simplify. We do it in all areas of life and it’s completely understandable. By simplifying we make (in the case of recovery semi-) complex ideas easier to understand and relate to one another. Why not say, “Easy does it, buddy. Put first things first.” It’s a lot simpler than saying, “Hey bro, don’t get wound up about all that noise, just chill out, relax and have a coconut water instead of that vodka soda.“ There are fewer words and less stuff to get lost in translation, so why not?

It might sound dumb, but then who are you trying to impress?

Jared Mazzaschi is a Los Angeles based writer. He last wrote about Kurt Cobain and being a teenager's mentor.

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