Four 12-Step Clichés That Actually Work In Practice

By John Lavitt 02/01/17
Always better, always angry, and always empty inside, as I did everything possible to avoid my truth.
Two hands giving the thumbs up sign
Just try.

When I first walked into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was so annoyed by the clichés and pithy little sayings that were spouted at me by old-timers. It was even more bothersome when those same clichés hung from the walls of the church basements and Alano clubs where the meetings took place, mocking me from above as if I was some kind of simpleton. Like virtually everything else in the 12-step programs that I sneered at in the beginning, later I would be amazed at how well these so-called clichés actually worked when put into practice and applied to my actual life.

Character Defects And Clichés

"Later" is a bit of an understatement, because it took many months and even years for me to develop a way of living and being that resembled emotional sobriety. Like an alcoholic or an addict or whatever substance use disorder label you wish to give to my disease of perception, I was unable to see the world or myself clearly. I took everything personally, and this included the pithy little sayings of the 12-step programs. When I walked into a room and saw those clichés staring down at me from the wall, it really got under my skin and brought forth my character defects like a volcanic torrent of red-hot lava.

Here are some of the so-called worst:

  1. One day at a time
  2. First things first
  3. I may not be much, but I'm all I think about
  4. The longer I'm sober, the drunker I was

I would hear that crapola popping out of the mouths of the old-timers, and I wanted to slap them upside the head. From the shadows would pour forth my go-to character defects when I thought about the sayings—incredible grandiosity and a major sense of entitlement—like predators leaping on their prey. Whether I said it out loud or kept it simmering within, the words would reverberate like pinballs in my skull:

“Don’t these assholes know who I am? I am a writer and an Ivy League graduate. I could do so much better than that clichéd crapola. No wonder people relapse. Man, I am so much better than all of these two-bit philosophical posers. I don’t need to take any more of this shit. I didn’t come here to be talked down to like some kind of high school dropout or homeless bum living on the streets.”

And on and on and on: Always better, always angry, and always empty inside, as I did everything possible to avoid the truth and my own. Eventually, I would come to realize that much of the truth is actually revealed in those clichés. By taking a closer look at each of them in practice, I can share with you what I later discovered for myself.

One Day at a Time

As the mother of all 12-step clichés, “One Day at a Time” probably takes more flack than all of the other well-known recovery sayings combined. I don’t know when I first heard it, but I know I thought it sounded like a cult mantra. I mean, what else could you possibly do except take life one day at a time? It seemed so damn obvious that it must have been a smokescreen hiding a deeper manipulation, or maybe they were just that stupid. Either way, lost in the dark woods of always being right and always being special, deep within the terminal uniqueness of my alcoholic complexity, I truly despised anything that came across as simple.

As I progressed in my sobriety, I would learn there is a big difference between knowing something and learning how to act on it. In college, I had learned in my critical theory classes about the divide between theory and practice, but I rarely had put this knowledge to work in my own life. Yes, I read a thousand and one books of philosophy and spirituality, hoping to find the answer to the existential crisis I felt deep within. I wanted a book to save my life, but I didn’t want to actually do the work. When I did finally make the choice to quiet my grandiose ego and do the work on a daily basis, this ultimate cliché became the backbone of both my everyday recovery and my primary tool for understanding what was happening when I was feeling uncomfortable.

My first sponsor that I worked all 12 steps with in a 12-step program offered me a perspective on the "one day at a time" concept that I employ on a daily basis. Regrets characterize the past, and we are powerless to change what has happened. Fears characterize the future, and we are powerless to know what will happen. As a result, we stay in the present and take our lives one day at a time. By staying present today, I actually have the power to take the next indicated right action and move forward. "One day at a time" works in practice because I don’t have to be overwhelmed by either the regrets of the past or the fears of the future. That’s often why I chose to drink and use myself into oblivion. By putting one day at a time into practice, I can live my life freely in the present.

First Things First

Okay, fine, if "One Day at a Time" made me angry, I think “First Things First” pissed me off even more profoundly. I mean, holy shit, now you’re talking down to me like I’m some kind of idiot. Listen here, I’ve read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, and that’s the closest I’ve ever come to such idiocy. If only such protestations had had a grain of truth in them. As an addict and an alcoholic, I had done more stupid things than I could remember! The level of my idiocy was hidden by the extremity of my denial. My disease being that serious, I seriously needed help.

As a serious guy with a serious disease, I tended to overcomplicate things. Life became much more difficult than it needed to be because such complications made me feel important. Given that sense of importance, I hated the idea of taking the first step in any form of competition unless I was guaranteed a certain victory. Sure, I would play on your team if you guaranteed that I would be the MVP who hit the game-winning grand slam in the seventh game of the World Series. My grandiosity would not allow me to take first things first, yet I needed to in early recovery if I was going to survive. Jumping ahead would inevitably lead to relapse, and I needed to understand that being clean and sober came first.

“First things first” has proven to be an exceptionally helpful tool in practice. There is a reason why the 12 steps are laid out in a certain order; you are not meant to jump around and do whatever you feel like willy-nilly. I couldn’t trust my own warped instincts because I have a disease of perception, and I don’t perceive the world or my place in it correctly. By listening to those that walked this path before me, I could succeed in the long run. First things first meant listening before strutting, and placing trust in other people. By demonstrating this faith in the veracity of the path set before me, I could take a deep breath, let my need for control go, and begin with the first step.

It was hard to overcome my grandiosity and entitlement to accept the principle of first things first. Deep down, within what felt at the time like the ruins of my soul, I knew that I was doomed without this gift of recovery. When it came to first things first, sobriety had to come first then and sobriety still comes first today—the foundation stone on which everything else, my dreams and hopes, can be built.

I may not be much, but I'm all I think about

“How dare you imply such a thing! You don’t know anything about me.” As a human being suffering from a profound disease of perception, I am unable to see myself correctly. Being right-sized is not a natural state of being for a guy like me. When I first heard this description of the alcoholic in the first stages of recovery, it burrowed under my skin, making me feel itchy, irritable and discontented. Is there anything more uncomfortable than denying a description that perfectly describes who you are and how you treat yourself?

When I walked into a room, I tended to have two different takes on my entrance. The first reaction was based in grandiosity: “Why the hell aren’t you all standing up and clapping? Don’t you know who I am? I am the coolest guy in this room, and I deserve your attention and acclaim.” This, if you hadn’t guessed already, was my ego’s profound overcompensation for how I really felt about myself, which leads us to the second reaction.

This reaction was based in self-hatred and a paranoid self-pity: “Why are all of you looking at me? Have you been saying bad things about me? I can’t believe you can all know what’s behind the curtain. You all can see what a piece of shit I am and that I am not worthy of being loved or even liked.”

Both reactions are lies based in my character defects. My closest friend in the world—whom I have known for over 30 years and who also (surprise, surprise) is in the program—has the wisest saying about character defects that helps to illuminate this so-called 12-step cliché: Our character defects are the lies that we tell ourselves about ourselves.

"I may not be much, but I am all I think about" reveals the strange and paradoxical irony of the disease of perception when tied to the ego. Although I feel like a piece of shit most of the time inside, you better treat me like I’m something special. I’m really not worth talking about, but I talk about myself all the time. Such a twisted perspective keeps us knee-deep in the morass of our disease. By recognizing the truth that lurks behind this cliché, an awareness that eventually leads to a freedom can be achieved. By catching this negative thinking before it becomes impactful on my life, I am free to experience happiness and serenity.

The longer I'm sober, the drunker I was

When I first heard someone spout this 12-step cliché in a meeting, I shook my head and looked up at the water-stained plaster ceiling in disgust. What the hell was he talking about? That’s just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard. How could you be drunker if you are sober longer? It didn’t make any sense.

As a person in early sobriety—barely detoxed from the drugs and alcohol—my reactions were dominated by defensive postures, resentful attitudes, and a profound sense of discomfort. After all—to use another 12-step cliché—I had lost “my best friend” when I got sober. Alcohol and drugs were not my problem. They were my solution, but they just stopped working. I am the problem because I have a disease of perception, a false way of seeing the world and myself. "The longer I’m sober, the drunker I was" is a 12-step cliché that is directly related to the second step: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

When I saw Step 2 in the beginning, it rankled me red as I simmered inside. What the hell do you mean, “restore us to sanity.” Are you saying that I am insane? The longer I stayed sober and the more steps I worked, the more obvious my insanity became. Looking back today, I find it challenging to get inside the head of the guy I was when I hit my bottom. This is exactly what this cliché means. As I am restored to health and the intensity of my disease of perception is gradually lowered, I see the insanity of what happened. The extremity of my drinking and using becomes more and more obvious.

A Chance to Work in Practice

If you are new to the 12-step programs, I totally understand if you hate all the clichés and sayings and meeting-speak. I only ask that you give it a chance. The longer you stay in the rooms and participate, the more your vision will clear. There is a reason why you ended up in these rooms. Give the clichés a chance to work in practice because they might just end up saving your life. Ultimately, that is what happened to me, and that is why I am so grateful for the program and the gift of being able to pass what I learned along to you.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.