The Worst and Best of Recovery Cliches

By Brian Whitney 11/14/16

If you spend time in recovery circles you will hear these same clichés over and over again. Some make you want to run to the nearest bar just for spite, others may become mantra.

A couple, the woman is listening and the man is covering his ears.
You can't not hear them.

If you have spent any time in a 12-step meeting of any sort, or if you have spent time in rehab, chances are that you are more than familiar with recovery clichés. They are often spouted by the old timers in a meeting, or if you are in rehab, by your group counselor. 

When you first hear them, you might not quite know what just happened. Did that person just make that up? And if so, why did he say it with such confidence? You usually think to yourself one of two things: “Gee, that was an interesting thing to say, that really resonated with me, how clever that person is.” Or “What? Why the hell would anyone say something like that out loud?”

But then you start hearing those same phrases over and over from other people as well. You soon realize that they are all clichés, well-worn phrases used to keep you on the right track, which of course is clean and sober.

If you frequent recovery circles, you will hear these same clichés over and over again. Some will make you feel angry in a way you simply cannot explain and make you want to run to the nearest bar just for spite, while others will resonate with you in a way that you might say them to yourself when you are alone. They may even help you through a tough time.

Here are what I consider to be the five worst and five best recovery clichés. Use them wisely.

The Worst

“My Worst Day Sober is Better Than My Best Day Drinking.”

Really? I kind of tend to doubt that. Now, I get the point of what this is trying to say of course, but I really doubt that sober day you had when you got fired from your job and found out that your wife was having an affair with your brother was better than that day that you had an appletini at the hotel bar in Disney World when you were on vacation with your family. Here is the thing, some days on booze and drugs were fun. We all get that. It's just that that kind of fun is not sustainable.

"Let Go and Let God.”

It's not just that this is archaic and will probably insult a good percentage of the people you say it to who don’t do that whole “God” thing, it's also just way too simplistic. Personally I know some people who are doing some things that are pretty crazy and are in some very dark places. Just “letting go and letting God” is not going to do a whole heck of a lot for them at this point. They actually need some sort of a plan, you know? Being the person who says this phrase probably feels really good, especially if you have a nice warm place to go home to at night. But if you are trying to have a positive effect on someone else, then pick another cliché.

“Have an Attitude of Gratitude.”

Okay, so this rhymes. Here is a pro tip. Don’t say words that rhyme to people in bad places. When you are right in the midst of a hardcore withdrawal, or are attending your first court-ordered AA meeting because of your fourth DWI, the last thing you want someone to say to you is something that rhymes. Trust me on this one.

“Keep it Simple, Stupid.”

The thought behind this well-worn cliché is that most things, your recovery included, work better when they are kept simple, as opposed to making them complicated. This actually makes sense, and if you leave it at “Keep it Simple,” I will leave it off this list. It's really just the insult at the end that makes it so awful. I know that “Keep it Simple Stupid” becomes the acronym KISS, but is that really worth it? I truly doubt that “Keep it Simple You Enormous Moron” would catch on, but who knows, maybe next time I hit a meeting I will try it out.

“Easy Does It.”

Okay, so this one is really not so bad. While not that catchy, it is benign for the most part. But here is the thing. Some people accuse 12-step recovery groups of being a bit like a cult, and nothing plays into that more than a room full of people repeating the same pointless phrases to each other. While there is nothing inherently irritating about “Easy Does It,” it needs to die a quick death just simply because it is so overused that it has become trite.

The Five Best

“If Nothing Changes, Then Nothing Changes.”

Just like the rest, at first this one can be a tad irritating because it just seems so simplistic. But then if you let it rattle around in your mind for a bit, you realize it is a bit like a Zen koan, something that is meant to unravel a greater truth, not just about yourself but about your world. You can sit and stew in your life choices or in your addiction for years if you want to, but if you make some changes, no matter how difficult those may be, sooner or later some sort of change in your life will come as a result.

“You Are Only as Sick as Your Secrets.”

Once again, I hated this one at first, I really did. But despite its slightly maddening tone, “You are only as sick as your secrets” is truly something to remember on your path. Much of our time in addiction, and in recovery as well, is spent worrying about what our loved ones, friends and co-workers will think of us if they knew just how crazy and awful we were. Back in the day, I would way rather lie and steal than tell anyone what was really going on with me. Needless to say, that didn’t work out well. Integrity, both with yourself and with those around you, is paramount to living a good life, whether you are in recovery or not.

“You are Terminally Unique.”

This one is rather awesome. It may not apply to everyone, but it certainly does apply to those of us who choose booze and drugs as a way to show society how different we are, or as a way to cope with our differences. It goes kind of like this: “I don’t fit in, I never have. Real jobs scare me, security scares me, and relationships scare me. Therefore I am crazy, therefore I use, and therefore normal people don’t get me.” I heard this first in rehab, and as much as I initially hated it, I still remember it when I get to those places where I am going to do something insane just because “no one understands me.” While most of us, myself included, tend to think our scene is so different, the reality is that what we are doing and how we do it, has been done numerous times before.

“One Day at a Time.”

This one is even more overused than “Easy Does It.” In fact, I would guess it is the most used recovery cliché of all. But you know what? It still works. Taking it one day at a time is truly the best advice. This is for everyone, not just for people in recovery. You know how everyone you know has a yellow lab, and you don’t want to get one because you want to feel different than everyone else? Well people have yellow labs because they are awesome, not because everyone else has one. “One Day at a Time” is the yellow lab of recovery clichés.

“Progress, Not Perfection.”

When it comes to recovery phrases, “Progress, Not Perfection” is the best one of all in my opinion. Where were you before you started trying to get better as compared to where you are now? If you keep working at this instead of giving up, where will you be in a few months, or a few years? For me it is important to focus on my journey, on where I have been, and where my path is taking me, much more than focusing on every time I screw up. Just be the best you can be. Every day.

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Brian Whitney has been a prisoner advocate, a landscaper, and a homeless outreach worker. He has written or coauthored numerous books in addition to writing for AlterNetTheFixPacific Standard MagazinePaste Magazine, and many other publications. He has appeared or been featured in Inside Edition, Fox News,,, True Murder, Savage Love and True Crime Garage. He is appearing at CrimeCon in 2019. You can find Brian on Facebook or at