One Day at a Time: Solid Advice, In and Out of Recovery Circles
By Jeff Vircoe. This article was originally published July 7, 2017. Updated February 10, 2021.
If you judge the advice “live life one day at a time” by how often it is said, it has high value. Spiritual and religious leaders, philosophers and psychologists, and all kinds of self-help advocates frequently offer up the suggestion of living life in manageable increments.
When it comes to recovery, the One Day at a Time philosophy is a staple of wise counsel. Certainly, the co-founder of the 12 Step movement, Bill Wilson, understood the therapeutic value of such a simple but inspiring idea.
“On a day-at-a-time basis, I am confident I can stay away from a drink for one day. So I set out with confidence. At the end of the day, I have the reward of achievement. Achievement feels good and that makes me want more!” Wilson is quoted saying in the A.A. conference-approved book, As Bill Sees It.
One Day at a Time, Now More Than Ever
As we enter the start of a second year in an unprecedented global pandemic, we continue to struggle with questions most of us never thought we’d have to answer. It’s the new normal to ask, when will schools resume safely and businesses recover? When will most of us return to in-person work? Will I remember not to stand up during a Zoom call and reveal my sweat pants?
How much longer can I continue to cope with the physical risks and mental strains that are burdening me and my family?
Why am I always tired? Am I worrying too much?
How much longer until I can finally go back to an in-person A.A. meeting?
In modern times, most people seem to associate recovery and One Day at a Time as being synonymous. Asked about his prolific writing history, Canadian rock icon Neil Young once said, “I just wrote one song at a time. Kinda like an alcoholic. One day at a time.”
However, now more than ever, the idea of “one day at a time” is applicable to all of us, all the time. COVID-19 may not be resolved today or tomorrow, but it will be one day. Until then, we can all treat ourselves with compassion by staying in the moment and focusing making the most of the day we have ahead of us.
Taking Sobriety One Day at a Time
One Day at a Time is found in A.A.’s basic text book, the Big Book, of course. On page 85, Wilson reminds us that, as individuals with addictions, we are not cured of our illness just because we have abstained for some time.
“What we really have is a daily reprieve,” he wrote, “contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”
When you ask people in the business of addiction treatment who are also in recovery themselves, you quickly find that One Day at a Time is advice they sincerely give and live by.
“For me, it’s about that freedom to start over. There’s a real freedom from the shame and guilt that would immediately hit me. It’s about gratitude of having that gift of a daily reprieve,” says Rebecca P.*, a woman with over 25 years in recovery in family programs.
“It means being present in the moment and focusing on now. Letting go of the past and, especially for me, God, I want to control the outcomes, I want to worry about the future and I want to live in my self-centered fear. This is an alternative to that.”
“It’s about gratitude of having that gift of a daily reprieve”.
Sergio O., a man with over 29 years clean in Narcotics Anonymous, sees One Day at a Time as essentially being the same as N.A.’s frequently used mantra “Just for Today.”
“Just for Today to an addict means there is a responsibility to stay clean just for today. The addict mind always worries about what? I’m going to have to stay clean the rest of my life. So, he never stays in the moment. Just for Today helps the individual to stay clean just for today,” says Sergio, who has been helping addicts find recovery for over a quarter century.
“As you go on deeper into recovery, then the second stage of recovery, as I call it, happens,” he says. “Life gets real. We try to solve the problems of the future. So, that’s when we start learning to take responsibility just for today. When it comes to people, places and things we learn to be responsible, just for today. To stay in the moment.”
Living one day at a time does not mean swearing off drinking or drugging with other substances or behaviors forever, even though we know that’s what we need to do. In the A.A. Pamphlet This is A.A.: An Introduction to the AA Recovery Program produced by the fellowship in 1984, the authors put it this way.
“We take no pledges, we don’t say that we will ‘never’ drink again. Instead, we try to follow what we in A.A. call the ‘24-hour plan.’ We concentrate on keeping sober just the current twenty-four hours. We simply try to get through one day at a time without a drink. If we feel the urge for a drink, we neither yield nor resist. We merely put off taking that particular drink until tomorrow.”
It goes on to say:
“Today is the only day we have to worry about. And we know from experience that even the ‘worst’ drunks can go twenty-four hours without a drink. They may need to postpone that next drink to the next hour, even the next minute — but they learn that it can be put off for a period of time.”
One Day At A Time for Everyone: You’re Not Alone
One Day at a Time has more than its share of recovery angles, but it also has practical meaning for many not in recovery.
Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki, wrote five affirmations that became the principles of Reiki.
Just for today:
1) I will not be angry
2) I will not worry
3) I will be grateful
4) I will do my work honestly
5) I will be kind to every living thing
Powerful suggestions to live by, one day at a time, Usui advised. A host of others echo similar sentiments.
“Life is like an ice cream cone. You have to lick it one day at a time,” Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the rest of the Peanuts cartoon gang once said.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln once referred to the slogan this way: “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”
Even Pope John XXIII, the top man in the Vatican from 1958-1963, believed in the same principles contained in the slogan. He released a Top 10 list of tips for living a better life day by day, known as The Daily Decalogue of Pope John XXIII:
1. Only for today, I will seek to live the livelong day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
2. Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
3. Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
4. Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
5. Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
6. Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
7. Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
8. Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
9. Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
10. Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.
The Importance of Staying In the Moment
In practical terms, those with the disease and those without it seem to understand that the slogan One Day at a Time is all about calming one’s self down long enough to do the next right thing. It’s about staying in the moment so that you don’t give yourself time to be overwhelmed by the future.
Michael B.*, an Edgewood counsellor with 30 years in Al-Anon and another 28 in A.A., has been counselling people with addiction for 26 years. “One Day at a Time really just breaks it down. I can get overwhelmed when I think about the future. Crazy making. I want to control it. Run it. Panic about it. My anxiety goes up through the roof. But when I just stay in one day at a time, I can manage that.”
He also recommends taking it deeper, if necessary.
“Sometimes I break it down even more to just this hour. Or the next five minutes. So, it helps break things down to manageable segments, a manageable load.”
“Life gets real. We try to solve the problems of the future. So, that’s when we start learning to take responsibility just for today. To stay in the moment.” – Sergio O.
One day at a Time is a philosophy and counsel that can be applied by people with any kind of addiction, their family members, as well as people without an addiction. The overwhelmed, anxious moments all humans face can be eased with getting grounded, and this slogan provides that relief.
“Is it common for addicts to feel overwhelmed? Oh yeah. Incredibly. It crosses all forms of how addiction acts out. Addicts and alcoholics, myself included, we are so used to having to manage and control and figure out and second guess.
‘So, being able to just breathe and figure out what’s the next right thing, instead of two weeks from now, what’s the healthy thing that I can do right now? It makes all the difference in the world.”
EHN Canada Can Help You
If you would like to learn more about the addiction and mental health treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enroll yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC
- 1-866-860-8302 for virtual outpatient support, available wherever you are
*Name has been changed
SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER, FORMER PATIENTS CONTINUE TO PROVIDE WARMTH TO THE NEXT GENERATION AT EDGEWOOD TREATMENT CENTER
By Jeff Vircoe
The letter arrived this week, just like it does each year.
Enclosed in a box, surrounded by love in the form of a collection of warm toques, it is addressed to the 80 or so inpatients who will be spending Christmas 2017 inside the walls of Edgewood addiction treatment centres.
In the letter, co-penned by Greg J. and Cynthia W., two alumni who, 17 years ago, spent their own winters on Boxwood Road in Nanaimo, they share the importance of passing on what was so freely given to them — the spirit of giving.
“We started this tradition of sending these our first Christmas back in our respective worlds outside of Edgewood addiction treatment centre in 2001,” the letter reads. “May these small gifts bring comfort to those who receive them at Edgewood and may they know each one is given from alumni who are still willing and very grateful for their sobriety.”
Cynthia lives in New Westminster, B.C.. She and Greg are good friends, with hearts in the right place. Each year since the winter of 2000-2001, they have sent a care package to the inpatients as a way of saying we are here for you when you get out, and thanking the mental health and treatment addiction centre that started the fulfilling journey they are on.
“It’s a way of sending respect, and also hope, to the new people coming through the doors of House of Miracles,” says Cynthia, a retired CUPE director. “Our lives were changed for the better for being at Edgewood addiction treatment center, and being part of that community. It’s a way of us saying to the person that receives it, ‘Have hope. We did. We’re doing it. You can do it too.’”
For his part, Greg, a retired heavy duty mechanic, collects the hats and ships them off to Edgewood treatment centre as a way of saying thanks for what he received over Christmas, 2000. He remembers the gift of toques, gloves, scarves and other little presents which meant so much to the man who was once so broken and lost.
Their friendship began in treatment. Cynthia recalls being “so very indignant” attending the detox treatment program at Edgewood addiction treatment center in January of 2001. Greg, who had been in treatment for a month already, was a calming influence as she paced restlessly in her first days at Edgewood.
“I couldn’t sleep, and he’d meander in to [Bridges dining room]. We would read the Big Book and try and figure out what this means and what that means,” she says with a laugh. “He was so encouraging. He had been there several weeks. He reassured me that my head would clear. He told me to remember detox treatment was not a race, not a course. He was so sincere.”
The two friends would end up doing their aftercare sessions in Vancouver when they completed treatment, and their friendship just got richer. Though Cynthia was widowed and Greg recently divorced, it was one of those special platonic relationships that just blossomed.
“When I got sober, my whole word opened up and romance was just not in the cards,” says Cynthia. “Friendship was. Giving back was. We had learned so much at Edgewood, and we both had such a strong commitment to staying sober. We both felt that we had been given a second chance at life. It was that commitment to sobriety that drew us together.”
So, at Christmas time, they naturally think back to the launch of their friendship, their new lives as sober, recovered people.
‘For years, we would gather the toques together, go over to the Army and Navy and pick them out. But, the last few years, he has been picking them up. I write the letter,” she says with a smile.
They also began returning to Edgewood for January’s Cake Night each year, taking the ferry over together, reminiscing.
“We get there and we stand outside and just watch,” says Cynthia. “It’s so funny, it has changed so much. But we always look at the walkers and laugh, ‘There [are] the inmates.’ And we look at the list of people who have passed. We look for the one or two staff we still know. Then we go in, get a coffee and do Cake Night.”
The continuity of recovery, Edgewood style, remains strong for these two alumni. Greg, a Burnaby resident, still attends five or so meetings a week. He’s a regular at the Burnaby Fellowship Centre, a meeting place where plenty of newcomers are trying to fit in.
“He’s always there, holding out his hand,” says his friend. “He just likes to talk to people, to encourage them, to listen to them. He’s a very humble man.”
As for Cynthia, she is looking forward to her annual trek for her medallion on Cake Night next month. Traditions matter to the two. Greg shows up to his home group with treats to mark his time each December, “unannounced, of course”, and the two continue their tradition of sending their tangible message of hope in the form of toques to the newcomers at the House of Miracles.
Meanwhile Cynthia continues to talk the talk and walk the walk.
“I recommend they get into A.A. and get into the middle of it. Me, I make my bed most days and I still say, ‘Thanks, Edgewood.’ We have a deep, deep gratitude to that place for the life we have today.”
Can spirituality and therapy get along?
By Jeff Vircoe
If you came into recovery at peace with the God word, the old-school A.A. slogan “There is a God and you’re not it” won’t particularly bother you.
You’re not alone. Studies show that most people do have some kind of God with whom they are comfortable. Gallup Polls conducted in the U.S. in 2005 showed that 90 percent of respondents held a belief in a personal God. Arguably, that may be different in Canada, but the point is that the conclusion that “there is a God and the guy or gal in the mirror ain’t it” just doesn’t freak the majority of people out.
Psychotherapists and religious types have long been at odds with one another about this topic. The great Sigmund Freud once characterized spiritual experiences as pathological, an illusion, and “an infantile need for a powerful father figure.” The renowned American psychologist Albert Ellis once deemed all religion as “childish dependency.”
In a modern, evidence-based society, especially in the health industry in which addiction therapy finds itself, old-school slogans containing the God word can be problematic to qualify if you are a clinician.
While the nature of the “G word” is debatable, it has always been part of deal for millions who practice the 12 Step way of life. Anyone who takes a chair in 12 Step rooms will hear regular talk of Higher Powers at meetings, and witness the omnipresent scroll of the Steps on the wall that ooze and encourage spiritual discussion way more than they do abstinence.
So, God or no God, faith or no faith, agnostic or atheist, just how does one qualify the slogan “There is a God and you’re not it” as good therapy?
Those who have their sleeves rolled up and are doing the work say it can and is being done.
Like many things in recovery, it all depends on how you choose to look at it.
“Well, first off, what is God? Who or what am I taking directions from in my life?” says Edgewood Treatment Centre counselor and former chaplain, Anthony Cafik.
As a man who has been on the receiving end of literally hundreds of Fifth Steps, he says that the word God in that slogan is not necessarily what people assume is meant.
“In addiction, if my choice has been taken away to say no to alcohol and drugs after I pick up the first drink, it is officially where I am taking my direction from. It is my authority. Someone in their active addiction, in their delusion, may think that, just because they didn’t say no to it, that they can freely say yes, they don’t see that they are a slave. That is their God.”
As Cafik sees it, they already have a God and they just don’t know it.
“It’s not religious, no. It is whatever is the authority and direction you are taking from in your life.”
In the rooms of recovery, most members are quick to point out that religion and spirituality are very different animals.
“Religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there,” the saying goes.
Many people who are not big fans of the “G word” are often put off by the amount of religious overtones in the literature or even the shares of group members. That may be unfortunate, given that, in the A.A. Preamble, members are assured that the organization is not affiliated with any sect or denomination. Nonetheless, it is important to remember the roots of the program come from an evangelical Christian movement and, as such, many old-timers were raised on the language passed on to them from their sponsors. Language that includes the word God.
So, is there a God? That’s far too complex a subject to cover in this story. But if you are one of those who believe there is, there is evidence to show that you can benefit from that way of looking at things.
In a opinion column for the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, Dr. Ruth Buczynski commented on the a pair of studies done by psychologist David Rosmarin and his team at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in 2011.
The idea of the studies was to see how spirituality and belief impact worry and doubt – things most addicts suffer through in great detail once the fog lifts and when the truth of their new sober life is looking at them square in the face. The results of the study, which included 332 subjects, showed how participants who chose to believe in a caring God reported lower levels of worry and were more open to uncertainty.
“Some therapists are hesitant to include spirituality in their practice. But if it can calm worries and lower stress, wouldn’t we want to integrate it into practice?” Buczynski writes.
In another study, this one in 2015 by London, UK-based psychologists Yveline Arnaud, Ava Kanyeredzi and Jacqueline Lawrence, the clinicians found that, in the analysis of 10 recorded one-hour interviews, it could be argued that “the Higher Power is not only central to sobriety but also to the well-being of A.A. members, whatever their original or current declared spiritual or religious beliefs may be.”
The study quoted from the late American psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck, who once said, “the importance attributed to the HP is seen by some as the main reasons why A.A. has been much more effective than psychiatry in treating alcoholics, because A.A. addresses the spiritual needs of these people – something that traditional psychotherapy, with its secular humanist values, does not address.”
In a 2012 posting on Scotland’s Castle Craig Hospital website, the facility noted that Peck’s main criticism of western psychiatry is that “it disregards spirituality.”
“In 1992, he was invited to address the American Psychiatric Association and he told them that people were turning away from the profession because they were unable to discuss spiritual issues with their psychiatrist. He urged them to incorporate spirituality into their thinking and stop the loss of patients to “the competition” – lay, fundamentalist and new age healers.”
After six years working as a chaplain at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre, a high security remand centre for men, Edgewood chaplain Shaun Jessop says the God issue is front and centre for those arriving at the House of Miracles, as Edgewood is fondly referred to by many of its alumni.
“It’s huge. I find, with a lot of patients that come in, the God thing, they don’t want anything to do with it. It’s religion and all that kind of thing,” says Jessop, an ordained minister with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sacred Literature.
Hearing slogans like the ones recovering old-timers hurl about like Frisbees regarding the higher power concept can be a powerful, and even necessary, wake up call.
“So, it’s the beginning [of] redefining what is God and what’s religion. It’s kind of drawing the line in the sand and saying, ‘Okay, religion is one thing, God is another thing.’ They tie the two together all the time,” he says.
“It is beginning that journey of connecting with something outside of themselves. A lot of them come in and they already are their own Higher Powers. So, it’s a case of, ‘How is that working for you?”
And once they are getting curious about God, then comes the next piece: You’re not it. That often brings with it a sense of relief when the implication is understood, Jessop says.
“You’re not it? It’s very freeing. People don’t usually think they’re God – but they act like it. Self-centeredness. Grandiosity. False pride. Where the whole world revolves around them. A victim mentality. Where they think that everything outside of Edgewood relates to them, or is because of them.”
When you are your own God, your own Higher Power, you’re isolated, he says. There’s so much pressure. The weight is on your shoulders.
“The ‘you’re not God’ part? Connecting with the ‘We’ is a huge starting point. Because that spirituality thing, well, it’s often too vague and weird. So, it becomes about starting to connect in group [therapy]. Beginning to connect with somebody outside of yourself. They begin doing that and then they’re like, ‘Oh, this helps! This is great!’ and it gives them life and freedom. Then that builds that confidence to step out a bit more out of their comfort zones. To risk a bit more with prayer, with meditation. So, it’s baby steps.”
Anthony Cafik agrees.
“Many come from homes of addiction, and that means abuse. [The] authority figure becomes abusive and, therefore, they can’t trust it. So, guess what? They become their own God. ‘I’m going to make the choices in my life so I don’t have to get hurt like that again.’ They choose something to comfort them because that’s a lonely place. So, alcohol and drugs. Then they become a slave to that, unknowingly. So, unless they fire themselves as their authority and their God, they are going to continue to be slaves to addiction,” says Cafik.
“If they fire themselves as God, they need to find something that is greater than their addiction and greater than themselves, that will help them and they can trust.”
The door is open for addicts to choose their own concept of a power greater than themselves. It certainly does not have to be religious. Many choose this power of “We” that facilities like Edgewood support. An addict and his or her peers can do it. “If that person can stay sober, why can’t I?” One addict talking to another. Group of Drunks. Good Orderly Direction. Acronyms abound.
Of course, not everyone buys into the slogans which imply a supernatural being at play.
Asked for his opinion on the “There is a God and you’re not it” slogan, Roger C., website master of Toronto’s A.A. Agnostica site had this to say: “There are idiot slogans that I don’t process or interpret, and that is one of them.”
In this fellowship, whose expressed written Third Tradition assures members that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”, the message is clear: Take what you like and leave the rest.
Live & Let Live: A battle-tested slogan in the fight for recovery
By Jeff Vircoe
As Canadians pause this week to remember the battle of Vimy Ridge and its impact on a wide-eyed, impressionable nation 100 years ago, it may surprise some in recovery, from their own battles with the bottle, to learn that one of the most sage bits of advice offered to them has a close connection to the war “over there.”
One of the most enduring slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous is Live and Let Live. Found in the organization’s basic text book, the title from which the name of the fellowship originated, Live and Let Live is one of the big three slogans, sandwiched between First Things First and Easy Does It in the chapter The Family Afterward in all four editions of the Big Book.
Its meaning is not vigorously debated. Most would agree that Live and Let Live fits along the lines of “mind your own business”, “let sleeping dogs lie”, or my personal favourite, “What people think of me is none of my business.”
“We try not to indulge in cynicism over the state of the nations, nor do we carry the world’s troubles on our shoulders,” wrote A.A. co-founder and Big Book author, Bill Wilson, in the chapter in which Live and Let Live appears.
Practical. Sage. Innocuous advice, perhaps.
In early April 2017, as we solemnly watch rickety black and white images of young men racing up steep trench walls and out into Vimy’s no man’s land pockmarked with millions of shell craters, the juxtaposition of the peaceful concepts behind Live and Let Live and any military connection may seem polar opposites, yet the battlefields are precisely where the term originated.
In a series of unofficial, but widespread, ceasefires on the Western Front around Christmas 1914, French, German and British soldiers laid down their weapons, crossed the trenches and created a sense of fellowship with one another. There were reports of joint burial ceremonies and exchanges of food and souvenirs. Harmless soccer games broke out. These spontaneous mini-truces broke up the horror and monotony of steady shelling and sniping, attacks and counter attacks. The truces meant, literally, that the soldiers would stay alive – Live, and would allow the other side to stay alive, as well – Let Live.
The New York Times and Britain’s Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch newspapers published reports of the examples of good faith exhibited by those warriors, but as senior commanders on both sides learned of the fraternization on the front lines, orders were given to knock it off. Some units defied the no fraternization order over the next year, especially around seasonal holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving, but by 1916, with gas attacks and casualties continuing to climb into the hundreds of thousands, the war bogged down, resentments hardened and Live and Let Live was put on hold as far as the battlefields went.
In his book, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System, British author Tony Ashworth went through diaries, letters and veterans’ testimonies and came to the conclusion that the term and concept of Live and Let Live was widely known by that generation.
These days, when you think about sayings like, “Pick your battles” or “I’m not willing to die on this hill”, you can see the potential military correlation. Not necessarily so with “Live and Let Live.”
It may be important to remember that, in 1939, the Big Book was introduced to a world only 20 years removed from the supposed War to End All Wars, or The Great War, as World War One was known by that generation. Much of the lexicon of the day still held a military connection. In fact, many in the 12 Step movement were veterans of WW1.
Bill Wilson was part of the Vermont National Guard, having had his first drink after being commissioned as an artillery officer.
“I found the elixir of life,” he wrote in Pass It On. “Even that first evening I got thoroughly drunk, and within the next time or two I passed out completely. But as everyone drank hard, not too much was made of that.”
Neuro-Psychiatrist Dr. William Silkworth, the physician in charge of Towns Hospital in New York City where Wilson detoxed, served in the U.S. Army from 1917-1919. Rowland Hazard, who brought Ebby Thatcher to the Oxford Group before Ebby introduced Wilson to that organization from which A.A. evolved, had been a Captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Corps. And Jim B., an agnostic A.A. pioneer who is credited with establishing the Third Tradition, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and the terms, “God As We Understand Him” and “Power Greater Than Ourselves” rather than religious terminology, was a first class private in the U.S. Army in the First World War. His story, The Vicious Cycle, was published in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions of the Big Book.
With all these veterans having input into the Big Book as Wilson cobbled it together through most of 1938, it is no small wonder that Live and Let Live, a military term urging alcoholics to put their own psychological weapons of mass destruction down, came to pass.
Photo: An artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”
Live & Let Live: It makes good therapeutic, scientific sense
By Jeff Vircoe
When, as children, we are told not to put our hand on the hot stove, it’s kind of a no-brainer. Yeah, I think I can figure that out, mom.
And when we come to the rooms of recovery, beat up, lost, and feeling like old little kids in an adult world, the term Live and Live can have a similar connotation.
Intuitively it makes sense… but how the heck does one do that?
Live and Let Live is one of the big three slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous, in that it is one of the trio of helpful suggestions written at the bottom of page 135 in the 12 Step movement’s basic text, the Big Book, alongside First Things First and Easy Does It. Sage advice for anyone, not just for people with addiction—Live and Let Live has plenty of therapeutic value. In the treatment world, where people suffering from addiction are clamoring for a way out of their pain, the slogan speaks to modalities employed by counselors.
“For me, therapeutically, Live and Let Live is being in the moment. Being right now,” says Ryan Tompkins, 50, an addictions counselor at Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, B.C. “If I’m working with patients who are living in the past, or they’re living in the future, that’s all they’re focused on. They can’t live in the now. So they can’t process what they need to do now, to just live and let live and move on.”
For the past three and a half years, the retired naval chief petty officer has been helping Edgewood patients learn to deal with their clear and present danger—addiction.
“Addicts get so caught up in the past or the future. Addiction lives in the past or the future. If we help the patients live in the now, in this moment, addiction can’t live here, with their people, with their peers, with what’s happening to them in that moment, whether they’re breathing – or not breathing half the time,” he says with a smile.
Tompkins says a lot of the work he does with patients is utilizing various grounding techniques.
“Breathing in the moment. Living. Right in this moment. Focus on, ‘How am I living in this moment? What’s happening in me? What’s happening to me right now?’ These [are] reflective questions that I get patients to ask themselves. How do we help you be in the room with us right now and not be caught in the past? So, the breathing, the grounding, we do a lot of schematic stuff, ‘What’s happening in your body right now?’, so they can begin to recognize this is what I’m feeling like in this moment right now, process it, and then they get to move on to the next minute. Versus living in their past and holding onto a resentment, or moving towards the future and how they’re going to figure everything out. So, that mindfulness piece of being in this moment right now. The here and now.”
Psychologists and scientists seem to agree with the philosophy of Live and Let Live. The practices of Mindfulness – defined as the psychology of bringing a person’s attention to external and internal experiences happening in the present moment, embody the concepts proposed in the slogan. It’s not just a good idea. The scientists have proven it works.
Pointing to a series of neuroimaging studies exploring the neural mechanisms underlying mindfulness meditation practices, scientists are finding that “experienced meditators exhibit a different gray matter morphometry in multiple brain regions when compared with non-meditating individuals,” according to six different studies done between 2005-2010.
In other words, “We can train our brains to automatically reconnect to what matters, break free from the limiting stories in our minds, incline our minds toward the good in life and even learn how to relate to our difficult feelings differently to realize an emotional freedom from the confines of our habitual thoughts and reactions,” says Dr. Elisha Goldstein, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, in a Huffington Post blog in 2013.
Though the contemporary version of Live and Let Live may have originated on the battlefields of World War One, when opposing armies were recorded standing down and interacting in a non-violent way at Christmas and other important holidays, the truth is, since ancient times, getting grounded, choosing acceptance and seeking coherence with the world – right now – has always made sense. Early Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism used meditation as far back as 4,000 years ago. The practice remains a critical component of their beliefs. In today’s fast paced world, the versatility of mindfulness practices means virtually anyone can find a form of the practice to fit their schedule, and the benefits are undeniable, whether you have an addiction or not.
“That therapeutic bond that happens in the here and now? Addiction can’t live there. Addiction can live in the past or the future,” says Tomkins.
Indeed, with many individuals with addictions refer to themselves as control freaks. Acceptance, a radical departure for most people struggling with addiction, is a big part of finding the peace to calm down a busy brain.
Marsha M. Linehan, an American psychologist credited with creating dialectical behavior therapy, once put it this way:
“Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.”
She’s also quoted saying acceptance is the only way out of hell, a place with which too many people with addiction can identify.
Live and Let Live as a concept doesn’t appear in A.A. literature in the Big Book only. One of the books patients study at Edgewood is called Living Sober, an 88 page book detailing some of the methods A.A. members have used to not drink. This handy resource dedicates an entire chapter to the slogan, two and a half pages of wise advice to ponder.
“To begin to put the concept of Live and Let Live into practice, we must face this fact: There are people in A.A., and everywhere else, who sometimes say things we disagree with, or do things we don’t like. Learning how to live with differences is essential to our comfort. It is exactly in those cases that we have found it extremely helpful to say to ourselves, “Oh, well, ‘Live and Let Live.’”
“In fact, in A.A. much emphasis is placed on learning how to tolerate other people’s behavior. However offensive or distasteful it may seem to us, it is certainly not worth drinking about. Our own recovery is too important. Alcoholism can and does kill, we recall.”
In other words, how important is this resentment we are building up rather than accepting them for who they are.
Nicole Makin is a clinical counselor at the Edgewood Health Network’s clinic in Victoria, B.C. With over a decade of helping people who suffer from addictions and other mental health issues find peace, she says Live and Let Live is an important bit of advice to get our heads around.
“It’s complicated. I think of addiction as isolation and the opposite of that is connection. So when we are living in an interconnected way, we have to have a balance of allowing others to make their choices, and also having boundaries around what we are willing to experience,” she says.
“For me, Live and Let Live would come into play if I was struggling with someone else’s behavior. It’s a reminder that I have a responsibility to set healthy boundaries for myself and allow others to have their own choices,” she says.
In closing, whether you have an addiction or not, Live and Let Live is a bite-sized jingle packing a powerful psychological and scientifically-backed punch. As one anonymous writer put it in the book Stress Less: The Essential Guide to Reducing Stress With Meditation and Mindfulness, it’s just something we need to think about.
“When we are stressed, it effectively makes us less intelligent. This is due to the reduction in prefrontal activity, which in turn is designed to make us more focused and alert. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for forward planning, creative thinking and other ‘high-order’ brain activity.
“When you are being chased by a lion, though, it is really not the time to be thinking about the meaning of life! So, shutting down this part of the brain and placing your focus on feedback from your senses makes much more sense.”
How recovering addicts use ‘Live and Let Live’ to quieten their minds
By Jeff Vircoe
It’s one thing to sit in a circle or around a table and talk the talk. It’s another thing to practice it when the meeting is over.
Live and Let Live is one of those slogans which requires any alcoholic or addict to pause. What does it really mean in my case? How do I not live and let live, or as Paul McCartney flippantly wrote, Live and Let Die?
Asking people in recovery about the slogan Live and Let Live, it quickly becomes obvious that control seems to be a major issue for many when they first arrive in the rooms.
“Control was a huge issue for me, always being overly concerned with what everybody else was doing and living their lives – particularly my siblings,” says Lindsay, a 35 year-old woman who recently celebrated her 10th year clean.
“I have a brother and a sister in recovery. But, when I was first getting sober and my brother was still in his addiction, I was like, you know, putting the Big Book downstairs, and doing stuff to try and get him to change his life rather than just kind of letting it all happen mechanically, which it did in the end.”
“So, today I use Live and Let Live in remembering that their program and their choices are theirs, and that my choices and my program are mine and I don’t have any control over what they do or don’t do – just like they don’t have any control over my program. “
Another woman who had a strong desire to steer the outcome back in the day is Janina B. At age 43, she’s 19-plus years clean and sober, and has over a decade in the field of addiction treatment. She says the slogan Live and Let Live can be compared to Step One, in terms of being powerless over people.
“So Live and Let Live is: I live, and then I let you live. At least, that’s what it means now to me,” she says.
But, of course, it wasn’t always that simple to figure out, she says.
“Before, I would just obsess about everything. I say the first year I was MOCUS – which is Mind Out of Focus. I was going a million miles a second in every direction and not going anywhere. I fired a sponsor of mine because she called me manipulative. But I was. I just wasn’t ready to hear it. But I was totally manipulative!”
“She told me, ‘I’ll be on your Step Nine!’, and in my head I was, like, ‘No, you won’t!’ But she was right. She totally was right. In that instance, I was manipulating one of my male friends to give me money, when I could have just gone to the bank. So, in that instance the Live and Let Live was I wasn’t letting him live. I was manipulating him so that I could “Live.”
If Live and Let Live can be aligned with Step One, at least one member of the recovery community we talked to sees a comparison to Tradition Three as well.
Warren W. will notch nine years out of the darkness of addiction later this month in Nanaimo. The 48 year-old says the gist of the slogan is acceptance.
“It reminds me of Tradition Three, whereby the only requirement is a desire to stop using. You don’t have to be white, straight, male, Christian, sis-gendered, whatever. It reminds of inclusivity. Tolerance,” he says.
“It’s about accepting that anyone can do this and get this with the support of others with similar goals. So Live and Let Live, to me, equals I want to get this and I want you to get it too, no matter who you are or where you come from.”
One woman in recovery in Al-Anon says practicing Live and Let Live can be a battle for many who come out of the world of addiction.
“It’s a challenge for people with addictions because we lose our sense of self. Whether we have addiction or co-addiction, we lose our sense of self and we don’t develop relationship skills in our isolation,” says Nicole M. “So, in that sense, [I] don’t know how my life ends and somebody else’s begins. Reminding myself that I’m here to live. I have my life to live and other people have their lives to live. That’s what the slogan is all about,” says the 42 year-old.
It takes years of practice to live and let live, Janina concurs.
“I want my partner to behave in a certain way. I want you to call me. I want you to, if you have a plan, I want you to cancel. I also don’t, but there is a part of me that does. So the Live and Let Live is, I can ask for what I want or need, and then let him respond in his way.”
In the end, another woman in recovery says the slogan is about respect.
Andie M., who went through Edgewood in May 2012, says living her life and accepting others is the key to serenity in recovery.
“Basically, I live my life to be the best that I can be, the best that I know how, and respect that others do the same in their own way. ’To each their own,’ as they say,” says Andie, 38.
“In my day to day life, coming across so many different people at work and in the recovery community, I come up against different ideas, points of view, values and beliefs. I may not always agree, but can respectfully disagree. We are each entitled to our own thoughts and opinions, our own way of being. It’s those differences that make life interesting. I live my life to the best of my ability with what I have learned, without fear of judgement, and I hope others can do the same.”
From an Addict’s Perspective: Addicts Keep Their Feet on the Ground By Using Old Slogan
It’s about that First Things First slogan. Some say it originated with Moses walking down the slopes of Mt. Sinai carrying the tablets burned with the 10 Commandments – the second of which says no Gods before that God. Historically speaking, that’s pretty old-school First Things First.
While many of the early 12 Step recovery men and women were not necessarily religiously obsessed, they were teachable enough to see the importance of First Things First’s cautionary finger wag of, “Don’t drink, no matter what.”
These days, on the clinical side of addiction medicine, many counselors and psychologists refer to mindfulness and the importance of being grounded when talking about First Things First. Clearly, it’s a cautionary tale, an urging of staying in the moment and not letting the distracted mind overtake the mission of recovery.
Historical and clinical definitions aside, just how do those in the boat row to the chant of First Things First?
Perspectives asked several men and women in recovery to explain the layman’s approach to utilizing the slogan, which has been part of 12 Step lore from its beginnings in the mid-1930s.
“I use the slogan First Things First when I’m overwhelmed, or have too much going on in my head,” says Jennifer B., who is coming up on her six year anniversary of achieving recovery. “It helps me focus on the next right thing. For instance, on my day off, with all the running around and things I think I have to get done, the first thing, to stop the crazy train thoughts speeding around, is to stop and pray that I do my best and ask for help. First Things First reminds me to think of solutions like calling someone in my support group,” says Jennifer.
Another woman in recovery who will get her sixth medallion this August, agrees.
“It means show up. Be present, try with your whole heart, every day, all the time,” says Kathleen S.. “And that’s what I want, every day. To leave nothing on the field, if you know what I mean.”
Patrick D. came through Edgewood in 2010. Now pushing seven years, he says First Things First is about being willing to do the heavy lifting of recovery.
“First Things First, to me, reminds me that, for years, I’d want to bypass all the uncomfortable pain of growing in early recovery. I’d be sitting in a detox and not focusing on the present, or even the next day or week, but months away, devising how to get my girlfriend back or get a nice ride again,” he says.
“Really, all I needed was to focus on not being full of shit that day, and being open to taking anyone’s suggestions but my own!”
Still, another woman points to the focusing value of First Things First. Mara K., who will notch seven years on the beam this fall, says it has to do with letting go as well.
“First Things First is letting go of the petty things and focus on the important things,” she says. “So, where do my priorities lay?”
“I try to no longer get caught up in drama and chaos, and instead either steer clear or offer solutions. Am I bringing recovery to the table or sickness? I now ask myself before I engage, ‘Am I helping, enabling or hurting the person or situation?”
Underneath all the many possible applications of First Things First, however, lies a basic, time-tested premise. How do I stay sober?
“I think of the sobriety statement,” says Ross M., a man closing in on two years. “Everything has to follow my sobriety. Without it, I have nothing,” he says, adding that, in the end, it all comes down to doing the next right thing for himself.
“In my life today, I have to do what is best for me. Fifty years of people pleasing just didn’t turn out so good.”
First Things First Offers a Remedy For More Than Addicts
By Jeff Vircoe
On the surface, the slogan First Things First may seem to mean simply getting your priorities straight.
After all, the Big Book and the Akron manual remind alcoholics that sobriety needs to be the most important thing in one’s life “without exception.”
But do addicts all need to be focused singularly on not drinking or drugging all day every day for the rest of their lives?
Not necessarily. Most addicts with multiple years of recovery will tell you they have lost the obsession to drink or use. So, in that sense, First Things First does not necessarily speak to drugs and alcohol, say professionals in the field.
“When I think of First Things First, I think of just slowing down,” says Elizabeth Loudon, clinical director at Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo. “Being in the moment. Not giving in to that mental obsession or that compulsive nature of addiction, and just taking the next step and doing the next right thing. Realistically, for me, it’s about being right here, right now.”
With over 16 years of helping addicts change their lives, Loudon says a big part of addiction is recognizing and accepting that the addicted brain is used to doing things a certain way, and that way needs to be changed.
“So, First Things First should just be about connecting back with themselves. Their defense system allows them to place blame or rationalize, defend in one way or another, so there’s never been that kind of ability to feel feelings and honor what’s happening in their world. That would be first for me. Then, it comes to connecting with other people who are important to them and learning to live a manageable life again.”
Connecting with one’s self and others even after many years of recovery.
Paul A. is a driver at Edgewood. He has over 26 years in recovery and still reminds himself that doing it his way is not the way to go.
“Sometimes you’ve got to watch yourself will,” he says. “That can run riot for anyone of us.”
“To me, First Things First means pointing at myself for self-care. Not making it all about me, but being conscious. Everything seems to be about action. A guy said to me one time, ‘You can’t think yourself into good living. You have to live yourself into good thinking.’ So it’s the action that sets you free.”
One by one, the people interviewed for this story pointed to self-awareness – mindfulness – as the true meaning behind the First Things First slogan, which A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson made sure was included on the bottom of page 135 in Chapter Nine, The Family Afterward, of the Big Book.
Mindfulness is not a new philosophy, of course. Buddhists have been practicing it for centuries. And if you research into the theory behind it, it is not too hard to imagine Wilson’s mindset when it comes to suggesting First Things First as a slogan to be considered.
John Kabat Zinn is the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In 1979, Dr. Kabat-Zinn found that chronically ill patients were not responding well to traditional treatments. He developed an eight-week stress reduction program which, when practiced with traditional therapies, did work. Since then, many studies have pointed to improved mental and physical health when treated with mindfulness-based programs. MBSR type programs are now commonly found in hospitals, schools, prisons and yes, treatment centers around the world.
In a 2012 interview given to Time Magazine, Kabat-Zinn tried to explain in layman’s terms what he had been trying to accomplish since founding the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre.
“In Asian languages, the word for mind and the word for heart are same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not really understanding it,” he told Time. “Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.”
In another interview, posted on the mindful.org website, he explained it this way:
“My working definition or what I call the operational definition of mindfulness is it’s the awareness that arises through paying attention to purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And sometimes I add in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
So when you think of First Things First, at least in the Edgewood Treatment Centre setting, it means being aware of your surroundings and acting accordingly, without adding unnecessary drama.
Debra Kine is an addictions counselor at Edgewood. She says addicts have a habit of making mountains out of molehills, and First Things First is a great way to combat that.
“When I’m saying to our patients, ‘First Things First’, it’s because they can get very overwhelmed by thinking about the past and by thinking about the future. So, if I can help them learn to live in the present time, then whatever comes their way first, that’s what they need to take care of instead of worrying about yesterday and tomorrow.”
So, it’s about prioritizing?
“Yes. Prioritizing what is in the present moment. Living in the present moment.”
And since they are not drinking in treatment and hopefully not in recovery, it isn’t about substances. It is about the brain and how one looks at and pays attention to, life, says Kine.
“Are they being conscious of their environment? Are they conscious about what effect they have on another person? Are they conscious about their language, and the effect their language has on another person? Are they conscious about what effect another person’s language has on them? Or what somebody else’s energy, when they sit beside them, has on them?” she says.
“Addicts get jumbled up, they get overwhelmed, and when they do that they create chaos for themselves, or they procrastinate or they want to go isolate. So, then, it is up to us to bring them back to the present time and help them stay grounded,” says Kine.
Another counselor, and an Edgewood alumnus, Moe Elewonibi says First Things First helps keep his patients, and himself, grounded.
“It has a couple of connotations for me in the job I do. Helping them see where they are. Helping them see that they are not in recovery yet, they are in treatment. Helping them to accept that fact. That helps them down the road.”
It’s about staying in your shoes, and knowing where you are at, too,” says the former National and Canadian Football Leagues standout.
“Sometimes our patients, like myself, we want to jump ahead. They think just because they are here they are in recovery. But here is the learning phase.”
Even with 17 years of recovery under his own belt, Elewonibi applies the slogans to himself as well.
“For me, in recovery, I still get that finish-line mentality. So First Things First reminds me to ask, ‘What do I need to do today? What’s on my plate today? What do I need to own? What do I need to be accountable for?’”
“I think the biggest thing for me is I need to get up and suit up. I still get lazy. I’m lazy as … you know. I’ll procrastinate on everything. So, First Things First for me? What do I need to do? I need to get up. Do my meditation. Call my sponsor. Some of those simple things.”
“I’m not really good at it. But I’ve got a sponsor that says I need to get on it,” he says with a laugh.
What Edgewood does in an obvious way as far as First Things First goes is to provide structure, something addicts who are used to chaos need to learn a thing or two about.
“When I look at treatment, it is about getting up in the morning, eating breakfast. Connecting with people at the breakfast table,” says Loudon. Then, it’s going back and doing your basic chores, no different than you and I have to do every morning when we get up. Getting to the next structure as they kind of put one foot in front of the other. And attempting, during all of that time, to stay out of their heads and just connect with others on an intimate level.”
That structure is really important if addicts are to turn their lives around and do different, agrees John Marshall, an Edgewood counselor with nearly 28 years of recovery himself.
“In treatment, it’s the simple things about following through with the schedule. Rather than taking on “I’ve got all this work to do, all these assignments to do”, just follow the schedule. Follow the routine. Stick as close as you can to the basics of the day. It keeps the obsession down. It keeps the anxiety levels down. It helps them stay focused and more grounded in the moment,” says Marshall.
“It really makes a big difference in keeping grounded and in the moment. Keeping them from being overwhelmed. They just need to deal with the next right thing. They just need to do the next healthy action. You know – I don’t need to take on a whole bunch of stuff in the future because that creates anxiety.”
And for alumni reading this story, Marshall says First Things First is much the same for those out in the world of recovery now.
“It’s the simplicity of getting up and recognizing I only have to deal with today. How do I start my day in a healthy way? Have I done my prayer and meditation? Have I got myself grounded in the day? So, what’s the first thing in my day? Is it making my bed? Is it getting ready for work?”
“It’s not about 3,000 things two days from now. It’s about keeping me grounded. So today – stay sober. Start my day off in a healthy way that’s going to keep me sober in terms of meditation and prayer and grounding that way, before even looking at anything else.”
First Things First Slogan Has Deep Roots Outside of Recovery
By Jeff Vircoe
In the middle of page 12 of the Akron manual — a thin, powder blue colored, 20-page pamphlet created by the members of Akron’s historic AA group No. 1, and approved by Dr. Bob Smith, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous — the priority of recovery first is about as clear as it can be.
“Sobriety is the most important thing in your life, without exception,” reads the document, which pioneer A.A. members put together in 1939 as a resource for helping new alcoholics and sponsors in their midst. “You may believe your job, your home life or one of many other things come first. But consider, if you do not get sober and stay sober, chances are you won’t have a job, a family, or even sanity or life.”
In central Vancouver Island, the warning about putting recovery first is headed to the point that many A.A. groups read that section of the Akron manual before the start of meetings. It has a place of prominence in the meeting format, just as How It Works and the A.A. Preamble does.
It is the obvious introduction to any story about the slogan of recovery, First Things First.
It’s all about priorities.
First Things First, of course, is not the property of any 12 Step movement nor anyone at all. In modern times, First Things First is a song by the Neon Trees. Another band, Stormzy, does a version by that name. So does Nadia Sirota. First Things First is the name of a book by Steven R. Covey, the author of the bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. First Things First is a magazine from the Institute on Religion and Public Life. The First Things First Foundation is a Christian organization founded by the two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl winner quarterback, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner.
So, when you try to get to understand why Bill Wilson included First Things First at the bottom of page 135 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there are myriad of rabbit holes to climb down. A.A. literature, such as Pass It On or Dr. Bob and The Good Old Timers, contains plenty of historical gems, as do A.A. Comes of Age and, of course, the Big Book itself.
But, like many of the slogans used by people recovering from addiction to navigate from point A to point B on their journey, First Things First has powerfully richer roots than a drunk or two coming up with a catchy phrase.
In the FAQ section on the A.A. fellowship’s website, AA.org, the organization’s former General Service Office archivist, Frank M., said this about the slogans in 1989:
“Your interest in the origins of ‘One Day at a Time’ is shared by many of us. Like hand-holding, however, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact ‘moment.’ That is the problem we find with most of our A.A. slogans, unfortunately!”
It goes on to refer to a quote from A.A.’s first secretary, Ruth Hock, who typed every single word of the Big Book manuscript for Bill Wilson.
“Bill [W.] and I first worked together in January 1936 when he had been sober just a little over one year and at that time ‘Easy Does It,’ ‘Live and Let Live,’ and ‘First Things First,’ were part of the daily conversation. They were also used in the very first drafts of the book, but probably only Bill himself could tell you where he picked them up,” wrote Hock, whose impact on A.A. was so important that, at the fellowship’s Montreal International Convention in 1985, she was presented with the 5 millionth copy of the Big Book, a year before she died.
Where Bill picked it up is a guess. It may be like asking the average North American where the term “cool” came from. It is just a common phrase, a term which, back in the 1930s, was in the lexicon, the language of the day.
Digging deeper, however, it seems likely that First Things First may be tied into something much more important than colloquial use. Given that the abstinence pioneers in Akron and New York were part of a religious movement known as The Oxford Group, which billed itself as a form of first century Christianity and discipleship, First Things First has some religious connotations. Historians show how A.A. co-founder Dr. Bob Smith frequently recited scripture passages as answers to questions posed by new alcoholics. And the scriptures are loaded with references to a First Things First theme.
In the Gospels, Matthew 6:33 says Jesus put it this way: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”
In the Hebrew bible, in the Book of the prophet Haggai (520 BCE), it says, “God will grant true blessing when we put His house first.”
And, of course, in the scriptures, arguably no document has more meaning than the 10 Commandments. It is there that First Things First can also be traced – in the first directive in particular: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
So, as Ruth Hock said, many of the slogans being bantered about by Bill and Bob back in the 30s came from their own experiences, and as the Big Book was being written, many of those experiences were spiritually, and, in the Oxford Group’s case in particular, scripturally based.
No matter where it came from, the First Things First slogan was clearly all about putting things in their right place, whether those things are spiritual, literary, music or sports.
Timelessly, First Things First is all about priorities.
The History of Easy Does It
By Jeff Vircoe
The Eagles sang about it. Spiritual gurus preached on it. And addicts swear by it.
When it comes to slogans in the recovery lexicon, Easy Does It is one of the 12 Step community’s most endearing and enduring jingles. It’s the “slow down, big guy” warning veterans give to newcomers, and let’s face it – what hungover, dopesick addict doesn’t like to be told it doesn’t all have to be fixed today?
Sure, this “Don’t sweat the small stuff” or “Stay in your shoes” flavour is relatively simple to swallow, even for drug-corroded brains. But behind Easy Does It is a rich nugget of wisdom which has been utilized by seekers of mental and spiritual peace for centuries. And it has been part of the recovery vocabulary since the spring of 1939.
First, the facts. On the bottom of page 135 of Alcoholics Anonymous’ basic text book, commonly and affectionately known as the Big Book, three suggestions or slogans are offered at the end of the chapter titled The Family Afterward. The section concludes with a description of how, sometimes, families miss the miracle of a sober alcoholic because they are too busy expecting rapid progress in areas outside of abstinence. The author of that chapter, A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson, wrote this: “We have three little mottoes which are apropos. Here they are: First Things First. Live and Let Live. Easy Does It.”
They are the only italicized slogans appearing in such a manner in the book. An exploration of the Easy Does It history opens up a Pandora’s Box of interesting tidbits about the fellowship, its roots, and geographical and theological differences.
If you are into stats, on the website www.164andmore.com, we find the word “easy” appears 10 times in the Big Book and another seven times in the book “12 Steps and 12 Traditions”. In the Big Book chapter Into Action on page 86, the page after the Promises end, we find this nugget: “We relax and take it easy.” It refers to prayer and waiting for God to lead us into an intuitive thought, a good idea.
In the 12 and 12 book, in the chapter on Step 2 on page 26, we find this: “His sponsor probably says, “Take it Easy. The hoop you have to jump through is a lot wider than you think.” Bill is referring to a newcomer struggling to accept his powerlessness and a Higher Power as the answer to it.
So, embedded deep in the 12 Step literature, Easy Does It is a pretty common suggestion around the rooms. It can be found on posters, cards and other internally promoted material. Many members of the more than 200 registered 12 Step fellowships, from A.A. to N.A. to O.A. (Overeaters Anonymous) and beyond, can be heard verbally offering the suggestion to newcomers at meetings and in coffee shops. Easy Does It is so popular that most cities in North America have a group, or even a club, named after it. In Surrey, B.C., there’s an Easy Does It club providing fellowship and social activities in an alcohol- and drug-free environment. In the village of Orono, Ontario (a 45-minute or so drive from Toronto), the Easy Does It group offers recovery seekers a meeting at 8 p.m. each Thursday. And in beautiful Pictou County, Nova Scotia, the tiny St. Andrews Presbyterian Church serves up coffee and fellowship at the Easy Does It meeting in Westville, population 3,798, at 8 p.m. each Wednesday.
Clearly, Easy Does It has made a big impression on the members of A.A.. But why did it end up in the Big Book, and where did Bill Wilson learn it?
Easy Does It is hardly a new concept. In 1938, when Wilson was writing the original Big Book manuscript, even as he and the 100 or so sober alcoholics were passing around the manuscript he had written for their feedback, several important spiritual and religious leaders and organizations were already championing the concept Easy Does It encapsulates. In fact, they had been doing so for over 2,000 years.
First off, a little geography comes into play. In particular, Akron, Ohio, and New York, New York.
On a business trip to Akron in the spring of 1935, Wilson, a New Yorker, helped sober up A.A.’s other co-founder Dr. Bob Smith via the Akron Oxford Group. The Oxford Group was a fellowship of Christians who believed strongly that God needed to be in control of a person if that person was to rid him or herself of the burdens of being a sinner. In their organization, which espoused principles like God having a divine plan for everyone, surrender was necessary, and that “soul surgery” came from self-examination and restitution, among other things, the Bible was often used as the main source of inspiration and direction.
Just as his old friend, Ebby Thatcher, had introduced him to the New York Oxford Group where Wilson had found sobriety through their teachings, in Akron, Wilson began working with Dr. Bob, a surgeon who was already a member of the Oxford Group, albeit a drunken one. As Wilson shared his story and knowledge of addiction with the doctor, something clicked between them and the genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous was born. Though Wilson was much less vocal about his faith in the Christian angle, the book is filled with Christian references. And things were a lot more by the book – the Good Book – in Akron than in New York. (Historians will tell you that in Akron A.A., the rule of thumb was “Trust God. Clean House and Help Others,” while in New York A.A., it was “Don’t Drink. Go To Meetings.”)
In A.A.’s formative years, with Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne, leading the Akron meetings with plenty of King James Bible references, the “God as you understood Him” as first appeared in the 12 Steps of the new book was tolerated and not promoted. The Akron approach, strongly influenced by the Smiths, was undoubtedly Christian. Inside that bubble came a certain way of looking at things.
Working with thousands of alcoholics until his death in 1950, Dr. Bob frequently quoted portions of his favorite part of the Bible – in particular, Christ’s Sermon On The Mount.
Found in the Gospel of Matthew, essentially it is a sermon delivered by Jesus in which he explains how the faithful should live their lives. To believers, it is a powerful guide to living life in the moral, just and compassionate manner expected of Christians.
“As Pope Benedict once observed in a study of Jesus, ‘The Sermon on the Mount is the new Torah brought by Jesus … as the new Moses whose words constitute the definitive Torah,’” writes Scottish Jesuit priest, Jack Mahoney, Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Theology in the University of London. In a 2008 article titled, “The Meaning of the Sermon on the Mount”, which appeared on the Christian website thinkingfaith.org, the professor explained how it established the rules of engagement for life, so to speak.
The sermon “shows us Jesus now describing and explaining what life would be like for his followers in the kingdom, as it would describe and confirm to subsequent generations of new Christians, beginning with the Matthaean community, what being a disciple of Jesus would now regularly involve for them,” writes Mahoney.
And just as the Oxford Group members swore by its significance, many in recovery believe it is in Sermon on the Mount where the roots of Easy Does It can be found.
“Dr. Bob always attributed the slogans Easy Does It and One Day at a Time to have come from the Sermon on the Mount, in particular the Gospel of Matthew 6:34,” says A.A. historian and author Dick B. in his 1992 offering, The Good Book and The Big Book.
Loosely translated, the passage advises, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
In other words, Easy Does It.
Sermon on The Mount has been studied by theologians for centuries. In contemporary times, one voice signaling the importance of the Sermon on the Mount was Emmet Fox. He named a book after it.
Fox (1886-1951) was a world renowned spiritual leader and advocate of what was called the New Thought movement. Fox believed that man’s thoughts shape his reality, and that concept resonated with millions. He believed Jesus was a misunderstood, misrepresented figure. Fox’s metaphysical approach to religious beliefs influenced 20th century icons like Louise Hay and Wayne Dyer – and Bill Wilson – among others.
Fox’s metaphysical, dogma-free approach to religion attracted the alcoholics who were struggling with Christianity. So, when he wrote his book Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life in 1938, it was quickly considered by many in the yet-to-be-named fellowship of A.A. to be a must-read.
Amazon.ca says this about Fox’s Sermon on The Mount: “In his most popular work, Emmet Fox shows how to: Understand the true nature of divine wisdom. Tap into the power of prayer. Develop a completely integrated and fully expressed personality. Transform negative attitudes into life-affirming beliefs. Claim our divine right to the full abundance of life.”
As Fox’s popularity grew in New York and around the globe, Bill and the early New York “alcoholic squadron” members of the Oxford Group were getting sober in the same city where Fox was drawing thousands to hear him speak in the largest rentable locations around town – the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, the Hippodrome, Steinway Hall, Madison Square Gardens and Carnegie Hall. In a Grapevine article published in the January 1996 edition, writer Igor. S. notes that Fox had a secretary whose son, Al, was in Bill Wilson’s circle of alcoholics. As such, it would make sense that the New York A.A. pioneers would take in the lectures given by Fox.
It is also safe to say that the “New Age” or “New Thought” label put upon Fox carried with it some divisiveness for the newly forming alcoholics’ organization. To the New Yorkers, Fox’s way of looking at Scripture resonated. The God as you understood Him crowd liked what they were hearing. In Akron, the God of the King James Bible was clear, it was Jesus and Jesus only. In New York, and in the Big Book since Bill wrote the bulk of it, there are plenty of references to Creator, Father, Director, Maker, Infinite Power, Spirit of the Universe. Not surprisingly, there was not perfect agreement on the words Wilson put down in the Big Book, nor in the prescribing of Fox as a provider of a solid line of Christian thought.
“The Fox book may not have been as popular among Akron A.A.s as it was in the east,” conceded historian Dick B.. He explained how “every major Christian writer studied by Dr. Bob and the Akron A.A.s wrote about the Sermon; and four of these writers – Oswald Chambers, Glenn Clark, Emmet Fox, and E. Stanley Jones – wrote major books or studies of the Sermon.”
Nonetheless, Dick wrote this: “Any discussion of A.A. and the Sermon on the Mount would seem to require comment on Emmet Fox’s study of Sermon on the Mount.”
Remember the passage that impressed Dr. Bob from the Biblical Sermon on the Mount?
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
The meaning is pretty clear. Take it easy.
Emmet Fox’s view of what Jesus meant in Matthew 6:34 goes like this.
“Try not to be tense or hurried. Tension and hurry delay the demonstration. You know that if you try to unlock a door hurriedly, the key is apt to stick, whereas, if you do it slowly, it seldom does. If the key sticks, the thing is to stop pressing, take your breath, and release it gently. To push hard with will power can only jam the lock completely. So it is with mental working. In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”
Again, take it easy.
Or as the rock group, The Eagles, wrote in 1972:
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand.
Take it easy.
In the “How to get a Demonstration” chapter in the book Emmet Fox Speaks (a collection of Fox’s most poignant thoughts from his books, including Sermon on the Mount), the author put it this way:
“Know the truth about your problems,” Fox wrote. “Claim spiritual dominion. Avoid tenseness, strain, and over-anxiety. Expect your prayer to be answered, and act as though you expected it.”
While pop’s counter-culture made blacklight posters mocking the “chill out” idea (think buzzards in a tree saying, “Patience, my ass, I’m gonna kill something”), Wilson included Easy Does It in the Big Book.
And, in Akron in 1940, though they were part of the group that approved the Big Book, those more religiously inclined A.A. members put it this way in an 18-page pamphlet handed out to newcomers:
“There is an old saying, ‘Easy does it.’ It is a motto that any alcoholic could well ponder. A child learns to add and subtract in the lower grades. He is not expected to do problems in algebra until he is in high school. Sobriety is a thing that must be learned step by step. If anything puzzles you, ask your new friends about it, or forget it for the time being. The time is not so far away when you will have a good understanding of the entire program. Meantime, EASY DOES IT!”
Getting the last word in, however, they made sure their loyalty to the Oxford Group remained obvious. Also in that pamphlet, known as The Akron Manual, are the 12 Steps – followed by the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Group; absolute honesty, unselfishness, love and purity.
Will AA’s 12-Steps Work For Me?
Written By: Brent Lloyd, BSW, MA, Clinical Manager, EHN Calgary Outpatient Clinic
A Touch of Controversy
Questions about the effectiveness of the 12-Step Alcoholics Anonymous and whether it’s a bonifide approach to addressing recovery from addiction still remain. These questions can create uncertainty about whether or not the 12-Steps program is right for you or if it will work.
Authors, such as Dr. Lance Dodes who published a few years ago, “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry” used key studies to support his opinion that AA didn’t work.
In the last couple of years, new research studies demonstrate that the 12-Steps do work and help people remain in recovery. A study published this year in the Journal of Health and Human Services Administration looked at the effectiveness of the 12-Steps in helping someone remain abstinent after they’d been through a substance abuse treatment program at the one year mark and five year mark. The results found that “12-Steps or self-help program have a higher success than cases not in a program for the 1-year follow up… Comparing the percentages we can conclude that the probability that an individual relapses is smaller for those who are part of the 12-Step program.”
My Point of View
Before we get started, let’s first look at how open and willing we are to look at both pros and cons of Alcoholics Anonymous. Easier said than done. I believe we all have biases and that does not have to be a negative thing as long as we are willing to be honest about how and why we came about these biases.
For instance, I have met and had the privilege of hearing how scores of people in recovery from addiction whom now speak highly of AA, but at the beginning were angry, defiant and skeptical about this approach. I was one of them.
I have found that when wanting to get high our drunk I would go to any lengths to make this happen. I learned that I needed to be earnestly willing to put in at least half that energy. That’s where AA became the chief reason that helped not only solve the drinking problem I had, but my emotional, health, spiritual, physical and emotional.
Essentially, you need to participate on a regular basis and “work” the 12-Step program if you want to see results. Recently, in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a study looked at the recovery benefits of the “therapeutic alliance” among 12-Step mutual-help organization attendees and their sponsors. The results from this study showed that almost 69% of participants that had a sponsor, remained in contact with them and had a strong sponsor alliance were “significantly associated with greater 12-Step participation and abstinence, on average, during follow-up. Interaction results revealed that more sponsor contact was associated with increasingly higher 12-Step participation whereas stronger sponsor alliance was associated with increasingly greater abstinence.” 
Let me be clear. AA is not a cure all. Those words are from the AA big book. I would humbly ask any person struggling with addiction to look at all options, many people who have recovered via the AA route will tell you themselves that they had tried many approaches before going through the doors of an AA meeting.
You Be The Judge
In conclusion, only you can answer the question is AA right for me. However, before you rule it out as an option, please give it an earnest evaluation. Recovery is not for the faint of heart and walking through any recovery program requires one to look within. Not an easy task when we put down our mood altering chemicals. I am bias- yes. However, 19 years of ongoing recovery has inspired me to remember where and why I am sober. I would not be where I am today without this life changing fellowship of AA.
Regards, Brent Lloyd, BSW, MA, Clinical Manager, EHN Calgary Outpatient Clinic
Brent is a registered social worker with a degree from the University of Victoria and a Master of Arts in Leadership from Royal Roads University. With several years of experience as a counsellor in both inpatient and outpatient settings, Brent is passionate about guiding and assisting individuals and their loved ones through the struggles of addiction.
-  Gamble, J., & O’lawrence, H. (2016). An overview of the efficacy of the 12-step group therapy for substance abuse treatment. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, 39(1), 142.
-  Kelly, J. F., Greene, M. C., & Bergman, B. G. (2016). Recovery benefits of the “therapeutic alliance” among 12-step mutual-help organization attendees and their sponsors. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 162, 64.
Challenging Those Addiction Symptoms That Can Linger After You Stop Drinking
“This is WHO I AM! Why are you trying to change me? I stopped drinking!” Sound familiar? Statements like these are examples of what people might say who’ve stopped drinking but continue to behave as if they were still drinking or using. You see, becoming sober is just one part of addiction recovery. This behaviour is commonly referred to as untreated sobriety.
It’s important to recognize this behaviour because it usually presents itself as anger and resentment. These emotions are triggering for your recovery. The anger and resentment are usually a result of not being able to accept that you can no longer use substances to feel better. In essence, what you may be experiencing is grief over the loss of your drug of choice.
We spoke to Kim Holmgren, Addiction Counsellor at Bellwood Health Services to discuss what “dry drunk syndrome” looks like. Kim Holmgren teaches a session on untreated sobriety every few weeks at Bellwood to clients and has been with Bellwood’s clinical team for over three years. Kim Holmgren states, “Although a person may not have used or acted out in years they may still have never had a sober day. So not using or acting out is definitely a part of addiction recovery, but in itself, it is not recovery.” Moving from a stage of loss to acceptance can make all the difference of how you feel. If you’re having a difficult time accepting the loss of drugs or alcohol, this can keep you stuck in a nasty state of bitterness.
Kim Holmgren shared with us a list of symptoms or some things you might say when you have untreated sobriety:
- Low self-esteem
- Can’t live in the moment.
- “I don’t like myself.”
- “What do they think of me?”
- “Am I good enough?”
- “Nobody understands me.”
- “You don’t get it.”
- Tomorrow I’ll smarten up.
- I don’t fit in.
- Maybe I can control it?
- One isn’t going to hurt…or is it?
- But it is different now.
- I feel so much better
- I don’t feel any better.
- I still feel crappy.
- “I’ll stay off the hard stuff!”
- Why does everything always happen to me?
- I never get a break.
- If they don’t trust me, why am I doing this?
- It’s not going to help if I call someone.
- I’m different.
- I don’t care.
- It’s MY LIFE!
Kim Holmgren states that all these symptoms or sayings are often said by individuals by people who aren’t in recovery too, but the difference is that this type of thinking and behaviour is dangerous for a person who is in recovery. “Those who quit using or acting out and are still angry about it usually wind up living miserable lives and usually make everyone around them feel miserable too. Family members or members from a support group are often the first to notice this behaviour. Some people might argue that their loved one or friend is trying to change who they are despite the obvious. Why pay attention to this? Resentment and anger are one of the worst enemies for a person in recovery! Remember, these individuals are not addicted to the substances. The substances are just a solution. If this behaviour isn’t handled properly, it can come back after long periods of sobriety and is usually the first sign of a relapse waiting to happen.”
Recovery Vs. Abstinence/ Not Acting Out
What does recovery look like versus untreated sobriety? Kim Holmgren explains, “Recovery involves working on all of the problems and issues that led you to use in the first place. It requires major lifestyle changes and developing a support group system. You need to work on yourself and fix what was broken. Plain abstinence does not do any of the things previously mentioned.”
Kim Holmgren does mention in a previous blog post that its not always the person’s fault they weren’t able to accept and move forward in their recovery. “Sometimes people have underlying mental health illnesses that haven’t been addressed yet. Other times, it can be environmental stressors and triggers that are overwhelming for someone who is in early recovery.”
According to Kim Holmgren, one of first things you can do to stop this behaviour and move towards acceptance is to get a sponsor, “Get a sponsor and to talk to them. Ask yourself, where are the anger and the resentment coming from? Acceptance is the first step.” Kim Holmgren also suggested to look at Dr. Steven Melemis, PhD, MD’ five rules of recovery published in his book, I Want To Change My Life: How to Overcome Anxiety, Depression and Addiction:
- Change your life. You recover by creating a new life where it is easier to NOT use.
- Be completely honest. Addiction requires lying. From this day forward, you have to be completely honest, especially with yourself and your recovery circle. As you get more comfortable, the circle can widen. Honesty is always preferable, except where it may harm others.
- Ask for help. That includes doctors, therapists, addiction counsellors and people in recovery. Anywhere that will help your recovery.
- Practice self-care. Mind-body relaxation is not an optional part of recovery, it is essential. The practice of self-care during mind-body relaxation translates into self-care in the rest of life.
- Don’t bend the rules. Don’t look for loopholes in your recovery (quick fix). No change is no change.
If you need to speak to someone about the challenges you are facing in your recovery, please call us at 1-800-387-6198. It’s important that you start to be honest with yourself and ask for help.