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From an Addict’s Perspective: Addicts Keep Their Feet on the Ground By Using Old Slogan

Jeff Vircoe

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 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,, 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.