12-Step Strategies Anyone Can Use for a Better Life
These principles are about so much more than sobriety
Recovering alcoholics often say they’re lucky. To a newcomer hearing this uttered in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it can sound ridiculous. “Lucky to be here,” one might scoff, sipping weak coffee in a bleak church basement, surrounded by disconcertingly cheerful drunks? “Ha.”
But if you follow the suggestion to keep coming back, it starts to make sense after a while. That’s because 12-step recovery doesn’t just help people to quit drinking. It offers a “blueprint for living,” a set of tools and strategies that, when practiced daily, slowly transform our lives from feeling unmanageable to something we can deal with. These tools are in the 12 steps and 12 traditions around which the Alcoholics Anonymous program is built and in the culture of recovery. These nuggets of wisdom can seem cheesy, but in practice, they’re all actually rather profound — and can become the scaffolding of a surprisingly radical new way of thinking.
In times of great uncertainty or panic, like the one we’re currently living through, these tools are especially handy. In fact, they’re all but guaranteed to make facing the unknown less scary.
Take things one day at a time
Recovery’s greatest gift is the idea of taking things one day at a time. When you’re first quitting substances, it can feel like too much to think about a long sober future. We’re apt to get overwhelmed and ornery if we imagine never again having a glass of champagne at a wedding. So we break life up into days — or sometimes, when things are hard, even hours or minutes — and simply agree with ourselves to make it to the end of the day without a drink. It’s a simple way to remain in the present and attuned to our actual circumstances. Of course, we sometimes have to think in the register of the big picture in order to, say, plan for the future, but that’s not the same as obsessing over what’s to come — what we call “future-tripping.” Staying focused on one day (or hour) at a time, on just doing the next right thing, leads us gently back to the present again and again.
Take it easy
Another basic tenet of recovery is maintaining a sense of chill — I think of the reflective “Easy does it” bumper stickers I used to see as a kid in the ’80s. I wouldn’t know for another couple of decades that they were a badge of sober honor. Now that motto is my favorite thing about recovery. We strive to take it easy — to become less reactive, to engage less in pointless anger and judgment in our interpersonal relationships, to live and let live and focus on maintaining our own well-being.
Don’t just do something, sit there
One of my favorite AA slogans, this is a reminder, when emotions are running high, to take a pause before speaking or acting. It helps us get in touch with what we’re actually feeling, to establish enough distance to think clearly and calmly, and to choose our battles with greater care.
Stay in your lane
This is a particularly important tool in times of social media overload or when trapped inside the house with the entire family or navigating news about the circus of politics. We have to accept that we are generally powerless over others. We can only control our own behavior, take care of ourselves, keep our side of the street clean. When we choose not to stay in our own lane, to try to control or manipulate others, we are often wasting our time and ensuring our own dissatisfaction. “You’re buying yourself a bad mood,” as my AA sponsor would say.
Pray or meditate
How does one even build the mental and emotional fitness for this level of chill? Through prayer and meditation. I know these words can scare off newcomers to recovery, who are likely to have heard them, especially “prayer,” in the context of institutionalized religion. But the incredible benefits of meditation are now widely known, and many of us have experienced the perks of learning to breathe through the discomfort. And prayer — even spoken to a secular being, to a nothingness, into the air inside your own car — can bring about a sense of lightness. It is an act of releasing fear and worry, and whether or not you believe in any kind of god, it can bring genuine relief.
Let it go
Praying is a kind of vigil-keeping, but it’s also a powerful way of letting go. We think we have our hands wrapped tightly around the reins, but in reality, there’s a great deal in life that we cannot personally control. In recovery, we practice turning it over to a god or to fate or just to the universe. Whether or not we believe in a deity, we cultivate a spiritual life based on letting go of things we cannot control and maintaining the simple faith that things will be okay. Surrender doesn’t mean we don’t have strong political opinions; it doesn’t mean that we simply let life happen to us or suspend judgment in every situation. Rather, we come to understand that we are powerless over a great deal of the world’s chaos and sorrow, and we choose not to focus our precious attention — our life force — there. Another favorite slogan: “Let go or be dragged.”
When we are able to let go of some of our pettier grievances and some of our existential grief, we make more room to feel gratitude for the beauty and goodness in our lives, up and down the scale, from a big promotion to a good book to a flower blooming between cracks in the sidewalk. In the early days of recovery, many sponsors require their sponsees to text them a gratitude list each morning with a certain number of items. It’s hard to do in the bleary beginning (some of mine just read “My kids. No rain. Coffee?”), but you get used to waking up and taking stock of good or decent things. Eventually, practicing gratitude is like getting a new pair of glasses: a crisp correction. You find your whole view on the world has changed.
Above all, in a world where adulthood entails a great deal of artifice, we in recovery practice a form of community that entails making ourselves unusually vulnerable. We do not pretend to have our shit together. We ask one another for help without shame. We understand that every day, some in our midst are struggling with depression, isolation, anxiety, the desire to drink, use, or otherwise harm themselves and all manner of other human calamities and inconveniences, aches, and pains. It’s not because they’re not doing recovery right; it’s just because they’re alcoholics, because they’re human. We all have our turn, the days or moments when it feels like it might all fall apart. We pass around the same empathy and encouragement — and yes, slogans — that were passed to us when we needed them. And in becoming willing to make our pain visible and to ask for help, we model tenderness and invite compassion, the only things that might now stand a chance of saving our species.