Opinion

12-Step Program Slogans Can Heal a COVID-19 World

recovery: Woman wearing medical mask looks out window onto street

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This coming January, I plan to celebrate 20 years sober. I got clean as a teenager, at a drug and alcohol treatment center in Delray Beach, Fla. When I got there, I had no idea how much my life would change. 

Over the years, being in recovery has meant different things. Sometimes, it is just the absence of active alcoholism — something I believe is a true illness. Other times, it is a better way of living — a transformed life, full of gratitude and appreciation for my many blessings.

recovery: Stephanie Krauss (headshot), senior director at JFF

Stephanie Krauss

I have been fortunate to spend years in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, picking up life wisdom from those who have been sober longer than I have. Some of this wisdom is found in popular slogans that people share over and over again. They are popular because they are true, simple, memorable and applicable across situations.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have found myself returning to these slogans, repeating them as mantras to myself. If these sayings can pull alcoholics back from the brink, then they should be able to help me calm down and not lash out at people I love.

Many of you are on the frontlines of this pandemic, surrounded by loss, pain and confusion. It feels unmanageable, and — at some level — you already recognize your own powerlessness. You cannot make COVID-19 or its impending aftermath disappear. 

This is similar to the addict’s “bottom.” The pain of illness (in this case, COVID-19) leads us to seek temporary and emergency relief, reacting and responding to the immediate hurt and damage. But we can’t live like this forever. Eventually, we realize that our old way of life no longer works. Things have to change. This is recovery: being willing to step into a new way of living, without knowing the outcome, but ready to rebuild and reclaim your life.

Starting a new way of life

Perhaps these recovery principles can help us start to shift. While this is not an addiction, there are some shared characteristics: An illness has taken over our lives and, in many moments, holds our minds and bodies prisoner. We are stressed out, overwhelmed and exhausted. The illness is hurting us and people we care about. And there’s no going back — our old way of life will be left in 2019.

Whenever you begin to shift from response to recovery, consider these five simple slogans that are derived from the 12-step slogans:

One day at a time: This is the most well-known of the slogans, and I say it throughout my day. I am a worrier and what ifs keep me up at night. This pandemic has reminded me how quickly and often things can change. While my worries and projections might feel productive, all they do is stress me out and make me difficult to be around. Some helpful variations of this slogan include: What can I do today? Or: What information do I have to work with right now? This slogan reminds us to focus on the present.

H.A.L.T.: This one is more of an acronym than a slogan, but it has stood the test of time as a quick and dirty diagnostic whenever I am struggling. H is hungry, A is angry, L is lonely and T is tired. Here’s how I learned it: If you don’t feel right, HALT and figure out if you are hungry, angry, lonely, tired or some combination. My rule of thumb is try not to be more than one. If you are two or more, you can count on being in a foul mood. Three or more is dangerous.

Just do the next right thing: Everything feels pretty uncertain right now. This slogan helps when you just don’t know what to do. With so much in flux, ask yourself: What can I do right now? Embrace this slogan as a partner to one day at a time, and leave long-term planning alone. Early recovery is about reducing chaos, putting your life back together and getting things in order. 

Fake it until you make it: This slogan might help you keep your job or stay married when you are ready to throw in the towel. For years, it has kept the skeptical sober and the sad from suicide. In recovery, there will be days when you won’t want to get out of bed, work, parent (or homeschool) your kids or even show up for life. 

If you keep showing up, even if you don’t believe you can, and keep trying to take care of yourself, then one day it will get better. In a COVID world, shifting from crisis response to recovery will be a decision you make. The news, a politician or your employer cannot make it for you. Recovery is as much a mindset shift as it is a way of life. 

This too shall pass: Ah, my slogan of hope. This is exactly what it seems. This slogan reminds us that we will not live in perpetual pandemic. Eventually, even if painfully, we will begin to emerge and move forward. Over the millennia, there have been other plagues and recessions, and they have passed. You are resilient. You can make it through this.

Over my years in recovery, I have learned that everyone experiences this journey differently. Some will think they are recovering and then relapse. The illness will come back, looming large in their lives. If relapse occurs for you, recovery is still available. 

For some, recovery will be rocky. The life changes will bring hard adjustments on family, friends and work, along with new challenges. 

Others will realize that recovery is much better than life before the crisis. Priorities might shift, and new opportunities may present themselves. Wherever you land, be kind to yourself and remember this: You only have today. Take care of yourself, do what you can, keep showing up and know that this too shall pass.

Stephanie Malia Krauss is a senior director at JFF where she helps leaders design solutions that improve the economic well-being of young people and families — especially those living in poverty. Previously, as a senior fellow with the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, the Forum For Youth Investment and JFF, she focused on youth readiness and well-being, credentialing, competency-based education and opportunity youth. 

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