Cliches stand the test of time because they’re true. In recovery, cliches abound—they’re a simple way to remember certain truths that are important to keep close at hand, especially when faced with difficult situations. But they can often sound close to scientific jargon to the unfamiliar, so I’ve put together some of the most common sayings in recovery and explained what they mean.
1. One Day at a Time
Often abbreviated as “ODAAT,” this is a reminder to take it slow. Whatever their drug of choice is, a newcomer to recovery can find it so daunting to imagine a life without—let alone two days—that they turn tail before they begin. This is why this reminder is so important.
Others who’ve been in recovery longer will encourage them not to worry about tomorrow, that the newcomer only needs to commit to staying sober “just for today.” They just need to get through that day, see how it goes, and worry about tomorrow when they wake up tomorrow. I’ve heard newcomers be advised to take it one hour at a time if that’s what they need right now.
Soon, those hours, those days will add up—just take it slow.
2. Keep Your Side of the Street Clean
A couple gets into an argument. One spouse insults the other; the other reacts with their own insults. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Does it even matter?
If these spouses want to keep their side of the street clean, the answer is no. This phrase means one should only make sure they care of the trash they’ve left on their own side of the street—and not worry about whether the person on the other side is doing the same. This means is making amends for your own actions in times of conflict, no matter what the circumstance, and no matter what the other person’s actions were, even if the lashing out was in reaction to the other side lashing out.
In other words, these spouses should each apologize for their insult, without concern whether they’ll get an apology in return. Humans make mistakes—as we all know too well.
The other important part of keeping your side of the street clean is that once it’s clean, move on. Don’t dwell on how dirty it got, and don’t worry about the trash that’s on the other side of the street still. Just keep moving forward.
When students would complain that other kids weren’t following the rules, my first grade teacher would tell us, “Mind your own business.” This is what this recovery saying boils down to. The only actions we have control over are our own.
But those of us in recovery can remember a time when that was hard to believe. We thought we could fix ourselves and our lives by drawing out unhealthy external means. We thought we could manage our addictions and our lives on our own. We thought we could control others into feeding our addictions or at least leave us the heck alone so we oculd chase them.
In recovery that often looks like us giving others unsolicited advice and feedback. It looks like telling other people what we think they should do, instead of simply sharing our own experience.
4. One Is Too Many, A Thousand Is Never Enough
We can break this recovery phrase down into two parts. Let’s start with the second.
An addict in active addiction is never satisfied. The addiction creates a bottomless pit of need that can never be filled, not by a thousand drinks, not by a thousand hits, not by a thousand sleepless nights. It’s important for those of us in recovery to remember that, because of the first part of the phrase.
When someone in recovery is considering “one last time,” they’ll often be told to “play the tape forward.” This is because addiction is too powerful to merit “one last time.” For an alcoholic, one drink will turn into a bender. One drink is too many indeed.
Ultimately it’s a warning. Take caution, because addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful.
5. I Suffered from Terminal Uniqueness
Terminal uniqueness is the belief that a person is so unusual that no one will ever understand them. A friend in recovery once told me, “I truly thought that no one had ever faced the struggles that I’ve faced, so they could never understand what I had to do to cope.”
My husband used to say that to me all the time in his active addiction: You’ll never understand me. This was how his addiction worked to isolate him so it could flourish, I believe.
The truth is that this is a false belief, one that an addict can disprove simply by listening to the stories of addicts in recovery. That same friend also told me, “I was proven wrong in my first meeting. I finally found people who actually did understand me.”
6. You Are Only As Sick As Your Secrets
When my husband was in active addiction, I was ashamed—we both were—so we kept it secret from most of our friends and family. And that was one of the reasons why he stayed sick for so many years.
What often keeps addicts from getting help is shame—shame, they say, makes them sick. So we put what causes us the most shame into a box, seal it up, and hope it stays shut. But those shameful secrets fester and make our sickness grow.
So what happens when those secrets see the light of day? When the secret of addiction is finally exposed is the only time healing can happen. Secrecy creates shame. This is why a program of recovery relies heavily on honesty, so that shame can be subverted and a healthier life can begin.
7. This Too Shall Pass
Addicts aren’t the only ones who are looking for a quick fix. We are taught, for example, that if we have muscle pain, to just take a pill; if we are feeling ugly, just apply the right cosmetics; if we upset or angry, just play a game on the phone.
Difficulties arise all the time. But their impact doesn’t have to last forever—that’s the key to this recovery cliché. No matter how deep under the water we feel, we will eventually break the surface.
When difficult emotions overwhelm us, it can often feel relentless, like the anger or grief will never end. But they will. Neurologists have found that an emotion lasts just 90 seconds, as long as we don’t feed it. So even science bears it out: this too shall pass.
8. Progress, Not Perfection
NOBODY’S PERFECT. Perfectionism is often what gets a lot of people into trouble. When things don’t turn out exactly as we hoped, we can often let it throw us off our trajectory. But recovery isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.
Nobody’s perfect. We will often slip. We might try to fix someone else. We might ignore our side of the street. But we don’t have to lose momentum. Another related recovery saying is, “Two steps forward, one step back.” As long as we are committed to the journey of recovery and work to keep moving forward, it’s okay that we aren’t always perfect at it.
9. We Will Love You Until You Love Yourself
When I first heard this recovery phrase, I was skeptical. What I’d always heard was, “No one can love you unless you love yourself first,” which is the exact opposite of this phrase. Besides, who could love me, this walking sack of shame, so beaten down by the choices I made that I could barely look anyone in the eye?
Well, the crux of this phrase is that we are all worthy of love. The choices I made were out of love or at least self-preservation, and they were the best I could do at the time. While I wasn’t ready to see that, others in recovery could—they had grown to see that in themselves. So yes, I was worthy of love, even if I didn’t believe it.
And those new friends were ready to prove it to me, simply by loving me. By accepting me. Until I was ready to do it myself.