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Leaning into Program Wisdom During COVID-19: How the Slogans Shape our Thinking, Feeling, Actions, and Day

September 9, 2020

Written by

Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP

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When COVID began, I had a strange déjà vu feeling. I have been here before, but how exactly? I wondered. Then I remembered. All the days of uncertainty, all the mornings waking up afraid of what the day might bring, the feeling that life as I knew it was chaotic and changing, that normal routines were up for grabs, that chronic sense of confinement, of feeling trapped in a family that was spinning out of control. Even the warring opinions between those who were supposed to be in charge of my life but could agree on nothing felt familiar. Growing up with addiction, it turns out, felt a lot like the scariness, unpredictability, and confusion of COVID-19.

But all the years I have devoted to learning to live differently, to recovery, were also at the ready. The good news was that my coping strategies kicked in even before I knew why. Recovery thinking has become so much a part of my life, that it was there even before I knew I needed it. As soon as the strange news of the pandemic began leaking into our lives, I found my mind offering up program slogans to steady itself, to create a peaceful path through the day.

My appreciation for the 12 Steps and the sense of community that we share has gained a whole new dimension during COVID days. So, I’m sharing those slogans that I seem to lean into the most, that give me relief and support, that feel nourishing and steadying in these uncertain times, the ones that give me a deeper sense of certainty and grounding.

“One Day at a Time” (stay in the present) –This is the antidote to COVID uncertainty for me, the way to not get ahead of myself. Thinking about the past gets us nowhere these days. We need our energy for dealing with today. Getting ahead of ourselves creates more insecurity because there simply aren’t clear answers. My growing edge today is to take it a day at a time, and my spiritual growth is to learn to stay in the present.

“First Things First” (stay out of overwhelm) – This is how I organize my day. I really understand this slogan in a new light for its ability to bring my mind from a state of future projecting into the here and now. I do what needs to be done and make simple plans for the day, I find I sink into the here and now more easily if I live like this and I don’t get overwhelmed.

“If it’s Hysterical, it’s Historical” (sit with my overreactions, aka “don’t just do something, sit there!”) – I can identify pain from the past when it gets triggered. This one is huge: I have become more aware of my overreactions. There are fewer distractions these days. I am spending much more time at home and less time running around amusing and distracting myself. When I overreact to someone or something in my day, I have to do two things: The first is to simply discipline myself, to tell myself this will only make an argument last longer and a misunderstanding worse. Then I need to trace it back and to understand if I am making unresolved anger, pain, or shame from relationships in my past about relationships in my present. If I am, my growing edge is to heal another layer of the onion, to use my triggered reaction as a path to shed more light on the hidden parts of my inner world.

“Time Takes Time” (I can only live the day I am living) – There is no way I can rush this virus, nothing I can do but follow the recommendations of the CDC to stay healthy and safe. Wishing these days away would mean that I miss a golden opportunity to slow down, to reduce the many distractions in my normal life. I want to live these days to their fullest and appreciate the extra family time. I want to sink into quiet when I have it and value the people I am nearest to.

“This Too Shall Pass” (put a temporary frame around it) – As we enter a new wave of pandemic uncertainty, it’s important to remind ourselves that this will not last forever. It would be hubris to think that we are that unique in history. Normalcy will eventually be restored and when it is, I don’t want to look back on these days and feel I missed their opportunities for growth, that I wished them away rather than lived them. When in life does the world let us slow down like this? Usually it tells us to speed up.

“Life on Life’s Terms” (embrace this day) COVID really gets this one across. If ever there were a time when we had to accept life on life’s terms, it’s now. This one has a big silver lining because if we haven’t learned it yet, we will need to learn it now. And it’s an important part of staying emotionally sober. When we stop trying to hammer life into a shape that we think we need it to be in order to be happy, a mysterious thing happens: Life is free to become more of what our deeper heart desires. My illusion that I can control the people and events of my life is just that, an illusion. Letting it go is freeing, maturing, and spiritually alive. 

“Easy Does It” (slowly, slowly, breathe, pause) This one can come to save us many times throughout these days. Anxiety from the news, the unpredictability, and the general feeling that we’re losing our grip on normal, that we’re spinning in our heads, that we’re getting bored, overwhelmed, moody, anxious, or depressed can be managed better when we remind ourselves to go easy, to breathe, to step back, to “watch, look, and listen” before we react, before we cross to the other side of “the road.” It helps us to keep our side of the road clean, to stay in our own lane. It reminds us that there is a lot today that we can do nothing about, but there are many things we can do a lot about, and we need “the wisdom to know the difference.”

“Is Your Program Powered by Willpower or Higher Power?” (everyone has their own Higher Power and it’s not me) My past has taught me that it is my job to do more, to try harder, to square my shoulders, grit my teeth, and mush on, to fix. I cannot fix this one and trying to be everything to everyone or to somehow “out power” this period of time is a fool’s errand. A power greater than me is in charge. I find relief and release when I remember this. Good will come from this; indeed, it already has.

“Progress Not Perfection” (perfection is the enemy of good)Lowering our expectation lowers our blood pressure. Again and again I have used this throughout the day. The extra home tasks that COVID brings, my attitude toward anything from cooking a recipe, getting work accomplished, or cleaning the house to taking care of children or maintaining a garden. This expression is my friend. It lets me ease up on myself, enjoy and embrace projects rather than resist them. I can manage my expectations. And I have made a wonderful discovery: Being satisfied with small gains, rather than making me less productive, keeps my channels open. I go easy on myself instead of being a harsh taskmaster.

“Keep It Simple” (have a simple plan) This one has been key for me. COVID days mean more home time and many fewer outings that bring distracting activity into my day, my week. Keeping it simple means that I am keeping my food and cooking healthy, my exercise routines simple but doable, my work routines non-perfectionistic, and my relationships less demanding. Keeping it simple helps me to emotionally regulate myself, to not catastrophize, and to ease into my day.

“Let Go and Let God” (turn it over)This one speaks for itself.

Anxiety is managed a day at a time. That’s also how trauma, whether current or from the past, is healed. We can use the principles of the program to sustain us through COVID and point the way toward further healing, toward post-traumatic growth. The 12 Steps have the philosophical underpinnings that change our thinking and our living while providing a community in which we can heal together. Taking it a day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, we can do today what we may not have thought possible: We can heal, grow, and thrive … even now.

And, of course, there is the serenity prayer, the anthem of the 12-Step program. Though we cannot hold hands at the end of a meeting and say it together, we can hold hands virtually and spiritually and say it now, and later, and again later on.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Neiblur

And remember: It works if you work it. So, work it. You’re worth it.