7 Cliché—but Surprisingly Wise—Lessons I Learned in AA.

1. Keep it simple.

In 551 BC, Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. Keep it simple and focus on what matters.”

When I first got sober, I needed to focus on the basics. My fuzzy brain wouldn’t stop swirling. I had no idea where to start to get my sh*t together. I was advised to set an alarm to wake up in the morning, make my bed, shower, brush my teeth, eat, go to work, eat, go to an AA meeting, eat again, and then sleep. It turned out to be great advice, as doing those simple actions was simple but not easy. I had neglected self-care for so long that everything felt like a chore. The good news was that, as long as I focused on the basics, I gave my brain a rest.

I would breathe deeply in the shower, the water cascading over my head, down my face, and onto my lips. Briefly, I’d forget what a mess I’d made of my life.

I’d make my bed and arrange the pillows so I’d have a big, clean space to stretch out on in my tiny bedroom.

If I was cranky, I’d remember to check in with myself to see if I was hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. There was a simple solution for each of these triggers.

Keeping it simple is still a great rule of thumb, as my brain likes to complicate the simplest things. I can stress out over what to wear in the morning when the weather is uncertain. It’s no wonder Steve Jobs wore a “uniform” of a black turtleneck and blue jeans every day. When I have too many choices in any area of my life, I worry one is “right” and one is “wrong.” I’m working on the thought that perhaps neither are right or wrong—and that’s okay.

2. Wear life like a loose garment.

Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Wear the world like a loose garment. Barely touching, floating around you, unattached.”

I translated this to mean try to relax and go with the flow. I share in meetings all the time that I used to wear life like a wet suit. That usually gets some laughs. What I mean is that I always fought and resisted everything that happened in my life. I would also cling to things that were not a good fit for me. I would hold so tight to something I didn’t even want (a job, guy, piece of clothing) that I’d leave claw marks.

I went to my first real job at a literary agency hungover and miserable, but didn’t understand why I was singled out to discuss my work ethic or my lateness. I thought, why me?

I was always a victim. I always had to be right.

Nowadays, when something happens in my life that’s unexpected and unwanted (like, say, the category five hurricane that destroyed my home), I stop to consider if perhaps some good can come from it after all. I can later see that perhaps it was for the best in some ways.

Of course, in the moment it can be traumatic. The old recording in my head starts to play. It says I’m a victim. It says I always lose. But I work to stop the recording. I work to explore these feelings and let them go.

It takes effort to imagine this loose garment that is my life and for me to think of it as the sea, swirling around and buoying me, instead of pulling me under to drown.

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