KEEP IT SIMPLE: A mainstay slogan for addiction recovery, but one with time tested roots

By Jeff Vircoe

Leonardo da Vinci is often credited with saying that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Albert Einstein put it this way: If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

The message behind both? Keep it simple.

The history of recovery from addiction tells us that if ever there were two men who had reason to be losing their minds to sophisticated chaos, it was William Griffith Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith.

The two co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (pictured above) launched an anything-but-simple, volunteer, not-for-profit organization with no rules and no president. Through growing pains, which included rejections, salutations, anonymity breaks, scientific and religious praise and plenty of scathing reviews, too, there was nothing simple about it. With membership including rubbies, rummies, pill-poppers, atheists, agnostics and mentally disordered crackpots from all walks of life, it wasn’t exactly a recipe for success. Yet, somehow, though they didn’t get to see the current version, the baby which Dr. Bob and Bill W. birthed blossomed to over 2 million members around the world.

Yet, as complicated as the story of A.A. has been, the Keep It Simple slogan has become closely associated with the fellowship that has saved countless lives.

Variations of the Keep It Simple term were not invented by Da Vinci (1452-1519) nor the A.A. co-founders, of course. They weren’t claimed to be. The concepts and origins of the value of simplicity are thousands of years old. Around the year AD 55, the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:3, “But I fear, lest somehow the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”

Half a century before that, in 551 BC, the great Chinese teacher, Confucius, had this to say: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” He also advised to “Keep it simple and focus on what matters. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed.”

So, the idea of keeping things simple has long been in the lexicon of mankind’s languages. Contemporary advocates of keeping things simple included the prolific author Tom Clancy, whose complicated novels included The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger. Though his stories were teeming with complex political and military intrigue, the writing of the books themselves required a whole lot of simplicity.

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process,” he once said. “I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”

One look at the online store eBay will tell you how popular the slogan Keep it Simple is; Judge Judy Sheindlin wrote a book titled Keep it Simple Stupid about amusing true crime cases. Keep It Simple was also the name of books from Weight Watchers, gardening buffs, breast feeders and even NFL quarterbacks – Terry Bradshaw wrote Keep It Simple in 2002.

It’s a pretty flexible slogan. In the 1960s United States Navy, Keep It Simple was a design principle advocated for weapons systems. Their Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) acronym was a way of saying most things work better if made simple instead of complicated. According to Wikipedia, lead engineer Kelly Johnson was credited with coining the saying after handing a team of aircraft designers a handful of tools and explaining that, under combat conditions, the average mechanic had to be able to make repairs with just the barest of equipment at his or her disposal.

To those who owe their lives to the fellowships of recovery, the term Keep It Simple comes with some serious historical 12 Step cache. It’s one of the most revered sayings in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It goes back to at least two instances of note, both involving the co-founders.

The first happened in the summer of 1950. Dr. Bob Smith was dying of colon cancer. Alcoholics Anonymous was hosting its first ever International Convention, in Cleveland, Ohio, just an hour’s drive from Dr. Bob’s home in Akron. Many thought he was too sick to speak at the event.

Al S., a friend and A.A. member from New York, drove Dr. Bob to Cleveland.

“All he said was, ‘I’m tired. Please excuse me if I don’t talk,’” Al recalled in the A.A. book Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers. “I didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Nonetheless, though he had been bedridden for five of the past seven months, Dr. Bob steadfastly stood at the podium in front of 3,000 people on July 30th for his farewell talk to A.A. members.

In a speech which lasted mere moments, he explained how he could not miss this first convention. And he shared on the slogan on which this story is based.

“There are two or three things that flashed into my mind on which it would be fitting to lay a little emphasis,” he said to a hushed crowd. “One is the simplicity of our program. Let’s not louse it up with Freudian complexes and things that are interesting to the scientific mind, but have very little to do with our actual A.A. work,” he said. “Our 12 Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words ‘love’ and ‘service’. We understand what love is, and we understand what service is. So let’s bear those two things in mind.”

Seeing the man who had saved so many lives in that condition was not an easy sight, the book reports.

“As he finished, those who watched could easily see that the exertion of saying the brief words had left him physically weak and spent. Try as he would, he was forced to leave. In consternation, thousands of eyes followed him as he left the stage.”

Dr. Bob was to succumb to the illness less than four months after that talk, on Nov. 16, 1950.

The second moment of clarity, as far as Keep It Simple goes, happened when Bill Wilson, the other co-founder, got a final up-close and personal sense of Dr. Bob’s energy a few weeks later when he went up to Akron to see his old friend. Wilson was forever struck by the vision of his peer dying.

In his book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, written in 1957, Wilson recalled that final meeting, when he and the doctor agreed that an annual conference featuring sober A.A. delegates from around the world was the way to lead the fellowship into the future.

“A few hours later I took my leave of Dr. Bob, knowing that the following week he was to undergo a very serious operation,” he writes on page 214. “Neither of us dared say what was in our hearts. We both knew that this might well be the last decision that we would ever make together.”

“I went down the steps and then turned to look back. Bob stood in the doorway, tall and upright as ever. Some color had come back to his cheeks, and he was carefully dressed in a light gray suit. This was my partner, the man with whom I never had a hard word. The wonderful, old, broad smile was on his face as he said almost jokingly, “Remember, Bill, let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple!” I turned away, unable to say a word. That was the last time I ever saw him.”

In closing, Keep It Simple was a classic Dr. Bob saying. He urged members to stay away from overanalyzing the program, and to stick to love and service and spiritual matters as the answer to their dilemma.

 

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The therapeutic value of Keep It Simple

By Jeff Vircoe

The Akron surgeon probably knew the therapeutic value of the term as well as anyone.

But when Dr. Robert Smith offered Keep It Simple as prescription for the good health of one Bill Wilson, he probably had no idea how profound that little slogan would become.

Keep It Simple was one of the most frequently used slogans by Dr. Bob. On record, he offered it up on the railway platform when Bill left Akron to return home to New York after the summer of 1935. He used it again during his last talk to the membership at the 1950 Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention in Cleveland. And, he encouraged Wilson to pay attention to the simplicity message the last time the two cofounders of A.A. spent time together, just weeks before Dr. Bob died in November 1950.

Sixty seven years later, in countless meeting rooms around the globe and in thousands of treatment centres like Edgewood in Nanaimo, B.C. (part of the Edgewood Health Network) the slogan Keep It Simple is still considered a fundamental slice of the recovery pie.

Apparently, addicts need that simplicity. It makes sense.

“Drug addiction is a complex illness,” reads the first page on the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website.

As one of the world’s leading researchers into the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction, NIDA is about as scientific in its definitions and vocabulary as any organization. Its credibility is impeccable. With articles on diagnostic methods, pharmacology, and use of heady terms like endogenous and cardiac arrhythmias, organizations like NIDA help scientists and doctors, treatment centre counselors, and you and I to figure out the mechanics of what is wrong and what is fixable with our brains. Yet, with scientific language about as exciting as watching grass grow, it’s not exactly Keeping It Simple. So, by telling readers that, first and foremost, “drug addiction is a complex illness,” NIDA’s intro speaks volumes.

If drug addiction is a complex illness, it probably goes without saying that addicts are complex people. But are they?

Not necessarily so, says one woman with a decade of working with and studying addicts.

“I believe there is not a huge difference, sometimes, between the life problems that addicts face and the life problems that somebody without active addiction faces,” says Dr. Christina Basedow. “One of the main differences that I see is the amount of obsession that is given to those types of problems. So I wouldn’t say that addicts necessarily complicate things, but I think the obsession that comes as part of addiction complicates things.”

With a PhD in Psychology, Basedow is the supervisor of the continuing care team at Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo. Her team of counselors treats patients in extended care – a typically three-month phase of treatment which follows two months of inpatient residential treatment. In extended care, patients continue with the group therapy in which they’ve been extensively involved in inpatient treatment. But, they are also transitioning back into work or school, volunteering, and attending 12 Step meetings in the community. It’s a transition back to the outside life awaiting them: bills, relationships, jobs, kids and health issues. You know – life. Everyone’s got problems, and everyone has their own way of navigating through them. But, by the sheer nature of addiction, the level of obsessiveness with which addicts roll into recovery makes dealing with life, well, complicated.

“There’s a belief that addicts think that ‘normal’ people don’t have all of these [life] issues,” says Basedow, “and they think, ‘There is something wrong with me – there’s something different and I’m sick.’ But, really, it’s not that ‘normal’ people don’t have issues. It’s just that they don’t obsess to the nth degree about them.”

With a decade of experience studying and helping addicts, Basedow explains how the addict can’t necessarily help him- or herself when it comes to how they process information.

“Addiction has definitely got a brain disorder component. We’ve seen that. If you look at it from a hereditary perspective or a thought process perspective, the cognitive distortion perspective, there’s definitely something that’s dysregulated in the brain when it comes to active addiction, especially when someone is using. It can re-regulate when we get into recovery. But, in the active phases of addiction, there is absolutely a cognitive dissonance component and a brain component to it.”

The idea of interfering in the crazy-making, obsessive, compulsive mind of an addict means hope is available, but it requires a complete overhaul of how addicts approach their lives. A rerouting of the brain patterns and responses to issues. The 12 Step movement offers one way. Psychotherapy offers a way. Medication management, diet and exercise, pet therapy, religious programs – many suggested avenues appear on the map toward recovery.

At Edgewood, what has been found to be successful is taking an honest inventory of what has been going on in active addiction, studying the story told by the addict brain and comparing it to the facts. So, a lot of time is spent on assignments like Step One, and on questions like how have chemicals placed your life or lives of others in jeopardy? Have you lost self respect due to chemical usage? What is it about your behavior that your spouse-friends-family object to the most? Questions like these, truthfully answered, can start the process of rewiring the complicated web of half-truths, full on lies, or imaginary instances with which many addicts have been living in their un-simple world.

Dr. Basedow says the assignments and plenty of group therapy are about getting to the truth and changing the story.

“It’s about sorting out what the story is that this person has been telling themselves sometimes from childhood onward, what has kept the lies alive, what has kept them disassociating or kept them complicated or kept them using. Re-narrating the story into something that’s a lot more simplistic. It could be something as simple as, ‘I had a lot of stuff happen in my childhood, and some of them were really traumatic. And, because of that, I didn’t connect with people. And, because of that, I told myself that I was unworthy and unlovable. And, because of that, I was …’ It’s about asking, ‘How do I re-narrate all of these thoughts that I’ve had into a story line that has led me to use?’”

“That’s why we use group therapy, because, then, more people than just one can help re-narrate the story and confront the masks you wear and the different types of stories you’ve created for yourself and the way that you keep yourself away from people. And, just the lies you’ve told yourself, whether it’s the victim stance or whether it’s a different type of role.”

Once the honesty aspect – the truth about our situation – is established within us and with others, then recovery can grow from a spark into a life filled with ups and downs.

Keep It Simple means understanding that life is not always up or down.

“When you get into recovery, everything feels different. You’re not using a substance of process or choice. And because you’ve used it to regulate your emotions for so long, you don’t know that this flood of emotions, this roller coaster, is a normal part of early recovery, and the problems that people in early recovery are facing are not abnormal. People out there [who] don’t have substance abuse issues are also struggling with things and also don’t know how to cope. They just don’t pick up [an addiction] to get through them,” says Basedow.

Perhaps no item provided by Edgewood staff to patients is as useful as the Aftercare Plan. A one-page document which describes in simple detail a list of items to follow each day to maintain the spark of recovery embedded in treatment, the Aftercare Plan keeps things in a simple order.

Meetings. Sponsorship. A home group. Aftercare. Exercises to look after physical, spiritual and mental health. Nothing too complicated, the Aftercare Plan is Keep It Simple in action.

The willingness to enact their plan is on the addict.

If you’ve spent money and time on feeding your addiction and it led you to a point of devastation and you or your loved ones chose to spend money and time getting help, including treatment at one of Canada’s most widely recognized centres, then Keep It Simple means carrying on the process of recovery, bumps and all.

“I think there is solid therapeutic value in Keep It Simple,” says Basedow. “Really, what we are saying in Keep It Simple is don’t trust your mental obsession. Don’t trust the constant reoccurring thoughts as your brain is rewiring itself. Don’t trust that all of those ideas are good. Don’t trust that [you] should act on every impulse. Don’t trust that [you] should re-engage with every person that [you] thought that maybe [you] shouldn’t have. Basically, don’t act on impulse is what keep it simple is all about. Keep it grounded. Keep it connected. That’s the whole purpose, really.”

 

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Recovering addicts have close relationship with Keep It Simple

 

By Jeff Vircoe

Looking out at the beaming crowd of some 3,000 sober alcoholics, the doctor who co-founded the movement spoke for just 10 minutes, but what he said has lasted generations.

“There are two or three things that flashed into my mind on which it would be fitting to lay a little emphasis.  One is the simplicity of our program. Let’s not louse it all up with Freudian complexes and things that are interesting to the scientific mind, but have very little to do with our actual A.A. work. Our Twelve Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words “love” and “service.” We understand what love is, and we understand what service is. So let’s bear those two things in mind.”

The simplicity of the program. Freudian complexes can louse it up.

Two thoughts, which when added up clearly mean Dr. Bob Smith’s idea for the continuing success of the program was Keep It Simple. Spoken in the last year of his life, when he was dying of colon cancer, when he was 15 years sober, at a public auditorium in Cleveland, the Keep It Simple slogan was forever solidified as one of AA’s standards.

The slogan has always resonated with addicts. In the meeting rooms, one can regularly hear the comment “This is a simple program for complicated people.” Or “Get out of your own way.” Or “I’ve never seen anyone too dumb to get this program but I’ve seen many who were too smart.”

Addicts of all ages, walks of life and time in recovery chimed in for this story about the slogan. From Halifax to Victoria, they see the need for Keep It Simple regularly.

“Over thinking kills,” says Eric P., a man with almost 20 years off the bottle. He offers a fascinating insight into the addict mind, even in recovery. What does on between the ears of a perfectly sane human is on one hand comical, on the other, sad and frustrating for the addict.

“Am I going to do this thing or not? It seems simple, but I have never been good at this. This could be a new adventure, but I have always been afraid. Some people think I am dumb but this could show them … oh it’s too late. Shit. Am I going to do this? Yes or no? Yes – do it!”

Complicating a simple situation is a regular occurrence for addicts it seems. Lauren M., a woman with 29 years of recovery, explains it this way.

“Negative thinking will take over and I will talk myself out of something before I even start. Also known as the f-it syndrome.”

When you ask a question of an addict to explain why Keep It Simple is good advice, expect the proof in the pudding.

“Even trying to write down a good answer, I’m over-thinking,” says Edgewood alumnus Andrew Z., a man with recovery since 2012.

“Keeping it simple keeps the crazy hamster at bay,” says Kellyanne. “Break it down to one nanosecond task at a time.”

Roberta D., a woman with nearly 30 years in recovery puts it this way.

“We (addicts) are so good at complicating things. We’re too much in our heads. Keep It Simple helps us relax and let go.”

The advice that Dr. Bob gave the 3,000 who heard him share in Cleveland all those years ago about simplifying the program is as pertinent to some members of 12 Step programs today as it was then. Some believe the answer to addiction – the solution – remains the same.

“Keep It Simple applies to the Steps,” says Dave R., a man with over 35 years in.  “Over the past few years so many different ways of doing the Steps have come about and have actually complicated and misrepresented the original 12 Steps. The program was developed in such a way that the process is simple and does not have to be complicated at all.”

Kella-Lee N., an Edgewood alumnus with nearly 14 years clean, agrees.

“I think if we believe that the program is simple, it helps us to stop overthinking things and complicate recovery. Really it all boils down to trust God, clean house and help others. Simple eh?”

 

 

 

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