Step 1 Doesn’t Apply to Me

Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

I had problems with the Steps starting right off the bat with the first one. Instead of enslaving me, my experience was that alcohol and drugs freed me. Instead of making me powerless, I felt they made me stronger, elevating my low spirits at least for a while. To me, like to all addicts, alcohol was the solution, not the problem. And I could stop for short periods once in a while. Wasn’t that evidence I retained power over drinking? So it’s not surprising my initial reaction to the powerlessness cited in Step 1 was to dismiss it.

I had a much harder time ignoring the “unmanageable” part. It was clear at some level even in my deep denial, that I’d lost the ability to control my drinking. I insisted my life would be completely fine if other people just left me alone. They wanted to manage me, for my own good, they said, into doing what they wanted for their reasons. I wouldn’t cooperate, so I was “unmanageable.” But even I didn’t fully believe that. I couldn’t ignore that every week or so, as I was loading half-gallon after half-gallon of booze into my cart at Costco I thought, “This place is gonna kill me.” Nor could I reconcile my insistence I didn’t have a drinking problem with my considerable efforts to minimize how much I was drinking in others’ eyes.

Step 1 was foundational. Rehab said it was imperative to confess my powerlessness in front of the other patients in the hospital. It was humiliating enough to find myself there, I was even more mortified by having to reveal my defects to a bunch of strangers.

There’s a huge difference, I was told, between humiliation and humility, and I should concentrate on the latter if I didn’t want to face the former. I had to admit I’d lost control — once I took my first drink, I couldn’t stop. That didn’t mean quitting for short periods disproved the premise, they added, particularly when the detoxes were longer and harder and the sobriety was shorter each time, which in retrospect I had to admit they were. Everyone goes through this, I was informed. Only suffering through the physical and emotional breakdown of a bottom could you free yourself from the veil of denial you’ve been living behind. Only through surrender to your powerlessness can you obtain liberation from the slavery of addiction.

I was so debilitated in detox, I understood little of what they were saying which made it easy to dismiss. I knew I should drink less. But as I saw it, the problem was I was too lazy, too willing to let myself off the hook after my daily resolution not to drink, too quick to put off dealing with drinking less until some future tomorrow. And every today had endless tomorrows.

What made me begin to understand how powerless I’d really been was hearing my rehab cohorts’ First Step Stories, their histories of drug use. No matter how resistant I was, hearing my fellow patients catalogue their powerlessness, denial, and out-of-control lives made me reflect on my own. I didn’t wanted to, it just came with the territory. With lengthening hospital-imposed sobriety, the counselors’ instruction, group therapy and hindsight, it eventually became clear even to me that once I started drinking I couldn’t stop.

Others’ stories also convinced me my life had become every bit as unmanageable as theirs had been. Though I hadn’t suffered the terrible consequences some of them had — losing jobs, arrests and incarceration, commitment to mental institutions, splitting up their families — it became clear to me that I’d done insane things in service and simultaneous denial of my alcoholism. I’d swirled down the drain of deep depression and complete isolation and my life had narrowed to the width of my half-gallon bottles of booze.

In short, I came to accept that Step 1 applied to me after all.

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