Step 1: Powerlessness and Unmanageability

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

AA’s Big Book says, “We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery.” Almost no one wants to admit this: no one wants to be an alcoholic or drug addict. So we tell ourselves we can control it. “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.”

Denial is very powerful. Addicts cling to the belief that if only they find the right strategy, they can drink like normal people. “By every form of self-deception and experimentation, they will try to prove themselves exceptions to the rule, therefore nonalcoholic. …. Here are some of the methods we’ve tried: Drinking beer only, limiting the number of drinks, never drinking alone, never drinking in the morning, drinking only at home, never having it in the house, never drinking during business hours, drinking only at parties, switching from scotch to brandy, drinking only natural wines, agreeing to resign if ever drunk on the job, taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going to health farms and sanitariums, accepting voluntary commitment to asylums — we could increase the list ad infinitum.”

For a true addict, none of these strategies works for long.

How do you know whether you’ve lost control? The Big Book has a suggestion: “Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it.”  When my rehab doctor suggests to patients that they try controlled drinking he adds an exercise: write down how you feel every hour after your first drink and review what you’ve written the next morning. Did you have more than you swore to? Did you go from a short period of fun to deep demoralization? Were you able to write at all as the evening progressed? These are clues.

No matter how you cut it, conceding that Step 1 applies to you is tremendously humbling. It’s meant to be. Most of us live our lives trying to look good. Adopting Step 1 means giving up that aspiration. It means defeat and unconditional surrender. So it’s easy to focus on the humiliation of Step 1. Very few face that kind of humiliation willingly because it feels like the end of your very personality, the shattering of your carefully-constructed ego.

By the time an addiction is recognized, most addicts believe their reliance on drugs or alcohol is the most important thing in their lives. Giving that up is like the death of their most cherished relationship, inducing fear, anger and grief. Nobody wants to put themselves through that wringer, explaining the importance of a bottom, a traumatic emotional crisis which forces an addict to confront his life-or-death choice and can trigger surrender. As The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions puts it, “… only then do we become as open-minded…and as willing to listen as only the dying can be. We stand ready to do anything which will lift the merciless obsession from us.”

The flip side of surrender is ending the perpetual internal conflict between the rational brain, which watches addiction’s death spiral in bewilderment, and the addict brain that volunteers for the suicide mission. It’s hard to see at first, but surrender can bring peace and sobriety can bring freedom.

Step 1 is the only Step you have to get 100% right, I was told. (With the rest of the steps you strive for progress knowing you can never be perfect.) If you recognize daily (hourly, or if necessary in early sobriety, moment-by-moment) that picking up a drink or drug returns you to utter powerless, you know what’s at stake and can commit to not engaging in that insanity. You’ve succeeded at Step 1 if you acknowledge your addiction and don’t drink that day no matter how much your addict brain insists you should.

The program is the antidote to that powerlessness. As I heard one speaker say of the fellowship she found in AA, “I am powerless, but working together, we can all be strong.”

Neuroscientists agree that addicts lose control over their drug use. Because of the way tolerance develops, addicts eventually need drugs just to feel normal. For more on this subject, click on Why Drugs Are Gratifying; How Tolerance Develops, and Understanding the Irrationality of Addiction

For the next article in the Treatment series click here.

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7 Responses to “ Step 1: Powerlessness and Unmanageability ”

  1. This is not what the first step means!

  2. If I’m mistaken, I’d be interested in hearing how.

  3. Me too, Eve. Please explain.

  4. Sounds like it sums up step 1 pretty well to me. It directly quotes the 12 and 12, and the big book. Admit defeat, Came to believe that we are powerless over alcohol/drugs, and our lives are unmanageable as a result.

  5. The most important part of step one is that we are powerless over picking up the first drink. Most think it means that once we’ve picked up we are powerless. Yes we are. But when we pick up the first drink we are sober. I am powerless over when and where I will pick up again unless I have the spiritual solution. I do Not CHOOSE not to drink. My not picking up again is due to me keeping in fit spiritual condition through my practicing of the twelve steps as described in the first 164 pages of Alcoholics Anonymous; of having a power greater than myself that can stop the feelings of restlessness irritability and discontent which are symptoms of the spiritual malady from which we suffer.

  6. […] The concept of powerlessness is the biggest obstacle to address when it comes to addiction. We as human beings are of the belief that we can control what happens in our lives, and when our lives have become unmanageable due to alcohol dependence it is very difficult to accept. All addicts operate in a heavy state of denial, and by continuing to ignore of that is falling apart around them they stay stuck in their addiction and further spiral out of control. […]

  7. Great article.

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