Step 2: Sanity Restored

Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

AA says that alcoholism, and by extension any drug addiction, is fundamentally irrational, a form of insanity characterized by denial.  As the The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions puts it, “Few indeed are the practicing alcoholics who have any idea how irrational they are, or seeing their irrationality can bear to face it.”

Losing control over drinking or drugs — obsessive use despite the recognition in some small part of your mind that you must stop or die — means that willpower alone cannot restore control because a rational approach to an irrational problem can’t work. Once you’ve lost the ability to regulate drug use, the Big Book says, “probably no human power” can revive it. That’s why AA looks to a “Power greater than ourselves” for a solution.

Many addicts find the assertion that they’re insane, and AA’s reliance on a Higher Power and a spiritual solution, to be a huge obstacle. Calling it a Higher Power instead of God can seem like a distinction without a difference. (I was one of them. For my experience, click on Who Says I’m Crazy?)

Like many, however, my attitude about the diagnosis started to change when one rehab counselor told me AA’s definition of insanity, adopted not from any spiritual source, but from Albert Einstein: “It’s doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting a different result. Like all the times we promised ourselves to have just one or two drinks and woke up the next morning asking through our hangovers, ‘How did that happen again?’ Like all the times it happened again and again and again, all the months and years we continued to do the same thing, each time expecting a different result.”

Even if you accept that addiction is a type of insanity, there’s still “the God thing.” In response, the AA literature says that doubt in the existence of God is not a disqualification. Many participants entered the program as agnostics or atheists but were still able to recover. All it takes, AA says, is an open mind. As The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions puts it: “First, Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything. All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions. Second, to get sober and stay sober, you don’t have to swallow all of Step Two right [away]…. Third, all you really need is an open mind.” AA says that if you practice its program, you will develop a Higher Power “of your own understanding” when you complete the 12th Step.

And AA says a Higher Power doesn’t have to be God: “You can, if you wish, make AA itself your ‘higher power.’ Here’s a very large group of people who have solved their alcohol problem. In this respect they are certainly a power greater than you… Surely you can have faith in them. You will find many members who have crossed the threshold just this way.” In that case, “God” can be an acronym for “group of drunks,” or the “good orderly direction” that a sober group of drunks suggests.

Recognizing that there is a power greater than yourself, whatever that power is to you, means accepting the humility necessary to jettison reliance on your willpower as an answer to the insanity of addiction.


Neuroscientists don’t use terms like “sanity,” or “insanity.” But they agree with AA’s basic observation that addiction is a disease of fundamental irrationality. They say the emotional brain circuits hijacked by drug abuse (which are actually pre-rational from an evolutionary point-of-view), overpower rationality in the addict brain, resulting in the irrationality of the disease. (For more, 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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