Step 1: Powerlessness and Unmanageability

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

Step 1:  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 demoralisation? 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 recognised, 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.”