“Who cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of personal powerlessness. It is truly awful to admit that, glass in hand, we have warped our minds into such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of Providence can remove it from us.” – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
Even though no one wants to wave the white flag of surrender – indeed, many of us grew up in cultures where personal empowerment and rugged individualism were the order of the day – when we came into recovery, most of us came up against the first of many paradoxes: you have to surrender, to win.
Taking Those First Steps into Recovery Requires an Admission of Powerlessness
Many newly sober addicts and alcoholics can’t grasp the idea of powerlessness at first because it seems to be an absolute term. Most of us had experienced times when we didn’t want to drink or use drugs or act out, yet we did so anyway, as if compelled to do so beyond all reason. In recovery, we learn that we were simply acting on cravings beyond our mental control. Despite the often horrific consequences, once the obsession and compulsion to take a drink or a hit was upon us, there was little we could do to escape.
Yet there were other times that we seemed to have control, or at least to succeed in life despite things being a bit out of control. Certainly sober, it can all feel like much ado about nothing. Were things really that bad? we may ask ourselves. Were we really completely powerless, like zombies at the mercy of our substance?
Some may be able to answer an enthusiastic YES to these questions by looking back over their own drinking and drugging careers. Others, who perhaps have a higher bottom or are deeper in denial, often are not able to make the admission as easily, even with the added testimony of 12-step literature and shared experiences of fellow recovering addicts. Yet they are told that without admitting powerlessness over the substance, and unmanageability in their lives, they will never be able to attain lasting, satisfying recovery.
The First Step is the Key to the Rest of the Journey
The reason Step 1 is so important in the 12-step journey is that it makes it possible to persevere with the rest of the program. No one would want to spend time taking the 12 steps, with all that entails, if they didn’t really feel they had to. By admitting powerlessness, the alcoholic is admitting that 1) there is a problem, 2) there is a need for outside help and 3) without outside help, the problem is not going to go away. Without admitting this, the addict would be trapped forever in a limbo of trying over and over to control and enjoy their own drinking and using. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous calls this action a ‘desperate experiment’ and most people in recovery know all about that game.
Step One in Alcoholics Anonymous is not really a feel-good step. It is the darkness before the dawn: admitting we have gotten ourselves into something that we can’t get out of isn’t pleasant, but the great news is, there are another 11 steps that will help us get out of it. And in taking those steps, we aren’t powerless anymore; we have great personal power. We have the power to decide that we will go forward with the program and make profound changes to our lives so we can become happy, joyous and free.