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  • Unmanageability and finding the help you need

    This article is the first in a series to take a closer look at unmanageability. Part two is found here. 

    Unmanageability is a big concept introduced in only five words in Step 1 of the 12 Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous. 

    Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives have become unmanageable.

    What is unmanageability? 

    When life has become unmanageable, it isn’t always obvious. Substances can cloud people’s perceptions, but some behaviours that make life difficult or unmanageable start to seem normal, from arriving at excuses for employers to dodging creditors or avoiding family members. Turning to substances may be a way of coping and finding relief that starts the cycle over again. 

    Why is it important to understand unmanageability?

    It may seem simple at face value, but if someone’s substance use didn’t get in the way, they would never stop.

    This part of Step 1 means facing the negative results of substance use. This means the things that brought someone to treatment, which may include the impact of substance use on loved ones, or the effect of drugs or alcohol on self-esteem, self-image and self-respect, physical health and overall goals for how they want to live their life.

    What are the signs of unmanageability?

    Unmanageability shows up in the criteria for diagnosing substance use disorders, for example in the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision, disorders due to the use of alcohol are characterized by the pattern and consequences of alcohol use.

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, text revision, often called the DSM-V-TR or DSM-5-TR includes these criteria for Substance Use Disorders:

    • Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to
    • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
    • Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use
    • Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships
    • Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use
    • Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger
    • Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance  

    Learn more about the diagnosis of substance use disorders in Understanding the DSM-V Handbook.

    For more indicators of unmanageability, see our past blog post Signs That Your Life Has Become Unmanageable Due To Alcoholism and Addiction


    What are some of the outside influences on unmanageability?

    Unmanageability is subjective, what one community may consider high-risk or unmanageable may not be in another. Additionally, privilege, oppression and racism also have an effect on manageability, and the question if someone’s life is unmanageable due to substance use, or if they use it because their life is unmanageable.

    What should I do if my life has become unmanageable, or I see the signs in someone I care about?

    If you feel that your life is unmanageable, or you see the signs with a loved one, turn to us for help. Not sure where to begin? Talk to someone who’s been there.

    Call us toll-free at 1-866-232-1212, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All consultations are free and confidential.


    About the Authors

    Renascent Staff
    The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.