Step 1 in AA – Why You Aren’t Powerless

The concept of powerlessness is always a hot button topic amongst those sober (and not sober). I’ve heard heated post meeting debates on this topic. Sometimes it feels like oldtimers and newcomers cannot agree on this idea as it relates to recovery. Just what does ‘powerless’ mean as it pertains to the first step? Am I really helpless in this battle against alcoholism?

No one said it better than Tim H., an oldtimer who told his story one night at Discovery Place. “My sponsor told me that, since I was sober, I was powerless over alcohol and drugs. But I wasn’t powerless over my elbow. Now that I was clean, if I chose to drink or drug again, that was my decision.”

That statement really stuck with me. I’d been involved in the sober community on and off for years. Yet I’d never heard someone with 20+ years summarize powerlessness so elegantly.

I’m not going to dive into the medical explanation of why alcoholics are powerless over alcohol. I’d like you to stay awake for this article. Let’s just say that once an alcoholic takes a drink, a chemical reaction occurs within that body, setting off an intense craving for more. This craving doesn’t always occur, which is why some alcoholics can, on occasion, drink like normal people. (if you would like to read the medical explanation and research, see link below).Powerlessness steps into the picture here. Cravings in an alcoholic are so intense that the ability to resist is almost impossible, hence Bill Wilson’s use of the word ‘powerless.’

Looking back on my own drinking history, at least what I remember of it, I can see this phenomenon at work. Sure, there were times when I’d have a couple beers. But most of the time, once my lips touched whiskey, I’d drink like a thirsty dolphin.

The best example of this principle in practice is getting drunk on accident. Maybe you know what I mean. Allow me to set the scene.

It’s a Wednesday. You just got off work, and the boss tore into you about coming in late that day. On top of that, your receptionist commented about, “…having a case of the Mondays.” The clock moved forward slower than the traffic jam your car currently occupies.

That’s when an idea strikes – I’m gonna go by the bar and have a couple drinks. Nothing crazy, just something to unwind. I’ll leave at a reasonable hour, rest up and have a better day tomorrow. It’s a great plan, but it has one fatal flaw – you’re an alcoholic.

Six hours later, the bar is closing as fast as your consciousness. You’re drunk. And you’re plan didn’t work. Again. What distinguishes a normal drinker from an alcoholic is that an average drinker follows through with the game plan. Joe Smith sips a cocktail or two, goes home, sleeps and arrives at work fresh the next morning. You, on the other hand, were born chemically different. You have the phenomenon of craving, or, if you will, a powerlessness over alcohol. Your plans are subject to change once alcohol joins the party.

Now You Decide to Get Sober

Fast forward a few months later. You’ve realized there’s a problem, started to go to 12 step meetings and stopped drinking. But you don’t like the idea you’re powerless.Don’t let anyone tell you differently. You aren’t powerless. Let’s let the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous better illustrate my point:

“They (those newly sober) have become persuaded, and rightly so, that many problems besides alcohol will not yield to a headlong assault powered by the individual alone. But now it appears that there are certain things which only the individual can do. All by himself, and in the light of his own circumstances, he needs to develop the quality of willingness. When he acquires willingness, he is the only one who can make the decision to exert himself.” (Step 3 in the Twelve and Twelve, pg 40)

So once you get sober and involved in a program of recovery, you are the only one responsible for success. And the crucial ingredient is willingness.In an age where others are always to blame for problems, it can be difficult to recognize personal responsibility in a program of recovery.  Yet that’s precisely what the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous suggests.

It is my responsibility to stay involved in sobriety and follow my sponsor’s suggestions. It is my responsibility to cultivate and grow willingness. Once sober, if I decide to pick up a drink or drug, that’s on me too. I can’t cop out behind a smokescreen of powerlessness.

So I guess I do have power. I have the power to engage in a program of recovery. I have the power to choose not to abuse substances. But I am powerless over drugs and alcohol when I put them in my body.


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