“We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our life had become unmanageable.”
It’s the first step Alcoholics Anonymous‘ (AA) 12 steps and arguably the most important one. It’s also one of the most frequently criticized tenets of AA — and with good reason. It’s frequently cited by critics of 12-step groups as a tool used to disempower, or even brainwash, members.
Encouraging members to see themselves as powerless, critics argue, is problematic for two reasons. First, it can feed an addict’s sense of futility about his or her condition: Hey, if you’re powerless over your addiction, you can’t be held accountable for the actions you take as a result of your addiction, right? (Wrong, but more on that later.) Second, critics suggest that the notion of powerlessness results in the exploitation of new 12-step group members. A recent film about “13-stepping,” a loose term for the sexual harassment of new 12-steppers by long-time group members, directly comments on the first step with its tagline: “You are not powerless.”
Both of these assertions have validity. Certain people do use the concept of powerlessness to justify poor behavior and/or exploit vulnerable members of the group. It’s unfortunate, and I believe all members of 12-step groups are responsible for eradicating this behavior. That said, neither of those deviations reflects my understanding of what it means to be powerless.
What is Powerlessness?
When I was 21 years old, I was on my way to Tahoe when I started experiencing extreme stomach pain. A trip to the emergency room and a CAT scan revealed that my colon had never attached to the walls of my stomach and had twisted itself into a knot. I would have to have emergency surgery to take out the knotted part of my colon before gangrene spread to the rest of my intestines and killed me. Three weeks and two surgeries later, I emerged from the hospital weak, wracked with pain and terrified out of my mind.
My head and my body were operating on two different planes. My body told me I was weak; it implored me to rest and let healing take its course. Doctors informed me that there were things I could not do: I could not immediately return to school, I could not eat certain things and yes, my life would be a little bit different from here on out.
My head disagreed.
My head told me that I wasn’t going to miss my senior year of college just because my digestive system was being a jerk. My brain believed that there was shame in my weakness and the solution was simply pretending that the weakness didn’t exist.
Fortunately for me, my physical weakness won. I could not deny the exhaustion that plagued me after walking once around the block. I could try to pretend that my stomach didn’t hurt after every meal, but my body knew that it did. I could not go back to Ohio right away, and trudge to dining hall meals through the snow. No matter how much I wanted my body to behave the way it used to, I was powerless over its current state.
This was no easy pill to swallow and I spent more than a few days feeling depressed and defeated. I didn’t want to have this weird stomach thing, I didn’t want to be weak and I didn’t want to have to do the grueling and painful work of recovery, work that was slow and unrewarding. Put simply, I didn’t want to have a condition that I undeniably had. I was angry that my body was different, weaker, than other people’s and it turned me into a stubborn child, pouting over how long and painful my recovery would be instead of getting down to the business of doing what I could to enhance my recovery.
This mentality did not help me heal any faster.
The Inescapability of Powerlessness
I’m not a deeply religious person but I have a special affinity for the serenity prayer because it reminds me that there are things I am and am not powerless over: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” This balance of things I am powerless over versus things I have at least some control over exists, regardless of my attitude towards them.
For me, it’s been extremely liberating to realize my own powerlessness. This is another point that critics of the 12-step concept of powerlessness, or those within 12-step programs who would distort the concept, fail to understand. If someone (let’s call him Joe) is putting me in an uncomfortable situation or harassing me, as occurs with 13th-stepping, I am neither powerless nor omnipotent. I have no influence over Joe’s motivations and little to no power over his actions. Where I do have power is in my actions. I am not powerless over those I might choose to tell about Joe’s behavior, or whether I continue attending the same meeting as he does, or if I seek help in dealing with Joe’s inappropriate behavior. Of course, the victim is not responsible for what is done to him or her; that responsibility is on the perpetrator alone. But accepting one’s powerlessness is no more than asking oneself a simple question: Given that this is happening, how will I act or respond?
The Powerlessness of Alcoholism
Powerlessness exists regardless of whether we want to see or admit to it. I am powerless over the fact that I am an alcoholic. It is my biological condition. This is true whether I am hiding in a closet with a bottle of vodka or seven years sober. What I am not powerless over are the actions I take based on the knowledge that I am an alcoholic. After years of resisting that knowledge even harder than I resisted the weakness of my body after surgery, I finally stopped fighting. Admitting I was powerless over my alcoholism did an amazing thing for me: It gave me options. All my energy had previously been focused on trying to change reality from what is to what I want it to be. Once I stopped trying to bend reality to my desires, I could see that there were things I could do to treat my alcoholism. The goal of this treatment was not to erase my addiction to alcohol, but to learn how to live a sober life while being in recovery from alcohol addiction.
Far from a defeatist attitude, realizing my own powerlessness is extremely liberating. When I realize what I am powerless over (most things), I can transfer that energy into the things I can control (my actions).
A good friend of mine put it this way: The situation is set in stone, so any effort spent trying to move that stone is wasted. Instead, take action around the situation. I can go up and over that stone, around either side or just sit in front of the damn thing. Those are my options. Once I realize what I can change and, more important, what I can’t, I am very powerful indeed.