Inside Step One

Admit the Problem

Almost everyone has a problem with the word "powerless." It drives people nuts, and for good reason. No one likes to think of themselves as powerless or vulnerable. Some people actually take offense to the word, saying it's demeaning and oppressive. They even use the word "powerless" as an excuse for not trying to work the Steps at all.

But Step One doesn't say people are powerless. It doesn't say they can't take charge of their lives, or they don't have the ability to change; quite the opposite. What Step One does do is unlock a great paradox. The first Step, in its puzzling but simple language, introduces us to a source of power we didn't know we could find.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or a related issue like trauma, codependency, gambling, or compulsive behaviors, Step One is the key that unlocks the jail cell. It's not what we expect when we first encounter Twelve Step programs. In fact, for most of us it was maddening.

"I thought you were going to tell me how to stop using drugs? How does being powerless help me do anything? This is stupid."

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard that one. Working as an addiction counselor for many years, I've heard every form of resistance you can imagine, and then some. But as simple as the language of the Step might seem, it calls for a closer examination.

In AA and Al-Anon, the first half of the Step says: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol." It does not say we were powerless over our choices, over our life, or over our relationships with other people. It says we were powerless over alcohol, and that limiting phrase, that tight focus on the drug, is critical.

Here's the great paradox. In order to gain power over our addiction, we have to admit our powerlessness over the drug. Sounds weird, doesn't it? Sounds like we're giving up and falling into a bottomless pit. But that's not the case.

We have to change our focus. We can't fight the addiction head on, if for no other reason than we've been doing that repeatedly without success. In order to break our addiction, we have to admit that we can't change what it does to us. It affects our brain, our body, and our spirit; and there's no sense in denying it. We're powerless over the effect the chemical or behavior has on us. We're not going to get good at drinking or drugging, we're not going to get more rational about it. We're not going to get better at controlling. We've tried it a hundred times already.

If we want to get a grip on our problem, we have to admit we're powerless over the drug, that we have a medical condition called addiction, and get to work on remission. It's like admitting that we have tooth decay, and we need to go to the dentist. It's just a fact, we're powerless over that fact, and now we need to take action.

Consider the star athlete who's just lost a big game. She's crushed, overwhelmed, dejected. But there's another big game next week. How can she get over the loss?

Welcome to Step One. She has to put the loss behind her. The loss happened, and she has to admit she's powerless to change that fact. Whatever she does, she can't afford to bring that fact into her future. By admitting she's powerless to change that loss, she releases herself from its shackles and walks freely into her future, fully empowered to do things differently, and not repeat the same mistakes.

As long as we try to control an issue, whether it's addiction, codependency, or a tough loss on the soccer field, we're bound to keep losing. Step One puts it succinctly: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable." The second phrase is important: "our lives had become unmanageable."

Unmanageability is one of the ways we learn we have a problem. There are consequences to our addiction that are driving us crazy (not to mention other people). A businessman alcoholic may say, "I don't have a problem! I manage 250 people and make a huge salary." But his wife is ready to divorce him, his kids don't respect him, and he's just been arrested for a second drunk-driving charge. The confusion arises from the fact that everything isn't unmanageable. He may be holding on to his job, but if he's honest with himself (which he won't be, at first), he'll see that his addiction is making significant parts of his life unmanageable.

The great paradox tells us that we don't need to wrestle with those facts. We don't have to struggle with the drugs and we don't have to try to change the consequences. The first thing we have to do if we want to get better is simply admit we have a problem. We have to accept the fact that the substance has whipped us, and that there are real consequences which prove it's going to continue beating us—if we don't change.

We can't afford to play the blame game and we can't afford to make excuses. If we want to get better, we have to get honest. It's not my parents' fault, it's not my spouse's fault, it's not my boss's fault; in fact, it's nobody's fault. I've got a medical problem called addiction, a potentially fatal disease. But at the same time, I'm lucky, because this particular condition can be put in remission. It can't be cured, but it can be put in remission.

Nothing can be done about my problem until I admit I've got a problem. Change doesn't begin until I accept the fact that I can't control it, and that it's costing me dearly. The other eleven steps will show me the way out of this mess, but none of them are meaningful until I internalize Step One. The flip side of the coin we call acceptance is something called surrender. We have to stop fighting the battle. There is a way to beat this thing, but, paradoxically, it's not by fighting it head on.

As stated in the book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: "Step One showed us an amazing paradox: We found that we were totally unable to be rid of the alcohol obsession until we first admitted that we were powerless over it." When we turn away from the problem and embrace the solution, we've taken our first step into a new world.

Of course, really accepting Step One will make you crazy. But help is on the way. Step Two will help restore us to sanity in a most unusual way. More on that next time.

Read another blog post by Jeff, "A Power Greater Than Myself: Calling On the Power of Grace in Our Darkest Hours."

Jeff Jay headshot

Jeff Jay is a writer and counselor who lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, MI. He is a certified addiction specialist, popular speaker and consultant, and co-author with Debra Jay of the best-selling book Love First. He also authored Navigating Grace: A Solo Voyage of Survival and Redemption. His work has appeared on CNN, The Jane Pauley Show, PBS, Forbes Online, and in numerous professional journals. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and has served as president of the Terry McGovern Foundation and as a trustee for several clinical and professional organizations.

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