Are you struggling with Step 1 of the Twelve Steps? You're not alone—almost everyone has a hard time with Step 1 when they first get sober. In fact, much of the Twelve Steps require an explanation. The phrasing can be confusing or dated, and when people first encounter Step 1, they're likely to pause at the idea of being powerless while others scratch their heads at "life has become unmanageable."
It's natural to resist those statements because they feel rigid and presumptuous: "How am I powerless? And life's going quite all right, but thanks for asking." In some form or another, almost every newcomer to AA has had these thoughts about Step 1, and almost everyone requires the First Step to be translated into simpler, more flexible terminology.
In this article, we'll explain the language in greater detail and in simpler terms. And with the help of well-known recovery author Jeff Jay, we'll also figure out how to actually work the Step and what it's trying to teach us.
As a reminder, Step 1 states the following:
"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable." *
The first order of business should be to explain the meaning of powerless within this context, because that's the term that confuses and upsets the most people, and it may turn some people away from Twelve Step recovery for good.
People often scoff at the idea that they're powerless. The person who is first getting sober could be a single mother to four amazing kids. They could be a tenured professor with a doctorate in a highly specialized field of study. They could be absolutely anyone, because addiction doesn't discriminate. And more than that, each and every person on Earth has power: the power to change, to love and grow, to try new things and to become new people.
No one is powerless in the general sense of the word, but a person can be powerless to the effects of alcohol or other drugs. And that's what the First Step is saying—once an addict or alcoholic drinks that first drink or takes a hit of their favorite drug, they will only want more, and the compulsion to use will override and overtake anything else in their lives regardless of consequence.**
"In AA and Al-Anon, the first half of the [First] 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.
"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."
Unmanageability should also be defined more tightly, because the person who has a great job or a loving spouse or a nice home might say, "My life feels pretty manageable, actually." They might look at everything that's going well and completely resist the idea that life is no longer manageable. And that's only fair and natural. But the terminal stages of addiction will strip everything away, and an addicted person who refuses to recover will often be left with nothing.
There's a simpler way to think of unmanageability: drinking or using drugs is causing problems in a person's life. Maybe life hasn't become fully unmanageable yet, but a person has lost friends or romantic partners because of their addiction, or they face criminal punishment or work-related consequences and they continue to use. The warning signs are there, and it might not be unmanageable now, but it will be.
The main criterion for a successful First Step is a person's acceptance that they do, indeed, have the disease of addiction. A person shouldn't consider themselves weak-willed or incapable when they admit to their powerlessness, and they don't have to do anything about their addiction yet. Step One is just asking a person to acknowledge that they have the disease of addiction, and life is harder because of it.
If you can acknowledge and accept those two things—that you have an addiction and it's causing problems—then you have completed the First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous, and you have officially begun your recovery.
*For members of Narcotics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs, alcohol is replaced with our addiction, but everything else remains the same.
**Editor's note: We much prefer the person-first language that emphasizes a person's identity before their disease, avoiding terms like addict or alcoholic. However, in keeping with the history of AA and NA, their primary texts and the language that still exists within the fellowships, we have decided to keep the words addict and alcoholic to describe people with substance use disorders.
Our hope is merely to capture the spirit of the fellowships, and to approach people with the language they commonly use to describe the disease of addiction.