For many starting out on the road to recovery, mutual self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are often the first stop. These groups are called Twelve Step Programs because they contain “the twelve steps,” which are a set of guiding principles outlining the course of recovery from drug and alcohol dependency. Despite their popularity, these groups are not without controversy. For many, the language of overall powerlessness tends to turn them away from these programs.
This theme of powerlessness is clearly outlined in the First Step:
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives have become unmanageable.” (AA)
“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives have become unmanageable.” (NA)
The theme of powerlessness, along with the spiritual foundation of the twelve steps, can drive those in recovery away from the support and encouragement they need to work a program of recovery, leading to relapse. It is important to understand the steps in the context in which they were created. Ultimately, it is important to understand these steps—especially the first step—in a way that is easily identifiable and personal. Some can grasp the concepts and steps with ease, while others may have more difficulty, in which case drug and alcohol rehab may be needed. And, in some cases, a medically-supervised drug and alcohol detox may be appropriate.
Context of the Steps
When Alcoholics Anonymous was conceived in 1935, addiction was viewed vastly different than how it is viewed today. In the 1930’s, addiction was viewed as a moral and spiritual failing, in which the only way an addict can find recovery would be through surrendering their faults and imperfections to God, or a “Higher Power.” Additionally, a significant emphasis is placed on being a part of a group, spending substantial time within that group, and practicing the principals of the twelve steps. This approach was thought to deepen the religious and spiritual connections to AA.
The understanding of addiction has changed greatly since the creation of AA and other twelve-step programs. While there have been significant changes in the way addiction is viewed and treated, the language and structure of twelve-step groups have largely remained unchanged. Despite the language used and the underlying philosophy, groups like AA and NA can still be a significant part of an individual’s program of recovery, whether people believe in God or not.
The True Meaning of the First Step
The true meaning of powerlessness in the first step lies in the fact that a person is unable to quit using drugs or alcohol, even though they are aware of the damaging consequences of their use. By admitting powerlessness and unmanageability, any delusions of control are removed, and the door to recovery is opened. As it is stated in The Twelve Step Journal:
“…our lives are beyond our control, and we cannot continue our superhuman efforts at patching up the many mistakes we make. We recognize that it is time to move from a crisis mode to a prevention mode.”
Admitting powerlessness breaks the cycle of addiction in which the addict feels pain and reaches out to drugs and alcohol to provide relief from this pain. However, this relief is only temporary and with continued use, negative consequences are felt. Because of these negative consequences, the addict may feel shame and guilt, which results in low self-esteem; and, the only way to relieve the pain and guilt is through continued use of substances. Instead of relying on willpower to combat addiction, the first step simply asks addicts to surrender, let go, and accept they can’t control their addiction. If you or a loved one needs help, contact us today at the Palm Beach Institute.