Step One

By John S.

I opened the door and walked into the room, the first to arrive. Across from me, displayed on the wall were the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and as I read that first step, it got my attention. It was the perfect description of my situation and my life at that moment, and just reading the words filled me with a sense of relief.

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

My drinking had been out of control for several years and my life reached a point where it became not only impossible but frightening. I was twenty-five years old and since about the age of 19, I considered the possibility that I was an alcoholic, but I always dismissed the idea as ridiculous. I was too young or so I thought. Yet, when I read that step, the label “alcoholic” didn’t seem to matter any longer, because the statement at least in my case was true and very applicable. I was powerless over alcohol and my life was certainly unmanageable.

As I was contemplating the words before me, a man walked into the room with a pot of coffee and introduced himself. He was very kind to me, and as others began filtering into the room, he introduced me to them. I remember thinking that everyone seemed so well put together, so successful, so normal.

The meeting started with somebody reading the Steps, and then they gave me a First Step Meeting. They told my story through their own. One man recounted the shame he felt when his wife and young daughters went to the police station to get him out of jail. Although my circumstances were different, I understood and could relate to the feelings of shame and guilt that he expressed.

They suggested I come back, to try ninety meetings in ninety days, to not drink one day at a time, to call someone before I drank, and to not drink no matter what, that even if my ass were to fall off, I was to pick it up and get my ass to a meeting. I knew I was in the right place.

I really didn’t want to stop drinking. I loved it too much and couldn’t imagine life without alcohol. Drinking seemed to soothe the pervading sense of unease that I so often carried with me, but as the years went by, alcohol gradually took over my life and I often found myself burdened by fear, guilt and shame. The problems piling around me were almost impossible to endure, and in an effort to keep others from discovering the truth, I lied to almost everyone, but most damaging of all— I lied to myself.

The most outrageous lie was that I could control my drinking, that it wasn’t a problem, and sadly I convinced myself this was true. I wanted control over alcohol and my life, and I insisted that somehow I could find a way. Repeatedly I tried, and repeatedly I failed, until finally at long last, I reluctantly surrendered—I gave up and admitted I am powerless over alcohol.

Step One is simply an admission that I have a problem with alcohol, that I can’t control my drinking. I could no longer avoid the truth—I’m an alcoholic.  I don’t know if I can remember the specific moment when I made that admission. It may have been the morning I walked out of that jail cell after my last drunk, or when I called Alcoholics Anonymous and asked for help, or that first AA meeting, or maybe it was a culmination of events that finally brought me to that moment of surrender. Regardless of when, where and how it occurred, the admission of powerlessness was not an act of courage on my part. It was complete and utter capitulation.

Though the hopelessness of surrender can be devastating, it need not be permanently debilitating. Having admitted defeat, I took the advice given at my first meeting to make ninety meetings in ninety days. Attending AA meetings on a regular basis connected me with others who supported me in my desire to stop drinking. The meetings also helped stamp into my consciousness the futility of continuing the fight. In time, I moved beyond simply admitting I had a problem to accepting it, and I think there’s a difference.

The admission of powerlessness was simply my reaction to a losing fight — I simply gave up. Acceptance on the other hand required some thought and action. Over a period of time attending meetings, reading the Big Book and Twelve by Twelve, and sharing my experience, I took into consideration the surrender terms, and I became convinced that if I were to live and have any kind of life at all, I would need to stop drinking. Sobriety was an offer of peace, and I consented to the very simple condition that I must stay away from the first drink, one day at a time.

The war was now over and I accepted the terms of surrender — complete abstinence.

Having admitted and accepted that I was powerless over alcohol, I was now in a position to acknowledge it. This would require an honest recognition of the facts, divorced from the emotion of the initial admission and the subsequent acceptance of the consequences. At long last, I could be honest with myself about my drinking, and though I agree with those early AA’s who warned that self-knowledge alone won’t keep us sober; the self-honesty I experienced from admitting, accepting and acknowledging that I was powerless over alcohol was essential to my recovery.

That was my experience, but having an experience is one thing, learning from it is something else altogether.

Is it ironic to say that “powerless” is a strong word? Not long ago, I was speaking with a young woman new to the program who was having a difficult time, and she told me that she didn’t like the idea of being powerless over anything. My response was that it’s okay, she doesn’t have to use that word, she can use her own words. In fact, from my perspective she may have already been experiencing Step One. After all, she was at an AA meeting, which I think indicates she must have made an admission that she has a problem, and she took the first step to getting better. Whether or not she uses the language of AA is immaterial. Taking the first step to recovery involves admitting that there’s a problem, and often it may be experienced before we even make it to our first AA meeting. That was certainly the case for me.

This young lady went on to explain she believes that to proclaim powerlessness was akin to giving up all personal responsibility, and she believes in taking personal responsibility for her recovery. I’m glad she feels that sense of personal responsibility because I do as well, and I believe that was exactly my experience. Step One ultimately empowered me. It was through admitting I was powerless over alcohol that I could finally do something about it. I once heard it put this way; “the surest way to end a war is to surrender”. That was sure true for me. My battles with alcohol came to an immediate end when I gave up and stopped fighting. I think sometimes it’s okay to give up, to surrender.

When it comes to an unmanageable life, in my case it was obvious. Three DUIs, getting fired from my job, losing my apartment, and the general insanity that surrounded me on a daily basis made it pretty easy to see that my life was a mess. It was in fact unmanageable. However, not everyone has such stark problems facing them when they reach that moment of surrender, yet they still feel their life was out of control. I completely understand because when I drank there was no control of my life. In fact when it came to my life, I wasn’t even bothering to show up. Powerlessness over alcohol and an unmanageable life just went hand in hand.

Today I believe my life is manageable, though I’ve had sponsors who tried to convince me otherwise. Even after many years of sobriety and a happy and fairly successful life, these sponsors looked at the lack of manageability as some sort of permanent condition, that to now claim my life as manageable was somehow not completely taking this step, the only step we must take 100%.

I understand where they were coming from, but I disagree and I think they were needlessly complicating things. I feel that as a result of not drinking twenty-four hours at a time, I regain a manageable life. Of course, I can’t control events, but I can manage how I react to them. I no longer go it alone, and I often rely on help and advice from other people which I think is all part of managing life. For an alcoholic, not drinking is a very big deal. It’s a whole new ball game. In fact it puts us in the game.

This is not to say that Step One was the entire solution. I had some serious emotional and mental problems before my drinking got bad, and certainly the chaotic life of active alcoholism only served to exacerbate those issues. I believe that I needed to change in some very fundamental ways if I were to fully recover, and the self-honesty I acquired in the First Step was absolutely essential, and would become a quality that I would further hone and develop as I proceeded through the remaining eleven steps.

As it turns out, the admission of powerlessness was most empowering indeed.

About the Author, John S.

I live in Kansas City, Missouri with my wife Susan, two cats, Phoebe and Luna, and a very sweet Wheaten Terrier, Gabby. I’ve been sober since July 20, 1988 and my home group is We Agnostics Kansas City which has been meeting since August 2014. I believe that it’s important for secular people to become involved with the General Service structure of AA and to work for change from within the fellowship.

Related articles that I’ve written: 

Atheist Big Book Study: The Doctor’s Opinion, We Agnostics Kansas City, September 1, 2014

Atheist Big Book Study: There is a Solution, We Agnostics Kansas City, September 7, 2014

Atheist Big Book Study: More About Alcoholism, We Agnostics Kansas City, September 14, 2014

Powerless and Unmanageable, We Agnostics Kansas City, January 3, 2015

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5 years ago

John, thanks. It’s a liability if having a sacred text that its adherents tend to discuss and interpret the meaning of words, as written in the sacred text. And even the fact that we have “steps” will encourage such a trend. On the other hand, not having any sort of structured program for recovery would probably result in less success. I think you have walked a good balance with this article. One of my ambitions recently is to explore to what degree the demographics of the original members shaped the program fromtheir point of view. Powerlessness was probably high on… Read more »

5 years ago

According to Wikipedia : ‘”Traditionally , spirituality refers to a reformation of the personality….. “.  For argument sake ,  lets allow that to be the definition of Spiritual / Spirituality. Then it follows that a ” reformation of the personality ” could be religious, non- religious , intellectual and / or emotional or any combination of those concepts  ( including others ) to produce a ‘ psychic change ‘. I don’t think you necessarily have to beleive in a Higher Power or a deity to experience a change. Some people have a belief in a  HP  and / or God… Read more »

John L.
5 years ago

A fine article — perhaps the best commentary on Step One that I’ve read.  I’ve also talked to people who were hung up over the “powerless” bit.  For me, I am powerless over alcohol — I am an alcoholic — but I am not powerless to stay away from the First Drink.

bob k
bob k
5 years ago

I think it’s unfortunate that some engage in a semantic argument against “powerlessness.” Possibly it’s blowback against the enthusiasts, who can’t wait until the 2nd or 3rd step to begin the preaching about the need for God-power, like there is NOTHING in between. Powerless over alcohol has two parts for me. 1) My attempts at moderation were essentially a waste of time. I’m different from those capable of moderate drinking. 2) Of my own unaided resources, I was unable to quit drinking. I needed help. In my case. I see that help as coming in entirely human form, but essential… Read more »

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
5 years ago

A most excellent article, John, demonstrating that it is rationally possible to practice AA’s first step without a believe in a god of anyone’s understanding. I’m so grateful that you, like many of us  in the Secular AA Fellowship, can share your seasoned experience sober in AA without throwing out the baby, the soap, the washcloth and the towel along with the bathwater of what concerns us about AA.

I look forward to other essays you write about our other steps . . .