Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
This is where addiction took me…
For many years my life was unconsciously unmanageable as I displayed the classic forms of denial: I rationalized, minimized and projected the cause of all my problems onto other people until…
One day, after a four-day binge of cocaine and alcohol, I came face to face with myself in the mirror. As I stared into my eyes, I started screaming obscenities and calling myself every vulgar word that came to mind. My screams turned into tears and I saw myself exactly as I was: a sniveling, pathetic crackhead who was totally addicted to booze and cocaine. I had turned my life’s extraordinary blessings into a deep-seated hatred of myself. I cursed God for allowing this to happen to me. No matter what promises I had made to others and myself, I could not stop drinking or using cocaine. As the tears subsided, I wondered how I could end my life and make it look like an accident. Little did I know that I had not yet hit my bottom.
Sickness and death are the physical expressions of the fear of awakening. By experiencing the 12 steps, we receive the gift of a spiritual awakening. This gift releases us from the fear, chaos and drama associated with our previous existence. With this gift, we are reborn into a new life in which we finally experience reality. Miracles, awakenings, and reality come to us – we do not go to them. They are blessings we receive by simply aligning our will with God’s will.
Admitting powerlessness instills the acceptance of our situation. As we unearth the willingness to surrender, we open the door to change. Seeking courage and surrender once appeared to be contradicting concepts, but in recovery, they go hand in hand and start with the first step. Our healing begins with a divine awareness that we are not alone on this worldly journey.
Transforming from a state of unconscious unmanageability (level 1) to conscious unmanageability (level 2) brings a suffering addict to the proverbial fork in the road. We have finally awakened from our self-induced stupor of ignorance to the acknowledgement that something is dreadfully wrong with the way we are living. Our life is still unmanageable but now we are aware of it.
For most people suffering from addiction, this is the first time they have objectively looked at themselves. The pain and disgust they feel has finally overridden denial and blind arrogance. Admitting unmanageability and surrendering to powerlessness over our lives is truly the first step to transformation. The first of many decisions in recovery starts right here, right now. Sadly for some, admitting without surrendering is as far as they ever get. They appear to be permanently stuck in a state of conscious incompetence. Some may visualize a new life, but without taking any action, visualization is just another form of hallucination. Surrendering is a spiritual lesson that must be internalized in early recovery.
Step 1 suggests we are powerless over something: alcohol, drugs, sex, overeating, gambling or shopping. While we had the power to choose the object or objects of our powerlessness, we have become powerless over life itself. The problem does not lie with the drugs, alcohol or food – it lies within us. We are guilty of merely existing in a far too human world, as opposed to living as the divinely spiritual beings that we were created to be. We may suffer from guilt when we acknowledge our past indiscretions, but we can readily forgive ourselves of human mistakes. Simply asking for forgiveness initiates the healing process of guilt. Shame, however, is far more toxic than guilt because it makes us believe something is inherently wrong with us and that we are not worthy of forgiveness.
I have found that most alcoholics and addicts believe they never measured up to the expectations that families, religions and society wrongly placed upon them. To numb the pain of feeling inadequate, they sought and found refuge in booze and drugs. People with codependency find refuge in overindulging in different types of self-sabotaging behaviors. They numb their personal pain by directing their attention to the person or people in their lives that, in their minds, are less functional them themselves. Codependents focus on the past that, in turn, destroys the present. They use the past to project the future while ignoring their own need for happiness.
Others may focus on work or strongly held, closed-minded beliefs. These obsessions can result in the same character defects as addiction. Codependency and addiction go hand in hand. Renowned psychiatrist, Doctor Joseph Pursch M.D., has many times reminded me, “If you scratch an alcoholic, underneath you will find a codependent.”
Unmanageability results from certain defects of character that addiction and obsessive thinking create and demand. Defects common in nearly all addicted people include dishonesty, self-centeredness, selfishness, guilt, shame, denial, procrastination and a lack of awareness of reality. Many of these defects of character are our brain’s defense mechanisms that protect us from the truth about ourselves. Reality is simply too painful to process. Recovery starts when we stop separating our thoughts from reality…
Our twisted perception that we are unique must be smashed, along with the belief that our addiction to drugs, obsessions and negative thoughts can be eliminated without help. The first word in the first step – “we” – was placed there intentionally. The initial draft of the 12 steps started with the word “admitted.” But the alcoholics working with Bill W. writing the steps wanted it clearly understood that no one “trudges the road to happy destiny”3 alone.
In the beginning, the seemingly impossible task of grasping reality appears overwhelming because we have allowed our perception to become so extremely distorted. Chemicals have hijacked our brain and our thoughts. These deceptive and self-destructive thoughts are so pervasive and ingrained that they slowly became our reality. This familiar, false reality then creates a sense of comfort, at least, until that moment of clarity, that profound instant that we know we are going to die unless we change.
Step 1 in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions4 states, “We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first step toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be firm bedrocks upon which happy and purposeful lives can be built.”
The 12 steps act as the road map to living life in a world that appears to have no direction and make no sense. But we eventually discover that the world need not make sense once we recover from the hopeless mind-state that we experienced as the result of addiction and codependency. The goal of the 12 steps is to deliver a spiritual awakening, a new life that is a miracle based on truth. Step 1 is the beginning of the transformation from a broken belief system to a life filled with meaning and purpose.
We find purpose by redefining our values. But these value shifts take place gradually in recovery and they tend to differ between men and women. While both men and women find more purpose through spirituality, men place their focus on power, money and pleasure and find purpose in family and personal peace. Women tend to place their focus on independence, family, career and fitting in and find purpose in personal growth and authentic self-esteem. While these are general observations, the point is that people in recovery, just like people who experience near-death events, will look to find meaning and purpose through repairing their belief systems.
Recovery is not a small heading correction, there is a deadly storm ahead that requires completely reinventing how to experience life from the moment we wake up until we place our head on the pillow each evening. While this seems like an overwhelmingly large task in truth, the seemingly small choices we make in our daily routines determine whether we plow through the storm or we avoid the storm entirely.
We must allow recovery to flow through us and share what we learn when we learn it. As we find fragments of peace on the path of transformation, we must capture that peace and make a home for it in our hearts and souls.
This peace comes through internalizing God’s omnipotence and omnipresence, and by completely surrendering our will to God’s will. We should constantly remind ourselves that God’s will is for us to be happy, joyous and free in this world so we can claim eternal happiness in the next. We have free will during our brief time on earth, but in eternity, God’s will is all there is.
The Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.