Why We Admit Powerlessness over Alcohol and Drugs
The “Serenity Prayer” said in 12 Step meetings has received widespread media attention ever since Covid-19 entered the American consciousness. Written by theologian Karl Niebuhr in the early 1930’s, the Serenity Prayer was adopted and adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous shortly after it published the Big Book. It begins, God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – a reminder that there are some things in life we can’t control. The pandemic is one of them, as are natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, etc. We become helpless in the face of overpowering forces. We feel hopelessness and despair upon seeing loved ones taken and homes and property destroyed. Anxiety, panic, depression, and guilt are never far off during these times. Nor is anger. Natural disasters present paradigm examples of human powerlessness.
Conceptually, powerlessness is also an element of 12 Step programs. We might hear this word without giving it much thought if we aren’t steeped in drug and alcohol recovery. Yet the admission of powerlessness is Step One, the very gateway to our recovery program. It’s an essential condition. We can’t minimize or skip it. There’s no recovery unless and until we first admit that we are powerless over alcohol and drugs. We have good reasons for saying this, as we explain below.
Alcohol and drugs act as the kryptonite, Achilles heel, or fatal weakness, of every abnormal drinker and drug user. Powerlessness was our personal experience and the insight we reached after countless times of trying to moderate or quit. All of our efforts failed, spectacularly. Our addictions had grown beyond our control.
When ordinary people think of the priorities of life, their thoughts naturally turn to family, home, career, and the like. Not so with the alcoholic or addict trapped in the cycle of addiction. The particulars vary from person to person, but each of us went from functional drinkers and users to compulsive drunks and junkies. We developed laser-like focus, with all our thought patterns, belief systems, emotions, and actions converging on a singular purpose. Whether we admitted it or not, everybody and everything else assumed secondary importance. Our lives revolved around drinking and drugging.
When in the cycle of addiction, it was not uncommon for us to wake up from a binge feeling guilty for what had just happened, yet with the obsession to use still clawing at our brains. As it turned into a problem, we naively made up our minds to moderate or quit. We still remembered the days when we just had fun like everybody else. We thought we could go back to being that person. We did everything we could to accomplish this. We even began doing things like journaling, exercising, or watching our diet. Self-help books began piling up on our shelves. We consulted with people we trusted, whether family, friends, employers, ministers, physicians, or counselors. Our futile efforts reached epic proportions.
Nothing worked. The obsession rarely left us. We might even go days or weeks without actually using, and tell ourselves that we were better, but the result was always the same. Once we started back again – and we always did – all bets were off.
As we abandoned responsibilities, our problems began to mount. We found ourselves unable to stop any of it. Ashamed to admit failure, we began hiding our use from the same people who tried to help us, and then we pushed them away. Family and social relationships were lost. We started doing things to support our habits that we never would have dreamed of doing before, sometimes taking risks with our health or crossing the law. We lost jobs, homes, and businesses, not to mention our self-respect. We beat ourselves up inside with guilt and shame because our best efforts just weren’t good enough, and we didn’t understand why. A cloud of doom and foreboding hung over us, as did depression and, for some of us, thoughts of suicide. Our lives had fallen apart, and we were living a nightmare with no way out. In a word, we were powerless.
Some generalities can be drawn from our experiences and those of others. We become powerless over alcohol or drugs when we:
- are constantly preoccupied by thoughts of using;
- become irritable and discontent when not using;
- suffer from an obsession to use;
- consider ordinary life events, whether good or bad, as reasons to use;
- use even though we know we shouldn’t, don’t want to, and fear the outcome;
- can’t stop using once we start using;
- can’t quit or moderate our use despite having a desperate desire to change it.
To date, medical science is making headway on the particulars of addiction. The results are considerable, but it hasn’t yet found any way to eliminate either our obsession to use, or our cravings to continue using until we pass out, black out, or become so high that we no longer know what’s real. Until that happens, we who want to recover must accept the fact of our powerlessness, and by working the steps find the way to escape from that hopeless condition.
Happily, we have recovered, although here we do mention one feature that complicated our recoveries: denial. It was our last defense against the very circumstances that made us feel vulnerable and threatened our sense of control. While trapped in our addictions we initially refused to accept our powerlessness and recognize the need for change. We became angry and defensive, and we made sophomoric speeches similar to the following:
Don’t tell me I’m powerless! That’s not what I want or need. I live in constant humiliation, guilt, and shame. How can it possibly help to see myself that way? Don’t you know how demoralizing that is? Don’t you see how that hurts me? People wanting to control me tell me I’m powerless. You can’t label me!
And so we went on.
Unfortunately, there was an entire self-help industry out there waiting to enable us in denial. Their sales pitch is that 12 Step programs, whether AA or NA, make us weak by brainwashing us into thinking we are powerless. The power is in us, they say, and in the books and programs they sell. We need only learn how to empower ourselves.
The self-help gurus really didn’t help. Self-empowerment pitches are misguided when the target audience includes chronic drinkers and drug users, all of whom already suffer the hallmarks of powerlessness. AA and NA did not make us that way. Our shame, guilt, despair and anger weren’t triggered because somebody told us we were powerless. We were miserable because we were powerless. It’s the human condition, the natural and foreseeable consequence of wrestling with forces beyond our control.
Our only viable course of action was to recognize our powerlessness for what it was. Acknowledging it doesn’t relegate us to living a life imprisoned in fear, shame, or helplessness – in any context. Quite the contrary. Even when we consider the natural disasters cited above, we well know that not everyone bears the brunt of those forces of nature. Only those unfortunate enough to be in the path of destruction suffer the effects of powerlessness. By way of illustration, imagine for a moment, a group of people who live on an annual floodplain. Every year the raging waters rise, steal away loved ones, and obliterate all they worked so hard to build. They suffer desperation and hopelessness, and they further feel shame and guilt for not having prevented catastrophic loss of life and property. But, what about their neighbors who live on higher ground, above the plain? Factually, they are as powerless against the raging floods as those whose homes were swept away. They do not suffer the ill effects of their powerlessness at all, whether loss of life, destruction of property, desperation, shame, or the other. They sympathize with the plight of the victims, but they live their lives hopefully, not in helplessness.
To drive this analogy home, let’s further assume that as the waters recede from the earth and dry land reappears, our flood survivors become determined to rebuild on the same spot. They are certain that next year will be different, even though they live on an annual floodplain and their recent, horrific experience is identical to every year they’ve ever lived there. Anyone seeing that would call it insanity. We agree. We can’t imagine why they’d still want to live there. We would urge them to come to their senses, admit that they are powerless, and move to higher ground with the rest of us. That’s exactly the course of action we who have recovered from substance abuse took once we finally admitted that we are powerless over alcohol and drugs.
That’s the essence of Step One. It’s no accident that 12 Step programs teach both powerlessness and complete abstinence. Only by realizing the futility of drinking and drugging, where disaster was forever certain to occur, did we pick up and move to higher ground, abstinence. The latter we accomplished by working the remaining steps. The miracle happened, and our sanity was restored. We live with hope and purpose, and feel the deepest gratitude. God granted us the serenity to accept something we cannot change, and we’re not in harm’s way anymore.