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Step 1 is the first step to freedom. I admit to myself that something is seriously wrong in my life. I have created messes in my life. Perhaps my whole life is a mess, or maybe just important parts are a mess. I admit this and quit trying to play games with myself anymore. I realize that my life has become unmanageable in many ways. It is not under my control anymore. I do things that I later regret doing and tell myself that I will not do them again. But I do. I keep on doing them, in spite of my regrets, my denials, my vows, my cover-ups and my facades. The addiction has become bigger than I am. The first step is to admit the truth of where I am, that I am really powerless over this addiction and that I need help.
- From 12Step.org
The principle that we will find no enduring strength until we first admit complete defeat is the main taproot from which our whole Society has sprung and flowered.
- Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 22
Why all this insistence that every A.A. must hit bottom first? The answer is that few people will sincerely try to practice the A.A. program unless they have hit bottom. For practicing A.A.'s remaining eleven steps means the adoption of attitudes and actions that almost no alcoholic who is still drinking can dream of taking. Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry the A.A.'s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme, doesn't care for this prospect - unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself.
Under the lash of alcoholism, we are driven to A.A. and there we discover the fatal nature of our situation. Then, and only then, do we become open-minded to conviction and as willing to listen as the dying can be. We stand ready to do anything that will lift the merciless obsession from us.
- Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 24
I believe the delusion of control and power finally breaks down at the point where we are not able to alleviate the stress and our pain thorugh any effort in our repertoire. Evidently what we all want is happiness, yet with all we have accomplished or acquired with our attemps to be in control, many of us reach a place at which we not only cannot control our happiness - even with an addictive substance or behavior - but we cannot control our pain and stress, which has reached an agonizing level. By this time the family may have left; the job may be gone; or one's health may have been destroyed.
But we don't have to go this far down. We can see the patterns of powerlessness and go for help. When we begin to realize how we act and feel when no one is around, or in our car alone in traffic, or in line in a store, or when we listen to a political commentator, or in our most intimate relationships in our homes or in our beds, we can look around in our lives and see other signs of powerlessness and unmanageability. In the end it is usually the pain of our compulsions, addictions, and denial and the resulting strained or broken relationships that drive us to the stark awareness of our powerlessness. Unfortunately it may take a tragedy or crisis to break through our delusion of power - a divorce, a family member's addiction, a runaway child, a terminal illness, a bankruptcy, a death.
- A Hunger for Healing, p. 25
When we admit our powerlessness and the inability to manage our own lives, we open the door to recovery. No one could convince us that we were addicts. It is an admission that we had to make for ourselves. When some of us have doubts, we ask ourselves this question: "Can I control my use of any form of mind or mood-altering chemicals?"
Most will see that control is impossible the moment it is suggested. Whatever the outcome, we find that we cannot control our using for any length of time.
This would clearly suggest that an addict has no control over drugs. Powerlessness means using against our will. If we can't stop, how can we tell ourselves we are in control? The inability to stop using, even with the greatest willpower and the most sincere desire, is what we mean when we say, "We have absolutely no choice".
- Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, Chapter 4/Step 1
Admitting powerlessness is absolutely essential to breaking the addiction cycle, which is made up of five points:
- Reaching out to an addictive agent, such as work, food, sex, alcohol, or dependent relationships to salve our pain
- Temporary anesthesia
- Negative consequences
- Shame and guilt, which result in more pain or low self-esteem
For example, the workaholic who has low self-esteem (pain) begins to overwork (addictive agent), which results in praise, success, and achievement (relief). However, as a rule, family relationships and his personal relationship with God suffer terribly because of preoccupation with work (negative consequences). The result is an even greater sense of shame and guilt because of inadequacies, both real and imagined, which brings him back to point 1 in the addiction cycle. Now the workaholic feels compelled to work even harder to overcome his guilt.
Understanding the addiction cycle is important because it helps explain why for both the Oxford Group and for Bill Wilson, the admission of powerlessness is the first step to recovery. Otherwise, we remain caught. If we rely on willpower alone, then the only thing we know to do is to escalate our addiction to get out of the pain. Step 1 calls us to do less - to yield, to surrender, to let go.
- Serenity, A Companion for Twelve Step Recovery, p. 22-23
The central task of Step 1 is to recognize that 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.
Here are some familiar patterns:
- The Twelve Step Journal, p. 39
- Alcoholics or drug abusers find that no one will believe their promises anymore.
- Overeaters recognize that all diets have ultimately failed and that they are now facing life-threatening illness.
- Co-dependents find they are too ill or exhausted to go on doing everyone's work and that others have become more and more resistant to the co-dependent's efforts to control them.
- Workaholics find deadlines passing by unmet, forget to write down appointments, or fall ill with no "contingency plan".
- ACOAs become so overwhelmed by their standards and commitments that they cannot get out of bed to act on anything.