This post looks at the first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program as reflected in the book Twelve and Twelve. The primary source for the post then will not be the Big Book. The Twelve and Twelve expands on each step more than our main book does. This post will reflect on the themes the book covers for this step.
Let’s start, though, with the actual step:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. (Alcoholics Anonymous, pg. 59)
It became too much for us. That is what brought us to AA meetings. It was probably hell though, as the Twelve and Twelve says on page 21
It is truly awful to admit that, glass in hand, we have warped our minds into such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of Providence can remove it from us.
To reach this point we have to accept that we are helpless in the presence of drink. Too often I have seen someone dragged to an AA meeting by a concerned friend or family member. Their statement that they are powerless over alcohol is no admission, but simply words said to appease somebody. This does not work.
Unless the acknowledgement of powerlessness comes from the deepest part of us it does not really count as an admission. In all twelve steps, this is the most important step.
Remember the only requirement for members of Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire to stop drinking, The admission of that defeat the key for people to become AA members.
The First Step in Liberation
It is the most important of the steps of AA because it is the step where we admit we are broken. Admitting that we were incapable of dealing with alcohol and as a consequence unable to manage our lives is the first step to freedom. We take that first step on our personal recovery journey.
It is necessary to admit that we need to be repaired before we ask our higher power to help us. The Twelve and Twelve puts it quite harshly and referring to the final effects of our alcohol addiction by saying
Our bankruptcy as going human concerns is complete.
What does liberation entail? It means
· An admission of powerlessness.
· That we will now start to act against our alcohol addiction.
· We will start the steps of recovery.
· We will get to know our higher power and have a spiritual awakening
· We will begin the process of removing all defects of character and living in a new way.
· It means taking personal responsibility for our past and our recovery process going forward.
A Cochrane review published study reports that the success rate of the A.A. treatment program is without peer, finding:
Most of the studies that measured abstinence found AA was significantly better than other interventions or no intervention. In one study, it was found to be 60% more effective. (https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2020/03/alcoholics-anonymous-most-effective-path-to-alcohol-abstinence.html)
This is proof of how effective the steps of AA are, and they start with this step. The number of success stories is vast.
Humility and Sobriety
In taking this first step for the first time in years we get in touch with humility. Humility is the first step on the path to spiritual progress.
Humiliation and humility are not the same things. Humiliation is an embarrassment, a feeling of being disgraced and disgraceful. Sam Louie describes humility as keeping, “one grounded and free from arrogance, pride, and haughtiness.” Louie also says, “humility also means acknowledging what makes you special and unique — your gifts, skills, talents, and accolades.”
Humility is a gift. It helps us put aside our egos. We need to do this to believe in the next step that only a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Humility is the ability to acknowledge that there is a Power higher than ourselves and that we are nothing in comparison.
Humility helps us gain a knowledge of God’s will for us. It is the opposite of arrogance that prevents us from being receptive to Higher Power and instead assists in creating a conscious contact with our creator. It opens us up to the spiritual experience of the steps of alcoholics anonymous.
It is critical that we are humble when we reach out to make direct amends.
The Nature of Alcoholism
Doctor William Silkworth who ran the recovery program at the rehab institution that Bill W. went to several times was a man of remarkable insight into what an alcoholism abuse disorder is. Doctor Silkworth wrote in the Big Book:
We believe, and so suggested a few years ago, that the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker. These allergic types can never safely use alcohol in any form at all; and once having formed the habit and found they cannot break it, once having lost their self-confidence, their reliance upon things human, their problems pile up on them and become astonishingly difficult to solve. (Alcoholics Anonymous, pg. xxvi)
He also wrote
I do not hold with those who believe that alcoholism is entirely a problem of mental control.
These men were not drinking to escape; they were drinking to overcome a craving beyond their mental control.
This ties into what we are saying when we admit to alcohol being too much for us. We are admitting that we have an allergy that affects our way of thought. We talk of the disease of alcoholism. Without Silkworth’s ideas on what alcoholism is, the founders of A.A. may never have developed the 12-step group.
The book goes into some depth about rock-bottom. The original considerations changed.
In the beginning, it was found that people, unless they had declined to what is referred to as the “low-bottom,” could not take this first step. As the program grew, however, people who had not sunk as far down the scale as original members found that they too could take this first step.
Alcoholics who still had their health, their families, their jobs, and even two cars in the garage, began to recognize their alcoholism
To make sense of this the early members looked back in their lives and realized that long before they had sunk to the bottom, the signs that there was a problem were already present. This idea of the bottom though is necessary no matter what.
I never missed a day’s work when I drank. I never reached for a drink in the morning, though hangovers were a constant curse every day. The fact that I was still “functioning” allowed me to lie to myself, constantly. But if I never drank in the morning and never lost a day’s work, how was my life unmanageable?
One drink was never enough. I would lie to myself knowing I was lying, telling myself that I was only going to have one beer, and knowing that was impossible. I arrived home and should have studied for a qualification I was doing, yet I reached for a drink and passed out within three hours.
Yet, I could lie to myself and say to myself I was not one of “such people.” For any alcoholic, skid row, or CEO we need to reach a bottom in order to get to a point where we are forced by circumstances to admit that we could no longer manage our lives. Mine came when my girlfriend had to cover my rent because I had spent the money on drink. I had to acknowledge that my drinking had harmed my most important personal relationship.
The Lash of Alcoholism
The fact is that alcoholism is permanent. We may try and convince ourselves otherwise, but that is not true. Think of other allergies such as shellfish. It doesn’t disappear if we stop eating shellfish. Alcoholism does not stop when we stop drinking. My sponsor says we get on at the same station we climbed off on. There is no gradual build-up as there may have been at the beginning of our drinking; we head straight back to where we left off.
It is a constant lash. I fell off the wagon after six months of sobriety. I know others who have fallen off after more than a quarter of a century. Some of us come back to the AA program. Some will continue alcohol abuse and never return. We always need to be wary to avoid the lash returning to strip our lives bare just as a real lash would strip our skin.
Summary – Constant Vigilance
Yes, people slip back to their old ways. The only way to avoid this is constant vigilance. In future steps, there are items such as the fearless moral inventory of the fourth step. We are directed in step ten to continue taking the personal inventory and promptly admitting it when we were wrong. This is part of always monitoring ourselves.
I believe though that the best way of maintaining unending watchfulness is to revisit this step and again and again to remind ourselves that we are powerless over alcohol. That will never change and that we need to remember always. If we are to have a better chance of maintaining this new way of life it requires that we are always wary of the possible actions that could lead us back to our addictive behavior.
The alternative means derailing our new life.
Note: Except where specified all quotes are from the book Twelve and Twelve