“Okay, but be careful” is what the text from one of my oldest friends read after I had alerted her that I was at the liquor store buying a bottle of wine. I had been sober on my own with no program, no rehab and no support for five months. It was far from a comfortable or easy stretch of time but I had started to feel better. People noticed the change. I lost a little weight. It felt like maybe sobriety was the right thing to do. But the minute my life got really challenging, I reached for a bottle of wine. Ignoring my pal’s advice, I was anything but careful. Despite my best intentions, I was quickly back to doing cocaine five nights a week and drinking every day after that one bottle of wine. My life crumbled faster than a day old cookie. That innocent bottle of wine lead me to five months of hell that would eventually help me hit rock bottom and get sober. When I think about that moment in the liquor store now at eight-and-a-half years of sobriety, I see it for what it was: powerlessness.
When you get sober in AA like I did you hear the word “ powerless” volleyed about at almost every meeting. In fact, it’s written right there in the first of the 12 steps: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Finally showing up at AA at the tender age of 36, I think I had no hesitation about admitting I was powerless. Give me 10 minutes and I could think of a dozen or so times when I said I wasn’t going to drink and wound up closing the bar down. Ditto with the innocent happy hours that turned into cocaine-fueled all nighters in seemingly the blink of an eye. When my coworkers at the restaurant where I worked would bust out the shots at the end of our shift, I always wanted to say no and not partake but nine times out of 10, I’d be slugging them back with the best of the them. Therefore, this idea of me being powerless over alcohol seemed pretty legit and I had the emotional receipts to prove it.
Okay, fine I was powerless. Drinking and using drugs had certainly made my life unmanageable. But did this mean I was destined to be some meeting-going drone with no soul who only spouted off slogans from AA for the rest of my life? Did it mean I was never going to have any personal power of my own? I wasn’t thrilled about any of that but when you’re as mangled as I was when I first got sober, you’re pretty open to suggestions. Fairly quickly my concerns about this powerless gig melted away. It just says “powerless over alcohol” after all and for me it checked out. Powerless, in my mind, represented what I wasn’t and not what I was. I wasn’t ever able to drink martinis like a classy homosexual. I wasn’t ever able to be those weirdos who only do a little cocaine on their birthday. And I would never ever be that person who would leave a half-drank cocktail on a bar (not just rude but wasteful!). So this word, “powerless,” for me took on new power. It helped me remember that when it came to drinking and drugs, I’d never ever be like normal people.
After a year or so in AA, I realized that I wasn’t just powerless over alcohol and drugs. As it turns out, there was a whole mess of things I had been trying to control my entire life, to disastrous results—chief among them being other people. Look, not only am I a drunk and a drug addict but I’m also a kid from an alcoholic home, which means my idea of healthy relationships with other people is pretty screwed up. I grew up as the family clown, the family distraction-maker. The more flamboyant I acted, the more trouble I made, the more unique I was, the less you’d notice what was really going on. It’s an exhausting way for a little kid to live and it also puts your self-worth in the hands of others pretty quickly. Dependent on reaction, applause or shaming, my idea of love was incredibly warped. It made for, as you can imagine, terrible friendships and relationships. By getting sober, I discovered that my whole life I tried to manage people the way I did booze and drugs. They never did what I wanted them to. They never loved me enough. They never applauded when I needed them to the most. The bastards. And so shoving people in the “powerless” category was incredibly helpful. Why couldn’t I just love them for who they were and not try to control the way they loved me back? If I was powerless over their behavior, they were soon let off the hook and I could enjoy them for who they were instead of hating them for who they weren’t. Well, that pretty much blew my mind as well as the doors open to the fundamental part of accepting what I could change and having the courage to change the things I can.
Of course, what comes after the powerless part in the 12 steps is the “God” part. The part that nearly everybody has a problem with when they come to AA. Again, I was in a ton of pain when I showed up so I was okay with giving my power away to a Higher Power. Mostly because it could be one of “my understanding” and I was encouraged to come up with my own. This was a good thing as I find most religions to be too restrictive and outwardly homophobic. Plus, I’m not much of a joiner and oh yeah I sort of hate people. It was a relief that my version of God could be just magic things that I couldn’t control or fully understand, like the ocean or cats or the lyrics of Stevie Nicks. This also mean that my God could let me drive the bus of my own life and be there to help with directions if I got lost. This way, God just didn’t have power but helped me find power of my own, as cheesy and new age-y as that sounds.
As I inch closer to nine years of sobriety, powerlessness is something I still definitely am. Recently coming off of an infuriating several months job search and nearly avoiding financial drama, I am again reminded that there are still a lot of things I cannot control. But what I can control is my reactions, how I help others and how I show up for my own life. And that in and of itself is pretty darn powerful.