When I first began attending AA meetings in 2007, I was eager to tell my best friend all about the program. Having witnessed the worst of my drinking, he was super supportive in my decision to get help and was happy to listen to me outline the program in detail, which included reading him the 12 steps. I didn’t get past the first step before he interrupted in mild protest.
“I take issue with that powerless business,” he said. “I don’t agree with that. Everyone has power over themselves.”
I didn’t argue with him. It was a valid point, of course, but I reasoned that it didn’t apply to someone who had sunk to the lows I had sunk. If admitting powerlessness was going to fix up my life and end a bunch of suffering, who cared one way or the other?
My logic at the time wasn’t completely misguided. If you have to choose between living life drunk and miserable and admitting powerlessness, it almost seems asinine to not admit that your powerless. The real question, though, is whether or not it’s necessary to admit powerlessness in order to stop living a drunk and miserable life.
Having read all of the AA literature over and over and over, and having participated in hundreds of meetings over the years, I feel comfortable saying that the program pushes the idea that you’re not only powerless over alcohol after you start drinking, but also before a drop of the stuff enters your bloodstream. According to AA, alcoholics are doubly-challenged with not only an “allergy of the body” but also “an obsession of the mind” that renders us powerless to say no to booze whether we have it in our system or not.
I’ve been sober nearly eight years, and there have definitely been some rough patches where I felt like picking up a drink, but I never did. So who didn’t pick up the drink? Me? Or a Higher Power? It felt a lot like me, since I remember clearly choosing to stay sober after being flooded with the awful memories of what drinking did to me. I didn’t want to experience that again, so I stayed away from a drink. Some members of AA may argue that God intervened, incepting those memories into my head and ultimately keeping me from a drink, but if this is so does that mean that She, He, It just disses those who do fall prey to drinking again?
When AA members celebrate anniversaries, they give credit to everyone on the planet but themselves. The credit goes to God, to their sponsor, to the program, but if those same members succumb to taking a drink, they are at fault. So where does the Higher Power end and the individual begin?
Before I got sober and stayed sober in 2009, I spent two years relapsing. During one of these relapses I phoned an AA friend, who tried to get me to stop drinking. “I have an obsession of the mind and an allergy of the body,” I said into the phone. “There’s no way in hell I can stop!” She kept coaxing me to put down the drink, telling me I had to make a decision one way or another, and even in my inebriated state I was confused—how did she expect me to stop drinking if she knew I was powerless to do so? Powerlessness within the context of addiction can be somewhat of a paradoxical riddle, but words themselves are very powerful. If I walk through life believing I’m powerless, I will become powerless.
It’s entirely possible that the AA claim that we’re powerless helps rid us of the idea that drinking or using is just a matter of willpower. I’d argue that this is useful, as conquering addiction can be enormously painful and difficult, and blaming those with substance abuse problems—telling us to just “try harder” and heaping on the guilt—doesn’t help. I’m willing to bet that some people can muster up enough white-knuckling will power to stop drinking without using any mutual support group or as much as a self-help book, but we’re all different. Many people need some added support, and if the need for this added support is what AA means when stating we’re powerless, then perhaps there’s some truth to the statement. Still, the premise of personal powerlessness is noticeably absent from more modern mutual support groups, like SMART Recovery, which utilizes CBT and REBT to help curb any addictive behavior, and the Buddhist-based Refuge Recovery.
I’m most troubled by AA’s assertion that problem drinkers are not just powerless over alcohol, but powerless over many things in life, if not everything. “Powerless over people, places and things” is a specific phrase that gets thrown around in any 12-step room. There’s some genuine validity in the statement; we are in fact powerless over people at times; as for places, I still don’t know exactly what that means, as I’ve never tried to change a place, but I interpret “places and things” to include things like traffic, weather, and delayed planes.
Though I’ve left AA, I do think there’s some actionable logic in the Serenity Prayer—accept what you can’t change, change what you can. Unfortunately, AA doesn’t seem to believe we can change much of anything about ourselves. Though a self-overhaul is called for in order to stay sober, according to the steps we can’t do much about that overhaul—we have to rely on God (as we understand Him) to do the overhaul for us.
For me, identifying with powerlessness is problematic and self-defeating. It might be the secret for many AA’s, a mental trick that keeps them sober for decades, and I certainly don’t want to say doing so is wrong for them. But since AA is still the go-to treatment modality for addiction in this country, it seems important to allow people with substance use disorder the dignity to decide for themselves if they truly are powerless, rather than having it told to them by those following a faith-based program that’s nearly 80 years old. How we exercise personal power to end addiction should be a wholly personal journey, one that can include spontaneous remission, psychotherapy, mutual-support groups, medication or any other number of treatments.
Believing in my own power to stay sober and use tools that I know help keep me grounded and emotionally regulated has empowered me to continually press forward toward not only sobriety but personal growth. Today, I give myself credit for that.