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On Powerlessness.

24 April 2012

The very first step of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” I’ll address the second clause another time. Today I’d like to talk about what powerlessness over alcohol, and indeed powerlessness in general, means to an alcoholic in recovery. Because the first part of the first step is one of the biggest stumbling blocks there is in recovery. Others have no difficulty with it whatsoever. My own experience was not so problematical in the early days.

People often ask me to define alcoholism, and I even get requests to diagnose (or more often, exclude) alcoholism in others. I can’t diagnose anyone. But I do have a basic criterion that applies to me, and to literally every person I have ever met in AA. That is: when you drink, can you reliably know, before your first drink, how many you will have? If you can’t answer yes, you may need to address your consumption. It’s important to note that this criterion says nothing about how much we drink, or how often. It’s purely about each episode. I’ve known alcoholics who only drank a few times a year. Others who drank daily.

And that is the fundament of alcoholism, for me. And it relates essentially to the powerlessness of the alcoholic. The instant I put alcohol in my body, I lose the ability to control how much I have. I fought for a long time to be able to have one or two. But it was a fight that I consistently, though not always, lost. I was never able to have one drink, stop, and be happy about it. Every time I stopped before I was drunk – really, truly, drunk – I was miserable. But I didn’t even have the choice to stop at one and be miserable. So many times, after having one, I totally and completely lost the ability to resist another. Resolve just abated in my mind, and immediately, another drink was a good idea. Any sense of wanting to limit my consumption was just vanished. And it’s very hard to do anything that you have no plan, desire, ambition or inclination to do. So I kept drinking.

But for alcoholics who are still active, the powerlessness goes beyond even that. It leaks into the sober days. Back when I had a wife and step-son, when I was in the grips of the end-stages of my addiction, when my wife told me that I looked terminally ill (I was!), I would go into the bathroom, retrieve the vodka from its hiding place high in the linen closet, pour myself a couple of fingers, look in the mirror, and say: “You are ruining three lives with this drink.” And then I would drink it. I knew what I was doing. I knew it was wrong. I understood the cost. I just couldn’t stop.

I was thankfully wrong. I did stop drinking, and while I am no longer married, my drinking was not the cause of my divorce. I was married for two full years after I entered recovery. As with most relationship endings, it’s far more complicated than “I drank so it ended.”  A story for another time, perhaps.

I’ve been talking the past week or so with someone new to the program. This person hadn’t gotten quite to where I got, but I strongly suspect they would do, in a bit more time. The way this person described the drinking was that it had become a “not-so-optional part of the day.”  That rung a strong, deep bell in my heart. It had become non-optional. Pain, shame, fear. Addiction. Dependence. All these things drove me to take the first drink of the day. Because the only thing that kept the wolves from the door of my psyche was emotional obliteration.

That’s the powerlessness. The inability to face the bright light of day without anaesthetizing. The knowledge that alcohol was killing me, that I was harming people I loved, that I participating in the destruction of all the things I loved, all of it was insufficient to propel me to manage my drinking. I had no capacity, whatsoever, for moderation. I had no desire for abstinence. I used alcohol for a single, simple purpose: I didn’t want to be me. I didn’t want to exist in the mind, the conscience, the body and the self that I inhabited.

I don’t know what happened to cause the Kernel Fault. I know that for most alcoholics, it never happens. What I know is that when we embrace powerlessness, we can start recovery. When I realized that alcohol had beaten me, I was almost immediately liberated from it. Because I couldn’t control my drinking, I suddenly didn’t have to. I knew, very simply, and felt, very strongly, that the solution had given itself to me. I was powerless. I had lost. I could not drink. I can not drink. And so I am free. I have left the battlefield.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Penelope permalink
    24 April 2012 16:11

    I think you’re right that this is a big stumbling block for people. For me I can only relate it to cigarettes, but whenever I got cocky enough to believe that I had some power in that relationship, like maybe I could have one cigarette when I went out, but not be a smoker, that one always always always led to atleast another year of being a smoker. Many more people however see smoking as purely an addiction, no one smokes regularly that isn’t addicted, it’s just so stupid and gross, but tons of people that aren’t alcoholics drink, and all alcoholics (it seems to me) spend atleast some time wanting to be one of those people, convinced they are or can be one of those people, that it’s just a matter of will power that you plan to muster up tomorrow. I suspect that the majority of alcoholics die thinking that, and in the mean time keep themselves anesthetized to the effects their drinking has on those around them.

  2. Penelope permalink
    24 April 2012 16:14

    Liquid denial

  3. 24 April 2012 21:09

    Excellent description of the power that alcohol has. Sorry to not have been commenting. Very busy and very tired right now.

  4. furtheron permalink
    25 April 2012 05:53

    I like your rule of thumb for determining if someone has a problem – that describes me very well too. Even at the end of the day when I was laying there regretting it I would try to add up how many that day and regularly I’d fail. I started out with a limit (2 or 3) and ended up only able to tell you – it was more than 8 no more than 12.

    Once the “first drink does the damage” mantra got through to me it was someone just switched on a light bulb, that was the answer – stupidly obvious but I’d been forever trying to limit my consumption never totally stop it – once I totally stopped it became clearer

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