Powerlessness and Unmanageability

Step 1 of the 12 Steps asks us to admit that we are powerless over our addiction and that our lives have become unmanageable.

Does anyone else balk at the way that’s phrased, or is it just me?

What I don’t understand is the strength and absoluteness of those statements.

Powerless? Unmanageable? Really?

Even Russell Brand’s version doesn’t quite sit right with me:

“Are you a bit fucked?”

Russell Brand’s version of Step 1

No Russell, I’m not a bit fucked. Thinking badly of myself is unhelpful.

There’s nothing wrong with me as a person. There’s merely something wrong with my thinking and my behaviour.

I am not my thoughts. I am not my actions.

This distinction is important.

So, for Step 1, why can’t we just say, “Do you have a problem?”

Sure, perhaps it’s the case for many addicts that drugs and alcohol are totally ruining their lives. They have no control at all, and very soon they’ll end up dead unless they change.

But that doesn’t apply to everyone, and it doesn’t apply to me.

Many of us have more subtle and nuanced problems. And our lives aren’t a complete disaster.

Powerlessness

I am not powerless over my addiction.

If I was, then I wouldn’t have made it to 5 months clean today.

Sure, that’s with the help of Narcotics Anonymous, but it’s still me that’s done most of the hard work.

There’s no God, no Higher Power. If you find belief in these things comforting (as I have at times), then that’s fine. But they’re not strictly necessary if you want to solve a problem in your life.

The reality is: there’s just me (plus the help and support I receive from my friends, family members and the 12 Steps fellowship).

Why do the 12 Steps seem to want to belittle and minimise an individual’s capacity for changing their own life? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

For me, what’s happened in reality is that I’ve learned a set of ideas and techniques which have helped me to overcome a particular problem in my life.

In what way does that show I’m powerless? If anything, it shows the opposite.

Unmanageability

And in the same way as I refuse to admit I’m powerless over my addiction, I also refuse to admit that my life had become unmanageable.

Sure, my drug misuse was causing me serious problems.

I’ve had quite a few trips to hospital as a result of my reckless drug abuse.

And even more seriously, I hid my problem from my wife, which put a severe strain on our marriage.

There’s a pretty good chance that without my wife’s selfless support and help, I might well be dead now, either through suicide or some kind of drug misadventure.

But to me, that still doesn’t mean my life had become unmanageable.

Again, it simply means that I had a problem, even if it was a pretty big one.

The truth is that many aspects of my life were ticking along just fine. I had a job. I was responsible enough to care for our dogs. There were lots of other good thing going on in my life.

Sure, some aspects of my life were out of control, but not all of it.

Pedantic

I know it might seem like I’m being pedantic here, but this stuff is really important.

Words have meaning. It’s important that we choose the best words to convey exactly what we mean.

Accuracy is important.

There’s only a certain amount of fudging or interpretation you can do before you have to admit, “Hang on a minute, the phrasing of these 12 Steps is simply not very accurate.”

Powerlessness and Overcoming Depression

If you’re stuck in a hole of depression and feel totally hopeless, then you probably do feel pretty powerless over your life.

But over the years, as I learned more about the disease of depression and how to achieve good mental health, I realised I needed to take personal responsibility for myself.

Sure, I had to start in very small ways and build up gradually, but the important thing I learned was:

“If I choose to do so, there are certain things I can do which will reduce the severity of my depression.”

– Bollinger, R. (2020)

That demonstrates that I am powerful, not that I’m powerless.

And it’s a similar thing with drugs, alcohol and other addictions.

I realised there are things I could learn and put into practice which would help me to solve my problems with drugs.

This is hugely empowering!

Contradiction

Step 1 also contradicts Step 2.

Firstly (in Step 1) we’re supposed to admit we’re powerless, but then in the very next breath (in Step 2) we’re told to have hope that things can improve… by taking action ourselves!

It just doesn’t add up.

Sinister

Why does NA tell people there’s nothing they can do (without a “Higher Power”) to help themselves?

It strikes me as a bit sinister that organisations like Narcotics Anonymous insist that addicts must diminish or eliminate their own agency (their ability to make beneficial choices for themselves).

To me, that looks like Narcotics Anonymous is trying to make addicts dependent on the organisation… “You are powerless, and you need us to survive.”

To me, that feels a bit like an authoritarian and manipulative boyfriend trying to remove the agency and willpower of his girlfriend so he can better control her and bend her to his will.

Ugh, it’s horrible.

The First 3 Steps

It makes me sad that Narcotics Anonymous is so resistant to challenging and evolving its own dogma.

With a little effort, they can develop more accurate and more helpful versions of the 12 Steps.

Here’s my own version of the first 3 Steps, which I humbly present to you:

  1. We recognised we had a particular problem in our lives which was causing us significant difficulties.
  2. We had hope that we might be able to learn how to overcome that problem.
  3. We were willing to ask for help to overcome the problem(s) we had identified.

It took me about 5 minutes of thought to come up with this today… Though I have been mulling over these issues for a while.

In my opinion, this re-working of the first 3 steps is a million times better than the current NA version.

The 12 Steps don’t have to be so extreme-sounding. We don’t need hyperbole and over-generalisation.

In my opinion, the way the first 3 Steps are worded can be a massive impediment to addicts getting the help they need. This makes me feel really sad. It’s so needless.

I myself rejected help from Narcotics Anonymous many times because of their dogmatic approach. It’s simply not necessary. It gets in the way of recovery.

I dread to think of the number of people who have died as a result of not being able to accept the first 3 Steps due to the unhelpful and inaccurate way they are worded.

When I re-word the first 3 Steps in the way I’ve done above, I feel like I can accept them wholeheartedly.

All of my resistance melts away. My gut feeling of “something’s not quite right here” disappears.

And then I can get on with the important business of actually tackling my problems instead of wasting time fighting against NA dogma.


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