Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous discussion.

Here is another podcast about recovering from alcoholism. This one talks about the good and bad side of Step One of AA and is the first of a series of discussions with Jon who has his blog at about the 12 steps which make up the core of the AA programme and are described in chapter 5 of the Big Book. Jon was an AA member for many years but has also done CBT type therapy and read a lot on other solutions. He has helped take people through the steps and has many years of continued abstinence from alcohol. At one time he thought that AA was correct in all its ideas, but has modified his views over time. I was always cynical of the religious side of AA and just accepted it was from the mid west of America in the 1930’s and really made use of the fellowship rather than the steps. I always used to dislike chapter 5 being read out in meetings and always felt the need to take personal responsibility for my recovery. Despite this I felt that step one was really helpful when I started attending AA. My life was certainly unmanageable and it did feel like I was powerless over alcohol as I had many failed attempts at stopping behind me.

Critics of AA always say that powerlessness is a dangerous idea and I can see that some people do become affected in a negative way by it if they drink. When AA members relapse they often have worse binges than people making use of harm reduction solutions. I think it can be a useful idea at the start of recovery but I prefer a more CBT type solution where the person starts to view themselves as empowered was more help as my own recovery progressed.

I hope to go through all the 12 steps with Jon over the next few weeks and then discuss all kinds of approaches to alcoholism and addiction recovery in the future. I have collected all the alcoholism podcasts together here and you can also subscribe to them on itunes and on Soundcloud if you find them interesting.


Commenting area

  1. When we drink or use, we do become powerless…it’s as simple as that. See LifeRing for an approach that underscores we are strong when we are clean and sober. Of course this is not true for all of us…..medications and the Sinclair Method can be of great help for those of us with intense cravings when we are sober.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment. I do think LifeRing is a good support group and can hopefully do something on them at some point on here. I also think the Sinclair Method has so much to offer people, and have met people who have really responded well to it when they have struggled with other methods.

  2. I am writing as someone who goes to NA and SAA right now. And who is looking for true personal growth, even if that includes letting go of 12 steps. I am open minded but also tentative. I write here in order to process honestly.

    Let me ask a related question… here is Lance Dodes on powerlessness, to which I will refer by tangent.

    “The notion that people are powerless over the focus of their addiction is also terribly demoralizing. Addictions are neither more nor less than compulsions, psychological behaviors most people have to some degree. That fact has been a great relief to people with addictions who have been made to feel different and less than the rest of humanity. But if you buy the idea that you are powerless over the chemical in a bottle (or the peanut butter on the shelf or the offshore gambling website) then you are deprived of this honest relief. Instead, you must admit your worst fear: you are in fact different and certainly less capable than everyone around you who is able to drink with impunity. ”

    1. Narcotics Anonymous specifically changed their wording to “powerless over ADDICTION” (rather than drugs) because it displayed a supposedly deeper realization, that addicts are powerless over the condition of addiction, however that manifests, and the addict can also make positive changes toward recovery despite the powerlessness over addiction. On one level, who knows if there is a difference? On another level, it makes a difference mentally to me that I am powerless over (having) addiction. It doesn’t mean I can’t choose things, it just means, “We start from here, accepting a difficult truth.”

    Does anyone think this makes a difference? I often hear the difference in AA, where people honestly do say, “as long as I don’t drink, I am okay.” NA would say, you should make some changes or the thinking patterns of addiction will lead you back…

    For some reason, it has made NA more palatable (besides that I did mostly drugs, not alcohol)

    2. Dodes seems to say that to accept the notion of powerlessness means that you are keeping yourself from the relief of realizing that you have only a psychological condition not a power problem. And that saying you are powerless means you are saying you are fundamentally different.

    Is this sound? I mean, I can find plenty of relief in knowing that–for whatever reason–I am liable to a more extreme reaction to addictiveness than some other people are, and I admit I cannot go down this road. And someone who has a peanut allergy yet fought it might finally feel better knowing that, while I am different, I at least know and can accept I am not like EVERYONE. It is not realizing one’s “worst fear” to be able to not eat peanuts with impunity. Nor does anyone eat peanuts, or drink, with impunity, even nonaddicts. His reasoning seems to be an argument for the ideal of uniformity of ability. (Other people have an anger over people using it as an excuse to continue, which is separate and valid.)

    I guess I am okay with the idea of surrender and wonder if sometimes powerlessness is misunderstood as some actual belief about power. (Or maybe I misunderstand.) To me, it’s a way of saying, “I accept my liability.”

    I enjoyed the podcast, but I did feel we can use a more in-depth discussion here. I am glad that is starting.

    • Thanks Tony for such a great response. I have also read Lance Dodes books and think he deals with the matter really well. The whole powerless model of addiction is a tricky subject and does tend to divide opinion, which is why I wanted to do this podcast and talk about both sides of the argument. I found the idea of powerlessness was really helpful in the first year of recovery for me as really made it important to stay stopped. For me it worked as it gave me a reason not to drink partly fuelled by fear of the consequences if I did. Unfortunately this approach does not help everyone, and statistics from the Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment approaches suggest that those who do drink after being introduced to the idea of powerlessness fare worse than those who have not, especially to those who are following a harm reduction path.
      I think if somebody is really determined to stay stopped then powerlessness can help along with the complete abstinence solution, but many are not ready for this or find the cravings too strong, especially when exposed to external triggers. these people will probably do better with a harm reduction type solution such as the Sinclair Method.
      When I joined AA, I was told that only 3% stay sober from their first meeting and in my case that made me determined to stay sober, but obviously that is certainly a different experience to most. I still have never had a drink, which was my aim, but feel that this is because I attempt to approach recovery with an open mind rather than simply use the tools that one support system uses. I think becoming involved in AA helped me because of being in sober community ( which is the thing Lance Dodes mentions in his book) rather than because of the steps. Many people clearly feel the steps are the answer, and there are other people such as Jon who I was talking to on the podcast who worked them for over 10 years and changed his life in a really good way as a result, only to find that he needed a new path in later sobriety.
      I think there is a need for debate and to hear from different people about this, rather than the usual ranting that takes place on some online venues which simply divides people. I feel there is more to recovery than just following a programme but it is up to us to take responsibility for our own recovery and find a solution that works. I intend going through the steps with Jon and then it would be great to bring in some other people to share their opinions on this. If you are interested then let me know.

  3. I was reading your response (well put), and I realized that I can see some of the reason that powerlessness ideas might bother early recovery people, especially because not everyone is “at their bottom” (if such a thing exists). For me, I had alienated people and had very poor emotional coping skills during the period my addiction got out of control, so when I was basically forced to consider recovery (though it was still my choice), I found it very easy to see that I was powerless over certain combinations of ideas…. like, “I am powerless over the simultaneous use of narcotics and of maintaining honest, intimate relationships with other people in my life.” I wanted both, but could only have one, so I got a chance to decide I wanted the latter. The choice for someone else might be totally different.

    I guess in this and my previous post, I am finding it easier to accept the idea that total abstinence is the way for me because I was ready to give up “addiction is ruling my life” type of living. I was tired. So, some people are not as tired and have different leverages (self- and other-initiated), and to act as though there is only one way to quit or moderate addictive actions is a disservice to any newly interested person to try to change up their behavior. Any attempts to pigeonhole people into AA or NA can be a real issue. On the other hand, for people whose behavior and use has gotten to a certain point where I can hear their frustration and futility and damage, I am convinced that the social aspects of AA/NA are very comforting as we process quitting our addictions. In these more advanced cases, social support made a difference for me. SMART is great for thinking errors, but when you walk out of there, you are by yourself with your ABC or CBA worksheets but no phone numbers.

    It’s funny, sitting here reflecting on it, because I see how I really am a hybrid. I did the steps with my SAA sponsor. It really helped to untangle my unwillingness to change. In that way, it was more helpful than therapy had been. I think it’d been more helpful than therapy because, before I had worked with another similarly-situated addict, I had still maintained a sense of superiority/inferiority over my therapist (a kind of “you don’t understand this” or “I am not helpable”). Etc. With the sponsor, I was very much less willing to lie and resist changes. But in fairness to both methods, I was way spent by the time I finally worked with him.

    He moved away in 2012 and I never got another sponsor, though I do call other guys for help and processing. I find my passion in helping others with hopefulness and belief in our ability to change how we see the world. I help my homegroup by being secretary, but I am not a thumper. I believe in an eclectic approach. I have been considering starting some kind of local group where we can have a mix but still find support. Of course, just like asking a fundamentalist Christian to embrace broader spirituality, most of the time those mixed ecumenical approaches end up in the hardliners trying to sneak in their own way as the only way. It’s so unfortunate how well-intentioned things become canonized into unchangeable texts. If AA could follow the serenity prayer, “the courage to change the things we can,” then it might realize that there are elements to the texts that could use updating and increased inclusion. Ah well.

    Time will tell. I am interested in helping how I can with your exploration of these steps. You can email me if you wish…

    Thanks for your reply!

    • I certainly think there are some good things about 12 step meetings and the fellowship, although some people seem to get taken over by the whole thing and seem incapable of doing much without discusssing it with their home group. I certainly wanted some independance and took what I wanted and moved on. I think it is important to stay continually motivated in recovery and change approach when circumstances change. Good luck with everything.

  4. I wanted to post a little more on this issue before I take off a long 10 days to get married and honeymoon. 🙂

    In the podcast, Peabody’s book _The Common Sense of Drinking_ is mentioned. I decided to take a look at it. Apparently it found some influence with Bill and Dr. Bob. I found a passage that I thought was pretty interesting, and might show that Bill’s method was related but also very different from Peabody’s view: (emphases mine)

    “Let the alcoholic, then, become accustomed to talking to _himself_ in some such manner as
    ‘The most sensible part of me, _the part that I consider my best self and should like
    therefore to think of as my directing force_, does not want to drink any more because
    much experimentation has proved it to be a most unsatisfactory way of living.
    Furthermore, it is my belief from what I know of the history of other alcoholics (whom
    I have no particular reason to believe differ materially from myself) that after a course
    of treatment, from which I learn in a scientific manner how to rid myself of the habit, I
    shall be very much happier than I can possibly be as long as I persist in trying to beat
    what has already beaten me soundly. Moreover, this satisfaction will be true from a
    purely selfish point of view, regardless of the happiness it may or may not bring into the
    lives of others. Of course I realize that there is a part of me, perhaps a large part in the
    beginning, that wants to drink. If this were not true it would be unnecessary for me to
    take formal action about it. But there is no use lying to myself any more or trying further
    to suppress my unfortunate desires in other words, pretending that this temptation
    does not exist. _However, it does seem logical and reasonable to me that, if I really try
    consistently, I can reorient my opinion on the subject, which after all
    has been emotional, so that it coincides with my intelligence. This I have already
    admitted is the best part of me – the part which certainly should be in control of my
    destiny, and the part which secretly agrees with the world in thinking that I cannot and
    should not go on drinking._'”

    I found this pretty interesting, because it has a 1930s precursor to Bill W showing that there is more to recovery than just a spiritual solution as prescribed by Bill. I personally wanted some spiritual change. But there is a huge psychological component which also needed to change. I consider these psychological realizations part of my spiritual and humanistic work, even if they don’t fall under one of the 12 steps. Maybe a slightly alternate view like Peabody’s could have survived scrutiny better 80 years later because it allows (it seems) for more individual self-treatment.

    Of course, it should be noted that Peabody supported the positive thinking movement, which some would say is imbalanced, and also that he ended up dying from drinking. But I still thought it was fascinating to read a Bill precursor give a (I think) more compassionate view of alcohol addiction treatment from the same day and age.

    For more info,

    • Its an interesting book and I had not seen it until recently. I have looked through it and must read it again properly and put a review on it here. I can see that quite a bit of the Big Book is still based on it, with the ideas from the Oxford group added on. Strange that this publication is never mentioned in AA!

      Good luck with getting married and have a great honeymoon!

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