Step One: We Admitted We Were Powerless Over Alcohol – That Our Lives Had Become Unmanageable
It’s funny. Every time I find someone wrestling with Step One it invariably has to do with these two concepts: powerlessness and/or unmanageability.
Moreover, the average “in-the-rooms” authoritative voice tends to express itself as newcomer rip-tide, pulling the newbie from the shores of sobriety.
For example, Father Martin who was a major influence on the current generation of AA old-timers presents a deeply damaging message when he equates addiction to the boxing ring.
Day in and day out, says Martin, the addict continues to drag themselves to the ring only to have their butts whooped. The only thoughts that seemingly cross the addict’s mind are “I wonder if I’ll lose the fight today?” Or “I think today I’ve figured out how to win.” This stinking stubborn thinking is the alcoholic reasoning which begets alcoholism. He claims that AA teaches something very simple – “don’t get into the ring.”
Listen. I have a deep reverence for Father Martin. I celebrate the Chalk Talks. And though the alcoholic’s thought life regarding booze is highly irrational, this boxing match line of reasoning is misleading.
I’ll explain why.
“Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks—drinks which they see others taking with impunity. After they have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, with a firm resolution not to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery.”
See, drinking makes the alcoholic feel “normal.” It certainly doesn’t make them feel like they just had their butts whooped.
Actually, that’s how they feel when sober!
Is The Problem Sobriety?
Why is this though?
What the hell has happened?
It’s easy to wax psychological or neuro-biological as we sift through solutions, but in doing so simply look past the obvious.
We are social creatures through and through.
Any attempt to refute it with words is immediately self-defeating. What purpose could language serve if we were designed to live outside the herd in isolation?
All-day long we rely on community and never even consider the contrary. For example, when it comes to household items such as shampoo, razors, cleaning supplies, furniture, and various decorations we usually rely on someone else to provide these items.
Furthermore, we have the funds to purchase them by either relying on employment or by providing some service to others. This give and take exists on every level. Sure, greed corrupts this process exponentially but this doesn’t nullify the very fact that at our core we are social. It’s not just how we survive but how we thrive.
If it weren’t for others I would probably be living in a shoddy makeshift dilapidated teepee with the most uncomfortable furniture imaginable. Furthermore, I’d probably smell like onions wrapped in sewage.
Yeah, not good.
Luckily, I rely on the community to provide these commodities while I do my utmost to give back via my niche.
This is where it can get odd. We rely all day on the tools and resources of others but then, when it comes to our emotional health, we “got this.”
What better way to satisfy one’s emotional nature than in total isolation? What better vehicle for emotional fulfillment than selfishness?
Of course, that works about as good as a cheese grater used as a skin moisturizer. Let’s not go down that road. But if you’re looking for a boxing ring, you could do worse than this, Fr. Martin.
Emotional Fulfillment In Isolation
As the cheese grater analogy implies, this emotional fulfillment in isolation doesn’t work. Try as we might, but shopping, gossiping, gambling, drinking, or drugging, will not create emotional fulfillment.
It may hold the restless, irritable, and discontented dogs at bay, but that wall will eventually come crashing down. Bearing that in mind, we usually gravitate towards the one thing that worked the best and still allowed us to come out and play. Until even that is taken away.
In the rooms of AA we tend to focus on the external unmanageability (Martin’s boxing ring), but all of this is simply reflective of one’s internal state. It bears repeating, Dr. Silkworth was onto something when we wrote, “They are restless, irritable, and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks.” The emphasis should not be on the few drinks but on the restless, irritable, and discontented mindset. As Dr. Gabor Mate states, “We should not be asking ‘why the addiction?’ but ‘why the pain.'”
Truly, the inner unmanageability long precedes the external variety. Fr. Martin might say to the 12-Step neonate, “just stay out of the ring” but I’m here thinking, “how on earth were you able to stay out of the ring for as long as you did!?”
For example, the newcomer hears, “Don’t take the first drink and you won’t get drunk,” so says the venerable AA slogan, but they are not instructed as to how in the hell to not take that first drink with such screaming and terrorizing inner unmanageability?
That’s the real question that needs to be asked!
What Is Inner Unmanageability?
I think it’s evident that on our own – that is, in isolation and disconnected from others – we are unable to create inner manageability.
In our feeble efforts we make a million diagnoses – trauma, bipolar, personality disorders, social anxiety, etc., But where does this get us? Nowhere. It merely establishes labels describing the terrain of inner unmanageability in its myriad conditions. Mental health diagnosis simply give us an area to target for exploration, they certainly do not provide solutions in and of themselves.
“Diagnoses listed in the DSM—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the so-called bible of psychiatry—do not cause anything. They are not things. They are agreed-upon labels—a kind of shorthand—for describing symptoms. Generalized anxiety disorder means a person has been anxious or worried for six months or longer and it’s bad enough to cause problems—nothing else. The diagnosis is description, not explanation. Saying anxiety is caused by generalized anxiety disorder makes as much sense as saying anxiety is caused by anxiety.”
This is not to discount the good the DSM has done and the solution-based discussion which ensued and enlarged since it’s advent. It is, however, an effort to recognize that mental health diagnoses are not the same as medical ones.
Emotional Fulfilment In Community
If the typical medical diagnosis traces symptoms to their biological defect in a specific organ, then, in my opinion, the typical psychiatric diagnosis traces it’s symptoms back to environmental defects and is specifically social in nature.
*I’m not a medical doctor. This is merely what I perceive to be the case from personal study. However, consult your doctor. I’m certainly not being dismissive of neurobiological abnormalities that need medicinal treatment. I’m simply arguing what I believe to the ultimate source of those abnormalities. But I, too, am a work in progress!*
“In short, looking for causes in a person’s lived experience—especially traumatic experiences—is a more effective way of helping ease mental distress than labeling the person with diagnostic categories and giving them medication for their ‘disorder.'”
Rather than move from social defects to social solutions, which can be discussed in terms of bonding or connecting, we ignore this valuable truth and appear to instruct addicts, and people in general, to seek curatives in other nonsocial ways to bond and artificially create the experience.
I’m not going to argue about every mental health diagnosis in the DSM. I’m simply trying to affirm my belief, along with Dr. Weiss, that “addiction is not about the pleasurable effects of substances, it’s about the user’s inability to connect in healthy ways with other human beings. In other words, addiction is not a substance disorder, it’s a social disorder.”
Moreover, the sole purpose of this article is to argue that the 12-Steps have the same objective as Johann Hari when he stated, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.”
A bottle can never stand in for community.
Sex will never satisfy true loneliness.
Heroin can’t comfort like another human being.
The drug, drink, or behavior can never create the inner manageability that authentic social connection can. What’s another word for that? Powerlessness!
Once more, on our own i.e. in isolation, we cannot create genuine social connections. So we bond with what works. Be it temporary and destructive. Our brains appear hardwired with this axiom: Connect or perish.
My Simplified 12-Step Interpretation
Again, our inner unmanageability is due to the inability, or immense struggle, to genuinely connect.
Am I beating a dead horse yet?
Bill Wilson agreed with this assessment when he noted in the Twelve And Twelve, “The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.”
We are powerless to create a true partnership in our self-centeredness. This is the essence of Step One.
Step Two moves us in the right direction. It brings about an idea – a concept referred to as a “Higher Power” which can enable us to create the “fellowship we crave” – “the fellowship of the Spirit.” In doing so it “restores us to sanity” aka inner manageability.
Step Three demonstrates how this is done.
We turn over (change) our will and life.
Yet we cannot change what we don’t know. For example, I can’t ask you to give me something without first identifying precisely what it is. Ergo, the Fourth Step.
Step Four is a moral inventory. Morality, which is basically how one ought to act, is a fully loaded social term. If you live all alone on an island, morality probably isn’t something you need to worry about. So when we do a “moral inventory” we simply examine our “will” – which is our thoughts and motives – and our “lives” – which is our resultant behaviors, and then we ask ourselves a simple question: do they consider others?
If they do not we mark it as a deficit or what the 12-Steps refer to as “character defects.” We also try to be as specific as possible when marking these deviations (e.g., I gossip; I lie to my spouse for no particular reason; I constantly judge people before I get to know them, etc,.).
These aspects of character are called defective because they stray from our natural social need for connection.
Step Five, Six, and Seven are not removed from but are a part of the self-examination of the Fourth Step.
To illustrate, in aerial photography multiple pictures are taken in rapid succession to create a third dimension. Like our lives, we need multiple angles to capture the dimension we are blind to (Step Five).
Once we’ve identified the short circuits (shortcomings) in our social connection, we commit to a lifestyle of correcting these habits of separation, which is Step Six. Now that we know our will and life we can now “turn it over” (begin to change our attitudes and behaviors). Therefore, Step Seven is just Step Three with teeth.
*Steps Four through Seven highlights a process in which we engage. One cannot “take Step Three” without doing the rest. They are all interconnected and need one another to “take.”*
Steps Eight & Nine is proof that this process has commenced. The harms we caused and consequent separation which ensued from our old attitudes and behaviors need to be addressed.
These relationships must be amended (restored) to begin the reconnection process. Even if one’s amends are rejected, the shame and guilt which have been connection-blockage are swept away. In this sense, amends are the emotional Drano to remove the debris of the soul which keeps us disconnected.
Step Ten is a daily renewal of our commitment to live a connected life, this is demonstrated through our behavior (our life).
Step Eleven is our continued growth in terms of learning about the concept of God, that which connects us i.e. “other-centeredness,” via prayer and meditation. It’s continuing to be mindful of our self-centered motives and thoughts (our wills).
Step Twelve is the commitment to a life of service, the overflow of being connected, and to aid others in their connection process. The spiritual awakening is simply a “personality change as evident by a change in the will (attitude, motivation, purpose) and life (behavior, action),” which suggests successfully reconnection AKA inner manageability.
This Is The Power Of The We!
Fr. Martin was definitely right when he stated, “The problem is that we look past the obvious.” But, Fr., if I may be so bold, you look past the obvious too!
You fail, Father, to see that the boxing ring is the only place we can find any inner manageability. We aren’t going with the intention to get our butts whooped.
Instead, we’ve been getting our butts whooped for quite some time and thus made our journey through the ropes for some much-needed rest!!
You must understand, the turnbuckles gave us hope initially.
This is universes apart from Martin’s original assessment.
Addicts use addiction as a solution to inner unmanageability associated with living detached, disconnected lives.
If day in and day out one carries a “feeling” of not being able to connect, the sheer isolation and crippling loneliness makes suicide look remarkably pleasant. Considering this fact, drugs, behavioral addictions and the like have been presented as artificial connections, a brilliantly primitive resource of the grey matter to preserve the self and ensure life goes on.
But we can recover our nature.
We can connect.
It will not be easy. Specifically when shame must first be trudged.
Indeed, the promised land is always just beyond the barren desert.
Can I make a suggestion?
Be courageously vulnerable.
Oh, and bring some water.
Timmy G (2019)
Check Out Fr. Martin’s Classic “Chalk Talks on Alcohol”