I realize there are many people who see the 12-step movement as a cult, as misguided, or as a failure. That’s fine. I have no interest in debating the merits of NA/ AA or in trying to convince anyone. What follows is my experience as someone who’s been free of addiction for 24+ years.
It is my belief that all people, regardless of whether they are addicts or not, can benefit from an application of the embedded spiritual principles of the 12 steps.
Stopping the War
We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
— The First Step of Narcotics Anonymous
I was once told that these spiritual principles were as a bridge back to life. What I didn’t know then was that this bridge is built on the very bones of those who came before me. This series of posts is an attempt to honor that.
The First Step confronted me with two problematic words: powerless and unmanageable. I also didn’t notice at first that every step began with the word “We.” I was a loner; “we” wasn’t a word I used much. Everything was about me. They say an addict is an egomaniac with low self-esteem, and I believe that was how I felt.
Let me just say that 12-step recovery is about action — it is an experiential approach. Every step involves growth, exploration, and some measure of action. I think people have huge misconceptions about 12-Step Fellowships. People in recovery like to say that the first step is the only step you have to get perfectly. I disagree, recovery is an ongoing process, and my understanding of the first step expands as I grow. However, there is a level of acceptance necessary for the integration of this step. But I get ahead of myself…
There are several powerful psycho-spiritual factors at work in the First Step. Primarily, there is an admission. Admitting to a problem has become a popular notion in our culture that first came to prominence in the recovery community. Admitting touches on the first spiritual principle of the first step: honesty. However, admitting means nothing without acceptance. For example, at one point in my life I had no problem admitting I was an addict; I could be honest about that. But that admission and $2.50 got me on the train, which is another way of saying that admitting by itself it is worthless. It wasn’t until I embraced another core spiritual principle of the first step (acceptance) that I was then able to make changes in my life.
The more meetings I made, the more I heard my own story being told by others who were honest about themselves. I began to see that I had a lot in common with these people when it came to my addictive behaviors. On the other hand, it took me a long time to come to grips with powerlessness. I was raised to think of myself as powerful. I was taught that if I exerted my will on any issue, that I could overcome anything in the world. If I had enough cojones and worked hard enough, I could have power over anything.
Besides, it wasn’t my addiction that was the problem, it was everyone else. At least that was what I told myself. If only other people got their shit together and external situations in my life corrected themselves, I wouldn’t be in such a fix. The problem with my thinking was that it involved exerting willpower. The problem with my willpower was that it was warped. The more willpower I exerted, the more I fucked up. I tried everything: using only on the weekends, snorting instead of intravenous injections, drinking instead of using other drugs, using only certain drugs in certain combinations, etc. The irrefutable truth was that no matter what I tried, I always ended up in the same place: all fucked up.
Imagine a machinery part that was made to perform only one action, or to move in only one direction or in one specific way. No matter how much you oil that part, no matter how much you try to fix it, it will still perform what is was meant to function. If the part was meant to move back and forth in a forward manner, no amount of lubrication will make it move sideways. Similarly, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail. My will was fucked up, meant to move in a specific direction and no exertion of that will could bring about change. In fact, my will often brought more destruction.
Simply put, I came to the realization that if I wanted to change, I needed to develop new tools, to come to terms that my will wasn’t working too well. And what that really meant for me was that in order to begin my journey, I first had to surrender. In fact, as I look back now, the whole process of recovery is one long, beautiful, liberating process of surrendering.
The First Step is like the beginning of a hero’s journey. In the archetype of the hero (or errant knight), most heroes begin reluctantly, clumsily, and then forces beyond their control propel them past their ordinary lives into a journey of personal change and renewal. Like most addicts, I was unaware of aspects of myself — my feelings, for example, and the wreckage I was creating. The first step freed me to begin my quest for self-knowledge and transformation.
Admitting to powerlessness took me years; accepting that admission brought me to the gateway of healing and sanity. That was also about another core spiritual principle: willingness. Instead of willfulness, what I needed was willingness. It’s part of what is often called the HOW (honesty, openness, and willingness) of recovery.
The common misperception about the first step for those who have never tried to apply it is that it is defeatist. The first step is not about defeat. It says powerlessness, not hopelessness. Powerlessness is not uncommon, in fact, and if we open our eyes, we realize that we have no power over many things. Take the weather, for example. As we Northerners brace ourselves for a blizzard as I write this, I understand completely that I can’t stop the snow, but if you take the time to stop, look, and listen, you may come to realize that preparation is a lot better that railing against the elements. Another thing we have no power over is how others act or think, yet we spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to exert control over other people. Oftentimes, we don’t even have power over our own emotions, but we can learn to relate to them differently.
The first step is really about admitting powerlessness over living in the extremes. Try fighting the rain, or better yet, a hurricane, and you’ll get a sense of what it is to fight addiction. You have to surrender.
As part of taking the first step, you take an inventory of the consequences of your addiction. For me this meant documenting the jobs I lost, the people I hurt, and most of all, the harm I did to myself. In reflecting in this way, I could no longer deny the unmanageability of my life as an active addict. This was a hard nut to crack because I never wanted to admit my life was unmanageable. I had it together, I liked to think, I just went a little overboard sometimes.
I was also confronted with the insanity of the obsession that led to the compulsion and how my fight would be futile until I surrendered. If you’re fighting an inner war, then someone has to lose. If you’re fighting an inner war, it follows, you, or an aspect of yourself, will always lose.
Taking the first step clearly showed me that my thinking had little relationship to reality. There were countless times, for example, that I would experience a blackout. A blackout doesn’t entail being unconscious or comatose. In a blackout, you can sit down one minute and the next thing you know you missed an entire episode of your life — while conscious.
It’s similar to what I imagine a time jumper would feel. One minute you’re in one time-space continuum and the next, you’re somewhere else and what’s horrifying is that you don’t know what the fuck is going on. One time coming out of a blackout, I had a whole house-full of people wanting to kick my ass, and I had no clue why. It seems I propositioned the bride-to-be (I was at an engagement party) and that kinda pissed a few people off. I once emerged out of a blackout in a different state and different year. It happened during an extended New Year’s Eve celebration. Several days later, I woke up in a strange house, sleeping next to a strange woman and I had no inkling of where I was or what day.
Still I couldn’t admit my powerlessness. It wasn’t that something was wrong with me, I rationalized, it was that other people were too stuck up or rigid, and besides, I know that bitch at the engagement party wanted me. Perhaps you may have never experienced this extreme form of powerlessness, but have you ever had a situation spiral out of control to the point that you were at a loss?
Most of all, the first step is the beginning of the undoing of the karmic consequences of denial. I had to be brought my knees — from hopelessly addicted to institutions and even close to death — and still I wouldn’t admit my powerlessness. There was definitely a lot of evidence of unmanageability in my life. Shit, I attempted suicide at least once. What “normal” person can say that? More than anything, I was addicted to insanity.
Oh, and yes, I’ve kicked more habits than I can remember. I just could never stay stopped. It was never hard kicking a habit. But addiction, I soon learned, was not merely about substance abuse. I would get “clean” and chill for six-seven months, but when I started again, it was as if I never stopped. My last day as an active addict, I had spent $300 after having been released from an institution for exactly fourteen days. I went from clean to a $300-a-day habit at the drop of a hat.
I would say that’s unmanageable…
However, there are other ways our powerlessness and unmanageability manifests in our lives. Whether it’s food or cigarettes, or relationships, I think we can all look where we’re being a little self-destructive or even slowly killing ourselves (cigarette anyone?), suffering needlessly, or causing ourselves or our loved ones harm. I believe we all can identify with the compulsive need to exert control and the denial of powerlessness. I use my life as an example because the extreme manner in which I lived it makes it easier to illustrate my points, but we all have the dark places, the places that scare us.
Today, I apply the first step to many things in my life, especially in relationships and to certain behaviors. Addictions like to migrate. One might be able to kick the heroin or the alcohol, but then you see people acting out sexually or financially. If you don’t do the inner work, applying these principles in all your affairs, then you’ll continue to be in the grips of addictive behavior. The first step stipulated that I was powerless over my addiction. Addiction is not about a substance, but a way of thinking.
Eventually, I began to conceptualize the first step as something similar to the concepts of Aikido or Wing Chun, two martial arts that stress the importance of never meeting force with force. In a sense, the first step is about learning to flow with the forces of life instead of fighting all the time. It’s learning to transform difficult emotions into opportunities for healing. It’s knowing that while you can’t stop the waves, you can learn to surf.
My name is Eddie… Addict
Addiction is one of the most pressing problems in our society — a society that actually encourages consumption at the expense of substance. If you think you have a problem, give yourself a break and try something new, it might just save your life…
Alcoholics Anonymous: Official website
Narcotics Anonymous: Official website
Alano: “The Online Alano Club is a nonprofit association intended as a resource for Alcoholics Anonymous® members and groups, as well as any individual who has a desire to stop drinking. Members from other 12-Step programs, especially the Al-Anon Family Groups, also are welcome.”
Note: The featured artwork is from Ben’h Usry.