The first step in AA is pretty straightforward: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” And yet, for many, and certainly for me, I couldn’t get past the first step for the longest time, despite several failed attempts to quit drinking and several decisions to abandon AA after some short-lived periods of abstinence.
The problem for me was my self-will. Admitting I was powerless was tantamount to admitting that no amount of determination to control my drinking behavior would ever succeed. And I resisted that: I could control my drinking, if I really put my mind to it. My problem was that I really didn’t want to give up drinking. All I needed to do was make up my mind for real, once and for all, and just stick to it. It was like sticking to a diet, right? Just have some will power, for chrissakes.
That was fine. Usually an alcoholic has to try to control his or her drinking and fail at it numerous times until the ugly truth stares them in the face. It took a worksheet I did in rehab to make the case for me. Every attempt I’d ever made to control my drinking (drinking on weekends only; drinking on vacations only; not drinking before 5pm; switching to beer only; switching to wine only; not exceeding two drinks only, and the list goes on) ultimately failed. They may have worked for a while. Once I’d even gone 7 whole months without a drink. Yet eventually, eventually, I’d abandon the “rules” and find myself back in the old pattern of drinking too much, too often.
You can only recommit and get back on the wagon with the best of intentions—and then fail at it—so many times before being forced to admit that maybe, just maybe, your self-will can’t control what happens to you when you drink.
But other thoughts kept me from embracing the first step. There was that “our lives had become unmanageable” part. Well, I’d never gotten a DUI. I’d never lost a job. I’d never been kicked to the curb by a partner because of my drinking. The worst that had ever happened was that occasionally I’d make an idiot out of myself, or occasionally I’d fall and hurt myself (once I ran smack into a concrete wall and blackened my own eye), or I’d hurt people by yelling things I didn’t mean when I was sauced. But I’d apologize the next day. Oh, and hangovers. Yeah, I’d had some bad ones, but everybody gets hangovers every now and then—that’s hardly unmanageable, as in “my life is spinning out of control.”
But the truth is, for a while there, I just was good at controlling the consequences of my drinking behavior. The truth was, I was mostly a stay-at-home drunk, so I avoided DUI’s by simply not driving. I’d learned to not drink the night before I had to work—and as a part-time teacher, I didn’t teach every day, so this was managed easily enough. Or if I did drink the night before work, I usually chose a day in which I didn’t have to actually teach—it would be a rough draft workshop day, or a day we were seeing a movie. In other words, I planned my drinking so that I wouldn’t have to deal with too many negative consequences.
But even the best-laid plans can go awry when you’re drinking alcoholically over any extended period of time. Eventually, I did drink sometimes the night before I had to teach, and if I woke up with a really bad hangover, I’d call in sick, offering some lame lie of an excuse. And the sick days started to pile up.
My embarrassing drunk behaviors started to affect my life at home with Chelle. She was sick and tired of me getting plastered, sick and tired of lecturing me and trying to keep an eye on me whenever we were out. She was sick and tired of my apologies. She kept threatening to throw me into rehab.
And I was getting fat. By the end, I’d ballooned up to about 210 pounds from a lean and muscular 145. I was bloated, I felt like shit half the time, I had blackouts at least once a week, and I spent every other day sleeping in the recliner because I had alcoholic insomnia and hadn’t slept well the night before. One day was a drinking day; the next day was a recovery day. And this went on for at least a year.
I finally had to admit that the negative consequences of my drinking behavior had caught up with me, despite my attempts to control them. I didn’t like who I was anymore.
Here was the truth: once I had a drink or two in me, I couldn’t stop without exerting an extreme amount of effort, and if I was at all successful in stopping, I was upset, uncomfortable, and fidgety.
I couldn’t stop. And my life had become unacceptable to me, at least in some ways, and all of those ways could be directly attributed to my drinking. Without a change, it could only get worse.
Thus, I finally “got” the first step.
It’s a big one. Admitting to powerlessness over alcohol means you finally acknowledge you can’t handle the stuff and that you never will, so you have to give it up--for life. The addict in us does NOT want to accept that.
And yet, once I accepted it, I felt an odd sense of peace. Fine. This is my problem. There is help for me. I can’t run this particular show. But someone else—something else--can help me stop.
With that realization, I was ready for Step Two.