Step 1: Powerlessness & Unmanageability

Recovery is a journey of a thousand steps. However, this journey cannot begin without taking that first forward motion. Step one is the firm foundation upon which all remaining twelve steps find their grounding. In this post we will review step 1, integration into daily life, and exercises for continued growth. 

We read, “We admitted we were powerless over (name addiction) – that our lives became unmanageable.” These simple words often evoke confusion and despair. Who in their right mind wants to admit powerlessness? What does that term even mean? And unmanageability? What’s that about? 

I know when I entered recovery, I fought the concept of powerlessness. I was convinced that I could stop my addiction by will-power and free choice. I was wrong on all accounts. I also tried many ways to “control” or slow down my addiction. All of them did not work. 

What I came to learn was that when and if I took that first drink, restricted food intake, or acted on my inner circle behaviors I was no longer in control of the behavior. Addiction has been described as a chronic and progressive disease. Neuroscientific data shows changes to the structure and organization of the brains of persons addicted compared to their nonaddicted counterparts. The lived experience of thousands of people whom I have treated and known in the recovery community support the claim that addiction takes control. 

The beautiful thing is we do recover. 

Millions of people across the globe have recovered from a hopeless state of mind, body, and spirit. The keys to our collective successes lie in a firm understanding of our disease. That disease is ADDICTION! Notice step one is written in plural language. It suggests we are no longer required to struggle in isolation. The fellowship of your 12-step community is a home where healing can and will take place. Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist Monk and American writer, once wrote “No man (or woman) is an island.” Beginning at step one we go from ME to WE. 

Addiction thrives in isolation. Recovery thrives in connectedness. These are essential truths of recovery. 

The principles behind this groundbreaking step is acceptance, surrender, and honesty. The person seeking to recover must come to terms with the nature of their problem. No one could tell me I was an alcoholic, anorexic, or sex addict. These terms were foreign to me. In my mind I was always in control. 

Acceptance requires honesty and willingness to take inventory of what addiction has done in one’s life. I remember sitting down and writing down my addiction history (Anorexia, Alcoholism, and Sexual Addiction). Patterns of use, attempts to stop or cut down, acting out progression, food restriction history. Every nook and cranny were opened for investigation. 

Addiction did not affect just one area of my life. In a large way addiction created a ripple effect that impacted every domain of my life. If my academic life was negatively impacted by addiction so too was my social life and vice versa. The consequences of what addiction has done to mind, body, spirit, familial, relationships, financially, emotionally, psychologically, sexually, intellectually, culturally and so forth were brought to light. 

Recovery has taught me acceptance is the key to all my life’s problems. But with acceptance and admittance comes a responsibility to do the hard work to repair relationship with self and others. 

My first sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous suggested I wake up every morning and say to my reflection in the mirror, “I am an addict and just for today I commit to recovery.” At the beginning I shrugged off this suggestion. Over time what I learned was I carried a heavy load of shame and guilt for my addictions. I walked into meetings and the world with my eyes down. I felt like I was a nobody and did not belong. This suggestion helped me to begin increasing self-acceptance and start the reparative work that was desperately needed. 

Unmanageability was another tough pill to swallow. Like Newton’s Third Law of Motion states “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” My addictions like others had consequences that often-made life difficult. The first step helps shed light and hope for a possibility that spiritual solutions can deter us from backtracking into that addiction. 

Living life without that old friend (addiction) was the most difficult task in the world. The rooms of any 12-step fellowship help me to feel there are others like me. Every time I walk in and name my addiction, I feel peace of mind. 

Today there are spiritual solutions for a disease that may if left untreated would have killed me quickly. I am powerless over more than my diseases. I cannot control the universe, other people, weather, situations in life, consequences of others decision making, world pandemics, and the list could continue for tens of thousands of pages. What I am in control over with the help of others serious about recovery is my own program of recovery. 

Acceptance and admittance of addiction is the first line of defense. Knowing triggers, relapse cues, and other harmful stimuli surrounding us helps keep us in recovery. 

Suggestions for studying this step further: 

  1. Read recovery literature: Here are some personal favorites.
    1. Alcoholics Anonymous –  Big Book (available pdf download)
    1. AA Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (available pdf download)
    1. Narcotics Anonymous – Basic Text (available pdf download)
    1. Sex Addicts Anonymous – Green Book (available pdf read online only, purchase e-book)
    1. Read literature from any 12-step fellowship. Sometimes another fellowship explains the steps in a way that might help you understand in simpler terms. 
    1. Jamie Marich, PhD – Trauma and the 12 Steps, Revised and Expanded (Highly recommended)
    1. Patrick Carnes, PhD – Gentle Path Through 12 Steps (Highly Recommended)
    1. Patrick Carnes, PhD – Gentle Path Through 12 Principles (Highly recommended)  
  2. Find a sponsor to take you through the steps. 
    1. Remember sponsorship is not marriage. It is ok to change if the sponsor relationship is not working for you or becomes toxic. 
  3. Attend meetings and share your experience, strength, and hope. Consider what others have to say and journal about your experiences. 
  4. Write your addiction history and consult with sponsors, therapists, and others in recovery. 
  5. Give yourself credit for starting recovery. Keep your eyes on the prize. Remember it is about living one day at a time. 
  6. Watch the Step One with Father Martin video and write about your thoughts, feelings, emotions, reactions in relation to your own step work and addiction.

Feel free to share your own experience with the first step. What worked for you? Any suggestions you would offer the newcomer? Literature that spoke to you when you were starting your journey?

3 thoughts on “Step 1: Powerlessness & Unmanageability

  1. Thank you for these writings…also, fyi…John Donne wrote “no man is an island” in the same poem that ends “do not ask for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for you.”

    1. Thank you Deb for reading the post. I haven’t read that poem. I believe both authors wrote books by similar names. In University we read a lot of Merton. What part of the step 1 resonated with you the most?

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