the-importance of-step-1

The Importance Behind Step 1: Admitting You Are Powerless and that Your Life has Become Unmanageable

Garrett Stanford
July 5, 2020

Most addiction treatment programs work to help individuals recognize the reality of their condition. For many, accepting that they have a substance use disorder is difficult. Many people have internalized the stigma surrounding drug and alcohol abuse. Others simply believe they need to exert more willpower to take care of the problem. Unfortunately, addiction cannot be solved by exerting individual willpower, since chronic substance abuse actually exerts progressive neurological changes that weaken a person’s ability to exercise willpower. Addiction treatment is only possible when a person is willing to accept the reality of their condition and ask for help.

The Role of Step 1 in Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous, the longest-running recovery group in the world, is also the inspiration for a high percentage of addiction treatment programs. Alcoholics Anonymous recommends that anyone pursuing long term recovery do so by following the 12 steps. The first step, as written in the primary texts of Alcoholics Anonymous, is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Without first admitting this, most people are likely to fail to complete the rest of the steps. Step 1 is about admitting powerlessness over alcohol. It is the great irony of addiction treatment that recovery is only possible after admitting defeat.

Misconceptions About Being “Powerless Over Alcohol”

The media commonly depicts people with alcohol use disorders as homeless, violent, or unable to groom themselves. In truth, alcoholism manifests itself in many different ways. One reason people are often so reluctant to admit to an addiction is that they feel their lives don’t match the image of the alcohol they see on tv. However, being powerless over alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean losing everything. Many people who live in mansions with prestigious jobs and families nonetheless are slaves to alcohol. Being powerless over alcohol doesn’t mean living a specific kind of life. It is a subjective experience of not being able to say no to alcohol once it is in the body. Individuals who are powerless over alcohol are unable to manage their substance use, no matter how hard they try. While some people might experience more devastating consequences than others, their condition is fundamentally the same.

Many people also balk at the idea of accepting their powerlessness. Our culture tells us relentlessly that we should feel empowered, that we can conquer anything we set our mind to, and that failure is a result of weakness. Accepting one’s powerlessness over alcohol doesn’t mean giving up. It’s not about weakness. It’s about accepting a harsh truth, which often takes a great deal of strength to do. Even after alcohol abuse has caused significant destruction or made it difficult to function normally in everyday life, many people nonetheless deny that they have a problem. To face the problem head on and accept that one is not able to drink like other people actually takes a great deal of strength. Step 1 is about finding strength through the admission of powerlessness.

Getting Help from an Outpatient Treatment Facility

The strength that people gain from admitting defeat and to powerlessness over alcohol isn’t internal strength. It’s the strength of others. Accepting the reality of an addiction and admitting powerlessness opens the way to asking for help. For many, help comes in the form of support groups and 12-step programs, which offer resources as well as community support. Countless others begin their journeys to long term recovery in outpatient treatment programs, IOPs, and partial hospitalization programs. No matter what treatment facility one ultimately selects, the very act of enrolling in one is a manner of completing step one. After all, reaching out for help is by definition a way of admitting powerlessness.

In an outpatient program, people can expect to develop strong social support systems, examine the underlying causes of their addictions, and develop new coping skills to avoid relapse. By the time a person graduates, they will already be well on their way to living new and prosperous lives in sobriety. However, it is important to remember that addiction can never be “cured.” Rather, people with substance use disorders remain sober by continually managing their conditions. People with long term sobriety understand that their admission of personal defeat is the foundation for everything they’ve gained.

Garrett Stanford
Garrett Stanford brings years of experience working with individuals and families struggling with substance abuse and behavioral health issues. He began working in the nonprofit treatment sector for 2 years before transitioning into the private sector. Garrett has been involved in treatment since 2010, with 10+ years of experience ranging from operations, administration, admissions and addiction research.
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