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Addictions Anonymous, 14: The Art Of Being Powerless

 article about powerlessness

This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.


Step One: We admitted we were powerless over addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.

The mind of the active addict works in a hazardous environment surrounded by a swirling fog of mistaken ideas, a world that swings rapidly back and forth between terror and giddy elation and sometimes oblivion. Acceptance of the ideas and ideals of a Twelve Step recovery Program, based on the original steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program, is the very last thing you may want to hear about; all you want is for the pain to go away so you can resume you familiar life without serious consequences and without major changes. It is no wonder, then, that when driven to enter a room full of people whose lives are dedicated to abstinence, you will feel like you've entered a strange alien world.

 article about powerlessness
In life, we area told over and over again the we must be in control, we must have power, we must not be humiliated by giving up the ambition to manage everything. Even professional therapists may discourage clients from accepting any idea of powerlessness.

For many, the First Step is a major obstacle. Once someone has admitted powerlessness and surrendered ego this step may, in retrospect, seem like a simple request, and it is simple. As a general rule, those who have the most trouble understanding and working on the First Step are people who have had horrific experiences with being completely powerless. Some examples may help to explain this.

Take the case of a man, then in his fifties, who told us that as a child he witnessed violent, physical fights between his alcoholic parents. Like most children, he took upon himself the blame for causing these fights. Never mind that this is a completely illogical, children are not logical creatures. Children are ego-centric and accept both blame and credit that may not be theirs to accept. Many addicts share this immature trait.

This man, as a preschool child, made efforts to intervene by attempting to calm the waters and protect his mother, but his efforts only resulted in a back-of-the-hand swat on the face from his father. For this boy the admission that he was, in fact, completely powerless in the face of adult violence seemed, in his mind, to be an approval and acceptance of the situation. If he did not resist he would have to become one of them in a conspiracy of violence. But, he misjudged his own importance in the lives of his parents, an importance that was, unfortunately, minor. By continuing his futile efforts to be the adult in a disorganized family he thought he had failed to bring peace to the home. At times he thought his failure should be punished by death. He did, in fact, during one particularly violent evening, beg his father to kill him thinking that this might be what was required to bring about a solution to the parental unhappiness. Suicide is sometimes the final token of resistance to the thought of personal impotence; it can be the final desperate manipulation. The childish mind says that if I cannot have the power and control that I want I must kill myself, only my death will solve the problem.

Again, ordinary logic does not apply here. If we can manage to see with the eyes and emotions of a small child, we can begin to understand a different logic, an emotional logic that must be applied in helping others accept the First Step.

A woman—a chronic poker machine gambler—told of an experience during her teen years in which she was violently raped and beaten. In the hospital the physician was cold and impersonal. He was rushed by a heavy caseload in the emergency room.

After some hasty first aid, she was made to wait for six hours until a detective came, and when he did arrive he also was impersonal and indifferent. For him it was just another rape case, and he saw many of these. Most such cases went unsolved and the police department spent time on rape cases only when the victim died. In fact, she thought to herself then that she should have died since it seemed logical that her death would have been a more powerful tool for justice than her life.

While the girl was waiting behind a curtain in the emergency area for the detective, her father came to the hospital and began asking what she had done to invite the assault. Why was she where she was, in that part of town, at that time of day? What was she wearing, he wondered, that might have triggered the rape? The father was furious and she assumed he was angry with her when, in fact, he also was alone in his personal grief and anger. Her only mistake was going downtown in the early evening to buy a small gift for her mother. Suddenly she had been pushed into an automobile and taken to a park area where she was beaten, assaulted and released.

Her boyfriend, whom she loved very much, never came to see her again, not in the hospital and not to her home later. She accepted the idea that she was now damaged goods and would never again see herself as a virtuous, healthy young lady with a future.

She was taught to blame herself for her own violent rape. How painful and impossible it seemed to a teenage girl even to think that she has been the helpless, powerless victim of a major crime. She decided that she must have done something to bring it on herself, that she should have been able to do something to escape the situation. At some point a sympathetic nurse did point out her complete lack of responsibility, but this was only one weak voice among the voices of many angry people. The girl assumed that since she had caused all this anger she was, in fact, at fault. And she determined then never to be in a powerless position ever again.

The mother threw out the girl's entire normal wardrobe and insisted that she wear conservative long, dark colored dresses. He privileges were restricted while giggling, critical and distant former friends made her remaining months in high school miserable.

When everyone you know and value in the world is telling you that you are at fault, how can you possibly even think for a moment that, at the time of the rape, you were powerless and that life had suddenly become unmanageable?

So who does the addict blame for your problem? Is it your fault, as many others will tell you, or are you simply the victim of forces you do not understand or control?

This story surfaces in most addictions, and it is true of the alcoholic or drug abuser. Everyone is telling the gambler, who is being raped by the forces of chance, to just stop and get control of life. The First Step suggests that you let go of control and accept powerlessness, but this is often, like the nurse in the example, a weak voice in a crowd of angry voices saying something else. The addict believes the task is to come out ahead, beat the odds and control the urges.

So, once they have admitted to an addiction problem, we demand that the boy child from a traumatic childhood and the girl who was a rape victim so many years ago immediately accept Step One and admit to the very thing that might separate them from the most important people in their lives. To be powerless over addiction seems as impossible as admitting that you are powerless in all of life's hopeless situations, that you are a defeated failure. The awful, powerful, and symbolic alternative to such a disgraceful admission is death itself. But, the truth is never disgraceful except in the eyes of those who cannot recognize it.

There are, of course, professionals and programs out there that will tell you that you don't have to be powerless, that you can take control of your life from the start. So, if you think that way, give these programs a try, but don't spend too much money or invest too much ego. If it doesn't work, come back to a Twelve Step program and give it your best.

It can be very hard, at that critical moment when an addict finally seeks help, to be asked to give up an addiction completely, their one source of escape and comfort

Another example might be a veteran of the Vietnam conflict who grew up in an intensely patriotic home where his father, a World War II and Korean combat veteran, constantly reminded his sons that the call to duty was a vital part of any young man's life. So the boy joined the United States Marines right out of high school and soon found himself in the jungles of Vietnam burning Viet Cong out of their tunnels with a flame thrower while getting booby trapped and shot at. No one around him believed in the war, no one acted normally or with any human decency, and his officers were mere bureaucrats interested only in promotion and body counts. As his patriotic beliefs were shattered by the reality of a futile war he began to blame himself. The boy was powerless in an impossible, no win situation. The one and only thing he wanted in life now was the power to change an impossible situation.

The mighty United States proved itself, for the first time in its history, powerless over a foreign enemy, powerless because of internal indecision and debate. Like a child in an alcoholic home, the young man took for himself the guilt and blame for his nation's disgrace. Back home, he dared not appear in public in uniform and he was never able to discuss his experiences with the father without upsetting the old man. Of course he was a powerless victim of our war in Vietnam , and of course he could never admit that. And later in life it took him many, many months to begin to consider that, in the end, addiction had also defeated him, that he was now powerless over the very thing that gave him so much relief from the old anger and guilt. He continued to say, for a very long time, that he was sure he could find a way to control his addiction and use his addictive like normal people.

Then there was the boy who was a football hero in high school. The father meant no harm, but from the boy's point-of-view the situation was difficult. His father and most of the other fathers were sports fanatics. A team win was generally taken for granted, as if the boys owed it to their fathers. A loss or a fumbled play resulted in lectures, emotional denigration and blame. Sport was never sport for the boys on the team but became a deadly serious obsession that demanded control and vigilance at all times. Sometimes, of course, the boy's team was simply overwhelmed by a stronger opponent, but any complaint or explanation seemed to be rejected immediately as whining and cowardice. Again, the adults didn't mean it that way, but that's how young boys interpret it.

"Never give in!"

"Never give up!"

"Everybody hates a loser!"

"You can do anything you set your mind to!"

"Never let them see you sweat"

"Never admit to having a weakness!"

"Real men don't cry or complain!"

You know the drill. There are many good things about athletics for young people, and good fathers are gentle and understanding when it comes to winning and losing. In this particular situation, the slogans above were constant exhortations delivered by fathers to their sons. Winning seemed to be the only way to get love, respect and acceptance, but it never really did. Winning didn't mean anything, it just avoided pain. Only losing meant something real. There was always that next game to get ready for and never any sense of completion and satisfaction. With so many years of intensive brainwashing, how could such a boy grow up to admit the he was powerless and that life was unmanageable?

In later years, still trying to win the un-winnable, the boy became a chronic football gambler.

Girls and women have their own special versions of never let them see you sweat thinking.

Her mother tells a little girl that small breasts will cause her to lose out on her chances for romance and marriage. But the girl has no control over her physical development, so what is she to do? She may end up having breast augmentation surgery and a great deal of difficulty in admitting that she is powerless over anything. That would only displease her mother and the girl will never be completely happy with her body. So, being good is never good enough; perfection is always one new fad away. The desire to please is overpowering.

A man can assure his sweetheart that her breasts are just fine, that he loves her just as she is. His words are bushed off, taken as insincere and ignored. She is sure she is inadequate. Logic is ineffective against an emotional need. It is so important to understand that logic and emotion speak very different languages. The man, in his turn, may have the common irrational belief that his own sex organ is not big enough, and no amount of reassurance from others will change that. With the right kind of help these classic male/female obsessions can fade in their importance, but persuasion and logic do little. Powerlessness is not about logic, it's about illogical feelings and beliefs, and these are what must change over time.

One of our favorite false beliefs is that there must be a solution to every problem, and all we have to do is keep trying and looking for it.

Her obstetrician may tell a woman that her pregnancy will result in the birth of a horribly malformed and handicapped baby, but she has been taught that abortion is a sin and a crime. Her husband demands the pregnancy be terminated. Her priest tells her she must not abort. The doctor tells her that having the baby might even endanger her own health. Suddenly, what should have been a happy time of life is turned, through not fault of her own, into a situation in which she can make no right choice; there is no choice that will please everyone. She is powerless but cannot accept this reality since everyone seems to be demanding that she take one action or another. Suicide becomes a daily consideration in such a desperate life until and unless the woman can decide her own course and ignore the storm of criticism that will certainly follow whatever choice she makes.

That's what it takes to do the First Step, the ability to cut away from everything we have been taught and try a totally different path. Taking the First Step is a very personal decision in which people outside the program can offer very little help.

In no-win situations the irrational mandate to win drives some to suicide or back to addiction. Life gets better only if you can look at the consequences of all your choices, accept personal responsibility, and become willing to live with the consequences of choice. The First Step requires that you give others the permission to think what they will, even if it is deeply hurtful to you, and then deny them control over your life. If you are powerless, so must they be. Admitting powerlessness does not mean you let others control you. It only means that you have at last clarified your alternatives in life by eliminating the impossible ones.

It is very easy for an old timer in self-help to tell when someone is struggling with the First Step. These new folk keep talking about what they will do, what plans they will make, how they will keep from using again, and how they will root out the problem and fill the void themselves. They use the word I in almost every sentence. They exude a pathetic sense of power and control that seems almost delusional to one what has made progress with the First Step.

Lectures, however truthful and accurate the information may be, have no effect. Giving examples and telling one's own story may have little impact. Logic, facts and examples cannot prevail when old emotions and habits of feeling continue to emerge and prevent one from saying and meaning the magic words, "I'm beat." Even the most effective and caring psychotherapists often fail to help tormented people let go of their old ways of thinking.

The truth seems to be that in taking the First Step some form of death is actually required. One lady said it seemed like she would lose her soul if she let go of all her old values. What she meant, of course, was that she would have to let her childish ego die. There is no pain worse than that which your ego inflicts upon you. The self-important ego would be better off dead, if you will.

It is true that successes, good fortune and good looks can make some people egotistical and give them an unrealistic sense of great power. But it is far more likely that trauma and failed efforts at impossible tasks can create the most demonic of egos. The trouble with ego is that it does often lead to success in many situations, but it is not durable. It succeeds only intermittently. Humility never fails to reduce the pains of ego, but this is hard to accept. When something works all the time it is not as exciting as something that works some of the time. Humility may not be exciting, but it is life sustaining and rewarding in its own ways.

A Twelve Step room probably should not try to help people re-visit old traumas; members just tell their own stories. They serve as role models. The business of group members is to tell others what it was like for them, how it is today and what they did to change the way it was. They are not in the psychiatry business and probably wouldn't know what to do with stories of old traumas if they heard them.

What members can do is understand how terribly difficult it is for some people to take the First Step. Give them time, patience, and understanding. Encourage them to share with a sponsor and, if necessary, to get temporary professional help with a therapist who is well experienced in working with addicts. Most of all, show them how working through Step One has worked for you, and be sure to talk about the thinking that stood in your own way as you struggled.

Telling others what they should feel, how they should think or what they must do isn't very helpful. Just help them to understand their own emotional reasons for resisting change by explaining your own growth. Ask lots of honest questions without trying to steer the person to your own conclusions. Help them to think for themselves.

There is one further serious complication in accepting the First Step and that is what I call the chaos factor. After years of living in conflict and chaos it is not easy to live a peaceful life. After all, intense confusion has become a way of life. It is energizing, it gives a rush of excitement. Uncertainty becomes an addiction in itself. The appreciation of serenity may be long in coming; peaceful surrender will feel like an uncomfortable garment at first.

All this is like a person who retires from a career. Such a person often does not know how to relax and enjoy a life of leisure.

To surrender ego is to live in the moment. It is to concentrate fully on what is going on around you. It requires that you give up secret planning, scheming and manipulating. You must learn to let life happen which it will do whether or not you pretend to be in control of it. Serenity asks that you be able to recognize feelings that interfere with simple living, and that you learn how to let go of these feelings so that you can live in the present moment in full appreciation of the most simple things in life.

A pair of old proverbs comes to mind and serve as reminders to live only in the present moment:

"The river flows by itself, don't push it."

"The grass grows by itself, don't tug on it."

The First Step is not really a step as much as it is an attitude to be carried through each hour of each day. It is a skill to be acquired and practiced. It helps to avoid misjudging and inflating your own sense of importance.

Here are some discussion and writing questions that may help in developing a First Step attitude:

· Can you participate in a conversation without planning your next statement while the other person is talking?

· Why is it so hard to live "in the present moment?"

· What happens when you try to clear your mind of all thoughts just for a moment or two? Can you do it?

· Is the goal to make life manageable?

· Can you find happiness in a non-competitive life style?

· When you have had real power, did it make you happy?

· Do genuine compliments make you nervous? If so, Why?

· If everything and everybody in the world were suddenly turned into exactly what you wished for, would that make you happy?

· What is a capacity for happiness?

· How does the philosophy of the Serenity Prayer apply in your case?

In that last item, I'm not suggesting that you need to pray or to pray in your groups, just that you need to learn to accept without resentment the inevitable nasty things that happen in life.

The chaos factor, mentioned earlier, refers to the constant soap opera that an addiction makes of life. For the addict, outcomes are always uncertain, and uncertainty is the basis of most interesting drama. The First Step seems to imply to some that life will lose its meaning and interest. But, it only seems that way at first.

Give it a try.


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