Do you believe a person is powerless over alcohol? Do you have reservations about being powerless over alcohol, yourself? Do you worry you can’t find or sustain recovery unless you admit you are powerless?
These are common questions and concerns I hear from the alcoholics I work with and their family members and close friends, as well. This is especially true of the family members who are attending Al-Anon in which they find Step 1 to read: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable,” many of whom are not “powerless” over drinking alcohol, which is the way most people initially interpret the phrase. It is the same first step found in the 12-steps of AA, which brings up the other difficulty many have with admitting to the notion of “being powerless.” It is the implication the drinker lacks character, determination and willpower. It’s the belief that if they wanted to badly enough, they could get their drinking under control, which, of course, causes them to try harder because the last thing they are is “powerless.”
Yet, admitting to being powerless over alcohol is Step 1 for both sides of this family disease, whether you work the steps or participate in a 12-step program or choose one of the many other routes a person can follow to live a healthy, happier life in recovery. [Check out NIDA's Principles of Effective Treatment."]
So here’s another approach…
Applying the Science to Better Explain Being Powerless Over Alcohol
Thanks to advances in imaging technologies of the past 10-15 years, scientists and medical professionals now understand addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol) to be a chronic, often relapsing brain disease (see links “For More on the Research…” below).
Disease by its simplest definition is something that changes cells in a negative way. Alcohol changes cells in the brain, which changes the way the brain works. Given the brain controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does, it’s the nature of the brain changes caused by alcohol abuse, in combination with the five key risk factors for developing the disease, that changes a person’s behaviors. It even causes them to lie, cheat and steal from those they love the most.
Thus what makes a person with the brain disease of alcoholism (addiction) “powerless over alcohol” is the fact that if they drink any amount, they trigger their brain disease. That’s because alcohol is a chemical and as a chemical, it interrupts the brain’s normal communication system (brain cells talking to one another and to and from others throughout the body via the central nervous system). [Check out these two posts, Understand Brain Maps | Change a Habit | Change Your Life, and Addiction is a Brain Disease? But How?, for more on these concepts.]
By applying the science to Step 1 of AA and/or the concept of “being powerless over alcohol,” we can rephrase the concept to read something like this:
1 – Came to understand the disease of alcoholism [one of the brain diseases of addition] as a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that makes me powerless over my brain (therefore over my behaviors) when I drink any amount of alcohol.
This approach can help the alcoholic understand they cannot control their behaviors if they drink any amount, and that’s because they have the brain disease of addiction (in their case, an addiction to alcohol). This approach can help the family member or close friend understand that if their loved one has this brain disease, they (the family member or close friend) has absolutely no power over their loved one’s brain (which of course is true whether their loved one is drinking or not because no one can control the workings of another person’s brain. Period!). Now, talk about powerless. That’s powerlessness!
But, “hey!” it’s not for lack of trying. Rather it’s for lack of understanding there is nothing you can do to change behaviors if you have alcohol in your brain and you have this disease, and there’s certainly nothing you can do to change the brain of someone who has this disease and continues to drink.
And BTW, this same explanation applies to other drugs, which are also chemicals, and as such, also interrupt the brain’s normal communication system. Thus the above would also apply to Step 1 of NA and the concept of “being powerless over our addiction.”
For More on the Research of Addiction as a Brain Disease
About addiction as a chronic, often relapsing brain disease, check out “Understand Addiction: What is Addiction”
About cravings, check out “Let’s Talk About Craving”
About risk factors for developing addiction, check out “Why Do Some People Become Addicted?”