Powerless over alcohol …
For those who are not familiar with 12-step programs (such as AA or AlAnon), the first step is to admit you are powerless over alcohol. I recall reading and hearing this and thinking “they” were nuts. How could anyone be powerless over alcohol? And, how could a person who is not even the one with the drinking problem be called on to admit they were powerless over alcohol? But, as I mentioned in my last post, by the time my loved one had entered treatment, I’d already spent decades dealing with various loved ones’ alcohol abuse/addiction, and I was DONE. Not done in the sense that I’d had an epiphany, but more I was just plain tired, angry and wrung out. So being done meant I was ready to admit my way wasn’t working and go as far as, “what the heck, I might as well listen to what they have to say — doesn’t mean I have to agree.”
Here is what I’ve learned, and I have to tell you, accepting this has been the best thing I could ever have done. For you see, I am powerless over alcohol and giving up the fight for control has freed me to do other things with my life. [By the way, you do not have to participate in a 12-step program to embrace this conclusion.]
What does it mean for the alcoholic to admit he or she is powerless over alcohol?
It means to understand the disease of addiction (check this site for more information about addiction, www.hbo.com/addiction). For when you understand the disease of addiction (and alcoholism is just one of the diseases of addiction), it is possible to accept the new brain research that proves how the years of substance abuse have actually changed the chemical and structural make-up of an alcoholic’s brain. This means they have “wired” brain maps that involve the crazed, all-consuming use of alcohol as the response to an arsenal of cues. Thus, as long as the alcoholic drinks ANY amount of alcohol, their brains have no other choice than to continue those brain maps and thus the insanity in their lives. They are powerless to control what their brains do if they drink. HOWEVER, if the alcoholic STOPS drinking alcohol, they can do what they need to do to remap their brains. This is the process known as recovery and involves getting and following treatment for their disease of addiction.
What does it mean for the person who loves the alcoholic to be powerless over alcohol?
It would be one thing if alcoholism or alcohol abuse just struck one day, like waking up with the flu, but it doesn’t. It ekes and creeps and slowly crawls forward. In order to accommodate and survive the progression of the alcoholic’s disease or a loved one’s excessive drinking (alcohol abuse), the people who love him (or her) have had to adapt and change their thinking and behaviors and join in the denial protecting the notion that alcohol is not the real problem (something or someone else is the cause of the drinking). In other words, they’ve had to adopt their own version of denial.
Through all of this adapting and accommodating of the alcoholic’s and/or alcohol abuser’s drinking behaviors, family members unconsciously collude to make the unacceptable acceptable. Just as the alcoholic or alcohol abuser is focused (dependent) on alcohol, the family members’ lives are focused (dependent) on the alcoholic/alcohol abuser — they are “co” – “dependent” with the alcoholic/alcohol abuser on his or her addiction to or excessive drinking of alcohol. This is where the term, “codependent” comes from and why the disease of alcoholism is often referred to as a “family disease.” It is also why codependents are often referred to as “enablers,” another term you may hear in recovery circles. And, it is why a codependent’s denial-type behaviors are often called “enabling” (enabling the alcoholic/alcohol abuser to continue the denial that protects their drinking). In order to get off the merry-go-round and start to live a happier, healthier life, regardless of whether a loved one continues drinking or not, you must accept that you are powerless over your loved one’s use of alcohol.
2013 update to this article: You may wish to read this 2010 post, “First Three Steps of AA | NA From a Science Perspective,” and this 2013 post, “Why Can’t an Alcoholic Have One Drink?”
These concepts are excerpts taken from my book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop! What You Really Need To Know When A Loved One Drinks Too Much. It’s purposefully short — less than 120 pages — and is proving to be a great help to those who love someone who abuses or is addicted to alcohol (as well as the alcoholic and alcohol abusers, themselves).
©2009 Lisa Frederiksen