We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
– Step 1, The Big Book
The first time I uttered, “I’m an alcoholic”, it was one of the hardest things I had ever struggled to say.
It’s not an easy admission to make. It implies that something has complete control over me. That something has mastery over me. That this thing–alcoholism–is part of my identity. Admitting it to myself was hard, but admitting it to others was even harder. At least at first. I didn’t want to come to grips with the fact that I couldn’t control my drinking. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to admit it–to myself or to anyone else. For years, I didn’t admit it. Or wouldn’t. Or both. Probably both.
It seems so obvious now. Chronicling my drinking behaviors, which I did back in 2012, made it clear. But even then, I didn’t really understand the nature of true alcoholism. Always in the back of my mind was the idea that one day I would be able to control it. That one day, I would have mastery over alcohol, not the other way around. And so, after 2 years of hard fought sobriety, I went back out to drink again. I was going to prove to myself and to everyone else that I could do it. But I couldn’t do it.
I tried to drink “moderately”. I tried setting a time that I wouldn’t drink after. I tried to limit the number of drinks I allowed myself. I tried limiting the days that I would drink on. I tried setting a limit on the number of times, per week, that I would drink. I tried only drinking around certain people. I tried limiting the amount of money that I spent on alcohol. I tried everything. Everything I could think of. When I ran out of ideas, I asked others for ideas and tried those.
Guess what happened? All I succeeded in doing was thoroughly proving, in every way possible, that I did not possess the capability to control my drinking. No matter what I did. No matter how hard I tried. No matter what rule I set or what truth I tried to believe or what slight tweak I would attempt, I kept throwing myself at alcohol. And no matter how much I hated myself the next day, no matter how much shame I felt, no matter how many oaths I uttered to never do it again, once the hangover had worn off, my mind was already planning the next catastrophe.
It wasn’t the first time I had proven that I was powerless over alcohol. By this time I had been unable to control my drinking for over 20 years. It always got the best of me.
It’s interesting, looking back now. The one thing that I loathed the idea of more than anything, that I absolutely could not even entertain the idea of, that I would not believe, no matter what evidence there was to the contrary, was the one thing that was ridiculously obvious to everyone, and eventually to me. I was powerless over alcohol.
Powerless over Alcohol
What did that mean? That I was hopelessly drunk all day everyday? Not exactly. So what does it mean, then?
Sometimes it meant that I did not have the ability to keep from drinking. Even when I truly wanted to. This inability was real. It was not imagined or feigned. There were nights that I would literally agonize, in prayer, in meditation, in conversation, or in some other attempt to keep from drinking, only to succumb. It would literally baffle the mind. Against my fervent wishes, against my greatest efforts, I would cave.
Other times it meant that I didn’t have the desire to stop, even when to continue drinking defied all reason and contradicted even my most deeply held values. I would attend an AA meeting and then promptly go out and get toasted. I would have a long, drawn out, difficult conversation with my wife (the love of my life!) during which she would confess her concerns about my drinking, her feelings of loneliness and despair over it, only to then go out and drink myself into a stupor. I would hang out with Christian friends, discussing the dangers of addiction and confessing my own struggles with alcohol, only to stop at the gas station on the way home to snag a twelve pack.
Who does that?! Sure, there were days I didn’t drink. There were even a few times I would drink but then stop after a few. But alcohol had the power to make me do things I didn’t want to do. To spend money that I didn’t want to spend. To lose sleep that I desperately needed. To sacrifice relationships that were extremely important to me. To endanger my own mental, physical, and spiritual health.
That is a lot of power.
Few things can ravage a person’s life like alcoholism. It can destroy a person from the inside out. Left unchecked, it will bring complete ruin. Families and marriages crumble. Jobs and careers are blown. Friendships broken. Finances bankrupt. And yet, an alcoholic will continue to give himself or herself to this thing that wields such unquestionable and merciless sway over them. Why?
Ask 100 people that question, and you may get 100 different answers. My perspective, as the son a psychologist, as a God loving Christian, as a confessed addict, and as an imperfect man capable of misunderstanding and of making mistakes, is that it has to do with the insidious way that alcohol can control a person.
What sort of thinking dominates an alcoholic…? Friends who have reasoned with him after a spree which has brought him to the point of divorce or bankruptcy are mystified when he walks directly into a saloon. Why does he? Of what is he thinking? …sound reasoning failed to hold us in check. The insane idea won out. Next day we would ask ourselves, in all earnestness and sincerity, how it could have happened.
– The Big Book, Chapter 3
The insane idea? Step 2 says, “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Why sanity? Why not sobriety? Surely sobriety was the goal, right? So why refer to restoration in this way? Why use such a strong word as “insanity”?
Insanity implies wrong thinking. Thinking that is broken in some way. To be honest, I had a hard time with that word at first. It wasn’t like I needed to be checked into a mental facility. I wasn’t violent or frothing at the mouth or eating dirt. What was so “insane” about me? It was my thinking.
One of the things that makes alcoholism so destructive is that it is a disease of the mind. It involves faulty thinking. Thinking that is literally crazy to those without the disease. I would plan to drink days and even weeks in advance. I would make sure everything was in order. I would organize my day around it. I would spend time thinking about it. If I needed an excuse, I made sure I had one. If I needed an alibi, I lined one up. I would devote the power of my mind to this one singular pursuit. Alcohol. It was an obsession.
Looking back–I can hardly believe it. Being in right mind now (at least to some degree–haha), I am horrified at the excuses that I would make and the lengths to which I would go. How could I have ever thought it was okay? My mind was bent on something. I had made alcohol an ultimate thing–something I had to have. And in this pursuit, my thinking became futile.
In this statement he confirms what we who have suffered alcoholic torture must believe—that the body of the alcoholic is quite as abnormal as his mind…we are sure that our bodies were sickened as well. In our belief, any picture of the alcoholic which leaves out this physical factor is incomplete.
– The Big Book, The Doctor’s Opinion
The doctor then goes on to refer to this physical difference between alcoholics and other people as “a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker.”
Call this physical difference what you will. A genetic predisposition to addiction. An allergy. But what my experience and what The Big Book made clear is that some people have it and some people don’t. This is not an excuse. There are many things that contribute to a person becoming an alcoholic. But it does explain why my wife can walk away from a half-filled glass of wine because she’s “had enough” and why the thought of doing that would make my skin crawl. It explains why, with every drink a friend would consume, he would become more likely to stop drinking, and with every drink that I would consume, I would become less likely to stop drinking. It explains why I can still, after over a year of sobriety, get an overwhelming craving to drink occasionally.
Many will debate this point. Is there some kind of addictive or alcoholic gene? I don’t know. That is above my pay grade. What I do know is that something happens to me when I drink that doesn’t happen to almost everyone else I know. A transformation happens. A literal, physical change takes place. My whole demeanor changes. And in a moment, I am no longer in control. I’m not even talking about being drunk. Something happens the second I allow myself a drink. I develop a craving–a physical craving. And that craving needs to be appeased.
Again, I’m not here to debate. That is just my experience. I don’t drink like almost anyone else that I know. I ALWAYS drank more than anyone else in the room. I drank faster, harder, and longer. I stayed later. When the alcohol ran out, I got more. I spent more. I would drink until I puked and then I would drink some more. I would black out. And then, when the haze wore off, I would do it again. Those aren’t the actions of a normal person.
When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.
– The Big Book, Chapter 5
Alcohol had me. It had my mind–drinking was an obsession. An obsessive thought blocks out or overrules other thoughts. It had my body–drinking was a compulsion. My body literally drove me to drink. And it had my heart. It had my worship. Worship–what we have faith in–what we love–what we give ourselves to. That is what I gave to alcohol. I wouldn’t have said it in so many words, but in practicality, I was worshiping alcohol by giving it my time, my talents, and treasure.
In the Bible, something that has that much power over us is called an “idol”. Not like a statue or something like that, but an object of one’s thoughts, actions, and worship. Alcoholics often refer to something like this as a “higher power”. Alcohol was, in many ways, an idol to me. It was a “higher power”.
Alcoholism is more than just a wrong way of thinking and acting–it is a spiritual malady. Malady is an old fashioned word for disease or ailment. I had a spiritual sickness. I was trying to fill a void inside of me. I was running to alcohol for help. If you’ve ever been to an AA meeting, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Alcohol wasn’t my problem. Alcohol was my solution.” It was for me.
Power in Powerlessness
It’s interesting. As a Christian, I’ve wrestled with the idea of alcoholism being part of my identity. Does the saying, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic” apply to me? Am I now truly “powerless” over alcohol? I have been given a new nature. In Christ, I am a new creation. Old things have gone, and all things have become new.
I believe it to be true. And yet, even after giving my life to God, I struggled with alcohol for almost 20 years.
While doing research about the idea of powerlessness, I came across many psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, as well as many Christian pastors and authors who would say that to profess powerlessness over alcohol can be detrimental in the process of healing and sobriety. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but what I do know is that my experience has been the opposite.
I have found that in the process of healing, like in the process of spiritual growth, an admission of powerlessness and need has been the key to true power and freedom. For me, the way down has been the only way up. Indeed, the only way that I have ever had any semblance of control over alcohol has been to come to grips with my lack of control.
It seems counterintuitive. But as I have embarked on this journey of sobriety, the only real freedom that I have experienced has come from letting go of what held control of me for so long. Instead of insisting upon mastery over alcohol, I have admitted its mastery over me, and in doing so, have found myself finally free from its grasp.
Am I powerless still? In some sense, I believe that I am. I do not have the power to return to drinking. I don’t believe that I will ever have the power to drink in moderation. I wish I could! If I had not proven a thousand times over that I can’t, in every conceivable circumstance and in every possible way, I would consider it.
But do I even want to? What good has my drinking ever done me or anyone else? None. If I’m honest, it has been quite the opposite. For some, freedom means the ability to drink. For me, freedom means the ability to not drink.
I guess in that sense, perhaps I have found power over alcohol at last.