by Charles A. Peabody. Copyright, 2015.
Admitted we were powerless over ? - that our lives had become unmanageable.
Many people today falsely believe the notion of powerlessness to imply permanent defeat, but defeat is by no means where the Twelve Steps intend us to stay. In fact, the very purpose of understanding what we are powerless over is to regain power. This concept is more about awareness, acceptance of our present reality, and experiencing some humility, all of which appropriately characterize a first crucial leap forward in our personal growth and evolution.
For alcoholics and addicts, a 1st Step allows us to understand intellectually and to feel deep within that we have lost power over drugs and alcohol, both physically and mentally. If there is one thing in this world we simply cannot control, it is mood-altering substances of any kind. We cannot stop once we start, and we cannot stay stopped once we stop. I remember being in treatment on the second or third night still thinking that if I really wanted to, I could stop using alcohol and drugs. I truly believed I could conjure the willpower to recover all on my own because I was so talented and smart and strong. Then someone reminded me that I was in rehab, and generally speaking, you don’t wind up at a locked detox/psych ward and then get hauled off to an inpatient treatment center if you drink or use normally.
My new friend also mentioned that if I still thought I had power, I had successfully wasted my first few days at this amazing place, days someone else was paying for. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and in that moment I realized that for all of the things I could do, the one thing I couldn’t was to stay sober. Drugs and alcohol had me.
Here’s the thing, though. You don’t have to have an alcohol or drug problem to lose power over something. People can become powerless over fear, anger, anxiety or depression… over food, sex, money or some toxic relationship… over beliefs, notions, attitudes, judgments or opinions… over self-image, vanity, intelligence or stupidity… or perhaps over someone else’s addiction. The truth is that we can lose power over just about anything, whether it is some internal part of ourselves, or something external. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blank.
It should come as no surprise that at times certain aspects of life could easily have us whipped. We all have negative internal skews that can rear their ugly heads. Sometimes we give our power away to these maladaptive behaviors or energies, whether consciously or unconsciously, and then one day they suddenly control us, we don’t control them. One day they are making decisions for us as opposed to us making decisions for ourselves. When some darker and more destructive part within suddenly rules us, we have lost power.
But with the loss of power also comes the responsibility to regain it. When we lose control of something, we no longer have the right to ignore it, as it will inevitably effect others and create a harmful ripple effect that we may be slow to understand, or perhaps altogether blind to. Furthermore, we often cannot get power back on our own. Sometimes it is only by something Greater than ourselves that we can regain power, and this is precisely what the rest of the Steps are for.
Finally, many people see the 1st Step written on a page or a poster and think, ‘Cool, no problem. I can understand that intellectually. Done with that one!’ but it is not sufficient to simply study the 1st Step. We must actually feel and experience this sense of defeat deep in our guts, and the humility that accompanies such an understanding should effectively knock us off of our pedestal and fundamentally change the way we feel. If we have a palpable 1st Step experience, it should cause us to stop and take pause. We may feel quiet inside and may not want to talk or interact for a while. It may even bring us to our knees in tears, but don’t worry because that is actually quite healthy and emotionally productive. We are cleansing ourselves by shedding layers of emotional skin, which cracks open a door that may have been shut for a while. It is this sense of humility that propels us to move forward in earnest, and oddly enough, it can serve to lift some of the weight and burden of being powerless. It may even signify that we have now begun this spiritual journey and are finally on our way to regaining strength and willpower, and best of all, serenity.
Regardless of what happens to us individually, it is a cathartic experience to feel powerless. For the first time in our lives, we realize that we don’t have control over something we once did or thought we still did. The illusion of power and autonomy, driven by ego and intellectual stubbornness, dissolves right before us, and though this is usually perceived as a tremendous loss, it is not. The truth is that this newfound realization will help us to grow in spades. So try not to get caught up in the negative connotations increasingly given to this crucial 1st Step of admitting powerlessness. Try not to get caught up in words such as defeat. There are many ways to define or conceptualize certain terms, and we must look deeper to see the wisdom of this Step.
Let’s examine in more depth what not only being powerless over drugs and alcohol means, but over several other common demons as well. I should briefly note here that when dealing with drug and alcohol addiction specifically, we need to distinguish between physical powerlessness (permanent) and mental powerlessness (temporary), but for the purpose of this book and universalizing the Step process, we will tend to focus on mental power or willpower, which can be both lost and regained. For alcoholics and addicts, however, being powerless means two things.
First, it means that we have suffered a bodily change. When we drink or use repeatedly, we eventually cross over some invisible line, and once that happens, our bodies will forever react abnormally to drugs and alcohol. That is, we experience the “phenomenon of craving”, as noted in the Big Book, whereby once a drink or drug enters our system, we crave more and more and more until we’re either unconscious, arrested, or no longer breathing. Craving is a physical event, not a mental event as conventional thinking would have it. When people think of a sober person well into recovery who ‘craves’ drugs, what is actually happening is they are obsessing about drugs. Regardless, the point is that once we start, we cannot stop. The physical compulsion supersedes any desire or willingness to stop.
As well, the compulsion is capable of blocking all rational thoughts about what we are doing such as, “It’s the middle of the night and I have work at 6am and give a huge presentation, so maybe I should pack it in…” or “I can’t drive myself home tonight…. it isn’t safe.” Instead they morph into, “I’m just gonna go for it right now because this isn’t really hurting anyone else and I’ll be brilliant in that presentation, as usual…” or “I’m totally fine to drive myself home… done it a million times… could teach a course on driving drunk.” and finally, “Drinking/using this much doesn’t really matter because I can just sort things out later and not go so heavy next time. Maybe I’ll break up my stash for each day of the week. Problem solved!”
Dr. William D. Silkworth, once the leading physician treating alcohol addiction at the old Charles B. Towns hospital in Manhattan, wrote to Alcoholics Anonymous that the alcoholic suffers from an “allergy” to alcohol. That is, we acquire an allergy by drinking too much and crossing over some threshold. But we are not talking about your typical allergy. Instead of breaking out into hives or going into anaphylactic shock, instead of some physical repulsion or rejection of the toxic substance, we break out into ease and comfort. We break out into more. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this abnormal physical response to drugs and alcohol, once acquired, is permanent.
While that may sound hopeless, it is not, because all any addict or alcoholic needs to do is to restore willpower, supplemented by a life of spiritual growth, and he or she can then choose never to drink or use again. Thus, the real defeat is what happens to addicts mentally. When the thought to drink or use drugs crosses our minds, we go temporarily insane, obsessing about it until the alcohol or drug hits our bloodstream. The obsession itself is actually the point of relapse, as nothing human can bring most of us back once the thought has entered and the choice has been made. The notion of just calling our sponsor for help when we’re teetering on the edge outside of a bar is but an empty platitude, as we have already begun drinking.
We have essentially broken a part of our minds that is responsible for thinking rationally and reasonably when it comes to mood-altering substances, as if a chip has gone missing. Our internal conversations become distorted as we begin to think that our problem isn’t so bad, that we can handle it this time and use moderately, that we’re not going to hurt anybody… so why not? Our memory of events also becomes distorted as we downplay the falling down nightmare we were the last time we went out. Perhaps we don’t have any internal conversation at all as we experience total memory loss, having no awareness of our problem or the consequences of what we’ve done in the past – the car accidents, the arrests, the lying, the abuse, the heartache. A mind that will suddenly draw a blank like that is a mind that has surely gone insane.
This is what happens to addicts and alcoholics, and the Big Book refers to it as the “mental obsession”, but we must also distinguish between the ‘deliberate obsession’ and the ‘random obsession’. The deliberate obsession is when we concoct some reason why we are justified to go out and drink or use drugs, why we have the right to ply ourselves endlessly. We see ourselves as victims, that because our lives are so tough, our jobs so awful, our town so boring, our parents so horrible, and because nobody understands how we feel, we are justified and therefore excused to drink or use. We are convinced that our pain is somehow different from the rest of the human race and that if others had our struggles or felt the way we did, they would surely be drinking and using drugs too.
While all that may seem ridiculous, the real mystery and crux of our problem lies in the random obsession. The random obsession is when thoughts to use or drink come for no reason at all. They are not deliberate or driven by some negative event, thought or emotion. Even worse, sometimes there is no preceding thought whatsoever. We will simply walk into someone’s bathroom and see some pills when suddenly our arm reflexively reaches out to grab them. This randomly occurring obsession is the very lunacy that defines an addict or an alcoholic, and it is what many non-addicts cannot understand.
Moreover, until the addict has been restored to sanity, there is no hope for long-term sobriety. The addict is essentially walking around subject to go insane and relapse at any point in time and for no apparent reason. People who study addiction, as well as our loved ones, will often try to dig in and find all sorts of reasons why we drink or use, but you have to remember that addicts love drugs and alcoholics love alcohol, and at some point, it simply becomes a reflex.
To be sure, this is a very sad and hopeless state of affairs. Simply achieving sobriety, attending groups, having a little therapy or taking a substitution drug is rarely, if ever, powerful enough to fix this insanity. Hopeless types eventually find that they cannot remove this obsession without spiritual help. Let’s face it, it’s hard to go from insane to sane on our own, and sometimes we must call on something much Greater, something beyond the scope of human faculty and man-made remedies. Sometimes the solution is not of this world, as worldly tools are often incapable of removing this unique, deceptive and pathological form of insanity.
So how then do we re-insert power back into our being? Well, that’s precisely what the Steps were made to do – give us our power back. By giving ourselves wholeheartedly to this process, something begins to crack open, as if entering a new dimension, and we are suddenly given access to God or Power. Once that happens and the telephone line is set up, so to speak, we can tap into this source anytime we want, and once that happens, anything is possible. For now, however, let us first dig into some other things we are susceptible to losing power over, such as depression.
Depression can be a life-sucking force or energy that affects millions of people. Even though we have many different names and classes of depression to promote the sale of psychotropics to the public, it is really just a code word for grief or pain. Underneath anger is sadness, and when both are left unchecked, the energies morph into depression. It is an active loss of our vital energy and will take our power away, making both our outer lives unmanageable and our inner lives a torturous, mental/emotional hell.
I remember sinking into a severe depression while living in Boston. In all of a month, I had dropped out of college, isolated myself and shunned the entire world. A lack of pleasure in all things wouldn’t even begin to describe my condition. I sunk into a terrifying abyss of which there seemed no escape. It felt like something was possessing my mind and body, as my senses gradually went numb. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t taste food or feel my body. Libido dead. I was paralyzed by my thoughts and feelings.
At night, insomnia took hold. My mind raced uncontrollably from one hopeless thought to the next. The only pleasure I knew was the momentary relief of being unconscious, and then the moment I awoke, it hit me again like a ton of bricks. I would shift positions in bed during the mid-afternoon, hoping one of them would allow me to drift back to sleep for a little while longer. If something woke me up like a group of people walking by, a bird chirping, or the sunlight peering through my blinds, I went nuts, flying into a rage and throwing things around my place until I finally wound up in tears on the floor with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth.
The point is that I was a total zombie, and it is this condition where one feels, “What’s the point of anything? What’s the point of living? Sorry, but this really does suck.” That is depression, my friends, and that was my condition during periods of sobriety, usually during the summer when people were out having fun and living life, which only served to remind me how miserable I was.
When we reach this point, we have officially lost control. Becoming so crippled by feelings that we cannot function properly is a clear indication that we have lost power over our depression. Our lives are unmanageable because depression is negatively affecting the ability to navigate our lives and deal with even the most minor of everyday, adult challenges. Our ability to work, think, create, live, laugh, socialize, give and receive has been compromised. We are powerless and we should admit defeat.
But there is some good news. Despite what may seem like a hopeless predicament, the spiritual actions of the Twelve Steps also vanquished my depression, along with my addiction. Consistent prayer, meditation, inventory, amends, service to others, exercise, nutrition and hard work out in the world literally rewired my brain and today I no longer suffer from mental illness. I am living proof that this process is by no means limited to alcoholism or drug addiction. This is why it is so important to share from direct experience and not simply rely on classroom information, textbooks and scientific research/data.
Anger is another strong energy or force that we are susceptible to losing power over. It’s one thing to be feel anger or express some frustration, but quite another to become unhinged and fly into a rage. If we wake up one day and find ourselves going from 0 to 100 as soon as we feel angry, that is a dangerous predicament. We have lost control of our anger or temper, as feelings turn to actions. We can no longer prevent ourselves from lashing out, regardless of the circumstance or trigger. Out of control anger has many faces, but whether it’s verbal assault, pulling our hair out, punching walls, hurting ourselves, or physically assaulting other people, including loved ones we supposedly care about, all of it is destructive and can tear apart relationships, bridges and entire lives.
Say some driver cuts us off and then flips us the bird when we honk to protect ourselves, even though they were in the wrong. What do we do if we are powerless over our anger? In an instant, we’re out of our minds, screaming like madmen. Perhaps we lose control of our actions and honk back, speed up, slam on our brakes, or pull up and threaten someone who may have no idea he or she cut us off to begin with.
Or say someone close to us is sarcastic or makes some remark that touches a very deep and sensitive place within. What do we do? Again we go from 0 to 100 in a split second and start in with the verbal abuse, spewing hideous names, judging them bitterly. We pull out all the stops to belittle and cast shame on them. Self-awareness is lost as we become locked in and hyper-focused on making them feel as bad about themselves as we possibly can.
Or let’s say a spouse or family member coldly accuses us of the very thing they often do, and worse yet, let’s say they utterly refuse to hear our side of things. Again, we go nuts, reaching their level and beyond as we viciously project our own flaws onto them. What happened? In one moment we are trying to have a discussion and then all of a sudden we’ve completely lost it just because our pride was bristled. The rage button has been pushed, though not by the other person (as we will see in our 4th Step), but by the warped perceptions and twisted frame of mind that we have developed by losing our power over anger.
The bottom line is that when we feel unheard, shamed, slighted and misunderstood, or when someone ignores us, belittles us, patronizes us, manipulates us or projects their own flaws or weaknesses onto us, these are common challenges we must face, confront and deal with as social beings. However, if we have lost control of our anger or rage, we will fail these challenges time and time again. We will react inappropriately, causing psychic damage to ourselves and to others. Again, we are powerless.
How about money and gambling? Sure there is nothing wrong with making money or even accumulating great wealth. But when we lose power over money, the pursuit of obtaining it begins to own us. As we become more obsessed and preoccupied, it is only misery that follows.
Becoming preoccupied with the accumulation of something robs us from existing wholeheartedly in the present moment. As well, it robs us from valuing and finding pleasure in other more meaningful things, such as our families and the greater world around us. The tragic irony of the money obsession is that the more we focus on it, the less money we tend to obtain. I personally make this mistake frequently, especially as more money is required to support a growing family. When we let go and focus on being present and giving ourselves to the totality of our lives, the money tends to materialize. This has nothing to do with the necessity of working hard to achieve success, but we must value things properly in our lives to effect both peace and abundance. And usually the stuff we want comes to us when we’re busy doing other things.
Gambling, like drug addiction, will rob us of inner peace just as fast as using drugs. When we gamble and win, the satisfaction is gone almost instantly, as it is soon replaced by the thought, “maybe I can do that again and again and again?” The tragic irony of the gambler is that they are actually most satisfied and content when they have lost everything. Why? Because they cannot gamble anymore. The angst of having money that needs to be gambled is no longer existent. For a gambler, having no money at all is the closest they will come to inner peace… until, of course, power over money is regained. All of these examples are merely reflections of the same universal truth, which is that becoming obsessed with anything will only rob us of our joy and serenity. Many obsessions will rob us of our very lives, as we chase them all the way to the gates of death.
How about eating disorders and becoming powerless over food, weight, or self-image? Those of us with an eating disorder use food to control our emotions. Sure we all need food to function emotionally, but we who are powerless over food are emotionally out of control even after fulfilling our basic needs. More and more food (or less food in the case of anorexia and body dysmorphic disorders) is needed to maintain enough emotional stability just to function in the world, and it’s the same with the need or compulsion to control our weight and body image.
But food, just like our weight and body image, can become a false source of power. Certain foods in particular also provide us with chemical nourishment, albeit more subtle than hard drugs, alcohol or nicotine. Sugary foods, fatty foods and carbohydrates, for instance, act on the reward system of our brain, thereby acting as a mood-stabilizer. When we rely on something external to control our mood and provide us with comfort, we will inevitably suffer. Not only is the comfort we feel superficial and fleeting, but we remain unable to provide it for ourselves. So food, like any mood-altering drug, is a false solution.
Some of us actually lose power over trying to be too healthy. I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘health nut’ or ‘fitness freak.’ It seems odd that someone spending so much time trying to be healthy would be unhealthy, but the truth is they are not really trying to achieve genuine health. When we obsessively and compulsively try to control our health, it can become pathological and desperate. Just the pressure, anxiety and stress that we put on ourselves can ravage us on the inside. People addicted to being healthy often suffer from all sorts of internal physical problems. Truly, you can be a beautiful flower on the outside but be dying on the inside, as your organs and other systems begin to fail under emotional stress.
Today we see all sorts of nutritional obsessions, such as the raw food movement. I once had some friends to whom eating raw food was a religion. They had become paranoid of eating anything cooked or non-vegan, considering the act of cooking food to be one of violence towards the raw components. Is this a rational concern or have they simply become indoctrinated by what is in reality a rigid and fear-based mentality? Raw food can certainly be used as an effective cleansing diet for those with certain illness or disease, but my friends were falling apart inside. They often showed me videos of raw food “gurus” on the web and remarked how amazing and healthy they were, but the poor things were delusional. The so-called gurus were pale, jaundiced and emaciated.
The point is that we are not really trying to control our diet, weight, image and health. We are trying to control something much deeper. All of these things we become powerless over - drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, relationships, sex, image, anger, depression and even cleaning and organizing etc. - are really just code symptoms for grief, pain, spiritual angst or lack of purpose. Thus, conventional approaches tend to be misguided when they focus on the details of a specific disorder and its associated symptoms, much of which are irrelevant. If our underlying problem is spiritual/emotional in nature, what good is it to focus on trying to control our diet or avoid certain triggers? When we heal what’s underneath, our problem will suddenly lose its pull over us as we can let go and give up the need to control. We will regain our power and in doing so, gain our freedom.
Believe me, I understand what it’s like to be powerless and stuck, and yes, the work involved in the solution is much easier said than done. Once we come to believe that we can’t ever be okay without something, we develop a powerful and blinding compulsion to pursue that thing. We may even think we will die without it, or that we can’t achieve anything in life without it. And even if we do achieve things, who cares? It doesn’t feel worth it without our drug of choice, and if there is no ‘pleasure’ in life, why bother doing anything? If we can’t fill the sad hole inside of us, why bother? But here’s the thing. We can fill that hole with something non-destructive, but just as effective. Are you willing to fill that hole with something positive, or at the very least let the darkness simply be without fighting so hard to control it and change the way you feel?
Why does such an alternative seem so far away and so difficult to accomplish? For one, it often requires more work to fill ourselves up in a real and healthy way. To gather strength, dig deep and push ourselves forward in order to grow and change requires time, effort and discomfort. We must face the totality of our demons. We must look our deepest fears in the eye. We must confront the very core of our character. We must uncover it all and be vulnerable. Then we must pick ourselves up and replace the old, unhealthy stuff with positive, purposeful stuff. We must replace the false solution we have employed for so long with something as powerful and as effective as the poison itself. We must find another source of power because the old source is killing us and hurting others. It is also setting us up for a life of regret down the road when age and mortality force us to assess the quality of our lives and what we’ve done here on earth.
So we must ask ourselves, what is really the easier choice? Sure it may seem easier to go for the quick fix by drinking or getting high or getting angry or wallowing in a depression or compulsively eating or having sex or staying in a toxic relationship, but in the long run, our lives will become much tougher if we take this route, and who really wants to experience a lifetime of dissatisfaction and inner chaos? Is not doing some work on our selves in fact the easier of the two choices?
Before moving on, let’s briefly look at codependency. When we are codependent, we are powerless over someone else’s addiction or problems. We may become obsessed with fixing it/them, while at the same time enable it/them to continue. We can’t function with the alcoholic. We can’t function without the alcoholic.
Perhaps focusing and preoccupying ourselves with someone else’s addiction allows us to avoid facing our own issues. This is not a judgment. It is natural and sometimes unconscious to look for ways to avoid our own baggage. We may even use a loved one’s addiction as an excuse for failure, claiming that we can’t live out our hopes and dreams because we’ve had to deal with this person’s illness all of these years. We claim to be ‘victims’ of someone’s alcoholism, yet can’t seem to leave them. Sadly, we develop a need for problems and drama in order to function. Codependents have become pain-dependent, and if this is the case, we have certainly lost power over ourselves. In trying to control another’s addiction, we have lost control of our own ability to exist independently.
Sometimes being with an addict puts the codependent in a position of power, as the addict’s illness and total lack of control surpasses that of their own. They appear and thus feel as if they are the adults in the room, as they have to effectively manage someone else. But what happens when the addict actually recovers and there is no distraction anymore? The internal eruption begins and the codependent is faced with the enormous task of being present with their emotional selves. In fact, some relationships will fall apart when the addict actually recovers, as the dynamics have changed fundamentally. Remember that the codependent fell in love with the active addict and the active addict fell in love with a caretaker. The couple may realize they don't truly resonate or even like the "real" or sober person and we can liken this to meeting a whole new person.
Codependent behavior often manifests in people who have had addicted or mentally ill parents. Children of narcissists, for instance, are often judged, criticized, ridiculed, belittled, manipulated, terrorized and subjected to hot and cold behavior. Moreover, the ‘hot’ or more loving behavior is never genuine, as there is always some twisted, selfish agenda. This sort of emotional and psychological abuse is so thorough and insidious that patterns of guilt, self-doubt, low self-esteem and emotional immaturity can become cemented into the core being or persona of the codependent. When they grow up and have intimate relationships of their own, these patterns resurface and the codependent may become extremely defensive and protective, yet a glutton for punishment at the same time. Why? Because it is all they know. Like an addict, chaos is familiar territory whereas love and sanity is a foreign country. When chaos is more comfortable or normal than love and sanity, it is safe to assume that we have lost power.
For alcoholics and drug addicts, the bottom line is that we cannot function or manage life with or without alcohol and drugs. Whether we are using or not, we are emotionally, psychologically and spiritually unstable. When substances are removed, the addict is still an addict, and he or she is walking around subject to relapse at any point in time. Weeks and months may go by, but if all we do is achieve physical sobriety, we are no better at all. This is central to the 1st Step. If we have lost power over something, we cannot function with or without it. You may say this is true with addiction but not with something like depression, but it is. Even when we are not suffering from a depression, our lives are still unmanageable because we are subject to slip back into one and fast become dysfunctional. Plus, anytime we spend feeling nervous or worrying about becoming depressed again is robbing us from being present in our lives – present with our family and friends, present with our work, and even present with ourselves and what may need tending.
In other words, if we are not completely recovered, then we are never quite okay. How is that possible? Because we haven’t really CHANGED. To get our power back and to keep it for good, we must change fundamentally. We must evolve and become strong enough that nothing will have its way with us ever again. So remember, even if your problem subsides for a time, it may yet be very much alive and well and just waiting to take your power away once again, and it can do so for no apparent or superficial reason. We may have some perceived reason for losing our power. We may have something to blame, but the truth is that we usually begin to spiral for no reason whatsoever, at least no external reason. Whatever the case, reasons be damned. When we have lost control, reasons are irrelevant, and there is little use in looking backwards to over-analyze how we got here. We are powerless and we need to bring ourselves back.
It is sometimes difficult to see and admit powerlessness. We have to swallow a great deal of pride to admit we have lost control over something. But once you really feel the 1st Step inside, it’s not so bad. Understanding and knowing we are powerless is a relief, as if some grand self-deception that has haunted and eluded us for years is now plain to see. To experience this sense of humility makes us feel human again. It turn us right side up and puts our feet back on the ground. We are clear, and we can now begin to think straight. Though we are still powerless, we have opened the door to let power back in.
Finally, all of this begs the question of why we lose power to begin with? Sure anyone can let some habit eventually get the best of them, but is there something deeper? My personal belief is that addiction, depression, anger, boredom, anxiety and all of the rest are but symptoms of a LIFE problem, and I don’t just mean the addict’s refusal to live life on life’s term. The truth is that many of us begin to feel frustrated when we are not on our proper life path, when we have no meaning or purpose. When we fail to be who we are and do what we love or need to do, whatever that may be, we begin to suffer.
So while we have the immediate problem of dealing with the loss of power, as we begin to change and grow, we must nourish our longer term well-being by engaging in things that fulfill and nourish who we are. For some, this is athletics. For others, it is music, art or acting. Some love science, invention or astronomy. Others love literature, history or philosophy. Some love food, restaurants, business or finance, while others love nature, hiking or sailing on the ocean. Whatever the case, whether it is just some hobby or our entire life path, we must honor ourselves and be true to who we are.
If we do this work but something still nags at us, there may yet be something missing. Being on a life path that we resonate with might be one of the most important criteria for personal healing, growth and happiness.
*When we not only understand that we are powerless intellectually, but truly feel it deep within our hearts, our guts and our cells, we have taken a 1st Step.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Many who contemplate this process or embark on the Twelve Steps take issue with this particular Step. One, they don’t believe in God or Divine Intelligence. Two, even if they do believe in something greater than themselves, how do they know it will restore them when they don’t yet feel restored? Admittedly, it’s difficult for us to believe something unless it has already happened. People collectively believed that man would never fly and the next day Orville Wright flew over the beach at Kitty Hawk. To make matters worse, we don’t like believing things that we can’t see, hear or touch right in front of us. Show me it works, and then I’ll believe. Third, we’re not so sure that we really need to be restored to sanity. Just because we are powerless, does that mean we are actually insane? Isn’t insane someone in a nightgown and hospital slippers, locked up in an asylum getting shock treatments twice a week?
The 2nd Step also means that we have to talk about God and spiritual concepts, which can easily rub people the wrong way, but it doesn’t have to. For our purpose of personal growth and healing, there is no need for it to get too rigid or fundamental. It doesn’t have to be so hard and absolute. It also doesn’t have to be someone else’s conception or belief system. It is personal, and each of us is left to establish our own understanding and relationship with God and the greater powers that be. Truth be told, I really don’t believe our limited and largely untapped human minds can even fathom the totality of God. I’ll be the first to admit that I cannot fully understand this mind-bending power, nor do I especially care to try to bottle it up neatly in my own man-made conception. Who are we to know the secrets of the Universe? So I wouldn’t worry about it too much.
In my personal memoir about addiction, I wrote that anybody who has taken a 1st Step has already taken a 2nd Step by extension. By taking a 1st Step, we acknowledge there are forces more powerful than ourselves - the compulsion to drink, the temptation of sex, the lure of money, the need to control… anger, depression, grief, food, violence… and the list goes on and on. If we’ve already admitted that certain things have power over us, why is it so hard to believe there is also something more powerful but that can get us better?
Let’s face it, many things exist that are more powerful than we are. Anyone who denies this is surely suffering from some sort of delusion of grandeur, but we can simply call it denial. Many of us who want to ignore the fact that we’ve lost control will instead fill the gap with self-worship and grandiosity, with the false belief that we can do anything, that we know everything, that we are all-powerful. That’s interesting. I would simply question this frame of mind and beg of us to answer but one simple question I had to ask myself years ago: Why, if we have the power to do anything, are we currently powerless?
It reminds me of a relative who called me while he was in detox to ask me why he needed treatment afterwards. He said it wasn’t necessary because he had power over drugs and alcohol. So I asked him, “Then what are you doing in detox if you have power over drugs and alcohol? Chances are you don’t you drink and use normally if you find yourself locked up at an inpatient facility, wouldn’t you say?” My relative was so convinced he knew the truth about himself and then a single question turned his entire world upside down. In a moment of clarity, he responded, “Yeah, that’s a good point. I guess I don’t use in a normal way, especially considering I’m here in detox. Okay, I’ll go to treatment.” The question helped him to step back, open his eyes and see things from a higher perch. In doing so, he saw the greater reality of life. This process is asking us peel back the layers of a lifetime of preconceived beliefs, notions and attitudes. Sure we may have always thought of life and the world in a certain way, but does that mean it is always so? Are we open to the idea that we may have been wrong all of these years? Are we even willing to be wrong? These are important questions to ask ourselves from time to time.
The fact is there are many things far greater and more powerful than we humans. Exhibit A = Mother Nature. No one can deny we stand at the mercy of the forces of nature. Our very existence lies in the delicate balance of our solar system and atmospheric conditions. We think and believe we are safe because we have always been, but nobody really knows what might happen. Are not our very lives at the mercy of nature and her powerful storms, tornados, tsunamis, wildfires or sudden lightening strikes? Or how about the simple yet inescapable cycles of nature, such as night and day, life and death, or the fluctuating output of the sun’s energy? The point is that it is really not so hard to admit a host of forces and phenomena that are more powerful than we are, so why is God so difficult?
One reason is because science has been able to explain the workings or dynamics of many such physical forces, but not so much with God. But are there not several tangible things that we cannot fully explain as well? I know, for instance, that our Universe exists but certainly cannot explain why it exists, how it came to be, what existed before, what lies beyond, or how dark matter can literally bend time and space. People say that nothing existed before the Universe but what is nothing and what are nothing’s boundaries? I also know that cells divide and that our physical bodies involuntarily heal themselves upon injury, just as nature rebuilds itself, but I can’t explain how or why that happens, at least not without Divine Intelligence. I know that we humans are more than the sum of our parts but who can explain or even describe with any justice this intangible part of ourselves that makes us who we are, that drives us to create, and that allows us to glow with love and spirit. Think for a moment about the miracle of life and the sheer beauty of the natural world, let alone the mind-blowing immensity of the Universe. Sure science has been able to explain some of this, but isn’t science really just explaining an endless pile of miracles? Doesn’t science only prove the existence of God by showing us how amazing it all is?
One of the simplest ways we can challenge our human conceit and the illusion of power is by asking ourselves but one simple question, and I take this right from the Big Book, page 56. “Who are you to say there is no God?” Fine, I may not be able to prove God exists but you cannot prove that He doesn’t. Why do we humans presume to know the secrets of life and the mystery of all existence? Seems like we might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves, does it not?
Finally, let’s say we have had some abusive or insane experience with organized religion growing up and simply refuse to let go of our stubbornness or obstinacy. No one can deny the number of deviants and sociopaths that infect certain traditions, but don’t worry because there is also a way for those who bristle towards organized religion. For one, we can simply try suspending our disbelief temporarily. Take all of your opinions, beliefs and prejudice and just put them up on the shelf for a while. In the meantime, jump in and begin doing the work involved in these upcoming Steps and just see what happens. Something may hit you on the way. You may be surprised to experience things that are mystical, things you cannot quite explain scientifically. Having real, actual results or even miraculous things occur both within and without can instantly restore our faith in the Great Unknown. If our spiritual experience becomes palpable, perhaps you will reconsider the existence of a power much greater than all of us that runs through everything - a divine thread, if you will.
Another way around atheism or agnosticism is to assess your own condition. How badly are you suffering? How bad is the pain? How miserable are you? What is your degree of agony? If you are hopeless or seemingly beyond repair, you may not have much of a choice. You might eventually reach the point where you have to ask yourself, Hey, why not? What the heck? I’ve tried all of these other things and have failed repeatedly, so I might as well give this spiritual solution a shot, despite my protestations. What have I really got to lose? My pride? Exactly. Is swallowing our pride and trying something new really going to kill us? The worst-case scenario is it might CHANGE us, and for the better. Perhaps change is what we are afraid of after all, but the irony is that what might in fact destroy us is not trying it, not believing, not trusting and not having faith that a Greater Power can restore us.
Isn’t the idea of something other than ourselves helping us and guiding us in fact a tremendous relief? We have been trying to manage life and the world all on our own. We have been relying on self-will (self-exertion or force) and our limited human power to try to direct and control everything. What a relief to know that we don’t have to go it alone anymore. We don’t have to worry about everything, fix everything or try to control each and every outcome. We don’t have to rely on our messed up heads to direct us through life. Let’s admit it, we get confused. Sometimes life throws us challenges and curve balls that seem insurmountable and impossible to decode, so why pull your hair out trying? Just to protect and nourish our pride or to feed our ego? Haven’t we already suffered enough? So let us try letting go instead. Try believing and trusting and see what happens. You never know until you give it a shot.
To be honest, I personally used to think praying and having faith was a cop out, but then I realized it had nothing to do with a conscious failure to take responsibility and do the tough work for ourselves. It simply meant that we ask for help, wisdom and divine guidance along the way. It means that we ask for some extra power to do all of those things we have been unable to do for ourselves. It did, however, take me a quite a while to understand this.
I actually used to accost born-again Christians in the subway stations of Boston as they stood on the platforms with a couple of ply-boards hanging from their necks, passing out cartoons about the end of the world. I’d also roll down my window sometimes and scream “Save Yourself!” to people as they poured out of church on Sunday. I once stared down my great uncle with one of my famous ‘death glares’ as he lovingly delivered the sermon at my grandmother’s funeral. Why the fuming lunacy, you may ask?
For one, I was infuriated these people were refusing to take responsibility for saving themselves, despite the almost comical hypocrisy of me doing absolutely nothing with my own life except getting jammed out of my skull all day long. Second, I was convinced that I was easily the smartest guy on earth and I burned inside to convince them how brainwashed, stupid and misguided they were, and again, all this coming from an arrogant, do-nothing drug addict who was living off of Daddy and whining about everything one could possibly think to whine about. The truth is that I was the ignorant one, completely misunderstanding what it meant to pray and rely on God, which I eventually learned has nothing whatsoever to do with absconding oneself from personal responsibility.
I was delusional to judge these people, people who actually got out of bed in the morning and took care of themselves and their families as they courageously trod off to work and confronted life, people who could engage, listen and give of themselves without first requiring a bag of dope or a bottle of booze. I thought going to work in the morning was a tremendous feat, one deserving of a trophy, and one that most certainly necessitated peeling the time-release coating off of a few OxyContins, crushing them up and sniffing them in my car as I sped down the highway. I felt similarly about coming home at night to a wife who selfishly requested a five-minute conversation about her day. With such enormous and out of the ordinary pressures following a brutal day of work, a near fifth of vodka had to enter my bloodstream before the insufferable task of talking over dinner could take place. Kidding aside, the point is that I was judging people who also have bad days and feel awful sometimes, yet walk through it stoically and soberly. I was bashing people who simply had some humility, some deference to God, and who didn’t take credit for every single accomplishment or blessing in their lives, let alone taking them all for granted.
At the same time, I felt as though I was the only one on Earth who really knew God, who understood the mysteries of life. Religious doctrine and symbols like church, temples, crosses and pipe organs evoked a profound sense of skepticism. I was convinced these were simply instruments and concepts of the world, of deception and manipulation. I never felt the presence of God sitting in church. I couldn’t identify with the language and the history of our tradition, given how long ago it all occurred.
Instead, I felt the presence of God out in the woods, on top of a mountain, sailing on the ocean, watching a sunset or taking in the golden hue of the afternoon sun as it splashed off the leaves. I had moments of rapture or the euphoria of an empty mind while in the flow of playing music or camping alone in the mountains. But even these brief moments of the Divine, as real as they might have been, were fleeting and soon vaporized as the world crept back in and infected my serene mind. I became depressed after realizing that belief alone was not enough. I knew deep inside that no symbol, text, building, belief system or even the healing power of nature could truly fix me or fundamentally change who I was, nor could it alter my primary mission in life of making myself feel better and achieving maximum comfort.
If you come to find, as I did, that belief alone is insufficient, that it doesn’t contain or is not able to harness the needed power to change you from deep within, it may be time to add some action to the mix. Remember that over time, our minds can become quite damaged, if not altogether re-wired. Thus, a few rituals, a belief system and a once-a-week trip to church or the monastery may not cut it.
However, we do need to believe in a power greater than ourselves because we need to understand where the power we have lost is going to come from. We are missing a chip, a key ingredient to our recovery, and yet cannot seem to procure it organically on our own. So the idea behind this 2nd Step is to help us understand that power must come from outside of ourselves. It must come from a source far beyond the scope of human faculty. When we suddenly gather the strength and courage that we’ve been unable to gather for our entire lives and then go out and accomplish things we’ve been unable to accomplish, what is that other than divine intervention and grace? What is that other than divine power?
Faith gets a bad rap. Just the word, God, makes some of us red with anger and judgment, but what is faith? Isn’t faith just trust? And don’t we have to trust in the unknown all throughout life? What’s so bad about that? In fact, it is quite necessary to take a blind leap of faith, to embark on this work without truly knowing the result. Sure we’d all like to know exactly how everything works and what the precise outcome will be. We want to know with certainty if these Steps will work before making the effort, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.
The beautiful irony is that it won’t work UNTIL we let go. Why? Because taking a leap of faith and trusting in the unknown is an act of courage. Stepping into the darkness unsure of where we will land is a spiritual act, and when we walk through our fear, that is when God reaches out and touches us. Faith, you see, is the name of the game. Think of a trust fall, where you close your eyes and fall backwards. You must let go and trust that the people behind you will extend their arms to catch you. And that’s just a trust fall. Shouldn’t we trust when it comes to our recovery as well, when it comes to freeing ourselves from our deepest form of pain and suffering? So when it comes to your growth and healing, do a trust fall! Take a leap into the unknown. Trust, in no uncertain terms, and you may come to witness great things.
Some of the most obstinate fellows I know have some of the strongest faith and firmest resolve in God after consummating this process. I know others who took Steps out of spite or atheistic pride just to prove the Steps wouldn’t work, and guess what? They gave themselves to this program and bang! Lit up and restored, they now have a living, breathing fire inside of them. They will stop at nothing to continue growing, serving and helping others to recover just the same.
This is powerful stuff, so beware. If you don’t want to enter mystical territory or have a spiritual experience that may change your life forever, the Steps may not be for you. However, if you suffer from anything at all, the potential relief is something you might not want to miss. During my own experience, I was often lifted up by a comfort and contentment I’d never known before. The feeling was intense and the power behind it was unmistakable, and I believe that this reservoir of peace is available to anyone, regardless of circumstances.
As we continue through this process, we learn how to pray. At first, prayer may not mean much to us. It may sound like meaningless words that have no real ability to effect change. Believe me, I completely understand why you might be discouraged, especially when nothing is happening. It’s difficult to convince with words on a page something we really must experience for ourselves, but the fact remains, when we let go and earnestly ask for help, things will start to happen. The power of prayer is indeed REAL. So jump in with both feet and don’t be afraid. There is no place for fear when we embark on our new life of spiritual evolution.
And yes, our fears may naturally continue to haunt us, but don’t worry. We will get to that in our 4th Step and onward. All will be addressed in due time. We do one Step at a time, not all Twelve, so remember to stay where your feet are and just do what’s right in front of you.
*When we become at least willing to believe that there exists a power greater than ourselves that can heal us and restore our willpower, our power of choice, we have taken a 2nd Step.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of my readers. It is you who have fueled, inspired and co-created this blog. Like clockwork, when I begin to tire of it all, one of you is listening and reaches out to lift me up. I am truly grateful. Thank you to my beautiful wife and children. Thank you to all of my friends and guides. Thank you, God. I am still and I know.