Understanding Why Alcoholics Must Accept Their Powerlessness in AA
If you have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), you’re not alone. More than 14 million Americans are affected by this disease each year.1 In 2015, treatment rates for AUD hovered around 4%.2 That’s a missed opportunity because treatment resources from groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are extremely effective.
Learn more about AA, and how its famous 12 Steps—especially Step 1—can set you on the path to recovery.
In this article:
What is Alcoholics Anonymous?
AA is a community-based program that helps support people in their struggle to get sober. Bill Wilson and Doctor Bob Smith founded AA in 1935. That same year, Wilson published Alcoholics Anonymous, a textbook that set the groundwork for today’s 12-step program.3
AA combines peer support in the form of daily group meetings and the official AA 12 Steps. The main principle is that alcoholism is an incurable illness, but one that you can manage. This idea is part of why Step 1 of AA is so crucial. It gets to the heart of your disease so you can begin to heal.
If you want to join AA, all you need is the desire to stop drinking. You can join AA after completing in-patient rehab or on your own. Joining has never been easier. Today, AA has more than 115,000 groups across the globe.4
What are the 12 Steps of AA?
There’s a reason AA helps so many people. It’s because the 12 Steps are worded and crafted precisely to take you to the next step. Work through each one and you’ll be well-positioned to recover from your addiction to alcohol. But ignore one, especially Step 1, and your recovery could be compromised.
As noted earlier, the AA founders devised 12 steps to recovery in the Alcoholics Anonymous textbook to guide people in overcoming alcohol addiction. Today, AA members work through these steps, beginning with Step 1 of AA and moving through the rest. The 12 Steps of AA are:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Decide to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Create a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Become entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continue to take personal inventory of when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.5
Evidence shows that following these 12 steps is very effective if you want to overcome AUD. According to the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, the program has a 50% success rate. After relapses, 25% of people in AA remain sober.6
Working the steps can help on its own. But, according to a long-term study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), your chances of staying sober improve if you receive formal treatment in addition to attending AA meetings. As a result, NIAAA suggested that professional treatment facilities should work with organizations like AA to make it easier for patients to manage AUD.7
In the meantime, you can explore AA in combination with your current therapy routine. Because it all begins with Step 1 of AA, it’s very important to understand why you can’t skip this step, even though it doesn’t require specific physical actions.
Step 1 of AA: Why It Is So Important
If you’ve struggled with alcohol addiction for years, you’ve likely made many excuses to work around your disorder. You have lived in denial, believing you can stop using alcohol at any time. For that reason, addressing your misguided thoughts is crucial. That’s why admitting that you are powerless over alcohol is critical. It forces you to be honest about your relationship with alcohol so you can stop making excuses and start working toward sobriety.
Step 1 of AA is important if you struggle with AUD. It’s equally important for your family members. After all, when one family member struggles with alcohol abuse, family relations become characterized by dishonesty. Your inability to assert power over alcohol forces you to lie about your use of alcohol and even your whereabouts. This can lead to a cycle of lies, both for you and for the family members who attempt to understand or excuse your behavior.
Over time, you and your family lose control of your thinking. You become stuck in denial. The only way to break that vicious cycle is by getting honest about your relationship with alcohol. It’s about admitting that alcohol controls you, and not the other way around. The only way to heal an illness is to admit that it is a disease, which is exactly what you do when you embrace Step 1 of AA and admit that you’re powerless over alcohol.
How Admitting Powerlessness Helps You Move Through Your 12 Steps
Let’s take a closer look. In Step 1 of AA, you admit that you are powerless over alcohol. Then, with that admission, you move to Step 2: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” In that way, you’re invited to welcome a higher power into your life—one that can replace the void of powerlessness left by your relationship with alcohol.
Many people worry that AA is too religious for them. However, if you closely examine Step 2, the source of that greater power is open to interpretation. Defining that source of power is less important than accepting its ability to move you beyond your powerlessness. In other words, Step 2 of AA offers the direct and immediate remedy for the problem you admitted in Step 1 of AA.
These two steps go hand-in-hand. You have to accept and understand that you can’t recover from AUD on your own. Then, you must accept that an outside source of help will allow you to overcome your struggle with addiction. Rather than pushing you to believe in spiritual power, Step 1 of AA gets you to the point where you trust in the possibility of recovery. Then, you’re ready to believe you can manage your AUD with help from outside sources.
How you define those sources is up to you. Alcoholics Anonymous does not require that you define “Power” using religious terms. All you need to do is admit that Power overcomes powerlessness. Then, you’ll be ready to move through the remaining 10 steps, until you reach a point where your AUD is manageable.
How Can You Reach Step 1 of AA?
For many people, simply getting to the first step of AA is harder than any other part of the recovery process. In fact, you might need to experience a personal crisis before you feel ready to go to an AA meeting.
Step 1 of AA is crucial because it’s not just about you and your recovery journey. It’s also about the people you love. After all, while people with AUD are powerless over alcohol, their loved ones feel powerless as well. They can’t help you break your addiction, and they feel stuck in uncomfortable positions while they make excuses for your drinking. How can you and your loved ones break this cycle? By admitting that you are currently powerless, you make room to restore power by seeking assistance. At that point, you may discover it’s easy to move on to Step 2 of AA—and all the ones that follow.
As noted earlier, the 12 Steps of AA are most helpful when combined with other forms of help for addiction. In fact, you may find it easier to transition to AA after completing treatment at an in-patient rehabilitation facility. Ready to learn more about recovery from alcohol use disorder? We’re here to help! Just call 800-839-1686Who Answers?. Our addiction specialists are waiting to take your call.
- National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (2019). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. SAMHSA.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Behavioral Health Barometer, United States, Volume 4. SAMHSA.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Historical Data: The Birth of A.A. and Its Growth in the U.S./Canada. Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. 2014 Membership Survey. Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2016). The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered From Alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Kelly, J. F., & Yeterian, J. D. (2011). The role of mutual-help groups in extending the framework of treatment. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 33(4), 350–355.