Alcohol, Drugs, and Powerlessness

By PCS - 01/11/2017


Addiction affects many people’s lives in one way or another, whether it is you, a spouse, parents, siblings, an aunt or uncle.  For the people who struggle with addiction, life can feel hopeless.  Nothing seems to work.

At some point in the addict’s story, typically he or she has tried seeking help in a 12-step recovery program.  They reluctantly show up to a meeting, find a seat in the corner, and wait to see what this whole program is about.

According to Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable,” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. 21).  For anyone new to recovery or contemplating if they have a problem, this first step can be daunting.  

Most are willing to admit that their lives have become unmanageable.  Their relationships have been negatively impacted, lying has become second nature, their finances most likely are dwindling, and their job performance has declined.  Unmanageability is not the issue for most, but powerlessness creates confusion and/or hesitation.  

What does it mean to be powerless over alcohol or drugs?  According to Alcoholic Anonymous, “….we were the victims of a mental obsession so subtly powerful that no amount of human willpower could break it,” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. 22).  Could this be true? For some it’s easier to understand; they’ve probably spent years trying to stop on their own with no success.  But for the people who are struggling with the powerless concept, understanding what it looks like can be very helpful.  The following story has been created to help give a better understanding.

John is a 32-year-old financial analyst who has been drinking and using drugs for the better part of a decade.  Two years ago, John realized that his drinking had got out of hand.  It was not just for fun, like he had told himself for many years.  Now, if he is honest with himself, for the past few years, his drinking was necessary to make it through a day.

John decided last year that he would cut back on his drinking.  His first declaration was to just drink on the weekends.  When that failed, he declared he would only drink four nights per week.  When that failed, he declared he would only drink at night.  When this failed, John started to question if he could ever stop.

Now to the “Normie,” what alcoholics call someone who does not have a problem drinking, John’s addiction probably seems obvious, but not to the alcoholic/addict.  Sometimes it takes them years of trying to stop before they admit there is a problem.

After his attempts to manage his drinking, John decides he is going to stop altogether.  He goes to bed drunk making the declaration to himself that tomorrow will be different.  The next morning comes; John makes it until 11am before he goes for the drink.  His justification for the drink is that he will stop tomorrow.  Those two words ‘stop tomorrow,’ become habitual over the next year of John’s failed attempts.  Each morning he would wake up with the strong conviction that today will be the day, and each night he would go to bed saying, “I’ll stop tomorrow.”

The purpose of the above story is to show what powerlessness can look like.  It is devastating to be controlled by a substance and even more devastating to have to live without it.  Until the alcoholic/addict can admit that their will has come up short and allow room for help, their chances of staying sober are almost nil.  It takes total surrender, meaning will power won’t suffice.  There is no shame in admitting defeat when it comes to addiction.  It actually is a victory and hopefully the beginning of a journey in recovery.



Alcoholics Anonymous (“Big Book,” 4th ed.) (2001). New York: AA World Services, Inc.


By: Cameron Larsen, MS, LAC, NCC
PCS Staff Therapist

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