I woke up this morning with a clear head. With excitement and energy, looking forward to what the day was going to bring (I didn’t know what that was, but I was glad to be anticipating it). I got up early, did a couple of hours work, sweated through a 15 minute workout before sitting down to enjoy a good breakfast. My brother and I then planned my day - the penultimate day of my little holiday. None of this would have been possible when I was drinking.

I love this feeling of being in control, being the driver of my own destiny with the power to create the reality that I want and the power to choose how I live my life.

I’ve been reading a lot of social media posts from all sorts of people who are living sober lifestyles and are sharing their experiences. A lot of the posts I've been reading are from people who've used Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and are promoting this approach to dealing with addiction. The 12 Step Programme and the whole AA approach is based on an old non-denominational Christian movement popular in the U.S. and Europe in the early 20th century. It advocates taking twelve steps to recover from the "disease" of being an "alcoholic".

There are lots of people for whom the AA 12 Step approach works well and there are lots of people for whom it doesn't.

I find the 12 Step approach unhelpful and even problematic and I'd like to explore why. I've been thinking about Step 1 and why it doesn't work for me...

Step number 1 requires that the participant admits they are “powerless” over alcohol and that their lives have become “unmanageable”. When you begin to develop an understanding of how much the language we use affects how we experience life and even shapes our own realities, you start to understand why using this kind of language can be unhelpful.

If I were to give alcohol the power, if I were to consider myself weak and helpless against it, it would be like relinquishing all responsibility and saying that there was somehow something wrong with me. It would be easy to slip into the commonly-adopted position of believing that I had a “disease”. Then, I would have to spend the rest of my life “battling” or “struggling against” something beyond my control.

This doesn’t sound like a happy, fulfilling or motivating way to live my life.

I don’t want to make being powerless over alcohol my identity. I don’t want that to be how I define myself. In fact, the opposite. I don’t want to be power-LESS, I want to be power-FULL. When I realise that I have the power to live my life the way I want it, and to make the choices that are helpful to me, I am empowered and in control and more at ease with myself and my life.

I think it’s okay to describe my life when I was drinking as tricky to manage. It was certainly hard work – much harder work than being sober. But I wouldn’t describe it as unmanageable. Again, the opposite was true – I was making my own life very difficult and I was managing it well despite that. I was using some very high level management skills to deal with life even though I felt like I was falling apart. Throughout the latter end of my drinking days, I managed to keep it all together with skill, determination and planning. No-one who knew me suspected that anything was an issue for me, such were my management and acting skills.

So, words like powerless and unmanageable don’t work for me. They can prove problematic as they work at an unconscious level to take responsibility and choice away. If someone believes they are powerless, they can kind of give up and hand over responsibility to someone or something else. It allows the "disease" to have them in its grip. For some people this might be a safe and reassuring place to be but not for me.

I understand that it can be scary to acknowledge that we're responsible for our choices when we've been doing so much to damage ourselves and our lives, and it can be scary to acknowledge that we have the power to change how we behave because in doing so, it can seem like we’re also acknowledging that we have somehow “failed” at life because we haven't done it yet. We haven't taken control. We’ve messed up. It can be a huge relief to relinquish that responsibility and absolve ourselves from guilt. One way we can do that is to imagine ourselves powerless against a disease that has control.

But there are other ways of alleviating any feelings of failure and guilt. If you've been working through the Guidance Programme, you'll already know that there are very good reasons why we have made the choices to use alcohol in the way that we have and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over it. In fact, we've had a positive intention behind our alcohol-use and have used it to help ourselves and to make ourselves feel better. We’ve actually been looking after our own needs really well – it’s just that the "medicine" we’ve been using has stopped working and we need to address the unconscious programming that has now kicked in and is driving our behaviours.

When we understand more about how our brains work and what has caused us to repeat these self-destructive patterns of behaviour; when we we get to understand the link between the wiring in our brain and our behaviours, we can breathe a sigh of relief that we're not somehow faulty. We can be kind to ourselves and let ourselves off the hook. We can recognise our own power and the choices that got us here, understanding that these choices were sensible and positively intended at the time, even if their consequences were damaging for us.

There is no failure here, only feedback. And, the feedback we’ve been getting is that this way of living is no longer working for us. So, we need to change what we’re doing and do something differently. 

But how about doing this in a way that celebrates your own power, your own capacity to create the life you want? Doing it in a way that celebrates you and your strengths and your ability to take control and change your behaviour? Doing it in a way that nurtures your emotional wellbeing and allows you to take responsibility for where you’re taking your life?

There are plenty of people who advocate the 12 Step Programme approach and for whom relinquishing power and control in step 1 is a strategy that works and works well. I’m firmly of the view that if something works for you, then great – keep doing it. But, because it doesn’t work for so many other people, it’s important to create alternative approaches to becoming sober so that there is more choice out there and more opportunities for people to find an option that will work better for them.

Is it helpful and a relief to you to consider yourself powerless against alcohol, or do you find it more helpful to believe that you have power and choice?

2 Responses


June 23, 2019

Hi Lorraine, Thanks for your comment. Sorry you felt worse after AA. I tend to think of things as being either helpful or unhelpful rather than right or wrong. AA is helpful to some people and not to others. Equally, my approach will be helpful to some and not others. What’s important is that there are different options so that people can experiment and choose the option that works best for them. Glad you’re finding things more positive here!

Lorraine Bean
Lorraine Bean

June 23, 2019

I prefer to have a choice went to AA twice and felt ten times worse made me so depressed wudnt go again but everything you have said is a lot more positive

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