Understanding and Practicing Step One

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Step One, when done right, is the beginning of a new way of life. (B Calkins/Shutterstock)

Step One, when done right, is the beginning of a new way of life. (B Calkins/Shutterstock)

We are excited to reveal the start of a new feature this month, which we believe will help those in early sobriety as they attempt to adjust to their new way of life while working a solid program of recovery. The idea of this feature is to review one of the 12 Steps every month. We are naturally beginning with Step One in January, covering Step Two in February, and so on. We believe that this feature should help many people who may struggle to understand the steps and what they mean, as well as how to practice them.

The short answer is of course to do what your sponsor tells you to do. If your sponsor has different ideas regarding how Step One is to be worked, it is best to take their advice before that of anyone else. Taking suggestions is important to sobriety, and the suggestions of our sponsors should trump all others. But for those who do not yet have a sponsor, or who may not have even entered treatment or recovery yet, the steps may seem a bit elusive. The following breakdown should help you to clear some things up.

What Is Step One?

This is the point at which you will no longer be able to enjoy your use of drugs or alcohol. (Csaba Deli/Shutterstock)

This is the point at which you will no longer be able to enjoy your use of drugs or alcohol. (Csaba Deli/Shutterstock)

Step One is, as written in Alcoholics Anonymous, quite simple. While the wording may be slightly different in the writings of Narcotics Anonymous, the basic message is always more or less the same:

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

In short, the two main features of Step One are powerlessness and unmanageability. And while it may not be written directly in the step itself, there could be said to exist a third component—consequences. After all, were it not for the consequences of our addictions, we often would not have sought recovery in the first place. Our consequences are what brought us to the program. They are what opened our eyes to Step One in the first place, as we began to realize that our old way of life was unsustainable. Without our consequences, we may have wound up on the bottom of a ditch. We may even have wound up at the bottom of a grave. And for some of us, the consequence that brought us to Step One was an event which brought with it the fear of just such an occurrence.

We do not have to undergo a near-death experience in order to take Step One, but it’s certainly one way of doing it. Some of us will reach this step because of various legal issues. We may also reach this point because we have lost relationships with friends, family members, lovers, or even employers. Basically, this step is the point at which we find that we are no longer willing to keep destroying our lives through the use of drugs and alcohol. This step is rock bottom.

Some say that there is actually a “Step Zero” that takes place right before we take Step One. Step Zero would be the step during which we realize that our life may need to change. There is then a Step 0.5, at which we realize that our lives will not change unless we do something to overcome our current condition. When we are ready to accept advice from others and do whatever is necessary in order to get sober, then we have finally reached Step One. This dependence on outside suggestions is highly important, as we must be at a place where we are willing to admit that our own way of doing things has not worked out for us. We must be ready to admit that, when we are running the show, things have a tendency to go wrong.

Step One is essentially our entry into recovery. How we get there is practically irrelevant, provided that we do in fact get there eventually. Without taking this step, we are essentially trying to fake our way into sobriety. This may work for a time, but it will not work forever. We cannot hope to enter recovery by simply attempting to deceive ourselves into believing that we are ready to give up our old way of life. This form of denial will have grave consequences, as it does not facilitate relapse prevention. We essentially set ourselves up to fail, and our relapse will often be worse than the using period that led up to our brief time in recovery.

The problem for many is that they do not fully understand the meaning of words such as powerlessness and unmanageability. We have likely experienced both of these while in our period of active addiction, but that does not mean we fully comprehend the extent of these damaging foes. If we are ever to truly take Step One, then we must know what it means to do so.

What It Means

We reach Step One when we are at our most powerless. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

We reach Step One when we are at our most powerless. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

On the surface, it may sound as if powerlessness and unmanageability have very similar meanings. But there are subtle differences between the two that must be understood. Looking back over our lives in the throes of addiction, we will find that there are many examples of powerlessness and unmanageability that have been present in our lives for quite some time. These have often led to some of our greatest consequences, so it is important to see the difference between the two. Again, these differences may seem quite subtle. In fact, some may see unmanageability as a direct result of powerlessness, rather than as an altogether separate quality of life.

When we admit that we are powerless, we are admitting that we cannot control the amount of alcohol we consume once we have started (or the amount we use, for those who abuse drugs without resorting to much alcohol use). We may be able to stave off the first drink or high for some time, but we will often find that we have virtually no limit once our drinking or drug abuse has begun. Even if we are not the types to use every day, we still have very little ability to control ourselves. One drop, one puff, one needle, and we suddenly find ourselves lacking inhibitions.

Powerlessness has a great many consequences. We may miss important functions because we would rather abuse drugs and alcohol than attend to family matters such as holidays and funerals. Many of us are rather content to disappoint those around us while in active addiction, but it is once the consequences of our actions become unacceptable that we will begin to take Step One and begin working toward sobriety. We may at first try to simply control our drinking, but powerlessness is a condition under which this feat is nigh impossible. The notion that we can both control and enjoy our drinking is merely a fantasy that keeps us at the bottom of the bottle. We must relieve ourselves of this false belief if we are ever to make any progress.

Unmanageability is what tends to arise from our powerless behaviors. We may perform poorly at work or at school. Our relationships will fall by the wayside. Our lives are unbearable, and yet we cannot seem to change them no matter how hard we try. This is often because we have not found the willingness to look outside of ourselves and rely on support groups or those in our emotional support system of friends and family. If we were to follow their suggestions, then we may wind up on the right path. But those for whom life has become unmanageable are often those who have attempted to exert their self-will onto numerous situations that were never truly under their control.

In fact, this attempt at control will often make unmanageability even worse. It would be nice if we could learn to use moderately, or to use without suffering any negative consequences. We often believe it to be unfair that non-addicts are able to do these things with such ease. It simply wasn’t our lot in life to experience the benefits of this particular ability. Step One is the point at which we finally reach acceptance of this fact, and learn how to move forward without resenting our status as addicts and alcoholics.

Armed with an understanding of powerlessness and unmanageability, we are now ready to work Step One. We are ready to begin our journey into sobriety, and experience life anew. All that is left is to learn how to truly practice and embrace the principles of this step.

How to Practice

Admitting that you are an addict or alcoholic is one of the chief components of Step One. (ulegundo/Shutterstock)

Admitting that you are an addict or alcoholic is one of the chief components of Step One. (ulegundo/Shutterstock)

There is a common saying among AA and NA members that Step One is the only step which you can take completely, as well as the one step which you must take completely. If we are not willing to give up control and admit that we are powerless over our addictions, then it will not be long before we attempt to use again.

Our practice of Step One begins the very first time we ever sit before others in a meeting and state our name before identifying ourselves as addicts and alcoholics. This is our true sobriety date, and it is one of the most important dates in our lives. But while it may take a great deal of willingness on the part of the addict or alcoholic to admit the nature of their disease, this alone will not ensure that they have taken Step One with 100% dedication and devotion.

In order to truly take Step One, you must do some hard thinking about what it will mean to return to active addiction. You must reflect on the consequences that powerlessness and unmanageability have wrought upon your life, and you must be absolutely certain that you are willing to give up this way of life for good. It is absolutely possible that you may slip at some point in the future, but do not think about that for now. Simply plan as much as you can, engage yourself in relapse prevention techniques such as meetings and sponsor contacts, and ensure that you know what you are going to do if you are ever put in a situation where using becomes a possibility. If you have truly taken Step One, then the sheer possibility of relapsing will not make it desirable to do so.

More than anything, you will need to lean on people like your sober friends, your sponsor, your family, and other members of your support system. You cannot pretend to have given up powerlessness if you have still not given your life over to something greater.

This is where Step One starts to bleed in with the next couple of steps, so we’ll stop before we lose sight of the discussion at hand. The point is merely that if you wish to take Step One, then you must be willing to put your faith in those around you. If you truly believe alcoholism and addiction to be the source of your powerlessness and unmanageability, you must not attempt to combat your disease all on your own. People say that the First Step is about admitting that you have a problem. This is true, but we’ll give you a spoiler for next month’s step discussion: the Second Step is all about admitting that you need help in resolving this problem. You have to start moving in that direction at Step One, or else your progression through the steps will be a long and difficult one that may not yield the positive results you are seeking.

Once you have fully committed yourself to Step One, you are ready to begin working your recovery in earnest. If you are not yet in recovery and are considering treatment in one of our programs, do not hesitate to pick up the phone and contact us today. All you have to do is decide whether or not you’re tired of living a powerless and unmanageable lifestyle. Put in those terms, the choice should be rather simple.

1 Comment

  1. Jay

    Who the hell are you people and why haven’t I heard of y’all. finally I’m hearing great things for a group. Thank you for putting this post up. Really I just got my 30 day TOKIN from NA. I so glad that in reading you website to see a group that gets it. Myself I struggle with addiction of more than one problem. Your mention of FAKING IT was so dead on. You know I feel so empowered just making this 30 day journey. And trusting in someone other than myself is key. I could live day and every word of what I’ve seen in your group. But my problem is as many addicts have NO FUNDS OR INSURANCE, or too little insurance. I’ve found the state programs in teaching how and why or what drugs to to the brain become triggers in themselves. That a recipe for failure alone. My name is Jay and really hunger for More.


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