(Note: The readers’ comments in this article appear in italics and quotes and my response follows. Some of the readers’ comments were edited because they raised several issues, and I wanted to limit them to one topic at a time in my response.)
Comments on Powerlessness
“…Alcoholics Anonymous make clear that powerlessness does not equal helplessness. Powerlessness, in AA-speak, is about acceptance that the alcoholic cannot control his or her drinking.”
“Powerless is an adjective. “without ability, influence or power”, I am powerless over the effect alcohol has on me. I am powerless over the effect a gun has over me.”
“The point of Step One is lost on the author of this article. With all due respect, the operative words in the step are powerless over alcohol. Alcohol is an external factor. A substance that alcoholics cannot control what it does to us when we use it. It is both a physical and emotional addiction.”
My response: Alcohol does not have any effect on the body unless you voluntarily pick up the bottle, raise it to your lips, and drink it. The alcohol does not get in there by itself. Once the alcohol is in the body, it’s true you are powerless over its effects. The more you drink, the more it affects your system. If you drink enough you will get intoxicated, blackout, or even die. The question is, do people have power over whether they pick up the bottle or not, and when and how much they drink? For many millions of people, the answer is obviously yes. They can have a few drinks and stop. They can have a glass of wine with dinner once a month and stop. Some people can get drunk, and not drink again for several months. For these people, alcohol has no power over them except for the biological effects it has once they ingest it.
However, those who believe in the disease model of alcohol (such as AA) believe that when some people drink alcohol, they develop such a strong craving for it that they lose all will power and are mentally and physically compelled to drink. They can’t stop themselves. They are powerless over the alcohol. But is this really true? Can these people really not control themselves?
The fact is that alcoholics control their drinking all the time. They hide their drinking from loved ones and only drink in private. They hide it from their coworkers and superiors because they know they will get fired if caught. They’re not sitting at their desks chugging bottles of vodka. Or if they are, they are hiding it somehow, which also shows control. People can go on for years as alcoholics without anyone in their lives knowing about it. That’s an impressive accomplishment for people who don’t have any control over their drinking. Then, there are the millions of people who have drinking problems and are able to quit. How are they able to quit if they are powerless over the alcohol? Remember, the alcohol isforcing them, compelling them to drink. How do they go from being powerless over the alcohol to quitting drinking? AA would say that it’s their admittance of powerlessness and the gaining of support from the outside (from God, a Higher Power, their sponsor, etc.) that gives them the power. But isn’t even admitting one is powerless over alcohol require some mental power? And, is that what people are actually doing when they say they’re powerless? A healthier declaration would be: “My drinking is a problem and is causing serious consequences in my life. I know I need to stop, I want to stop, but I don’t know how. I have tried, but it seems too hard. So, I am seeking help from others so I can gain new skills and knowledge that will give me the tools I need to stop.”
At some point the person has to go from drinking to not drinking. If he’s powerless over the alcohol, how did he make that transition? What happened between being mentally and physically powerless over the choice to drink alcohol and being able to stop drinking? The answer depends on the person. For some, it could be they finally admitted it was a problem and were afraid of the serious consequences of continuing to drink, and this was the motivation to stop. For others, it could be they learned new skills and knowledge that they didn’t have before that they can now apply to make changes. For others, it could be a combination of these factors. Either way, in order for one to realize he has a problem he has to think, and thinking takes mental power. Learning new skills and acquiring knowledge also takes mental effort. No one can crawl inside your brain and think for you. You have to exert your will to think. No matter who is helping you (AA, a therapist, a book, your mother) you have to put in the mental effort to understand what is being said, agree with it, integrate it into your knowledge, and apply it. You also have to exert physical effort to not pick up the bottle and drink.
In fact, you can never actually be powerless over alcohol because you decide whether you drink it or not. If you decide to drink it, then yes, you (and all human beings) will be powerless over its effects. But, we are not powerless over inanimate objects. If we place a gun to our heads and pull the trigger, we will be powerless over the effects of the bullet entering our brains. But, we are not powerless over deciding whether to pick up the gun, load it, and pull the trigger. The same is true for cigarettes, cookies, and anything else we ingest. We decide whether we use them or not. It might be hard, excruciatingly hard, to resist drinking, smoking, or eating sweets. But hard does not equal powerless. Thus, AA’s philosophy of communicating to problem drinkers that they are powerless over alcohol (that is, powerless over their choice to drink or not) is not only factually incorrect, it is also the most potentially damaging idea one could communicate to people who already question their personal potency. Instead, what should be communicated is that they dohave power over alcohol—they have the power of choice, and they only need to want to change and be willing to put in the mental and physical effort required to change (however difficult that might be). Yes, easier said then done; but no one said it should be easy.
Lastly, some AA members might say: “But, AA has worked for me; I’m xx years sober.” My response to this is: If you have been sober for xx years then you are not really practicing what AA preaches about powerlessness. These AA members might insist they are powerless over their choice to drink or not, but they contradict that statement everyday that passes in which they choose not to drink. It is only through their own mental and physical power that they have not picked up a bottle of alcohol and ingested it. I would encourage those trying to stop drinking to live by a new Step 1: “I admitted I have chosen to drink and it has made my life unmanageable—but I have the power to choose not to drink and learn new living skills and develop healthier beliefs and behaviors to make my life better.”
(Originally appeared on Examiner.com)