We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
-The First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous
It is remarkable how easily outsiders misunderstand the concept of powerlessness within Twelve Step Recovery. A simple moment spent Googling will bring up page after page of anti-AA rhetoric accusing Bill W (one of AA’s founders) of having created an entire organization that teaches learned helplessness. Many Twelve Step detractors will say that this concept of powerlessness allows the addict to shrug off any responsibility for the things she has done.
In the disease model of alcoholism and addiction, which Twelve Step recovery subscribes too, it is believed that the alcoholic or addict will never be able to regain control over their drinking or drugging. It said that upon ingesting alcohol or drugs, an allergy is set into effect that acts upon the alcoholic or addict as a tremendous craving. In addition to that, this person also suffers from a mental obsession that constantly tells them the lie that this time it will be different, that this time they will be able to pull it off and drink or drug normally or without consequence. When the first A.A.’s wrote the word “powerless”, they were saying that no addict or alcoholic would be able to circumvent either the mental obsession or physical addiction. No matter what they do, what clever tricks or management plans they come up with (and we can be quite creative!), they will never be able to drink or use without terrible consequence.
Is this a learned helplessness? Does it allow the Twelve stepper to shrug off responsibility for their actions? A reading of the 11 steps that follow should make it clear that the answer is no. It demands abstinence as the only sane reaction to the news that we cannot drink or use as other people can. The process that follows is a thorough and quite humbling experience that requires the 12 Stepper to come to terms with their worst actions and be willing to accept the consequences of their actions, even if it causes financial or legal hardship.
I see accepting my powerlessness as one of the most, strangely enough, empowering actions I have ever taken in my entire life. Before I accepted my powerlessness, I was a girl who spent years throwing herself against the wall. I was convinced that eventually, through the force of my own stubborn resentments and anger, I would somehow break through. What was I trying to break through? An endless list of things, including my own startling inability to drink like a normal person, other peoples unreasonable (so I thought) expectations of me and their resistance to my efforts to control them. I believed that if I could only manage things correctly, I would gain power over my situation, my feelings, and other people. I could somehow manage to have a normal amount of drinks or drugs and then stop. My dad would drop to his knees in sorrow for all the mistakes he had made and beg me to forgive him.
The result of these years of constantly throwing myself against the wall in this effort to exert my power? A bruised, battered body and spirit. More tragically, lost opportunities to embrace reality as it was, limitations and all. It was only when I accepted that I was powerless over certain things – my family, what other people thought of me, my drinking – that I could stop spending my time beating my body against the wall of denial and instead become engaged in those choices that WERE under my power.
It is only when I fully accept what I am powerless over that I can take my rightful place of power in the center of the pentacle and access the powers of spirit, earth, air, fire and water. At that moment, I finally understand myself in right perspective to the things that are around me. A witch cannot shape reality until she understands it. Admitting that there are things in the world, in nature, that she is powerless over is acknowledging that she is part of the tremendous web of life in which all things are connected. Humans, no matter how impressive our cognition, cannot set ourselves above or apart from the forces of nature. We are all bound by the laws of physics. We are all touched by death. To admit we are powerless over things is to claim our birthright as people of this Earth. It is to lay our heart out open and say “Yes, I am vulnerable. See how strong my heart beats”
And yet, In their efforts to rewrite the Twelve steps for a more Pagan-friendly model, many authors have written the concept of powerless out of the first step. Let’s take a look:*
“We admitted that we had a problem and made the decision to reclaim our lives.” The Spiral Steps
“We admitted that we have given our power and wills to (alcohol, drugs, food, anger, people, places, things, situations, the past – whatever you are having issues with…) and that our lives had become unmanageable.” The 12 Steps for Pagans by Khoury
“We admitted we had a problem and that we were squandering our power. “ Anodea Judith, A Pagan Approach to the 12 Step programs
I understand the motivation for writing the word “powerless” out of the steps. Many people come to Witchcraft bearing scars from monotheistic religions were they were browbeaten into subservient and powerless relationships with their religions and their God. While the Twelve Steps were written expressly to be used by people of ANY spiritual beliefs, they were written by Christians in the 1930’s. Though the language they used was extremely inclusive for their time, it can read as alienating today. This concept of powerlessness can seem like a painful relinquishment of the sovereignty of the personal power that one reclaims when practicing Witchcraft traditions.
As discussed above, I believe that acknowledging our powerlessness is the exact opposite. I believe that for recovering addicts and alcoholics, it is the essential first step to reclaiming our true personal power that our addictions stole from us. Furthermore, it complements the worldview of the Witch by emphasizing the interconnectedness we share with all things.
Blessed be Powerlessness! Blessed be the First Step! Blessed be all recovering Witches, and blessed be all those still out there struggling.
*I have great respect for these steps and for anyone who got clean & sober working them. I am not arguing that they are bad or wrong.
Please click over to Witches and Pagans and read my new blog post on Powerlessness and the First Step!
The idea of recognizing one’s powerlessness as empowering really resonates with me, though I’ve never experienced addiction (unless my former marriage counts). It’s similar to the idea that it takes strength to admit weakness, bravery to admit vulnerability.
Thanks for the comment, Connie. Admitting our powerlessness over things sets us free to take action upon those things we have neglected in our mad power-struggle with that thing we are powerless over. It is a rejection of false will and an embrace of true will.