A note at the outset: In this series I will attempt to re-imagine the 12 steps, without changing the basic format or content, along non-theistic, Buddhist, and existentialist lines. I will be attempting to do so without employing explicit Buddhist ideology, ontology, or terminology, although a complete avoidance of such is likely impossible.
Short form of Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
The first, and most obvious place to focus our attention in this step is with the phrase: “powerless over alcohol”. For most addicts in recovery this idea of being “powerless” is a central tenet of their program. The belief often comes down to the simple principle that if one fails to accept that you are powerless over (that is, if you believe you still have power over your drinking) you will be proven wrong and drink again.
A more complete analysis of “powerlessness” has already been posted here, but for our purposes here we can simply summarize the key points. First, as “powerlessness” is traditionally understood, power is a zero-sum game. That is, if one thing is powerless, then anther thing is powerful, and if one thing is powerful, the then another thing is powerless. There is always a split, and the power of one thing is directly and irretrievably lock to the second thing.
Second, because this way of understanding “powerlessness” necessarily creates a dichotomy (powerless/powerful) it bifurcated our “disease” and makes it a separate thing from us. Essentially, there is “me” and there is “alcoholism.” (Note: while I am provisionally use the term “disease” here, it is not one I subscribe to. For a critique of the “disease model’ of alcoholism, click here.) Further, under this conception “alcohol” or “alcoholism” as a separate thing bestowed with power, can and does act upon me.
Thus, the phrase: “powerless over alcohol” can now be seen to imply far more that simply the admission of a problem, an addiction. To accept and “admit” to this “powerlessness” is to assume, in fact to posit, an entire world view. A world of zero-sum games, winners and losers. One where my “disease” has a separate existence from me, and can act on and against me.
This essay does not set out to demonstrate the absurdity, or advisability, of such a curiously populated world. If you are like me, recognizing that this is the implication of this understanding is enough to reject it. But, even if you are personally satisfied with this world view, one must see that the first step can not function as a path to sobriety for everyone if it implies so much.
Thus, I suggest the following replacement: We admitted we
were powerless over alcohol had engaged in an alcoholic life – that our lives had become unmanageable.
This formulation avoids the metaphysical excesses of he “powerless” formulation, and implies nothing more than what ever life the person taking this step already knows.
Upcoming in Re-Imagining Step 1 (Part 2) we analyse the idea of “admission”, and briefly review the language of unmanagability.
Comments and debate are welcome, invited, encouraged and anticipated.