A Buddhist/recovery blog that I frequent recently posted a piece describing the idea of powerlessness in recovery (http://theeasiersofterway.com/?p=118).
An insightful article, it has inspired to (re)consider the idea of powerlessness in my own life, and my own recovery. (Please note, the following ideas are mine, not his.)
Within the 12 Step recovery movement the admission that one is powerless over drugs or alcohol (or food, or sex, or whatever) is literally the first step toward recovery (or, actually, the first part of the first step, but you get the point). This step is crucial for the addict (my preferred term) to recognize they can not use their substance of choice “responsibly”, “moderately”, or “casually”. It means that use of the substance equals a unmanagable life.
Oftentimes, in meetings I’ll hear people say that their addiction is “out in the parking lot doing push-ups.” What they mean is that the substance is not only more powerful than them, but that the addiction’s power continues to grow, even when they are not using. It has been, is now, and will always be more powerful than them.
This idea of the Terminator-like addiction, all-powerful, contrasted with a weak and powerless addict is appealing, and quite understandable, to addict and non-addict alike. However, it may miss an even deeper and more important truth.
The problem is that this vision of powerlessness falls into a simple yes/no, lose/win, bad/good, powerful/powerless dichotomy. A zero-sum game. Oftentimes it’s just this sort of binary thinking that gets addicts (and people, in general) in trouble.
But, is this simple binary system really necessary to understand powerlessness? No. Interestingly when we talk about powerlessness in the above model what we’re really focusing on is the powerful component. What if, instead, we keep the focus only on the powerless.
When one says that something is powerless over something else all that truly means is that the one thing has no power over the other thing. Without trivializing this point, let me use the following example: My dog is powerless over the President of France. She can not control the President of France, stop him from doing what he does, and is absolutely powerless over the French president’s sexual practices.
Notice that in this example my dog is powerless, not because the French President lords over her and controls her, but because “power over French Presidents” is simply not within a dogs capabilities. Understanding this idea is, I believe, key to understanding an addicts powerlessness. An addict is powerless over the substance in question, not because the drug of choice has an inherent power over the addict, but because “power over the drug” is simply not within his/her capabilities. He or she is powerless because there is no power to be had.
Taking a step back, one can see an even greater advantage to this view. If the addict accepts that he or she is powerless in this way he or she is essentially bowing out of the fight. There is no reason to fight to control drug use, because there is no fight to be had. One cannot win, because no real fight can take place. I am powerless because I’m not capable, not because the drug of choice is in control. At least, the addict is no more capable than my dog is of ruling France.