Step 1 of the 12 steps of AA is admitting you are powerless over alcohol. Admitting powerlessness is very debasing, it is a form of surrender. It is giving up. Of course that is one of the main thrusts of AA, giving up and ceding control to your higher power. In this way it is a sensible first step. Not only for this reason, but also because whilst we have any suspicion at all that we can drink and stay in control, our object is usually to moderate rather than stop entirely. This first step is simple acceptance that we have a problem with drinking.
The problem is that low self esteem leads to problem drinking. There have been numerous studies marking this tendency but really it’s just common sense. Although we do drink during the good times, it’s drinking to get the through the bad times where the problems really kick it. Drinking to anaesthetise problems is the crux of problem drinking in many ways. If we feel weak, damaged, different and inferior to others, these are exactly the kinds of feelings that make us want to drink more.
One of the reasons many people have a problem with admitting powerlessness over alcohol is that they see quitting as regaining power; as taking their lives back. It is an empowering act. If you stop, and know you will never drink again because you have no more desire to drink, are you powerless over alcohol? Many people think not, they would say you’ve won the war and defeated your adversary. You are not powerless, you are in control. Yes, if you were to drink again you would lose that control, but while you abstain you are fully in control.
But the real problem isn’t this at all. The real problem isn’t whether you’ve won or lost your battle with the demon drink. The real problem is that you’ve thought of it in these terms. Addiction feels like you are battling the substance to which you are addicted, and indeed for some it can be helpful to see it in these terms. Seeing the drink as an enemy to be defeated can help you quit. But the problem is this isn’t inaccurate.
Alcohol isn’t a sentient being. It doesn’t have a mind and will of its own. It’s not a demon that possesses us (although at times that is exactly how it feels). It’s just a chemical. It holds no more power over you than a pebble or a lump of copper or pile of salt.
The reality is that when we are addicted to a chemical substance, our battle is not against that substance, but against ourselves. Addiction comes about because our brains are only partly conscious. We tend to forget this and think of ourselves as entirely rational creatures. However we are like every other creature on the planet in that much of what we do is automated. Drugs trick this subconscious, automated, part of our mind.
All life on this planet requires food. But food is not consistent in availability. A species that could not adapt its diet when its usual food source became scarce would not last long. So life has developed to be able to adapt to a shortage in its usual food source. So how does it do this?
When a creature is starving it will eat anything. Literally. It is one of nature’s fail safes to keep us alive. But it is a matter of degrees. The hungrier you are the further from your usual foodstuff you will stray. In this way, when you’re hungry you can experiment with other food types. And if something actually turns out to be nutritious then eventually you will learn to enjoy it. So how does this work?
If you eat something you don’t like the taste of, but that something makes you feel better, or doesn’t make you feel ill, then you will learn to like it. This is what is known as ‘developing a taste for something’.
Alcohol anaesthetises pain, tiredness, hunger, anger and misery. Our subconscious mind is therefore fooled into thinking that it is good for us. The problem is that all alcohol does is anaesthetises, it doesn’t actually remedy. But our subconscious doesn’t appreciate the difference.
In seeing addiction as a battle between us and a substance we think in terms of having to be strong enough to win a fight, we start to see it in terms of ‘will power’ and ‘strength’. If we fail to stop we think of ourselves as ‘weak’. But think of the reality. Alcohol is just an inanimate chemical. It cannot physically force you to do anything. There is one reason and one reason alone you keep drinking it. Because a part of you wants to keep drinking it. It may be that another part of you hates it, and wishes you didn’t want it, but part of you must still want to drink otherwise there would be no addiction. In seeing addiction as a battle between us and a substance we draw attention away from the real issues at stake, which is how our minds work and how they can become confused by the effects drugs have on them.
Giving up alcohol isn’t about power, or strength, or willpower. It is about understanding, knowledge and perception.