Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Addiction: Am I Really Powerless?


Mark Gauvreau Judge wrestles with the belief that an alcoholic must admit to being powerlessness in order to begin recovery.

I found this intriguing because I had such difficulty with that myself, since I gave up booze so early in life.

For the full “Common Boundary” article, click here. It begins with the following:

Sandy B. sits in front of 400 alcoholics, talking about powerlessness. “All our techniques and skills are totally useless when it comes to alcohol,” he declares. “You can’t learn your way out. You can’t be told you’re an alcoholic, then go to Rutgers and get a Ph.D. in alcoholism. That will only make you a smart drunk.”


Laughter ripples through the audience. Sandy, a tanned, skinny alcoholic, is one of Alcoholic Anonymous’ most engaging speakers, popular among people in the Washington, D.C., recovery community. This morning in Bethesda, Maryland, he’s discussing the first of A.A.’s Twelve Steps: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. According to Sandy, it is the sine qua non of the A.A. program.

“In order for the spiritual power of this program to come in and give you a free ride on many of life’s problems, we have to totally surrender,” he says flatly, as if he’s describing a law of physics. “None of the rest of the program can come in when we almost surrender. Almost surrendering is like almost having a parachute.”


Sandy finishes, then the A.A. members in the audience stand, join hands, recite the Lord’s Prayer and a slogan–“Keep comin’ back, it works!”–then noisily file out of the auditorium. Most will return in the upcoming weeks to hear Sandy on the other steps; for them, the Twelve Steps and the A.A. message of powerlessness over alcohol and submission to a Higher Power have become a lifesaving gospel.

A.A. is world renowned, with almost 2 million members in 141 countries. Its success has spawned a legion of progeny. According to a Newsweek article, there are over 15 million people in 500,000 self-help groups in the United States alone–Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Bulimics/Anorexics Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, and Spenders Anonymous, to name a few. Although the problems these groups address are as different as the people who attend them, the format is invariably based on the Twelve Steps.


But despite these numbers and anecdotal success stories, Charlotte Kasl, a psychologist and the author of several books, including “Many Roads, One Journey,” strongly feels that the Twelve Steps can be harmful. In 1985, she announced to her Twelve Step group–she prefers not to say which one–that she could no longer say the steps as they were written. As a feminist, she had come to resent the message of A.A.’s founder, Bill W., which viewed ego deflation as the only path to recovery. “Most of the women I had worked with [in therapy] had very little ego strength,” Kasl says. “They were battered, in bad relationships; [they] were incest survivors, torture survivors, and the Twelve Steps had them constantly looking to their faults and taking blame for things.” In 1991, she formulated her own “Sixteen Steps for Discovery and Empowerment,” which encourage addicts to “take charge” of their lives. Kasl claims to have almost 200 Sixteen Step groups in the country.


“The Sixteen Step group has been wonderful for me,” says Aikya Param, a writer living in Oakland. Param was in A.A. for two years when she joined a Sixteen Step group. “I realized as I came along in A.A. that self-esteem was the core problem that I needed to work on. [But] I couldn’t talk about that [in A.A.].”

Some members of minorities also object to A.A. on the same grounds. Says psychologist and author Jane Middleton-Moz, who for 25 years has been treating Native Americans and others from minority cultures who suffer from addiction, “For people who have been oppressed for years and years–generations, actually–to say, ‘I am powerless’ or ‘Turn it over’ is to say something they’ve felt their whole lives.”

  • Heather

    I have been a member of AA for almost 23 years.The meetings have helped me stay sober all that time.but,I do agree with your comments on ego strength.I also attend Alanon,which has a much gentler approach to the 12 steps.Their “inventory” is more a self apraisal of strengths and weaknesses,which gives you the tools to work on improving your responses to the problems in life.The 12 steps work,at least for me,and “if it aint broke,dont fix it”,but I think individuals who have been oppressed all their life in one way or another need to get help and support with that,either with a good sponsor or a professional counselor.For me,I dont buy the powerlessness over anthing except alcohol.(I know I cant pick up a drink) .although I cant change other people I can change my attitude and how I respond.Some of Bill Wilson’s writings are archaic,and,I take them with a grain of salt,except when they refer to alcohol.

  • Janet

    Through sharing in meetings, I discovered a great truth..there is a vast difference in the meaning of self esteem and the meaning of ego. Humility doesnt mean thinking less of oneself. It means thinking of ones self less.

  • Anonymous

    Powerless? That is what keeps addicts going back to the drugs and alcohol every time. When you admit you’re powerless, you are telling yourself you are worthless and don’t have any control over your addiction..Why not go back, Your powerless any way. You are, however, obsessed and compulsive. That is what you have to break free of. Once you take that first step of admitting you have a problem and begin doing something about it, It is all up to you to continue. You have the ultimate power, not powerlessness, to choose. I either get high or I don’t. The ultimate power, and yet in the simplest form. It is a disease of choice. Another thing the 12 steps teaches you is to change people, places and things. Granted, this is true in many instances, but, it is also allowing your addiction to still have a grip on you. I don’t mean go back to hanging with your buddies that are cooking meth every night. that is just plain ignorance. But, like me, a recovering alcoholic, I still visit some of the bars or restaurants I used to visit while drinking, because I still enjoy the atmosphere, and still have somegood friends there. I make a choice that I am not going to drink anymore, but I also make a choice to still have a good time. As long as you hide from places, or people, your are still lettig the addiction win, because it is still controlling what you do. What kind of life would I have if I stayed clear of every place, establishment, convience store, restaurant, friends, that have alcohol there. I would be a hermit, stuck in a little corner, scared of even going out for fear I might see a beer someone. Hell no, I have the power, not my addiction, and I will do whatever I please and want to do, without having to drink. People it is not the end of the world, you can still have fun, hang out with friends, go out on dates,and not drink. It is really possible. Don’tlet the addiction still control without even having to put the substance in your body. Take control of your own life. And by the way, an interesting fact, I am only 26 and have figured this out. Whether young or old, there is life after addiction, and you, ultimately have the control. Don’t be fooled into thinking your powerless by your addiction and still letting it win without even getting the beneficial effects of a high

  • Bikerdude

    Powerlessness is the root of our problem….
    In the Dr’s Opinion, Silkworth refers to the disease…OCD…Most mental health pros also subscribe to this.
    Like many other chronic illnesses, it is incurable, but treatable. For over two decades, the AA program offers me the tools to stay away from my substance of choice one day at a time. It works if you want it.

  • Mary Anne

    Yeah, what Anonymous said! The only thing that u have to admit to being powerless over in AA is the alcohol. Thank the GODS that in therapy for depression we don’t have to be powerLESS! In fact we have to take charge, take control of our bodies and minds and help them.
    When I first read this post it kinda threw me off because it was more about 12 step programs that anything regarding depression/mental illness which is what we are here for. But I know that Therese you have yrs of AA under your belt and that recovery all tends to come together.
    Anyway, I know that the ONLY person I have control of today is ME! It is not my place to try to control any other person, place or thing that is Gods business. I pray that we can all not be forced into thinking that we have to be powerless that could be the last straw for some of us with distorted thinking. Just my 2 cents………
    Mary Anne

  • Megan Zuniga

    The powerlessness in the 12 steps is an act of humility. Most alcoholics and addicts often say that they can control what they drink or that they can stop anytime. They say they are powerless over alcohol to show humility. It’s part of recognizing their addiction. But you’re right, these 12 steps probably do not apply to women who’ve been abused and battered in their life.
    Allow me to share an amusing poem on ego. This is exactly what alcoholics and addicts need to fight off first if they want to start getting better.

  • Debra Rincon Lopez

    I am a Native American lady and I suffered with addiction to alchol & drugs for the past 30+yrs. The reason why it took so long to get help is because we don’t breakdown and ask for help.It is a sort of taboo to say I giveup. Or I am going to tell you about bad things that happened to me? It’s just not done, and that is why it takes Native people to get through NA,AA or Addiction. We don’t give up on ourselves and or say we can’t do something. It’s almost like cutting your tongue out to say such a thing! The only reason I did it now was I didn’t want to see my son’s suffer with the samethings. SO I thought if I could say it and get the help they won’t have to go thru it. SO I sacrificed myself in other words. Its worked and now I am clean for the past 4yrs now. I am so happier than ever I have been!

  • BILL X.

    Please don’t try to comment on A.A. if you don’t know about the simple ideas of the first step. It’s about powerlessness over alcohol, it isn’t about giving up your life,or being weak. It’s about being meek and allowing a higher power into your life,so I found this article to be of little value.

  • David Stein

    When I quit drinking I tried AA. But it was not for me. I felt dirty every time I went to a meeting and I did not find the 12 step program to be productive. Instead, I saw numerous alcoholics moving their addiction from alcohol to a program. These were 12 step addicts and to me this was not helpful. I quit on my own, because I wanted to. It was hard as hell, but I have been sober for almost 2 years now. The fact is everyone is different. I know numerous people who love AA. But I could not stand it.
    In regards to the term “powerlessness” it is true. There are days when I hunger for gin, my mind overtaken by lust. Other days I can keep it under wraps. But the fact is, I will always be an alcoholic till the day I die, because I am powerless to it is allure. When I see a drink, my first thought is- how great would it be to guzzle that? It takes all of my strength to hold myself back because if I have one drink, then I will end up passed out in the gutter with my body surrounded by bottles.
    As stated before, addiction (like anything in life) is different for each person.

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