As this will be the initial entry in this little experiment, and as the subjects at hand are substance abuse and recovery, and as the form of recovery with which I am most familiar is AA, let us begin with the first of the Twelve Steps. In particular, the first part of the step – that we are powerless over alcohol.
The phrasing and choice of words Bill used in formulating this step are, like many of the others, deceptively simple. As I was exposed to more and more meetings and the attendant shares, and thus heard the term “powerless” thrown around so frequently in so many contexts, I began to feel uneasy with the nonchalant, willy-nilly carelessness with which it was employed. Anyone with any kind of time has heard ad nauseum how so many members are completely powerless over ____. You name it. Circumstances, environments, situations, the world, and, of course, the ubiquitous blanket term PPT (people, places, things). Essentially, anything other than one’s own self (and sometimes not even that).
But is this suggested admission of nearly universal impotence textual, part of the program as originally construed? Was it the founders’ intention to enlighten recoverees as to their lack of any effective power outside their own personal space?
The definition of the word “powerless,” itself is mostly unproblematic. Just to fix it in place, let us go with the one found in the small red Anonymous Press Mini-Edition version of the book widely distributed in rehabs and prisons. To wit: “unable to produce and effect; ineffective; lacking power to act; helpless.” So far, so good.
But am I really powerless, according to this definition, over other people? Places? Things? Consider my teenage son and his messy room. I tell him to clean it up, or no Playstation for a week. Cruel and unusual? Perhaps. Nevertheless, he (a person) is inspired to pick up the piles of clothes on the floor (things), thus rendering his room (a place) respectable. By a simple vocal proclamation, I am able to produce an effect in this PPT. Power! In fact, generally speaking, if people are powerless over others, then such fundamental social institutions as law enforcement and parenthood could simply not exist.
So that’s the common sense angle. But careful examination of the official program texts reveals what, I believe, is the true scope of this powerlessness. Starting with the statement, as written, of the step itself, we notice the all-important prepositional phrase “over alcohol.” Indeed, further inspection of the canon illustrates a theme. In the Big Book, the Twelve and Twelve, and As Bill Sees It, the term “powerless” is found only by itself or followed immediately by “over alcohol.” Nowhere can the word itself be found in Living Sober.
It is not until we look at the Daily Reflections that we see a litany of things over which we purportedly have no control. January 3 gives us a list: what others think, past events, and others’ recovery. On August 22, we finally find the oft-quoted claim that we are “powerless over people, places, and things.”
Now, plenty of people claim this as a mantra. And plenty of those have 20 years of sobriety behind that belief. Can’t argue with that. For me, though, accepting this sentiment wholesale has had me, at times, flirting dangerously with complacency and laziness. One of the main reasons I got sober was that while drinking, I was a complete and utter non-factor in the world. I did not matter. At all. In any way. I did not want to pass on to the next plane without having had the slightest impact on this one during my time. To have been inconsequential lint on the sublime tapestry of existence. I believed I could leave a mark, some kind of mark. But I had to get and stay dry. Easier, of course, said than done.
In fact, one of the foundational parts of virtually every meeting in the world, the recitation of the Serenity Prayer, is all about this. My own paraphrase goes something like this: 1) There are countless things I have no control over or any business trying to control; to do so invites angst and discontent, 2) There are things in the world that I can affect; some are hard and some are scary, and 3) It’s not always clear which is which; To discern, then either let go of it or be brave and engage it, I need help.
The key, obviously, is the third part. Returning to the January 3 Reflection, we see that despite acknowledging a whole slew of things out of my control, a truly recovered, empowered life requires that I recognize that “I have the power to exert a positive influence on myself, my loved ones, and the world in which I live (italics mine).” To have, in short, the right kind of power.