Step One

We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
Reading: The Doctor’s Opinion, Chapters One, Two, Three. These readings describe the nature of the alcoholic.

There are two defining symptoms of alcoholism given in the book:
First is the fact that when we take the first drink, it sets off the phenomenon of craving. So this means that once we start, either we cannot stop – we lose control – or even if we do manage to stop, we will be very uncomfortable indeed because we will be fighting the terrible physical craving.

Second is the obsession that all abnormal drinkers have, that one day we will be able to control and enjoy our drinking. So this means that even when we don’t drink, we are thinking about it – that is what an obsession is. And the obsession is that one day we will be different from how we are now and will be able to drink normally. So the way we are now is like this: either we manage, often through superhuman effort, to control our drinking but when we do we don’t enjoy it; Or, the only way we can enjoy our drinking is when we lose control.

This first case, the one of the first drink setting off craving means that, as many say, it is the first drink that does that damage. This is the physical part of the disease of alcoholism.

The book then goes on to explain that once we know the consequences of taking that first drink, then the answer should be simple: never take the first drink! But we always do. Sooner or later the day will come (and it may be today, it may not) when we will take it. So the problem, as well, must lie in our minds. This is the insanity of the alcoholic and is the mental aspect of the disease.

The book goes on to explain that we are unable without outside help to stop our mental illness, our insanity, in regard to alcohol. We are utterly powerless to do anything about it. The only thing that can save us is a Power greater than us. To deal with our powerlessness we had to change, so that we could develop a relationship with a Higher Power that will allow Him to help us. This means that we must change the spiritual part of us. The Big Book says:
“We had but two alternatives: one was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.” {p25}  The things we do that enable us to accept spiritual help are principles contained in the 12 Steps. This is why we had to do the Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to recover from our disease.

These are the three aspects of the disease: spiritual, mental and physical. When we are right spiritually, then the mental and physical parts of our illness sort themselves out.

To drive this point home the book lists lots of examples of people who stopped for a while but failed to enlarge their spiritual lives and drank in the end.

• There is the person who had much knowledge of all the terrible consequences of his drinking, but all reasons for not drinking were pushed aside in an instant. In one example in the book it is for the insane idea the he can take whisky if he mixed it with milk.
• The book also describes how people try to rationalize drinking by citing feelings of nervousness, anger, worry, depression, jealousy or the like. Reasons that do not really justify it when examined properly.
• There are those who have much knowledge of themselves and the inner workings of their minds yet are absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self knowledge.
• There are those who are perfectly well-balanced and stable except in regard drink: they have an insanity that means they will take the first drink.
• There was the person who is perfectly happy without even a “cloud on the horizon”, who still took a drink. He had made no fight at all against the first drink.

The point is made over and over again – no matter what our mood or level of sanity in regard to matters other than alcohol we will have no mental defense. The defense must come from a Higher Power.

There is no need to consider “unmanageability” as a separate concept from “powerlessness”. They are equivalent; the step does not come in “two different halves”. The second bit “– that our lives were unmanageable”, is a restatement of our powerlessness. We say this, because we are told in the Big Book that some alcoholics are perfectly well balanced and sane in all areas of their lives except for the insanity regarding alcohol. Many other areas of our lives may be unmanageable but that is not what step one is about.

There is something else we must understand about our disease – once an alcoholic, always and alcoholic. This means that in our experience we can never resume our drinking without displaying the symptoms described already. It also means that every day I must follow the principles of the Steps.

How do we take step one?

If you understand what it means to be alcoholic and you can admit to your very core that you are an alcoholic, then you have admitted that you are powerless over alcohol – that your life is unmanageable. You have taken step one.

What can you do if you are still doubtful?

One way of testing whether or not we have taken Step One, is to ask yourself the question posed in the Big Book: “Am I ready to go to any lengths to recover from alcoholism?” If you can answer yes, then you are ready to take the rest of the steps.

If you are still unsure, then there are some things that we have done to help us know our predicament properly.

If the answer is no, or “I don’t know”:  you do not have the required willingness yet. You could try some more drinking as a convincer. Alternatively consider the little exercises that follow, which might reveal to you if you are in the right place. They do not represent the formal “taking” of this step because it cannot be formally taken. Only steps that require a specific action, such as a prayer, can be formally taken:

• If you are unsure if you are powerless over alcohol, write down examples of powerlessness over alcohol from your own past (occasions when you drank when a sane attitude would say don’t).
• If you doubt that you are an alcoholic, then pray to your Higher Power, as you understand the phrase, each day: “Please give me the honesty of my condition”. Until we know the truth about our drinking, we cannot proceed. In fact there are four essentials of recovery (including honesty) {p570, p13} and so it is a good idea to pray for these daily: pray for honesty, openmindedness, willingness and humility.

Once more: when you can admit that you are powerless over alcohol, you have taken Step One. The test of this is that you are willing to go to any lengths to recover.