Step 1: Acknowledgment of Chaos

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” –Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous

There are very few things in life more terrifying than not being in control, at least for me. Psychologists agree, generally that control is a human desire and need.  I want to always have a handle on the future, a tight control of the past, and very rarely live in the present. I am a planner, one who wants to make sure that in 3 years, in 10 years, in 20 years, I find myself and others in the place that I think we should be. Within addiction, the irony is that we want more control over our emotions, our feelings, and the parts of us that no one sees, but we give up control of the things on the external. I gave up control of my financial situation, gave up control of relationships, gave up control of my job, and that of my family. I sacrificed the external to remain ‘in control’ of the things that were internal to me. Those became near and dear to my heart, instead of the things that actually mattered. My secrets began to consume me.

I knew that my life was becoming unmanageable the first time that I couldn’t remember the night before. The first blackout that I experienced, I swore off any drinking of alcohol, because it left me feeling guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, and frankly, out of control completely. I wasn’t sure what I had just experienced and couldn’t remember certain things about the evening before. I knew that that was completely unmanageable. As the disease progressed, I couldn’t manage the issue of drinking internally any more and began to put myself in situations where I would do damage to relationships if I was ‘found out.’ I was ironically, still, all about control.

The hardest part about step one is not the recognition of the lack of manageability, instead, it is the admission of the inability to have power over the situation. At least that was for me. I had always had ‘power’ over my actions. I always had ‘power’ over my future. I always had ‘power’ when it came to a career, schooling, relationships, and, well, you name it. I never had a drinking problem, until I did. And it was at that point life became unmanageable. The indication of powerlessness is the lack of manageability, and that is what I first had to admit. That I lacked the power to do this ‘on my own.’ The more isolated I become the more desperate I became to control the situation. The more isolated I wanted to become, the more lonely the landscape of life seemed to appear.

I recently took in a Netflix special. “Six Days” is about the bombing of the embassy in the U.K. in 1980. A negotiator takes up the mantle of peace after 6 young men take over the embassy and threaten to kill the hostages, if they are not granted their wishes. The psychology of a hostage situation is something that I resonate with. The more alone that the perpetrators became, the more desperate they would become to reach the demands of those around them, thus giving up control of the hostages. Unfortunately, they didn’t give up control and ended up having to be eradicated by the Special Forces unit. During one of the scenes, a commanding officer says, “They have become desperate, and they will either kill all of those involved, or they will admit defeat.” I resonated with this. I became destined to ‘kill all of those involved’ or admit defeat. I wasn’t going to kill anyone, in fact, I’m a pacifist at heart so killing is not something I ever considered. But I would begin putting relationships to rest, one by one, so that no one could get close enough to know the truths that were underneath the surface. When this started happening, manageability was out the window.

As I sat in my bed, in a nightgown that the the hospital had provided me, and waited for the nurse to come in to welcome me to my new room in the psych ward, I’ll never forget the denial that existed within me. “If I could just get out of here, I can manage this drinking thing, and move on with my life. If I just simply drink once in a while in moderation, it will be fine.” I was in complete and utter denial of the situation that was in front of me, thus rending me out of control and lacking any sense of management. The nurse came in and began to ask me questions about my feelings. I wasn’t really in any mood to discuss my feelings, in fact, I’m sure that I was quite curt and gruff with the middle-aged woman who would become the nighttime annoyance over the next few days, waking me up to take my blood pressure and ask me if I had any thoughts of hurting myself. On Day 4 of my stay at the luxurious mental health facility, that same nurse came in and sat down. With care in her eyes and tenderness in her voice, she asked me if I was ready to admit that I was powerless over this alcohol thing. She sat patiently as I determined whether I was really powerless or whether I could manipulate this situation further. I managed to say, “Yes.” And in that moment, all control, all power, all grasp of this lie that I was living, fell away. I knew that I needed others to help me. I knew that others needed to be let into the world that I was covering, hiding, protecting. I knew that I needed to cut back the layers of pain, emotional turmoil, and the self medicating-guilt inducing- lifestyle that I was living in. I had to go deeper emotionally then just recognizing the bi-product of anxiety and depression. I had to begin to examine the root cause of my anxiety and depression. I was terrified of what I would uncover.

All of our lives are unmanageable, whether we are addicts or not. There are parts of each of our lives that we cannot control, and to do so would prove to be futile. Addicts are not special in their experience with powerlessness and unmanageability. The only difference between an addicts way of life and a non-addicts way of life is that non-addicts can cope well with life on life’s terms. Addicts cope as well, but in a way that does complete and utter destruction in the world that they live in. It’s a slow fade, for many addicts, and then one day it seems to all catch up with that addict. I know that for me, it was a slow fade over many years when I wasn’t even drinking, that led me to a point of utter chaos in my life.

I do admit that I am powerless over alcohol. Just like I cannot ‘control’ people’s response to the things I do or am, I cannot control the alcoholic consumption that I choose to have. This is not an excuse, in fact, it allows me to give myself permission and control to rather make choices before I ever have a sip of alcohol to never start in the first place. I know that once I drink, I won’t stop. I admit that alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful, and is most certainly better at those things than I am. Alcohol consumption is ‘amoral’ but when it becomes a way of life, and something that captures the heart and soul of the individual, it’s time to admit defeat. Admit power loss, and come to terms with life, on life’s terms.

My life was unmanageable before I started drinking. My life was unmanageable during my time drinking. My life will be unmanageable for the foreseeable future until I am dead. But I will retain the power of choice of alcohol. Whether to start drinking or not, is a choice, and it is something I choose. Once I start, I am powerless over my enemy. Loneliness, isolation, depression, anxiety, and destruction follow when I choose to drink to deal.

I admit that I am powerless over alcohol and I choose to admit that my life is unmanageable. At some level, that brings a sense of relief. I don’t have to control everything. I don’t have to get the ‘right’ reactions from others. I don’t have to find fulfillment in things that don’t matter. And I can work through my own pain, peeling back layer upon layer, to make sure that I am dealing with core issues, rather than trying to medicate for pain. Step one is for all people at some level. For me, it was the key to moving forward. It took me a year and a half to get to the point where I could admit. Once I did, there was a newness of life that I found. A freedom, if you will, in the present.

So I keep living a day at a time. One day at a time. Powerless, Unmanageable, but at peace.