“Step One is really about a change of mentality that prepares you for the rest of the steps”
12 Step Programs
Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are both 12-step programs of recovery. Both fellowships have the same primary purpose and are open to anyone who believes that they have a problem. You can be a drug addict in AA or an alcoholic in NA. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using or drinking. The 12 steps are the same in each fellowship, although worded slightly differently. These steps are a set of principles that recovering alcoholics and addicts can follow to find their spirituality and learn how to live life without the use of mind or mood-altering substances. The principles are simple but practicing them is not always easy. Out of all the steps, the first one is the most important. Just like any journey, recovery has to start with a first step.
The First Step
In Alcoholics Anonymous the first step is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” In Narcotics Anonymous it reads: “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction …”. 2 The key words are admitted, powerless, and unmanageable.
As alcoholics and addicts, we have to be able to recognize and admit that we have a problem before we can do anything about it. This admission can be surprisingly difficult to make. When we’re out there in our active disease, using and drinking, we are living a lie. We are dishonest with people about what we’re doing and dishonest with ourselves about why we’re doing it. We hide our drug and alcohol use from our families, friends, and coworkers. Pretending that things are ok. Or telling ourselves that we just like to party and can stop whenever we want. Some of us go on for a long time, living a double life. Meanwhile, in the back of our heads we may know that there is something wrong, however, lying about it to ourselves and others is easier than stopping.
At some point, whether quickly or slowly, we realize that we have a problem. When we arrive at this place, some of us seek help, others don’t want to stop or can’t stop. We may want to stop but don’t know how. This is the powerlessness. It has become clear that we are unable to stop our using and drinking. The pain of quitting is too much to bear. Everything revolves around getting and using more. Even in the face of mounting problems in our lives we continue on.
This is where our life has become unmanageable. Maybe we’ve been fired from our job. The spouse has left. Bills are piling up because all the money has been spent on drugs and alcohol. We lost the house or apartment. The family won’t speak with us anymore. Our life is falling apart and we have every reason in the world to stop but we cannot. We can no longer manage our responsibilities.
People become introduced to NA and AA in different ways. Some are required through drug court or as the result of a DUI arrest. NA and AA meetings are often mandatory parts of rehab programs. Then there are alcoholics and addicts who are aware of the fellowships, want to stop using and drinking, and don’t know where else to turn for help. While we may get there for different reasons, we stay for the same reason: to get and remain clean and sober. The way we do that is through the steps.
The steps are taken in order and the whole program will be useless without Step One. If we are unable to honestly believe and admit that we have a problem and are powerless to stop on our own, then we will continue to live in the lie. The purpose of the fellowships is to come together to support each other through recovery. Admitting our problem opens the door through which other addicts and alcoholics can enter our lives and help us. Knowing that we are powerless over our problem makes us receptive to that help. Those members with months and years of clean time guide us in learning how to be able to manage our lives again without the use of drugs and alcohol. The steps are progressive and each one builds on the ones before it. Recovery has to have a solid foundation or the whole structure will collapse.
I can speak from my own experience. It took eighteen years for me to seek help, to come into the rooms through rehab, and learn about Step One. For years I had it in my head that I just liked to party. I wasn’t physically addicted to anything and was cycling between different drugs all the time so it was easy to tell myself I didn’t have a problem. Eventually I did get physically hooked on heroin. Very quickly it was evident that I couldn’t stop. Every day I needed it just to get out of bed and to function somewhat normally. I was terrified of withdrawals and having to go through them was an unthinkable option. Getting fired from jobs and ruining relationships by lying and stealing was just collateral damage of my lifestyle. I used to have an amazing guitar and amp collection and sold all of it for dope money. I sold other prized possessions and stole air conditioners from a workplace that I could trade for dope. Towards the end of my run I did a car title loan with no intention of paying it back because I was desperate for money. Despite negative consequences I couldn’t stop and my entire life was completely unmanageable.
I knew that I had a drug problem but didn’t know what being an addict actually meant. My self-deception had grown so deep that I couldn’t see the reality of my situation. I was so numb to everything in life, so scared of the world that I had created this tiny bubble that I existed in. Hiding in my room getting high, only leaving to go get dope or a bit of food. I watched Netflix all day to escape from reality, living life through characters on TV. My room was messy, dirty, and dusty. The blinds were always down and it was dark. Life had become truly bleak when I hit my bottom.
When I came into recovery I learned what addiction really meant. Drugs were not the problem, they were my solution to a deeper problem. I was afraid of growing up and didn’t want to grow up. Adulthood was frightening to me. There were too many responsibilities. It seemed boring, like I couldn’t have fun anymore. There were also many things that I did not like about myself. Insecurities that I couldn’t figure out how to get over. A lack of confidence that I got angry at myself for. Drinking and using was fun at first but drugs and alcohol became my crutch for dealing with my inadequacies.
I was introduced to AA and NA through rehab. It took me some time to truly understand the meaning of Step One. Yes, I could admit that I was powerless to stop using drugs on my own. My life had certainly become unmanageable. It is easy to say the words but earnestly believing them is another thing entirely. After a few months I grew complacent in my program. I believed that I could control my drug use this time. It took a few relapses for me to understand that the powerlessness is not something that was going to go away for me. I had to believe in Step One in my heart, not just admit it.
Step One is really about a change of mentality that prepares you for the rest of the steps. This change cannot be forced on you and it can’t be faked. Some people have to go through more pain and trouble than others to get to Step One but eventually addiction will beat you down to a point where you submit to your powerlessness. In recovery we call that the gift of desperation.
A Life-Long Process
I think that the most important thing to know about the steps is that they are not something that you go through once and are then finished. Recovery is a life-long, ongoing process. The steps are taken daily. The thought of staying sober for the rest of one’s life is often too much for an alcoholic or addict to commit to, so we take it one day at a time. Every day we consider Step One and dedicate ourselves to staying clean and sober only for the next 24 hours. Then we do the same the next day and on and on. With continued renewal of commitment to the steps, lifelong sobriety becomes much more attainable.