Before we first got into recovery, most of us had some realization of our powerlessness. If addiction were merely something we could turn on and off — well, it wouldn’t be addiction, would it? But what is powerlessness, really? What do I mean — what did Bill Wilson mean — when he came up with the idea?
I think in order to clarify this point, we have to distinguish between active addiction and recovery. Recovery doesn’t imply that I am free of my physical, emotional and spiritual issues, but rather that they no longer control my life to the exclusion of change for the better. A prerequisite for reaching that condition is that I be free of my active addiction: abstinent from mood-altering, whether it be chemical, behavioral or a combination of both. Bill didn’t say that we were powerless over our alcoholism, he said, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol…” (emphasis mine). Abstinence is like pregnancy; you can’t be a little abstinent, either.
Addiction to alcohol, other drugs and some unhealthy behaviors created changes in my brain that made me crave things to stimulate its reward system. Some of those were chemical, and some were behavior that produced the same kinds of stimulation. As time went on, I required more and more of those stimuli in order to feel good. Eventually I reached a point where I needed them just to function in any way approaching normalcy. At that point, I was addicted. Things went way, waaaay downhill from there, and my life became progressively more unmanageable.
How was it unmanageable? I was obsessed with acting out chemically and in other ways. It controlled my life and caused me to lie continually to myself and others, either directly or through omission. It caused me to do things that were dangerous to myself (and, in some cases, others) in the pursuit of “satisfaction.” It consumed me, and I lost track of who I was. Most of all, I was unwilling to give it up despite its cost to me and those around me in time, money, companionship, self-esteem, health, change for the better, and love. I was powerless to resist my addictions because I was controlled by my cravings and the need to satisfy them.
When things got too miserable — when it was more painful to keep on doing what I was doing than to make changes — I admitted I was screwed up and powerless. I stopped using and acting out in other ways, and at first I felt like crap. As the over-stimulation began to subside I began to feel better, and I could start to work on the issues that caused me to want to turn my brain off to begin with. Eventually my brain readjusted — over a period of some months — and began to produce its own feel-good chemicals again. I learned to feel good based on the good things in my life, instead of looking for the answers outside myself.
Recovery began when I became abstinent, and continues today. It will be ongoing for the rest of my life, because I will always have issues that escape my ability to resolve without using the tools of sanity that I have picked up from my program.
So what can we learn from this? First of all, that I was powerless over my addictions, while they were active. Am I powerless over them now? Hell no! But I can start back down the road to powerlessness and unmanageability again by returning to the old ways of thinking and dealing with my life. Those things were ingrained in me by years of practice, and it took a lot of work, a lot of honesty, and a lot of guts to break the habits of an addict and replace them with the habits of a person in recovery.
Yes, I’m powerless over my addiction if I let myself slide back into it. Relapse comes long before we use, and the way for me to avoid it is by continuing to work a program of recovery. Hell, if I’m enjoying sobriety, doesn’t it make sense to keep on doing what got me here?
I’m diabetic. If I don’t take my medicine, I’ll get sicker and eventually it will kill me. Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease too. My program is my medicine. I’m not stupid enough to stop taking it, either.
At least, not so far.
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