So, Step One.
I’ve got some things to say about it. I’d like to tell you my story about this step, because they don’t warn you when you walk into this program that it’s going to be the hardest step. But hopefully you will discover that it is also the one that liberates you.
I’d been in the (AA) program for over ninety days, and I was still stuck on step one. Step one of Alcoholics Anonymous commands me to admit that I am powerless over alcohol and that my life has become unmanageable. Seems simple enough, right? Except that it’s not. It goes against everything I have ever been taught about how to take care of myself.
From a very early age, I learned that I can only count on one person, and that’s myself. That to turn anything over to anyone else is to ask for a bucket load of disappointment. And, besides, I’d received the message loud and clear that no one wants to be burdened with my problems – including God.
My story isn’t particularly unusual, I grew up in middle America with a mom and dad and two sisters, I graduated from High School with passing grades, but was best known for being the class clown. My high school girlfriend dumped me after graduation because she was leaving for college and didn’t want to be “held back” (her words) by residual ties from high school.
I was a residual tie. Nice.
I drifted for awhile, working odd jobs while still living at home, I finally buckled under the pressure I was getting from my folks and enrolled at a local community college where, for the first two semesters I majored in drinking-to-excess. In my second year, after flunking Algebra 101 for the second time, I dropped out and went to work at the gas station around the corner from my folks place.
That’s when everything went downhill. My drinking escalated, and after a
particularly bad evening in which I wrapped my dad’s car around a tree and wound up sitting in a jail cell all night with nothing to read but the Bible, my parents laid down the hammer and kicked me out of the house.
At the time, I couldn’t believe they’d abandoned me. But today, I see now it was the best thing they could have done for me – as odd as that is to say. For about four years, I was homeless and intermittently employed, hopping from couch to couch or shelter to shelter depending on how bad my drinking was or how lacking I was in resources.
Finally, on a December night when I was talking to a friend I’d made at a homeless shelter downtown, I learned that there was a place called Missions Inc. where people could go to get away from the city and all of the people and places there that triggered them, to figure out their stuff. I thought ‘what the hell,’ no one in my family was talking to me, I couldn’t hold down a job because I couldn’t put together more than a week of sobriety at a time, and I had nothing to lose. I got an assessment, and moved into Smith Lodge.
I don’t know what it was about being there. Maybe it was the lake and expansive grounds, so quiet compared to the noise of downtown, maybe it was the effect of getting up in the morning and not seeing a liquor store on the corner, or watching a drug deal go down outside the shelter, or maybe it was the fellowship of my dorm-mates, most of whom were actually quite supportive. Or, maybe it was all of that.
Whatever it was, I finally got it.
But, it still took me months to get through Step One. Why? Because I couldn’t admit my own powerlessness. I couldn’t let go of the drivers seat. I couldn’t admit that there were things in my life that were completely out of my control – which seems so unbelievable to me now that I couldn’t see that, given how absolutely insane (I do not use that term lightly) my life had become.
I decided to go to ninety meetings in ninety days – which is a tactic that a lot of alcoholics use when early in recovery. It works. If you’re thinking about it, if you’re wondering if that is unmanageable, I can only tell you that for me, it’s what finally made my life manageable. It wasn’t easy, there isn’t really a public bus system in Plymouth, so I had to find meetings that were within walking distance, or beg rides from people. Sometimes I got on the van and went into Minneapolis for meetings, but I didn’t like being that
close to the people and places where I used to drink, so I didn’t do that very often, and only when I had someone to go with me. But, I made it work and I didn’t miss a single day.
One afternoon, I was screwing up the courage to ask someone to be my sponsor, and I got into a conversation with my small group about Step One – which I was still currently working. I heard someone say that Step One wasn’t about relinquishing power, but about gaining it. I was like, ‘whoa, mind blown!’ What he said was, in letting go, in admitting my alcoholism, in surrendering responsibility for the unruly gene in my dna that gave me this disease, I would be able to actually, finally, and for always (if I worked it), accept responsibility for my life. The choices would be mine, completely mine, and not the bottle’s, or the hangover’s, or my alcoholism’s. They would be mine.
I’d like to say that everything was easy street after that, but I’d be lying through my teeth, it took me almost a year to get back on my feet, to make amends with my family, to be embraced back into the fold, and to figure out what to do with myself (it included going back to school, living with my parents and paying rent, finding a job, finishing school, moving out of my parents house, going back to school to earn a four-year degree, and breaking into the hospitality management business), but an enormous weight was lifted that day.
In acknowledging that I did not have a choice about being an alcoholic, I now actually had more choices about my life and its direction than I’d ever had before. I was both powerless and powerful at the same time.
And, it was what finally liberated me from my own bad choices and led me to become the man I was always supposed to be.
Justin J. is a former resident of Smith Lodge and a gratefully recovering alcoholic. He hopes to be a regular contributor to our recovery-related blogs. Justin volunteers at our Mission Detox Center by bringing the fellowship of AA to others who are beginning the long and courageous journey towards a life of sobriety.
If you are a current or former Missions Inc. resident/client or staff member, and would like to contribute to our weekly blog, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Content submitted to the blog may be edited for content or grammar, and we cannot guarantee it will be published.