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“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” –The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 1
The idea of admitting you’re powerless over an addiction sounds to many people like a cop-out, akin to the infamous “Twinkie defense” which amounts to, “If you can’t help yourself, you can’t be held the tiniest bit responsible for even the worst of your actions.” This idea is particular anathema to the perfectionistic mindset that permeates much of the addiction demographic: some people equate confessing any lack of power with acknowledging themselves as total failures.
The truth is, legitimate mental-illness concerns played a significant role in the original “Twinkie defense” case. And no addiction-treatment specialist (or AA representative) ever said that lacking control over the illness gave anyone blanket immunity from responsibility. Or that admitting the addiction was uncontrollable meant giving up hope things would ever get better.
Here’s what it really means to admit you’re powerless over an addiction and your life has become unmanageable:
IT MEANS YOU CAN LET GO OF THE “RESPONSIBILITY” TO BE “PERFECT”
If anything, this should come as a relief. Obsessive perfectionism condemns you to live in fear of mistakes and of being rejected. Admitting that you’re an ordinary human, with human weaknesses, frees you to walk on the trial-and-error path to true success.
IT MEANS BEING REALISTIC WITHOUT BEING PESSIMISTIC
Although media reviewers have long tended to apply the label “realism” to stories that are mostly gloom and doom, the real world has no shortage of positive aspects. What it lacks is true “happily ever after” endings, for the simple reason that nothing in this world is “ever after” (permanent).
Being realistic means letting go of the hope your life will ever become permanently ideal, but it doesn’t mean dwelling on your misfortunes and weaknesses. It means taking an objective, honest look at things as they are, and at what you can do to improve on them. It also means making the best of your assets without trying to be infallible or inexhaustible.
IT MEANS RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS THAT YOU’VE LOST CONTROL
If your “social drinking” or other drug use exhibits any of the following patterns, it’s time to admit you’ve crossed the line into addiction:
- You repeatedly set limits on your drug use, only to violate them.
- You become “high” almost every time you use. Or, you feel no effects from a dosage level that leaves your peers staggering.
- You regularly break promises (from “not having a drink tonight” to finishing a project on schedule) because of drug cravings or aftereffects.
- You’re becoming intimately familiar with negative consequences of overuse, yet they quickly become insignificant in your mind when drug cravings hit.
- When you do without for more than a day, you become physically ill, or have irrational thoughts, in ways that can’t be explained by simple stress.
IT MEANS BEING PROACTIVE
How can admitting lack of personal control be proactive? Here’s how:
- It takes inner strength and courage to admit that your life needs to change. (Even a miserable life creates a certain comfort zone that most people are afraid to vacate for unexplored territory.)
- It’s the first step out of living in denial and false bravado.
- It frees you to see yourself as you really are.
- It allows you to take a realistic look at options for improvement. (Until we find the courage to admit, “This just isn’t working, however much I think it should,” the only alternative will be the insanity of repeatedly hoping for different results from the identical approach.)
IT MEANS FINDING AND USING ASPECTS OF YOURSELF YOU CAN MANAGE
Unless you’ve actually landed comatose in the ER, “My life has become unmanageable” doesn’t mean “There’s nothing left that I, personally, can do about my life.” You can choose to admit your addiction and seek professional detox. You can determine to stick out the detox and do the follow-up work. You can participate in support groups and stick with your relapse prevention plan. You can know your personal relapse risks and what to do about them.
You can also develop a healthy self-image and concentrate on living through your strengths rather than in fear of your weaknesses. Know your skills, passions, temperament and ways you can use all of these to make worthwhile contributions to the world. Ultimately, admitting where we’re powerless frees us to redirect our energy into getting maximum output from the powers we do have.