One of the key tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, a recovery program that many in sobriety subscribe to and actively participate in, is that we are powerless over our addiction and over our substance of choice. Certainly, plenty of people agree with this premise, which we will explore later. Many recovering addicts, therapists, and medical professionals are on board with AA’s take on powerlessness. Others take a nuanced approach and consider the idea of “powerlessness” either untrue or partially untrue. In this post, we are not trying to take sides but rather to explore all facets of this interesting idea.
It might be best to start with the idea of physical, biological powerlessness. This means that once alcohol or any addictive substance of choice enters the addict’s body, a certain reaction occurs that is unlike those in normal users. A craving for more and more sets in and the addict feels compelled to continue using, whereas normal people can stop when they want–the addict is often baffled to see, at a restaurant, someone leaving half a glass of wine on the table, because the addict can’t understand not consuming as much as possible. Scientists and doctors have identified a number of genes and biochemicals that seem to function in a different way in addicts compared to normal people. And AA also subscribes to this idea, noting that a “physical allergy” is a vital part of what defines an alcoholic, leading to the “phenomenon of craving” once alcohol enters the body. It seems, then, that all schools of thought are certainly in agreement that abusers of substances have bodies and brains that react quite differently–and
devastatingly– to addictive chemicals compared to those of “normal” people.
Alcoholics Anonymous details two other areas of powerlessness besides the physical bodily reaction alcohol and drugs. The second is called the “mental obsession” which exists in the alcoholic’s psychology even when abstaining, perhaps for long periods of time, from drinking. The idea here is that, without alcohol and without adequate emotional/spiritual treatment of the full disease of addiction, the alcoholic/addict becomes “restless, irritable, and discontent.” This state of general unease leads the untreated alcoholic to start thinking, again, of turning to booze in order to calm his negative emotions. The “cunning, baffling” mental and emotional power of
alcohol leads us to forget the “pain and suffering of a month or even a week ago” and drink again, sometimes with an excuse or a resentment or a reason, and sometimes with absolutely no reason whatsoever except that our brains remember the “ease and comfort” it gives us and desires it desperately.
AA’s final area of powerlessness is that over the “spiritual malady” of alcoholism. AA says that this is the root of the disease. It also says that if we address the spiritual malady then we can “short circuit” the mental obsession, which gives us a way to live life peacefully and happily without those strong feelings of restlessness, irritability, and discontentment. In many ways, the entire AA program is centered around addressing our spiritual malady–to finding a Higher Power, admitting our faults and working to change them, helping others, and many other things. It is a life’s work and something worth investigating. It has helped many addicts recover.
The discussion of powerlessness dovetails nicely with the “disease” concept of alcoholism and the “moral failing” approach. In modern times, the medical and scientific establishment aligns with the “disease” model, stating that addiction is a disease of the brain, probably genetic, and no different than cancer or diabetes. The patient–for that is what alcoholics are considered–should be treated with dignity and respect and love. Shaming and stigmatization have no place in treating an addict. In decades and centuries past, most people subscribed to the “moral failing” model of addiction, in which alcoholics were seen as weak-willed, hedonistic, even bad people who needed, essentially, punishment in order to mend their ways. Unfortunately, alcoholism is not a matter of will power. It is not a matter of just not drinking. It is a complicated and highly dangerous disease that must be managed by a variety of approaches–medical, psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual. Still, a lot of non-addicts who do not understand much about addiction tend to have at least some of the “moral failing” approach–the anger, disappointment, and berating that many addicts have experienced from
their family members, friends, and even some medical professionals are examples of this. It is often the job of the addict and hopefully his treatment team to navigate this successfully, to educate the non-addicts in our lives and, also, to show a strong motivation to get sober. What do you think? Is there a moral aspect to addiction and staying sober? Which do you agree with more, the disease model or the moral failing model?
Addiction is still being studied extensively and there is much that is unknown about it. All recovering addicts on their journey are trailblazers, discovering things about addiction and recovery both universal and unique to themselves. Discussions around the concept of “powerlessness” are an important part of these explorations.
Harmony Haus is a men’s sober living home in Austin, TX. It offers a wide arrange of support for those in recovery, in addition to luxurious accommodations and an atmosphere of serious recovery. Give us a call anytime.