Updated: Sep 2, 2019
When I first started learning about addiction I couldn’t see how I was powerless over alcohol. How could I be powerless when I was so involved in ordering, drinking and avoiding booze?
My problem wasn't powerlessness so much as insufficient power. I could control my drinking to an extent, just not well enough. As soon as someone found the right combination to unlock my imaginary booze doors, I was there, gasping with relief, holding out my wine glass. If only I had a touch more power I would be golden.
I could see how my powerlessness as a teen, easy. Heading to a party, eager to see friends, and have adventures and — fingers crossed — kiss a boy. I never would have chosen to drink so many drinks I spent the night crying before puking in a wheelie bin, and yet that's the kind of thing that happened. Every single time.
In those early experiences, my powerlessness is apparent, but so is my immaturity. I was just a teen who wanted to be fun and have fun, to be able to walk into the party laughing with my friends, and so I drank. I wasn't the only one. We all did it.
But when I honestly think about it, even then there was something different about the way I drank. How it was like something took over, the way I couldn’t stop. A different land called me, and I drank to get there.
I forgot about my friends and the boy I liked as I lurched for that far flung, smoky and exhilarating world of music and emotion. Other kids knew about it too, and I grabbed onto them, screaming. Nothing matters! Let’s smash things up!
And later: where’s the wheelie bin?
Talking about substance addiction or drinking habits, notions of power get confusing.
Okay, fine. So my powerlessness over alcohol when I was a teen was undeniable, but not my drinking as an adult. I mean, maybe it was a bit strange the way I had never really grown out of that binge drinking habit. That I'd gotten drunk every weekend since those wheelie bin spectaculars, whether I'd wanted to or not. Yeah, hang on! Why was that? When so many times I had claimed to be so completely bored with drinking and pubs, why did I yet again find myself completely wasted?
In the last year of my drinking, there were few public incidences of out-of-control behaviour and blackouts were a very special occasion, but there were dozens of instances of drunkenness when I absolutely intended to be sober. As I read and listened to other people's stories about their compulsion to drink alcohol I began to understand that my inability not to order a pint though I’d promised myself I wouldn't was its own kind of powerlessness.
The fact that I desperately wanted to stop drinking and couldn't sounded rather like powerlessness too. But the fact that this, in action, was as commonplace as picking up a bottle of wine on the way home when I had promised myself I wouldn't just didn't feel like I was in serious trouble. Compared to the dominant narratives around addiction it barely seemed like powerlessness at all. Especially since I could so easily convince myself (and you) that I had simply changed my mind.
In the end I chose to acquiesce. To say I was powerless because it was the only thing I hadn't tried before.
Because if I don't admit I'm powerless then I try to control my drinking. And when I try to control my drinking I get drunk.
There's an adage in the rooms of 12 step that seared itself into my psyche the first time I heard it.
“When I controlled my drinking I couldn’t enjoy it, and when I enjoyed it I couldn’t control it.”
What a relief just to give up. Within weeks my life improved so much that I knew I was onto something. At first, it was easy. Later, not so much. But I kept going.
My drinking may have been undramatic, but its consequences reached deep into the heart of me.
Drinking prevented me from speaking up for myself and fulfilling my potential, and from taking up space in a way I could be proud of. It allowed me to treat people badly and to accept unacceptable behaviour, and to lie to myself and others when we all deserved the truth. It encouraged me to measure myself in terms of not being as bad as that really rather bad person, rather than trying to be the best version of myself. And yet I would have done anything to be able to keep drinking. Even as I write these posts, I think a beer would be nice.
This, to me, is powerlessness. That all the information in the world, all of my own experience, can't protect me from the belief that, 'One won't hurt.'
I still feel like a half-arsed ‘alcoholic’ in the company of the rehab aficionados, but I don't care because I'm a sober half-arsed 'alcoholic' and that remains miraculous to me. I am thrilled to be beginning to touch upon my potential, to be learning new ways of showing up in and dealing with this world that involve radically less numbing of myself or pretending to be someone else.
Gradually, I let go of the idea that I ‘loved’ drinking. I understood that when I drank I was acting out of compulsion. I continue to admit I am powerless. And over time, I find other things to love, things that don’t hurt me or prevent me from living the way I want to.
By admitting powerlessness, I found power. I no longer had to try so hard to control my drinking, which freed me up to put that effort elsewhere. I no longer had to struggle with this infuriating, traumatizing, esteem-destroying situation alone, and could tackle my various life problems instead. Once I stopped the weekly self-destruction I could go about the quiet, every day business of building a life that suited me.
If you haven’t already, do the alcohol experiment. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas, listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management.
Take it seriously and pay attention to how your life changes. And remember, you don’t have to do it alone. It’s unnecessary, stressful and much less fun.