The First Step Is No Theory — Powerlessness

All 12-step programs use some variation of the following as their first step: “We admitted we were powerless over (insert addiction here)–that our lives had become unmanageable.”  Many of us had trouble admitting to ourselves that we were powerless, and in some cases were unable to come to terms with the idea that our lives were unmanageable.  So here's as simple an explanation as I can come up with.

What it comes down to is that, when we talk about what we call “survival instincts,” we have far too high an opinion of our ability to think ourselves out of trouble.  When it comes to survival, or what we perceive as survival, we generally react much as other critters — we do what our bodies and instincts tell us to do.  We don't have to think about it.  If we did take the time, really bad stuff might happen.

Instincts are extremely powerful impulses that are mediated by a part of the brain that can't even think — what we call the “primitive brain.”  Powerlessness over drugs and pleasure-seeking behavior is related to changes in our primitive brains, which also control breathing, heartbeat, the secretion of hormones and other chemicals, and the thousands of other processes that go on in our bodies without our having to think about them. When we drink or use other drugs, or engage in certain activities, chemicals are released (or mimicked) that make us feel good.

Over time, our primitive brains and other body systems become accustomed to the high levels of the pleasure chemicals.  In many cases, actual physical changes take place in the brain in an attempt to adjust to the heavy stimulation.  If the stimulation decreases, our bodies — which have adapted to the higher levels — no longer have the amounts they need to feel good.  We begin to feel bad.  Really bad. To our thinking brains, it seems that if we don't get more booze or drugs, we'll simply die.

Even if our thinking brains know otherwise, the signals from the rest of our body are really hard to resist, and there is an almost overpowering impulse to get more drugs.  Combine that with the fact that our thinking brains are still not functioning well, and the likelihood of relapse is extremely high. This is where the powerlessness comes in.  It's a matter of biochemistry.  When we are using, our thinking brains are dulled and mostly useless, and when we are not using the primitive brain keeps telling us we're in huge trouble. We are literally powerless over those physical facts, until we are off the drugs long enough for our thinking to get back to something approaching normal — and that can take months.

It's not too hard to see how this sort of thing can lead to a lack manageability in our lives, but we'll talk about it a bit in the next post.  See you next week.


  1. Debra Rincon Lopez says:

    I really don’t know if I feel comfortable blaming my drugs addiction on my brain? It’s possible but if you retrain yourself then your a work in progress. I just couldn’t admit I had a problem for the last 34 yrs. I thought admitting my powerlessness was the last thing I would ever do. But,now I know it’s the best thing that I ever did for myself & my family. Now I can live a true and peaceful life. Without being tied down to an addictive lifestyle like before. I did have to learn to deal with my emotion’s all over again. After that it gets much easier.

  2. Dear Debra,
    Science is science. However, may I suggest that you wait and read the other two parts of this series before you draw any conclusions? I have nearly 21 years in 12-step programs, and you may rest assured that I am not going to sell you out.


  1. […] and alcohol and drug treatment, let’s review what we covered in the last two posts about powerlessness and […]