“We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol– that our lives had become unmanageable.”
So reads Step One in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. But are our lives really unmanageable? Some of us showed up to work, stayed out of jail, and even paid our bills. That’s pretty good, right?
I look back now on my years of addiction and see a series of bad choices in nearly all areas of my life. Some of these were due to misdirected priorities. I lived to get high, and everything else came second. But some of them had more to do with being completely unable to cope with life. My relationships, when I had them, were shallow and didn’t last long. I had no interest in a career, never finished high school, and got by with a GED. I paid my bills when the red notices came. I had no credit and no savings.
Even in recovery, my life was unmanageable (by me). I had the social and relationship skills of a 15-year-old– the age at which I began my addiction. I didn’t know how to function as an adult.
We addicts are not alone in this. People with trauma, anxiety, and depression battle unmanageability, too. I have a friend who can’t keep a job because of his depression. Another, who struggles with anxiety caused by past trauma, spent three hours sitting under a table because she couldn’t figure out how to use the catsup bottle. Many of our histories are littered with broken relationships, lost jobs, and unmaintained friendships.
We can see several causes of these symptoms of unmanageability. One is misdirected priorities. One is lack of skills. Another is simply unhealed brokenness.
All of these causes can be overcome. One of the purposes of the Twelve Steps is to redirect our priorities. By walking together in our successes and failures, we learn skills.
Healing our brokenness is more complicated. Some of it occurs as we work through the Steps, reflecting on ourselves and cleaning up our past. Some can be had through medical and psychological healers.
Addiction, as defined by the book Alcoholics Anonymous, is a disease that is physical, mental, and spiritual. We need spiritual healing as well as healing for our bodies and minds. The traumas we’ve experienced leave deep wounds in our soul as well as our physical beings. How, for example, can we trust God or anyone else when we learned early in our lives that those we relied on were not trustworthy?
There’s one aspect of our spiritual healing that is nearly universal, and that is our unrealistic view of our own power. We live in a culture that tells us we can do anything, and that life is about wresting satisfaction from the world through our own efforts. We can change the world! Except we really can’t, or at least not on our own. In reality, we have very little power at all over the things that really matter, and certainly not more than any other of the 8 billion people in the world. Try, for example, going to the ocean and stopping a single wave from reaching the shore. Try making it rain, or stopping a deluge of rain. Or, as Will Rogers said, “If you get to thinking you’re a person of influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around.”
Alcoholics Anonymous puts it this way: “Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly. Lack of power, that was our dilemma” (p. 45).
No one likes to admit that they lack power. It’s bad for the ego! But it’s the truth. I couldn’t control my addiction. I couldn’t control my emotions. I couldn’t control the people around me. And I couldn’t control what the world threw at me.
And I still can’t.
But God has all power. By God’s grace, I haven’t taken a drink or a drug since 1985. With God’s grace and the guidance of mentors around me, my emotions are more controlled. Through God’s grace, I can accept the people around me and the circumstances the world throws at me– because I still can’t change them. I can only change my reaction to them. Yet changing my reactions changes the outcome, which is generally far less destructive and painful than it used to be.
That this is possible through God’s grace doesn’t mean there’s no work for me to do. There is. God makes it possible for me to react differently to the seduction of drugs (or anything else), to my emotions, and to the world and its people. But I have to do the work of practicing reacting differently, or it won’t stick. God makes healing possible, but I have to go to where the healing is, whether it be a doctor, a therapist, a Twelve Sep meeting, or a church. As a wise person once said, “If you hide in the closet and pray for a hot dog, you’re going to go hungry.” If I don’t go to work, I won’t get a paycheck. And, except in very rare instances, we don’t get healed without doing our part in the process.
Some people look on this as a partnership with God– in which God is the senior partner. The late Dr. Paul O. once said he actually filled out a partnership agreement he bought at a stationary store to make this more real for him.
My life today is no longer unmanageable. But it is unmanageable by me. And when I forget this, it tends to get even more unmanageable.