On Powerlessness

PowerlessnessYou are probably aware of Step 1 for Alcoholics Anonymous, an international fellowship of people that helps support people with a drinking problem.

Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For Al-Anon, the international group which is more geared toward helping the families of alcoholics learn to cope with the effects of alcoholism, there is a 12-Step Program as well, albeit slightly altered to suit a slightly different purpose. So, what is Step 1 in Al-anon?

Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

That’s right. It’s the exact same Step 1.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t like the idea of being powerless over something. “I don’t have the drinking problem, so what do you mean that I’m powerless? It’s just the alcoholic who is powerless!” That was my thought for a long time.

Growing up in an alcoholic and dysfunctional family, you tend to feel like everything is always out of control. Some say that living with an alcoholic is like living in a house with a bomb in the basement and a bomb in the attic. Sometimes one goes off, sometimes both go off, and sometimes nothing goes off and everything is fine… for a little while. In your mind, however, you know that one wrong step could set the bomb or bombs off at any given time. You are in a constant state of hypervigiliance and stress. This was my life, and the lives of the millions of people living with an alcoholic.

For years, I thought the whole premise of powerlessness was a load of bullshit. What did that even mean, that I was powerless over alcohol and its effects? Conservatively, I would say it took me the better part of my life to understand that I, in fact, am powerless over alcohol.

What do I mean by that? I mean that it took me about two decades to figure out that I have no control over my mother’s drinking. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. This might seem obvious to someone who didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional family but for those of us who have had the unfortunate experience in our lives, we tend to internalize and blame ourselves for our loved ones’ drinking or other addictive habits. And, to be fair, she often blamed me for her drinking, that if I had never been born, then she wouldn’t drink so much. As a child, you tend to internalize that and think that you are in fact the source of your parent’s addiction.

You are not to blame for your loved one’s drinking. It’s not your fault, it never has been your fault, and it never will be your fault.

That’s what being powerless over alcohol means. It’s not saying that you’re powerless in everything, just over the alcoholic’s drinking habits.

For a long time, I tried to “fix” my mother. I would secretly pour out her bottles of liquor and wine down the sink. I would dump out half of them and cut the alcohol with water instead. I would hide her alcohol from her; at one point I remember that I had about twenty full wine bottles hidden in my closet. Thankfully, she never found them as I would have been in deep shit if she had.

I begged my father to take her to AA, to get her help, to get her treatment… Anything! He never did.

It took until I was in my early twenties to come to the understanding that I have no control over my mother’s drinking. I never have, I never will. The fact that she blamed a child for it is a bit harder to swallow, but I understand now that it was in no way a personalized attack. It wasn’t me she hated, it was herself.

There is only one person you have control over on this entire, wonderful planet that we call Earth: yourself. That’s it. You can’t control your mother, you can’t control your father, nor your sisters, nor your brothers, nor your children, nor your coworkers… The only person you can control is yourself.

This is what it means to be powerless over alcohol. I cannot control anyone but myself. I have no power over whether my mother decides to drink or not, the same way I don’t have any control over what she decides to wear, what books she decides to read, what websites she goes to, what political leanings she has, etc. None of that is within anyone’s control but her own. And once you begin to accept that:

1. Your loved one’s drinking is not your fault and

2. You have no control over anyone but yourself

you will feel a great weight being lifted from your shoulders. You are powerless over alcohol. You are not responsible for trying to “fix” your addicted loved one. Trying to fix anyone but yourself will make you feel like you’re going crazy. Focus on yourself as you are the only person you can truly control.

How long does it take to reach this conclusion? Your mileage may vary. Some people realize it earlier than others, some don’t understand the concept until they are well into their 40s and 50s. But it is never too early nor too late to begin on your own path of healing and inner peace that each and every one of us deserve to have.

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One thought on “On Powerlessness

  1. Pingback: Setting Boundaries | Reflections of an ACOA

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