A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step One

This is the second in a series of posts in which we hope to acquaint our readers with some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend. There are a variety of other programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.

None too surprisingly, most of the organizations that I characterize as “12 step programs” are based on the original 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Some have changed the wording a bit, and some have combined a step or two so that there are fewer than 12. In at least one case, they were expanded to 15. Nonetheless, the process remains the same. We will discuss the current AA/NA version, with the understanding that the process applies to the other programs as well.

What Are The Steps?

Essentially, the steps are an outline. It has been found that most of us, when in early recovery, fare best if we approach the process with a degree of organization, dealing with basic issues first, and then moving onward with our understanding and development on a well-built foundation. I like to refer to steps one through three as the “acceptance” steps; four through nine as the “action” steps; and 10, 11 and 12 as maintenance steps. They are the ones that we continue to practice “in all our affairs,” as stated in Step Twelve. In the next three installments of this series, we’ll deal briefly with the acceptance steps. Today it’s Step One.

Step One

Step One reads, “We admitted we were powerless over (whatever) — that our lives had become unmanageable.” The principle behind it is honesty — with ourselves.

Admitting powerlessness over an addictive substance or behavior would seem to be admitting hopelessness! How can we recover if we are powerless?


It is important to understand that we are powerless over addiction when we are using. At the stage we call addiction, using amounts to chemically-induced insanity. Even non-substance addictions alter brain chemistry so that we can’t function normally. When we are in an active addiction, the imperative to use is so powerful that we are truly rendered impotent by our brain’s need for stimulation (over which, it is important to understand, we have no control except abstinence).

Once the chemicals are out of our systems — after we have detoxed or ceased the behavior — we have choices. We are no longer powerless, in the sense that we are physically compelled to use. Our issues are now largely emotional and psychological. The farther from actual use we get, and the more we work on our other issues, the more options we have. However, if we use again, our powerlessness returns. Thus, admitting our powerlessness is the first step towards self-honesty. There’s an old program saying that goes, “Lying to other people isn’t nice. Lying to yourself is fatal.”

Unmanageability can be described in many ways, but what it comes down to in the long run is the inability to make and carry out reasonable decisions about our lives. Do things continue to get worse? Do we dig our way out of one hole only to end up in a deeper one? It’s easy to fool ourselves about unmanageability, but when we really look at our lives we quickly discover just how wrong we were. In a nutshell, unmanageability is simply that things keep getting worse, no matter how hard we try to make them better.

It has been said that Step One is the only step that we have to do perfectly. If we’re still lying to ourselves about our ability to control our addiction, still collecting a string of problems that we can’t resolve, how long will we be able to handle the pressure without using again? What do you think?

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