That First Big Step, by guest blogger David Saffold

The following is my first entry in a series about the 12-step spiritual program of recovery.

In my opinion, alcohol is a drug.  Just as cocaine, heroin, or crystal meth is a drug.  The 12 step program will work for any drug of addiction.  However, since I am referring to the 12 step program defined in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, I keep the wording of each step found therein.  Please, feel free to replace the word "alcohol" in this issue with whatever suits your situation. 

My great hope is that what follows will help all those who are struggling under addiction to alcohol and drugs.  I know what it feels like to be so hopeless that death is the only dream left in life.  But most of all, I know that we can rise up from the ashes into a world in which all good things are possible.  I know because I have lived it. I know because I have personally been a part of many others living it.

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

The sentence most people know as Step 1 is just a summary statement of Step 1.  The actual step is found in Chapters 2 (There is a Solution) and 3 (More about Alcoholism) in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.  These chapters define the meaning of the term Alcoholic and the phrases “powerless over alcohol”, and “my life had become unmanageable” that make up Step 1.  Before one can actually do this step they must know to what, exactly, they are admitting.

When I am helping a person with Step 1, I first ask them to studiously read Chapters 2 (There is a Solution) and 3 (More about Alcoholism).  These chapters provide the description of the alcoholic and the behaviors and characteristics that attend the alcoholic mentality.  If a person is truly an alcoholic, they will identify with much that is described in those chapters about the alcoholic experience and mind set.

If I was asked for a brief statement that encapsulates the definition of the alcoholic mentality I would say this: "I am Powerless over alcohol means that no matter what I do or how hard I try to stop, limit, or control the amount I drink, time I drink, or place I drink, I inevitably end up drinking again and breaking whatever limit or control I have willed to enforce."

My life has become unmanageable means that, no matter how hard I try, everything I hold dear is slipping away and all my plans and aspirations for my life are becoming more impossible to achieve.

In the second paragraph of Chapter 3 we find the actual wording of Step 1: “We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics.  The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.”

The essence of Step 1 is having the honesty to see that all my efforts at control are hopeless.  I am totally and thoroughly beaten.  I must submit to unconditional surrender.  Imagine what it takes for someone to get to a place where they can admit to such a condition.  This is why Step 1 is so hard and why so many die instead taking this step.

When reading Chapters 2 and 3, you can’t help but notice that the solution proposed for recovery is a “Spiritual” solution.  Being willing to try this “Spiritual” solution is implicit in step one and is a major stumbling block for many who are contemplating this step.  For many, the word “spiritual” brings up old beliefs about religion and a judging God of fire and brimstone.  I continued to drink even though I knew I was alcoholic because I just couldn’t get past the “Spiritual” solution that I thought I would have to embrace. I literally thought it meant becoming a monk and taking vows of self-denial.  This was so frightening to me that I just couldn’t take this step until death itself was staring me right in the face.  I will talk more about the spiritual solution in Step 2.

My personal experience with Step 1:

Alcohol addiction took me in my early twenties.  I had probably crossed the line in my late teens but I can definitely say that I was alcoholic by age 22.  I was ambitious and wanted to succeed in life by completing college and moving into a successful career.  I wanted to make something of myself but alcoholism got me first. 

Life for me after high school to age 25 was a series of bursts of self-will to control my drinking followed by deeper agony, failure, depression, and hopelessness.  I tried controlling the amount I drank and when that didn’t work I tried to stop all together.  I knew my drinking was keeping me from my dreams so I really wanted to stop for good.  But I couldn’t!  No amount of self-will, no depth of conviction, could keep me from eventually drinking.  I had been in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous for several years and so got to a point where I thought I was hopelessly doomed since not even AA could help the likes of me. 

After trying so hard and failing so miserably, I eventually came to the conclusion that death was the only option.  One fateful night when I was 25 years old, the mental agony had gotten so bad I decided it was time.  I was half drunk and remember telling God (whoever that was?) that if he saved me tonight I would try it his way even if I had to become a monk, but I didn’t expect much from that prayer.  It was then that a profound thought boomed in my mind which said, “Dave, all your very best thinking has gotten you drunk and about to die!” 

It was like I was looking into the mirror of Truth and I saw that the best my thinking has done for me in life was to get me right where I was right then, drunk and about to die.  At that moment I did step one and became willing to give the spiritual solution my best shot.  My delusions had been “smashed”.  I had nothing to lose in accepting the spiritual solution because my best thinking was killing me anyways. 

That night marked the beginning of my recovery from alcohol addiction for I had fully admitted to my inner most self that I was powerless over alcohol and my life had become unmanageable.

How do I know if I did Step 1?

The best way to know that you have done Step 1 is to be willing to try the spiritual solution outlined in the next steps.  In other words, you are willing (eager, hopefully) to immediately move on to Step 2 and 3.

How should I feel after doing Step 1?

It varies with the individual.  I felt a powerful sense of relief, but that came from my finally being willing to accept the spiritual solution.  Some may feel lots of doubt and fear but it doesn’t matter, in my opinion, how you feel as long as you are willing to give the spiritual solution a try. 

I tell those I help with this step that if they can admit to themselves that they have the alcoholic mentality as described in the literature and can say to themselves that they are powerless over alcohol and their life has become unmanageable and are willing to do the rest of the steps as best they can then they are ready for Step 2.  The key is that you have become willing to give the spiritual solution an honest and thorough attempt.

Will Step 1 keep me from drinking?

No, not in and of itself.  It may scare you into stopping for a length of time, but the ‘real’ alcoholic will drink again if they do not move on with the spiritual solution.

Next time we will do Step 2.


David Saffold is a Professional Life Coach and student at the Estuary.  He has been helping people use the 12 step spiritual program to recover from alcohol and drug addiction for over 25 years.