My 12 Steps: Step 1

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“We admitted we were powerless over
alcohol – that our lives had become

The first time I read step 1, I was sitting on a hard plastic chair in the dayroom of the detox unit at a New York City psychiatric hospital. The words were at the top of a giant poster listing all 12 steps. I was in the middle of a five-day medicated detox from alcohol and cocaine and required to attend a 12-step meeting. My jaw hung slack, thanks to the Librium I had been given to keep me steady through withdrawal, and I couldn’t remember my last shower. Things were not going well.

Even in my haze, though, when I saw the steps I was aware enough to think, Oh, no. Not that. I had checked myself in two days earlier because I believed that if I kept going the way I had been, I would die. I just wanted to feel better, not join a 12-step program.

Before detox, I had been a high-functioning addict, doing well at my law firm and keeping friends and family in the dark about the extent of my using. They didn’t know that I had to drink to get out of bed each morning, or how much coke I put up my nose to counter the booze.

“Powerless Over Alcohol”

Sitting among my fellow detox patients, the sight of the 12 steps struck fear in me. Like many people I knew, I had strong, yet thoroughly uninformed, notions about 12-step programs based on a few third-hand stories and rumors I’d heard over the years. I self-righteously likened the program to a cult in which God was forced upon members who sat in the dark basements of churches, drinking bad coffee and complaining about their parents.

That morning, my eyes fixated on the words “powerless over alcohol.” What could that mean? Sure, I had drunk virtually every day for the past 10 years. I knew I had a “problem with alcohol,” and that I was “dependent on alcohol,” but “powerless over alcohol”? It seemed like a whole different level.

If I were “powerless” over alcohol, all of my plans to get my drinking under control on my own would be useless. Of course, none of the plans I’d tried in the past had worked. The plan to take a week off from booze, the plan to take three days off from booze, the plan to have just two drinks tonight, the plan to stop sneaking out of work at lunch to drink, the plan to stop drinking and using in the morning — all of these had failed. Could it be that alcohol was in charge and I actually had no power in this relationship?

I assessed my immediate situation. It was a Wednesday morning in early spring and I was in a psych hospital, not at work. All sharp objects had been taken away from me and my blood pressure was being taken every few hours to make sure withdrawal didn’t give me a heart attack.

The realization hit me in the gut. Just like the driver of a car speeding head-on toward me, alcohol dictated what happened next, not me. But maybe I still had time to turn the wheel of my car and get out of its path?

“Our Lives Had Become Unmanageable”

When it came to the second part of step 1, I thought, I’m managing my life. Well, OK, right now I’m on a detox unit, but otherwise, I manage just fine.

Then I ran through some facts of my life. For example, I used to pay all of my bills on time and keep a keen eye on my bank balance. Recently, however, a giant pile of unopened mail had sprouted on my kitchen counter as if I were a teen idol who couldn’t possibly keep up with all of the letters that poured in daily from fans. On visiting my place for the first time, a new friend asked me, “Did you just get back from a long trip?” I looked at him as if he’d inquired whether I was fluent in ancient Latin. He pointed at the pile of mail. I silently scolded myself for not having hid it in a cabinet.

And there were small details, too. Before my using spun out, I loved getting weekly manicures. Now I couldn’t remember the last one I’d had. I was too embarrassed to let the manicurist see my how my hands shook uncontrollably. I told myself that nail salons weren’t sanitary, anyway. Similarly, I had gone from putting together stylish outfits for work each day to grabbing whatever was least wrinkled at the bottom of my closet because nothing was clean. If it didn’t have a visible tear or glaring stain, I wore it.

I had never considered “unmanageability” in my life before. As long as I didn’t get fired or overdose, I thought I was “doing great,” which is the inane go-to phrase I used to describe myself to friends and family. In detox, I realized that maybe it was worse than that. If unmanageability meant attempting to handle ridiculous situations I created as a result of my drinking and drugging, then, I had to admit, my life had become unmanageable.

At first glance, I thought step 1 meant I was defeated by alcohol. But the truth was, admitting my problem and asking for help actually freed me to walk away from the constant battle to control my drinking. I saw a glimmer of hope that perhaps someday I could tell someone that I was “doing great” and mean it.

Surprising no one more than myself, that day I decided that maybe, just maybe, the other steps would be worth reading as well.


This is the first in a 12-part series of essays — one essay on each of the 12 steps — by talented writers writing on the step that meant the most to them.  Please check back every week for a new essay in the series.

If you completed some or all of the 12 steps we’d love to hear about your experience, too: Please share your comments below.