John’s Recovery: Step One

AA Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.

My Step 1: Came to the realization that alcohol consumption had severely impeded my ability to accomplish every one of my life’s aspirations.

By John B

Step one combines simplicity with unadorned honesty. To begin the recovery journey all I had to do was make a decision; admit something. It was now an undeniable fact that I had reached a point where the ability to resist the compulsion to take a drink had been destroyed. Quantity and frequency choices were no longer mine.

Here’s how most of my days would start. We owned and I operated a restaurant and bar in rural Indiana. I mean rural – corn, soybeans, hogs, and dairy cows rural. As experienced drinkers know, the standard shot glass is 2 oz. with a white line at the 1 oz. level. At six o’clock in the morning I filled the glass up to the line with whiskey, added a blurb of peppermint schnapps, dribbled in several drops of bitters, tossed it down the hatch and chased it with black coffee. Three of these little beauties in the space of five minutes eliminated those pesky hangovers.

Needless to say, my life needed new management. I suffered from what I call alcoholic usurpation, a form of thievery that robbed me of the ability to apply reasoned judgment to the reality of my daily life. Alcohol played the role of a skilled embezzler and I, the alcoholic, played the role of co-conspirator using denial, blaming, feigned ignorance, and other concealment tactics to cover the losses. Inevitably, bankruptcy occurred. The cover up was exposed. Confession time had arrived.

In one sense, my admission of powerlessness over alcohol was motivated by a feeling of guilt associated with and derived from the consequences of my drinking. But more importantly, the admission signified my unconditional surrender. Life looked bleak.

My first experience with AA was part of a treatment program in 1980. By 1984, reliance on willpower had led to perpetual relapses; helplessness and hopelessness saturated my entire being. These two feelings combined with self-loathing drove me back into the rooms of AA where I was met with empathy and camaraderie, and surprisingly, the realization that I had already done Step 1.

Four years of intermittent AA attendance had not resulted in sustained sobriety but it had not been a complete waste. I had seen the joy and heard the laughter; I had enjoyed the self-deprecating humor, and had learned from the stories of success and the agony of failure. I wanted what those people had, I wanted sobriety.

At first glance, Step One may appear to be somewhere between formidable and impossible to a still suffering alcoholic who had been beaten down to a near zero sense of self-worth. Here is where reason and common sense finally came into play for me. Every AA meeting I attended presented evidence of successful recovery. All I needed to do was open my mind to the possibility that I too could succeed. As distasteful as the concept of powerlessness may be, Step One restricts it to one thing, powerlessness over alcohol. Completion of this part of the step requires only one concession – a commitment to abstinence.

As the third tradition of AA states “…the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Pure simplicity! Well, maybe not so simple. One might ask, does doing step one actually require a commitment to abstinence? Based on the wording of the third tradition, I think it does. If I state a desire to achieve something, the statement itself carries with it the implicit necessity for commitment. My stated desire to stop drinking carries with it a commitment to abstinence. In this context what else could the word stop mean?

The second suggestion in Step 1 is also a limited request. It does not say that we alcoholics have always lacked the competence to manage our lives. The implication is clear, my powerlessness over the mind altering effects of alcohol created the unmanageability. More simplicity – remove the cause, then rebuild a lifestyle based on reason and common sense. I was told repeatedly that compared to a life based on alcoholic fiction, reality isn’t that bad. Beyond any doubt, I now know that to be true. In retrospect, I now understand that the intense pain created by my addiction motivated two significant changes in attitude. Four years of ambivalence toward the seriousness of my addiction had been replaced with the belief that sobriety was both necessary and doable. Today, those two principles, necessity and doability, are tools I apply to important decisions on a regular basis.

The completion of Step One primarily required honesty, but it also suggested the immediate need for some humility and gratitude. Four years of failure to stay sober had taught me that reliance on my own volition was not a winning strategy. Powerlessness and unmanageability needed to be reversed. I had finally realized the necessity for outside help, and I already owed a debt of gratitude for the “welcome back” support I had received. Help was staring directly at me; all I needed was enough humility to accept it.


John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.


“There are many versions of the 12-Step program of recovery. In fact, there are about as many versions as there are alcoholics in AA who use the program to get sober and to maintain their sobriety.”

The Little Book


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