Staying Sober Without God – Practical Step One

Staying Sober Without God

AA Version: Admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Practical Version: Admitted we were caught in a self-destructive cycle and currently lacked the tools to stop it.

The first step is probably the one the general population is most familiar with. It’s often paraphrased as, “The first step is admitting you have a problem.” That’s a decent start, but there’s quite a lot more to it. This step consists of two distinct parts. The first part requires us to admit that we are in a cycle of behavior that is harming ourselves or others. The second part is admitting that we are currently lacking the life skills necessary to stop this cycle on our own.

In the practical version of this step, I use the term “self-destructive cycle” rather than “addiction” because I believe it’s a more thorough and straightforward description of the problem. The term “addiction” has its place, but it is so often misunderstood that it tends to result in more confusion than it does clarity. If everyone could agree on a definition of “addiction,” then I’d gladly incorporate it into this step. Until that time, I will refer to the problem we are seeking relief from as a self-destructive cycle, because that’s essentially what it is. An added benefit of using this wording is that this step becomes applicable to any person who feels stuck instead of being limited to people that would traditionally be labeled “addicts.”

Another piece to note about the practical version of the step is that is says we currently lacked the tools to control our behavior. The practical version of the steps are meant to be empowering, as opposed to the traditional version, which tells us that we are powerless and need to rely on God for help. By saying that we can be empowered, I’m not implying we can use drugs and alcohol moderately. I am still acknowledging the fact that there are some behaviors we will need to stop completely. What this step is saying is that we have the power and ability to make changes to our lifestyle and attitude that will help us remain free from our addictive behavior. Our healthy lifestyle will primarily be the result of our efforts rather than the intervention of a supreme being.

I’ve also done away with the term “unmanageability.” All that’s necessary for us to justify stopping a behavior is for it to be causing harm. Unmanageability may or may not be a part of an unhealthy cycle. It often is, but the term still tends to be too exclusive. There are plenty of addicts and alcoholics who have developed a tremendous talent for maintaining an impressive level of functioning despite their condition. Instead of trying to convince ourselves that we can’t manage our own lives (a concept that is hard to define), we are asking ourselves a basic question: “is my addictive behavior causing harm to my life or the lives of others?”

By admitting that we are causing harm, we’ve given ourselves enough reason to change our ways. In addition, we rid ourselves of the denial that may be holding us back from facing the true nature of our condition. As I will discuss later in this book, being fully honest about our behavior is a crucial part of recovery. You can’t get better from something you don’t acknowledge. If you try to move ahead in the steps without first getting real about the state you’re in, you may end up wasting a lot of time and effort.

No part of this step involves beating ourselves up or dwelling on our faults. It is meant to be a complete acceptance of what is. Nothing more, nothing less. We are not exaggerating our situation, nor are we minimizing it. In my experience, nothing good comes from distorting the reality of a situation. Scare tactics don’t work and neither does denial. The only sane way to approach any problem is to approach it honestly and without reservation

Working Step One

Working this step is fairly simple, but should be done thoughtfully. Take some time to explore this cycle you’re stuck in. How did it start? Why was it so attractive at first? How have you tried to stop it? How, specifically, is it harming you and others? Have friends or loved ones expressed concerns about your cycle? It’s also important to look at what occurs when you try and break out of the cycle. What emotions come up? What thoughts and excuses does your brain conjure up to try and convince you to stay in the cycle? Have you ever been able to stop, and if so, for how long? When you try to sop, are there replacement behaviors that you start engaging in instead (e.g. eating junk food, playing video games excessively, acting out sexually)?

Throughout this book, I will often suggest utilizing writing as a way of working the step. Sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s optional. Doing some writing for step one is optional, but a great idea. One of the more powerful exercises I’ve seen people utilize is writing their story from childhood to the present moment, focusing on their use of addictive behaviors. Constructing a cohesive story about your journey to the doorstep of recovery can be a very effective way to gain some clarity and perspective on your current struggles. Oftentimes, when people look at their lives as a connected sequence of events, they’re able to discover new patterns and gain some insight about how they got to their current state. This isn’t necessarily the aim of this step, but it can help you understand why you got caught in your self-destructive cycle in the first place, which may also help you better accept the truth about your current condition.

Other options for working this step include having an in-depth conversation with your sponsor, therapist, or fellow recovering addicts/alcoholics. Take some time to explore how your cycle started. Was there an event that set things in motion? Did your self-destruction start quickly as a result of a traumatic life event or was it a gradual process that you didn’t notice until it was well-established? What were the first consequences you noticed? How did you justify your behavior or make excuses? What did you consider your rock bottom, and was it an external event like jail or an internal event like depression or suicidal thinking? The more detailed you can get in this process, the better. If something feels too difficult to talk about, it’s all the more reason to talk about it. Challenge yourself to move outside of your comfort zone.

You know you’re done with this step when you can look at it without any reservations that it is true. You need to be pretty darn sure that your cycle is not something you can just snap out of through sheer willpower. It’s important to be clear on this step or the following steps will be less effective. If there is any part of you that still thinks you can change your behavior without changing anything else in your life, it might be worth exploring this step further. If you’re feeling stuck, chances are that a strong intention to stop your cycle is not enough on its own. That being said, if you aren’t fully convinced that you need to change, it may be necessary to try it the old way for a while and experience some more failures before you’re convinced. Some people need several attempts at pulling themselves up by their bootstraps before they realize they need assistance.

If you feel you’ve adequately explored your self-destructive cycle and come to terms with your current inability to stop it alone, then you’re ready to begin step two. It’s time to move from accepting your current inability to stop to believing that there is a way out.


For an excellent review of the book, click here: Staying Sober Without God.


Staying Sober Without God

Available on Amazon.

Jeffrey Munn was born in Southern California where he still resides with his wife and daughter. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been working in the field of mental health since 2010.

Jeffrey works as a therapist in private practice and specializes in addiction, OCD, and anxiety disorders. In addition to his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Jeffrey earned a degree specialty in co-occurring disorders.

Click here to access the book on Amazon: Staying Sober Without God.

To visit Jeffrey’s website, click here: Practically Sane.


8 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    For me there was no single event I can remember. The first serious drink was as a member of DeMolay. I was the new guy and so one night I was in charge of getting the alcohol. Bang! It was on. It picked up speed and much self-destructiveness unfolded over the next 25 years.

    In retrospect I was just the seed waiting for the right water. The fertilizer was the family of origin and the valley I was raised in. The end result was the Bog of Eternal Stench.

    Enuf for now. Keep coming back.

  2. Dave H. says:

    Get it from the horse’s mouth – Jeffrey has graciously agreed to give the keynote address at our third biennial Arizona Secular AA Conference this November 9 in Phoenix.

  3. Richard K. says:

    The drink problem has been removed. My Obsession is in remission. I no longer fear
    Cravings. I am treating my Alcoholism. I am not cured. I must continue my treatment, much like any other disease. If l have diabetes or some other illness that l can keep at bay through treatment. Alcoholism is a little unique in that aspect. The treatment is a little unconventional, but it works. AA has given me a solution. A design for living that works under any circumstances. Its not about the drinking, its about the not drinking.

  4. Dick S says:

    How about alcohol was a power greater than myself and was making my life unmanageable I realized I needed help and guidance in avoiding it.

  5. Chris G. says:

    “There are plenty of addicts and alcoholics who have developed a tremendous talent for maintaining an impressive level of functioning despite their condition.”

    Yes, that was me. And there were times in regular meetings when I felt put down for my lack of arrests, fights, firings, and so on…like I wasn’t bad enough to be there. But I was.

    I love his idea of writing a life history of the disease. For me it was a gigantic time-line chart. I still have it somewhere.

    This is real practical advice; I’ll go get this book.

  6. Lisa M says:

    I really liked this step one and I cut and pasted the first paragraphs for my sponsor in “traditional AA” because it was so good. I bought the paperback on amazon. I might get the kindle too so I can always have it traveling. WELL DONE! Love it.

    I am an atheist and do not believe in either a higher power or god / God. Whenever I reveal this in the trad. 12 step women’s meeting I’m part of, I get all sorts of blow back from people who respond in indirect crosstalk with things like “well I believe in a higher power and I call it God” and “Try it and you will see God keeps you sober”… but honestly, I never hear the reverse!

    Thank you very much for this snippet.

  7. Pat N. says:

    Jeffrey has written a well-reasoned, comprehensive, and objective replacement for Bill W.’s version. I was never powerless – I just wasn’t using the power I had, and AA folks showed me how. My life wasn’t unmanageable either, just badly managed.

    Now that I’m sober, I still have a list of principles to keep me alive, happy, and growing. Number 1 is: “I cannot safely consume any non-prescribed, mind-altering substance.” Simple.