You should be aware before you get involved with any 12-step related program that the first step in these programs is to admit that you are powerless over drugs and alcohol. If you don’t admit to being powerless, then you will never achieve social acceptance into the 12 step group, you will be considered to not have made it past the first step, and thus be given a bad prognosis, not only by fellow 12-steppers, but also by counselors and other professionals at treatment programs who employ 12-step methods, many of whom are AA and NA members themselves, and fully believe the doctrine. It may appear on the surface that this is just a recognition of having a problem, but it’s much more than that, and can be extremely harmful.
The doctrine of powerlessness runs deep, and is taken very literally. These programs actually do everything they can to convince you that you do not have any control over the choice to use substances. They make up fake claims of a disease, an allergy, or a genetic condition, and they filter every personal anecdote through the powerlessness concept, so that in retrospect, they all become powerless. Then they take every instance of someone returning to substance use, and use that as evidence of powerlessness. They harp on powerlessness CONSTANTLY, and you will be browbeaten into submitting to this self-defeating concept. The danger should be obvious, if you don’t believe that you have the power to choose whether or not to use substances, then it will become harder for you to stop abusing substances – it’s plain old negative thinking.
There is however some appeal to the powerlessness concept. Many of us feel out of control over our substance abuse habits, and it can be comforting in a strange way to affirm that. The problem is that there is a massive difference between feeling powerless and actually being powerless. As an analogy, I offer up what I think is a fairly common experience: I felt unattractive and unwanted in my high school days, so much so, that it depressed me and led to extremely low self-esteem, social anxiety and withdrawal. Years later, several girls I went to school with admitted that they were very attracted to me back then. I never would have guessed it. So while I felt completely unwanted and incapable of getting a date, the reality was that I was wanted and could have easily gotten a date. It was only my perception of the situation that made me feel so hopeless – and kept me from taking the action to get a date. Likewise, while you may feel powerless over substance use, the reality is that you are not powerless, that you can choose to change your behavior at any given time and explore options to excessive substance use. But if you give in to the fear of powerlessness, and embrace it as a fundamental part of who you are, then you will have effectively stopped yourself from making progress before you even start. To admit to powerlessness is to say “I can’t”. When you say that, you make it a reality.
The main evidence of powerlessness offered up by the recovery culture is the fact that some people say they are powerless. Going back to the mid twentieth century when the big push was first made for public acceptance of the disease concept of alcoholism, the research, The Stages of Alcoholism by E.M. Jellinek, was based on questionnaires filled out by AA members who were already indoctrinated with the powerlessness concept, in which they stated that they were powerless. Nowadays, we see brain scans which show differing brain activity among addicts, and we’re supposed to believe that this serves as proof of powerlessness, but there is no logical step to prove that such brain activity indicates powerlessness. The only other thing offered up is the claim that addiction is a lifelong condition, and that no one recovers from it without professional help – a false claim. So really, there is no evidence of powerlessness.
On the contrary, there is evidence evidence that people quit or reduce their substance use habits all the time, usually without professional help. In fact, there are 2 separate large scale studies from the NIAAA which show that approximately 75% of people who at one time fit the diagnosis of Alcohol Dependent according to the APA’s definition, are no longer dependent on alcohol. Of that group – only 26% of them have gotten any type of professional or 12-step help. The vast majority of them, 74%, have quit or reduced their substance use without any professional help whatsoever – nor did they seek help from a clergyman or step foot in an AA meeting. These supposedly powerless people quit on their own. Studies in Canada and elsewhere have shown nearly identical results.
In conclusion, while the disease proponents offer up the claim that many people feel powerless as proof of this phenomenon, those of us who don’t believe in powerlessness offer up hard facts, namely, that people do have the power to quit and that they do it all the time.