Step One is touted as being the most important step in A.A. obviously because it requires the alcoholic to finally admit to themselves the state they are in. While I was in rehab they spent a lot of time focusing on this one step which on the surface looks simple and obvious but at its core lies the dramatic difference between what normal people consider to be an alcoholic and what an alcoholic really is.

I, like most people, had always believed that an alcoholic was simply someone who drank to excess and made poor choices when alcohol was involved. They drank alone or found excuses to go to the bar every night. They’d get so drunk that they would drive home while blacked out (and all the while thinking this I never admitted to myself that I drove drunk on more than a handful of occasions) and would wind up crashing into a tree or worse someone else. I knew I was an alcoholic from the age of 25 but I didn’t understand what that meant about me. I thought that it was completely in my power to stop drinking on my own but for some reason, I just either lacked the commitment or didn’t read the right book yet (and believe me I’ve read a lot of books on the subject). That I could not quit drinking simply meant that I was weak, stupid, and pathetic.

The popular definition of alcoholism isn’t only wrong, it’s dangerous because it creates a stigma around the subject that makes addicts either afraid to seek help or believe that they can quit on their own. As I’ve said in the past it might be possible that an alcoholic can truthfully quit drinking on their own but I have not met that person. They either relapse after a brief amount of time or they were never truly sober. So: what is alcoholism, really?

People can be genetically predisposed to addiction, of course. That is the camp I fall under. Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics and while my parents weren’t what I’d call substance abusers (my father was a smoker) they certainly exhibited addictive behavior. Less talked about, though, is that you can make yourself an addict if you really work at it. If you drink heavily for years you will start sabotaging the dopamine threshold in your brain so that you are unable to feel joy without your drug or alcohol of choice leading you to crave those substances.

I’ll note here that when we talk about cravings in addiction we are not talking about the kind of craving someone has when they really want a hamburger. Addictive craving is an intense emotional experience that when denied can cause true suffering in the individual.

Being powerless over alcohol is a result of that action on your brain. You have a compulsive craving for the drink that can never be sated. If you have one beer, one shot, or one drink, you will not be able to stop yourself from having more until you either pass out or run out. The idea of going to a bar and having one beer and then going home seems completely insane to me. Almost like a waste of time. Why would I have one beer if I’m not going to get completely blasted out of my mind? I don’t drink because I enjoy the taste of alcohol or because I like having a slight buzz. I drink because once I allow myself to have the first one, I need to have the rest.

The second part of the first step “that our lives had become unmanageable” alludes to how stressful and destructive it is to maintain our addiction. In the later years of my addiction when I was living back with my mother, I would sneak cases of beer in the house either when she wasn’t home or disguised as a gym bag or something similar. I’d drink one after the other and hide the empty bottles in drawers, cabinets, under my bed, in the closet, anywhere I could get them out of site… not really caring that my room smelled like a brewery. They’d build up in my hiding places for days until I’d have to smuggle out dozens of bottles and begin the long, embarrassing task of taking them to a bottle return. I did this in the early morning or late at night so that I had less of a chance of running into people who knew me. I’d call in to work or show up late because I was too hungover… even after getting 6-7 hours of sleep I’d feel like I had only slept for an hour or two. I lied to just about everybody I knew about even the smallest things because I thought that if I told the truth they’d be able to tell something was wrong with me. It was truly unmanageable. That was like another full-time job that didn’t pay me anything but pain and misery.

Where A.A. benefits you at first is in the relief you feel from listening to other people’s stories and realizing that they are exactly like you. You aren’t a piece of shit, you have an illness that lots of people have (a lot more than are in A.A. meetings I assure you). My theory is that addiction is only going to become a more common problem in the future, but more on that in a later post… possibly. This post was just to illustrate how I came to terms with step one and to hopefully give outsiders a basic understanding of what it feels like to be an addict and also possibly to show one other alcoholic out there that asking for help isn’t a weakness. Since putting myself in rehab and beginning to go to A.A. meetings my life has turned around completely. It didn’t happen overnight; I will admit I was depressed for a couple of weeks after getting out of treatment. But these days I wake up with a smile on my face, full of energy, and ready to meet the day with gratitude and joy. If I can get here, anybody really can. I’m not special, I’m not smarter than people who are still suffering from addiction, I simply did the work.

Do the work.

Get yourself better.

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