Powerless No More

“Thanks to Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, I am truly empowered to change the things I can, and accept the things I can’t. Thankfully, maladaptive behaviours, belong firmly in the ‘can change’ category.”


Pursuant to the AA Big Book, those who drink maladaptively are utterly powerless over alcohol: “Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves.” (4th Edition, p-45).

This admittance of powerlessness is, according to AA, the first Step in achieving sobriety. If a person were truly powerless over alcohol, however, how could he or she actually recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body?

During my attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous, I took this disproven 1930s hypothesis as gospel. Although I was dubious of the biopsychospiritual malady posited by AA’s founding members, the concept of powerlessness seemed to make good sense to me. After all, I had repeatedly failed to stop drinking on numerous occasions, and all but drunk myself to death.


It wasn’t until I left AA following my relapse, that I began to question its validity. Having acquired a 2nd edition SMART Recovery Participant Handbook, I came across the following passage on page 24: “You Are Not Powerless – Is there a brain disease that negates free will? Perhaps you have been told that your addictive behaviour is caused by a brain disease which you inherited, and that free will and choice have been abolished by changes in your brain chemistry. You may also have been told that the power to arrest this disease can only come from outside of you through a benevolent deity, sponsor, and life-long attendance at recovery groups. If you doubted such ideas, perhaps you were confronted about being in denial, and told that your denial was proof that you have the disease.”

Having vehemently believed for eight years that I had indeed been powerless, this opposing view came as a bit of shock. Yet, the moment I read it, it made perfect sense: had a power greater than myself poured my alcohol and drugs down the toilet? had that same power phoned AA, and then decided to attend a meeting? had it worked the Steps for me? had my new attitude toward liquor really been given to me without any thought or effort on my part, as stated on page 85 of the Big Book? No! I was the one who had decided to take those actions. I was the one who had committed to doing them, and my new attitude towards liquor had ONLY been acquired through MUCH thought and effort on my part.

Fallibility & Broken Promises

While some AA members may cite my relapse as ‘proof’ that I am powerless, the fact remains that I chose to relapse. Was it a stupid decision? Perhaps, but that’s not evidence of powerlessness, just of my fallibility as a human being. I made a mistake, albeit one that I don’t regret, as it freed me from a long-held erroneous belief.

Oddly enough, it was my slip that contributed to my leaving AA. Why? Because what I had been ‘promised’ would happen if I drank again, didn’t: there was no progressive illness; I didn’t continue from where I’d left off.

An About Turn

Prior to achieving abstinence in 2006, I had drunk alcohol and smoked cannabis every day, as well as frequently abused benzodiazepines, for 15 years to blackout, unconsciousness or loss of bodily function; sometimes, all in one sitting. When I relapsed, however, I could control my intake. I had one hangover during the eight to ten week period, although this was due to hypoglycemia, not volume. I didn’t drink every day, and when I did drink I only had a couple of pints of average strength beer, the odd shot, or a couple of glasses of wine. Although I looked forward to it, if something prevented me from having it, it wasn’t the end of the world. There were even times when I didn’t finish what was in my glass, and I poured it down the sink – an absolute first for me. Additionally, I didn’t return to smoking cannabis or abusing benzos (or any other substances) and my life didn’t fall apart.

Made a Decision

I decided to quit again after I became ill with hypoglycemia, although this wasn’t attributed to just alcohol, but poor diet in general. I didn’t work the Steps, attend any meetings (AA or otherwise) or seek outside help; I just decided to quit. That was almost three years ago, and I haven’t had a drink since.

More will be Revealed

Another example that disputes the concept of powerlessness is my ability to safely use benzodiazepines since getting sober. Every couple of years when I have to fly very long distance, I take benzos for aviophobia. I take them as prescribed, and I haven’t once used them for any other purpose.

Additionally, there’s my relationship with coffee. Upon getting sober in 2006, I rapidly acquired a caffeine habit. Over the duration of my membership, I had a number of failed attempts at achieving abstinence (about six or seven). Proof of powerlessness? No! It simply demonstrates that AA’s all-or-nothing approach to recovery was inadequate. When I applied the principles of Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT), the foundation of SMART Recovery, I quickly and easily regained control of my misuse.

Power of Choice

REBT doesn’t approach abstinence in the same absolute, all-or-nothing manner that AA does. Viewing addiction as a maladaptive behaviour, REBT espouses the power of choice. In this particular instance, I had the following four options: continue drinking it; quit entirely; slowly taper my use, and then quit; reduce my use, and decide whether or not to quit later. Conversely, the AA way only provided me with one option: life-long abstinence. After completing a Cost Benefit Analysis of each alternative, I chose to reduce my use, and decide whether to quit later. I no longer misuse coffee: I don’t drink it every day; on the days I do drink it, I have reduced my consumption by a consistent 75%. I have since decided that I neither want nor need to pursue abstinence; caffeine has become a non-issue.

Experience – the Thing of Real Value

Based on my personal experiences, I have to conclude that the concept of powerlessness is a fallacy. As a layman, of course, my opinion may mean very little. AA members, in an effort to protect their pet theory, may conclude I mustn’t have been a ‘real alcoholic.’ Yet, those same members would have labelled me just that upon hearing my story after I first got sober in 2006.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

As a former member, I totally understand how comforting the idea of powerlessness is; it is essentially another way of saying, “It’s not your fault.” Unfortunately, however, not taking true responsibility for my predicament, and attributing it to powerlessness, kept me engaged in self-defeating patterns of behaviour. Thanks to Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, I am truly empowered to change the things I can, and accept the things I can’t. Thankfully, maladaptive behaviours, belong firmly in the ‘can change’ category.

Author: AA Apostate

I'm a former member of Alcoholics Anonymous, blogging about leaving AA and staying sober, recovering from recovery, and alternative recovery frameworks.