Powerlessness and Other Stuff

bob k musings

Could a real alcoholic who had just consumed six drinks refuse the next one if a gun was held to his head, and he was told it would be used, if he reached for drink number seven?

The unusual and unlikely hypothetical question sparks additional questions touching on a variety of sub-themes–powerlessness, choice, “allergy,” disease, “insanity”–possibly others. The “gun to the head” question becomes somewhat more interesting when strong, but less compelling motivations are substituted for the threat of instant brain-splattering. Does a “yes” answer demonstrate that what Dr. Silkworth so ill-advisedly labeled “the phenomenon of craving” is mythological–non-existent? Does turning down a drink in such circumstances disprove powerlessness?

Perhaps what is shown is that the absolutists are sometimes (or a LOT of times) ABSOLUTELY incorrect in their absolute embracing of their absolute positions. What AA traditionalists get wrong most commonly stems from an affinity for black and white, either/or, everything or nothing thinking. The answers to questions about people are inevitably rendered more complex by the variability inherent in the human condition.

Bad news Mister Thumper–there are, at the very least, anomalies.

All around the AA world, on a daily basis, these differences are expressed in our stories–often similar, but never identical. A number of times in his alcoholic drinking, Bill Wilson was able to dial back to consumption that was less than crazed, at least for a while. A couple of morning drinks to calm the trembling hands, and then off to work where perhaps a few bracers would be sought at the lunch hour. Even in the early 1930s when the end was nearing, Bill showed up from time to time at Wall Street in a more or less sober condition, in the hope of scrounging up an assignment.

On or about December 7, 1934, a week or ten days after his “I’ve got religion” visit from Ebby, Bill ventured down to the Calvary Mission for a closer look at the conversion solution being pitched by his starry-eyed old friend. Although drunk when he arrived, Bill was fed beans and bread at the depot of outreach to the downtrodden, financed by the congregation of the Calvary Church. Phenomenon of craving be damned, Bill was sober when he got home from the mission, some hours past from his last drink! Enthusiastic and optimistic, Bill spent another boozeless hour sharing his hopes and plans with Lois.

Possibly, the “craving” appetite was put in abeyance by the Creator Her Own damn Self!!

Or perhaps, on occasion, we can resist the pressing urge, while at other times our defenses are weaker, absent being threatened with a gun. Bill’s newfound “Power” had the shortest of shelf-lives, the capital “P” notwithstanding. A few healing drinks the next morning to calm the shakes led to a few more, that led to the many more, and all that had Lois finding her husband passed out drunk upon her return from work at around 6pm. A decision to not drink at all had morphed to “I’ll just have a couple,” then to a full-blown all-day bender. The powerful resolve of the evening before had little lasting effect.

Each edition of the Big Book has brought us new stories. The 2001 issue brought us the interesting tale of a woman who joined a group of coworkers in attending a hockey game. She successfully accomplished some snail’s pace beer-sipping in order to keep her associates from getting the right idea, and she was miserable. When more relaxed social occasions allowed it, and she drank the way she wanted to drink, all manner of chaos ensued.

One of the benefits of drinking alone is that one is not in the midst of potential judges. That’s especially desirable when it all goes off the rails.


Alcoholics Anonymous takes the position that the serious alcoholic is powerless over alcohol.

That could mean a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean daily drinking in all cases. It doesn’t necessarily mean record-setting quantities. It doesn’t mean constant drinking from dawn to midnight. It doesn’t mean that we are powerless over people, places and things. That’s an NA philosophy.

AA’s theory is that the alcoholic is different from his fellows. Ingestion of even small amounts of liquor produce a need for more, a “craving” not experienced by normal drinkers. The second component of “powerlessness” is evident in the inability to quit, or more accurately, to stay stopped (on a self-will basis), in spite of the firmest resolution to do so. The AA enthusiast from the God Squad camp is quick to jump aboard the notion that “there is One Who has all Power,” and leap to the narrative that “no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.” (They find it best to leave out the “probably,” apparently–it only confuses newcomers) “God could and would if He were sought.” The booker-mucker- thumper becomes a jumper in making what he sees as a simple leap of logic: I lack power. Therefore, God.

Hallelujah!! (Cue the organ musack) Turn to Page 29 in your hymnals and join me in praising God’s Grace!!! (Or his grapes if you’re just temporarily dropping by AA to take the heat off)

Bringing in the sheep, bringing in the sheep,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheep;
Bringing in the sheep, bringing in the sheep,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheep.**

**Yes, I know it’s “sheaves,” but sheep is better.

Dismissing the need for the supernatural, and dispensing with the absolutism that no human power EV-AH has the least efficacy in the battle against alcoholism, most secularists will agree that quitting drinking isn’t easy. Many of us came to AA after the failure of our solitary efforts, and many of us remained in spite of serious differences in philosophy. We did so, at least in part, because of the inadequacy of our individual striving. Without being converted, many of us have been able to take enough of what was palatable, and leave little enough of what wasn’t. We were able to forge a sobriety that was not a mere white-knuckling–“I won’t drink, Goddammit!!!!” (Sorry, I lost my head)

We need help. We need resources. We may need direction and a new plan. We may need new circumstances, patterns, and reactions. We are very likely to benefit from community with the similarly afflicted. Alcoholics helping alcoholics has a long history of success. Some AA enthusiasts desperately want AA to be the first effective therapy ever. (HEY!! Don’t call it therapy!) It is far from being the first.

This inability to stay away from liquor is possibly produced by the existential angst experienced by most sober alcoholics. We didn’t drink for no reason after all. Too bad they didn’t call it “angst” instead of “spiritual malady,” bringing on all the baggage that accompanies that particular term. Of course, underlying the restlessness, irritability, and discontentedness, is very likely some sort of chemical soup differing from the inner workings of the non-alcoholic.

“Powerless” may be translated, possibly, to “really, really, really freakin hard!”


It would be silly to take the position that choice, and the will, play no part in an alcoholic getting sober. Even a reasonable portion of the “God Squadron” do not view humans as marionettes, twitching to the string-pulling of a benevolent puppet-master.

At the other polarity, that of the secularist-extremist, mere choice is seen as sufficient. On a daily basis, the will is marshaled for another day of battle. How is the effectiveness of choice alone? Not so good. If choice alone was sufficient, there’d be no need for Alcoholics Anonymous, Refuge Recovery, Smart, or any of the other programs designed to ramp up the odds. Am I contending that no problem drinker EV-AH sucked it up and quit drinking? No, not at all. Some do, and some of those are “real” alcoholics.

There’s a debate today as to whether addiction is a disease or a choice. Those with deep pockets and sufficient interest will find an academic treatment in Addiction and Choice: Rethinking the Relationship. Two Oxford professors, Nick Heather and Gabriel M. A. Segal, present the latest pieces addressing the subject. So far, the evidence seems to indicate that some percentage of the population is trying to choose, while suffering from some degree of diminished capacity in the power to make choices (at least where alcohol is involved). Almost a hundred years before AA, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Washingtonian Society, offering the cogent remarks that follow:

In my judgment such of us who have never fallen victims {to intemperate drinking} have been spared more by the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have. Indeed, I believe if we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads and their hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with those of any other class.

AA sees alcoholics as having a greater appetite for liquor. The first part of that is seen as a physical difference that Silkworth injudiciously referred to as a “phenomenon of craving.” Even more unwisely, perhaps, he described this physical component of alcoholism as being “like an allergy.” The Joe and Charlie Travelling Salvation Show explains Silkworth’s use of “allergy” as an abnormal reaction. For the alcoholic, there’s intuitive truth to be found in the idea of some sort of inherent abnormality. Perhaps.


The debate as to whether or not alcoholism is a disease is a rather technical one; the allergy debate even more so. Ultimately, neither is of much real concern to newcomers trying to get sober, nor to those of us trying to assist them. In William L. White’s masterwork, Slaying The Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, the touchy issue is rather cleverly dodged with: “Science is unlikely to destroy the disease concept, but a better metaphor could.” (P. 512, Second Edition)

Debating the issue of whether or not alcoholism and addiction are properly qualified to be described as diseases, probably doesn’t contribute to the sobering of any newcomers. In fact, the opposite effect may occur. It’s worth noting that the previous default position regarding alcoholics was that they were weak-willed, morally degenerate scumbags lacking the will power to get themselves together and drink like gentlemen.

Mr. Lincoln’s ideas about a difference in appetite were not widely shared.

Dr. Silkworth definitely erred in taking a word with an established English language usage and trying to twist it to a different meaning. Our craving for French fries, dark chocolate, or sexual communion does not start only AFTER the initial taste but PRECEDES it. Better he had gone the Robert Heinlein route of “Stranger in a Strange Land” in creating a whole NEW word, if you can grok where I’m coming from.

Dr. Bob, in his big book personal story, rather pointedly opts for the historical meaning of the word “craving.” Unlike most of our crowd, I did not get over my craving for liquor much during the first two- and one-half years of abstinence. It was almost always with me. But at no time have I been anywhere near yielding. (P. 181, Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition) The urge to drink herein described by the Akron physician as “craving,” was called “mental obsession” in AA speak. Possibly “insanity.”

Words are a tricky business. AA’s use of them has been imperfect.

About the Author

Bob K. is the author of Key Players in AA History. He is nearing completion on a work of biographical fiction The Secret Diaries of Bill W. Bob lives east of Toronto and is active in both traditional and secular AA. Six years ago, with Craig C., he cofounded Whitby Freethinkers. Away from AA, and writing, Bob teaches golf, and is a member of the PGA of Canada.

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. Maureen

    What a cogent analysis! “We need help. We need resources.” Acknowledgment of that reflects both power and powerlessness, as well as humility. We don’t need miracles; we need assistance in finding the way out of the mess we’re in.

    1. Bob K

      Well stated. And in about 2,500 less words 🙂

  2. Peter T

    If I were powerless over alcohol, I would never have been able to stop drinking.

    I’m powerless UNDER alcohol, so I choose not to put myself under it. That’s all there is to it for me.

    1. Bob K

      “Just say no.”

      — Nancy Reagan. 1987

      1. Peter T

        I think chapter 1 of the 1952 book may be the only one of the “front 12” chapters that does NOT have the word “God” in it. When I’m bored in meetings where they’re reading from the 1952 book, I count how many times the word “God” appears in the chapter 😀

  3. Jen

    “No human power could have relieved our alcoholism.”

    I always think that those words are a stark repudiation of Alcoholics Anonymous itself as a mighty force of human help.
    In the rooms of A.A., I found human kindness, human understanding, human wisdom and the oft-quoted human “experience, strength and

    1. Bob K

      William Schaberg’s recently released “WRITING the BIG BOOK — The Creation of AA” reveals, among other things, the HUGE role played by Hank Parkhurst in the production of AA’s 1939 text. Parkhurst relapsed, and along with his loss of sobriety, he forfeited his rightful place in AA history. His key role goes almost unacknowledged. Instead, Hank gets saddled with the blame for the ridiculous over-pricing of the book.

      Hank, along with Jim Burwell, and some others lobbied for a book based on psychology. Even in the 1930s, a percentage of members knew that AA’s efficacy was a human phenomenon. Unfortunately, those folks were a minority, and managed only a few concessions. Human power is under-rated in AA, although it is to be found at every meeting, and virtually every interaction between alcoholic.

  4. Scott J

    I very much enjoyed your essay. You put into words some vague notions that have bounced around inside my head. I do occasionally hear similarly clear, logical, well informed voices in AA meeting, but I wish I heard them more often.

    The wording of Step One, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol” was a stumbling point for me as a newcomer. I had MANY times exercised some power over my alcohol intake. MOST times, in fact. It was rare that I drank until incapacitated. I once went three months without a drop, completely on self will. Only the last few months of my drinking were daily drunks, and even then I mostly held myself to a six pack of beer and refrained from hard liquor.

    I certainly did lack power over my drinking, but “powerless over alcohol,” by default interpreted as “COMPLETELY powerless over alcohol ALL THE TIME,” does not describe my situation well. I was powerless to effectively limit my drinking whenever more booze was available. I lacked the power to decide to quit drinking and stick to that decision. And I was powerless halt the gradual but steady progression, my downward spiral, for as long as I continued to drink. By myself I lacked sufficient power to get better or even to just not get worse. That’s how I interpret “powerless over alcohol.”

    “I lack power therefore I need God” makes as much sense to me as “I lack power therefore I need the pantheon of Greek gods” or “therefore I need a Sufi guru” or “therefore I need Zen Buddhist koans.” I do want and need additional strength and guidance. But with countless thousands of possible sources of strength and guidance that I can tap, how does traditional AA continue to justify, in a modern, worldwide, multicultural movement in what will soon be the futuristic year of 2020, equating the need for additional power with a need to do the will of monotheism’s male creator deity?

    1. Bob K

      Thanks for your reply. You have certainly grasped the thrust of the essay, and summed it all up very nicely.

  5. Marty Nieski

    Nice job, Roger; separating the wheat from the sheaves or is chaff?

    1. Bobby Freaken Beach

      Roger? Roy Roger? Roger and Hammerstein? Jolly Roger? Roger Wilco?

  6. Uncle Tim H.

    I’m getting to the point where I don’t CARE to debate any of this anymore. My only care is to not drink and get on with my life. So sick of being an AA “slave” whether in the rooms or at the podium.

    1. Bob K

      This may not be the best website for someone seeking to avoid debate. Further, anyone who’s sick of AA should probably avoid sites with AA in the title.

  7. Dean W

    Thanks for your musings, Bob, and especially for the humor. The “disease concept” is interesting. It was sold, largely by early AA members, with no real scientific evidence. GSO told me that AA has no official opinion on alcoholism as a disease. OK, let’s just dance around the subject with words like “illness” and “malady.” Kurtz says the word disease as applied to alcoholism is simply a metaphor. Well, Ernie, I don’t think it was presented that way at the creation, and I doubt that many insurance companies would be willing to foot the bill for treatment of a metaphorical disease. They’d probably tell their patient to file a metaphorical claim. And if I go to my doctor with a non-metaphorical disease, say cancer, and she tells me the treatment is to get religion, I’ll probably sue for malpractice. But that “treatment” is prescribed in AA meetings every day. Sorry, Bob, obviously I ramble. Maybe musing is contagious …

  8. Diane I

    Loved the article Bob and your humour! You are so right, not everyone is the same. I have a cousin who quit cold turkey, on his own and is perfectly happy being sober for I think over 30 years. I couldn’t have done it that way, but good for him!

  9. Philip

    An alcoholic faced with this situation of a gun pointed at his head would probably try,

    * To argue endlessly with the gunman, to try and persuade them to allow just one more drink, even at the risk of getting shot.
    * Distract the gunman and risk his life, sneaking the drink.
    * Fight the gunman and risk getting shot in order to get the drink.
    * Leave without the drink and go straight to a bar.

    These are some alternatives, which someone powerless over alcohol would use but a normal drinker would not.

    It’s not just choice of (1) Powerless and get shot, (2) Not powerless and don’t get shot.

    1. Bob K

      If you would start a fight with someone holding a gun to your head, good luck with that. You wouldn’t do that and you know it.

  10. joe C

    Touche, Bobby Beach! Another well delivered mic-drop for liberal recovery.

    The positive definition of “reification,” is to make something abstract, concrete. The phenomena of alcohol use disorder (an abstract idea) is more relatable as something concrete: allergy, disease, addiction, behavioral disorder. There’s no harm in adopting some concrete idea (including “powerlessness” if you like) as a personal means of understanding my relationship to alcohol or other drugs/behaviors. It’s not anything that requires universal consensus. In Marxism, reification is the process by which social relations are perceived as inherent attributes of the people involved in them–that brings to mind another definition of “reification” which is an abstraction becomes codified by society and said code hardens, becomes rigid and non-malleable.

    For AA’s who come to recovery in a state of chaos, subjecting oneself to a health authority isn’t wrong. If it’s supernatural, latch on and pray. If it’s rational/secular (natural), commit to a course of action, trust the power of example in 12-Step or other meetings, have faith in a process. It just gets polluted when suggested steps, become obligatory or written words on a page becomes distorted as some universal experience. Said here on AA Beyond Belief before, “Don’t include ‘me’ in your ‘we.'” We may all aim for sobriety, that may be the primary purpose of an AA group but while the “what” may be identified as a shared goal, the “how” is personal and even the definition of bottom-line sobriety is individual. AA doesn’t tell us what sobriety looks like. For some it includes a wee toke once in a while. For others, caffeine, nicotine, infidelity and white flower are inebrity.


    1. Bob K

      BTW, I’d KILL to be as good-looking as Bobby Beach!! Have you seen that guy??

      1. Bobby Freaken Beach

        Why thank you Bob K. You may be ugly, but I hear you’re a Hell of a golfer!!

  11. Bob K

    In the old days, it seemed to me that even the God-crazed could wait until the second Step to slide in God under the pseudonym “Higher Power Beach.” Step One was a statement of the problem:
    1. I cannot drink moderately;
    2. I cannot quit drinking on my own unaided resources;
    3. I cannot comfortably be sober without some “personality change,” or alteration of attitude.

    I don’t think the secularist needed to have a problem with Step One until members started saying “Powerlessness necessitates calling on the One Who has All Power.” Conn Edison?? No, God.
    Tens of thousands have found all the power they needed in the AA community and secularized versions of some of the practices. For me, that’s a better choice than “Just don’t drink, damnit!!”

    From our end, let’s not make this “powerless over EVERYTHING.” The step says “powerless over alcohol.” I had repeated failures at trying to quit drinking on my own. Not sure that “powerless” may not be a wee bit hyperbolic, but it was F%^$ing hard!!!!”

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