Many who are in recovery recall only too well the difficulty of trusting that a simple 12 step program will help us overcome the complexity of our alcohol and drug addiction. Especially as our problems seem insurmountable. That said, most people with even passing awareness of Alcoholics Anonymous know the first step is admitting we have a problem and that we can’t solve it on our own; the first step is admitting you are powerless.
“It’s a deceptively simple proposition,” says Diane Young, Addiction and Trauma specialist at South Pacific Private, Australia’s leading addiction treatment centre, “but understanding what the step entails is key to starting a successful recovery journey.”
The first step of recovery was described by Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, in The Big Book: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
In the addiction treatment field, this is sometimes termed as “surrender”.
While the idea of surrender may feel counterintuitive — it’s often associated with giving up or admitting defeat — in the context of recovery, it’s not about weakness or failure.
Surrender is about letting go of blame and ego and excuses and the idea that we are able to control our addiction. Instead, we admit we have lost control, we need help, and we are ready for intervention.
“It’s a courageous, vulnerable, radical act of honesty, self-awareness and humility,” Diane says. American author Sarah Elizabeth Lewis describes surrender as “giving in, not giving up.”
Why is it so important in terms of step one?
“Because if we externalise our problems and blame others or pretend it’s not a problem, then we’re saying it’s everyone else’s fault or nothing needs to change, and we’re kind of implicitly saying that we’re not responsible for our own actions and there’s no path toward fixing things,” Diane says.
“It’s true that other people may have inflicted trauma and cruelty and pain and failed their most basic responsibilities to us,” Diane says, “but we have to accept that we are responsible for our own recovery and healing, that we are the ones who need to become aware of how our past has impacted us, accept where we find ourselves and take action to change it.”
The first step is admitting you have a problem.
It’s about realising that our coping mechanisms aren’t working, our ‘just one last time’ excuses are dishonest, and that blaming others or self-sabotaging is leading nowhere. “There’s a power in that admission,” Diane says.
Another thing to realize, treatment specialists point out, is that surrender can only come from within. While we can support and encourage a loved one to seek treatment, we ultimately cannot control their thinking or their readiness for treatment.
“That can be something that’s incredibly difficult to accept, especially when you’re watching someone you love destroy themselves,” Diane says. “Instead, we need to learn how to set boundaries, engage healthily and ensure we’re not enabling or exacerbating the problem.
For more advice on speaking with a loved one about an addiction problem, read our guide to healthy, productive conversations about addiction treatment.
Surrender vs Resistance
For surrender to truly put us on the path to recovery, Diane says, it has to be accompanied by an admission that we need help and support.
“We have to also be willing to accept we may have co-occurring issues such as trauma, depression, anxiety or other addictions or mental health issues, and we need to be ready to accept treatment and support for those as well,” Diane says.
The opposite of surrender is resistance, and resisting help is never a good starting point.
Resistance sounds like:
“I’m choosing to do this, I can choose to stop and right now I’m choosing to keep going.”
“Other people have it much worse than I do. I’m fine.”
“I don’t want to lose my friends. They won’t understand if I stop drinking/using drugs.”
“I’m not a drug addict / alcoholic.”
“I don’t care if I get better or not. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“My addiction is the only thing that makes me feel better, I’m not going to give that up.”
“I’ve tried everything. Nothing works. There’s no point in even trying anymore. I’m just broken.”
“Nobody understands what I’m going through, there’s no way they can help me.”
“Alcoholics Anonymous / rehab isn’t for people like me.”
Surrender sounds like:
“I can’t do this on my own. I need help.”
“Addiction has taken over my life.”
“I’m ready to try something different to overcome my addiction.”
“Others who have been through this probably have useful advice.”
“I’m willing to be honest about the extent of my addiction and its impact on my life and the lives of others, even though that might be a painful process.”
“I need to take responsibility for my actions.”
“I’m committed to doing what it takes to recover from my addiction.”
“I’m an addict.”
Diane breaks down four key elements of the first step that are helpful in laying the foundations for a successful recovery journey:
Honesty: Admitting the extent of our addiction demands honesty with ourselves and others. It involves acknowledging the negative impact of addiction on our lives and the lives of others, and accepting responsibility for our actions.
Ownership: Surrender involves accepting we have become addicted and need help and support. It involves letting go of judgment, denial, blame and excuses and taking ownership of our own recovery journey.
Outreach: Surrender involves letting go of the need for control and ego and accepting the support of others. It requires a willingness to try something new and to accept help and guidance from others. This involves reaching out to friends and family, joining support groups, or seeking professional guidance from therapists, counselors, or treatment programs like South Pacific Private.
Trust: As we surrender and open ourselves up to the support of others, we instead place our trust in the process of recovery. Trusting in the journey, the guidance of others, and our own resilience allows us to stay committed and motivated, even when faced with challenges or setbacks.
Advice for the first step
Going through the first step and embracing surrender can be a rollercoaster ride, Diane says.
“The first days as you enter a rehab or commit to seeking help are a little daunting for all of us, but they can also be euphoric and liberating” she says. “You don’t want to stress yourself out too much by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, the best advice is to really just stay in the present moment and try to ground yourself.”
Treatment experts recommend practicing self-compassion, reaching out for professional support, being patient with yourself, and reinforcing a commitment to following the recovery process through.
“Even though it can feel incredibly isolating and overwhelming and like nobody understands how you feel, I’ve been working in addiction treatment long enough to know that thousands of us have gone through that experience before, and there is a path to recovery and happiness at the other end,” Diane says. “But every journey truly does start with that first step.”
If you’re ready to take the first step, or would like to speak with us about a loved one who might be struggling, please call our intake line on 1800 063 332 or take a free, online self-assessment.