This is an excerpt from my book Buddhism &The Twelve Steps Workbook, available on CreateSpace.com at https://www.createspace.com/4580491.
The language of Step One, especially the idea of being “powerless,” can distract us from what the Step is really about: quitting. As much as the Twelve Steps and Buddhism are spiritual practices, they are both founded in action, in behavior. And the starting point of that behavior in the Steps and in recovery is to stop doing what we’ve been doing. This is the simple function of this Step, to change our addictive behavior so that we can start the work of recovery.
I also find it useful to view Step One as the beginning of a process, the archetypal spiritual journey. The journey starts in darkness, a “bottom,” that wakes us up to the unworkable nature of our lives as we’ve been living them. Just as Buddhism starts with insight into suffering, recovery starts when we honestly confront our own pain. This may be as simple as a persistent cough triggering the thought, “I’ll never see my grandkids grow up if I don’t quit smoking,” or as dramatic as waking up from a blackout in a prison cell—and not knowing why you’re there. No one can tell you what your bottom is. I’ve been amazed over the years of my recovery to see how little it sometimes took to push someone over the line into a program, or on the other hand, how resistant someone could be to recognizing their need for help even when everything in their life was falling apart.
Yes, Step One is about Powerlessness and Unmanageability, but both of those things are meant to motivate you to quit.
This exercise can be done as a writing process, a sharing process, or a contemplative process. The main thing is to be honest. Totally honest.
When speakers tell their stories at 12 Step meetings, the classic format is to describe “what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.” This exercise covers just the first part of that formula.
Go through in detail every case where you acted on your addiction and the results weren’t good. Start with your earliest memories, maybe getting caught drinking, getting sick, blacking out; perhaps you missed school, crashed a car, got arrested. What about violence? Emotional outbursts?
Did you waste money? Damage relationships? Waste professional opportunities?
How many times did you act like a jerk? Take foolish risks? Sleep with someone you didn’t know or care about?
How did your addiction affect your emotional states, causing depression, anxiety, anger, apathy, mania, irritability, or any other moods?
You get the idea, and I’m sure you can come up with your own consequences. The important thing isn’t to remember every single event, but to establish in your conscious mind the persistent nature of the destructive effects of your addiction. This is fundamental to destroying any vestige of denial, so that you never again can tell yourself, “It wasn’t that bad.” Sure, it might not have been “that bad” every time or all the time, but if you look at the whole scope of your addiction, the years it dragged on and all the ways it hurt you and others, it’s bound to make an impression. That’s the result we want from this exercise.
Writing all this down and sharing it with a sponsor or other trusted person is a great way to embed a basic truth in your mind: It doesn’t work!