The Myths of Powerlessness and Disease

A woman surrounded by empty bottles peers into one of themEditor’s Note: The following article was written solely by the authors listed above. The views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of GoodTherapy.org. Questions and concerns regarding the article’s content can be directed to the authors or posted as a comment below. 

AA and 12-step based programs, which make up 98% of U.S. treatment programs, are based on premises that both research and experience indicate are not only unfounded, but actually prevent you from getting over your problems and leave you with less than a 5% chance of recovery over five years. This article is based on the article 6 Secrets Ex-Drinkers Know That You Don’t, and 12-Step Programs Don’t Want You To Find Out that we posted on our website last year. We felt we needed to get the facts into wider circulation, so here’s a newly minted rendition of the first two “secrets” for your consideration.

Myth #1: You’re Powerless

What happens if or when you attend your first AA meeting? Shortly after you arrive you sit down and then one of the first things you’ll hear is that you’re powerless when it comes to alcohol. Just when you’ve finally taken the initiative to do something about your drinking problem, you’re told you’re powerless. Probably not exactly what you want or need.

Are you truly powerless? Is it even helpful to see yourself that way?

Does this basic principle of AA apply to you? Or is it complete nonsense?

Are you truly out of control in other aspects of your life? For over 95% of us the answer is a resounding “NO.” Like all of us, you’ve experienced both success and occasional disappointment. But you were hardly powerless. And you are no more helpless today. Quite the opposite.

When someone tells you you’re powerless to deal with alcohol, it’s a cop out, an easy way to deny your responsibility and never actually make any progress in resolving the problem. But once you’re hooked on the idea that you’re a victim, and the only people who can help you are the members of the 12-step group, how much progress do you think you’ll make?

In a word, NONE!

You actually do, however, have the power to change. What you need is expert guidance in how to exert your personal control. Imagine if you were struggling to lose weight and someone told you that you were powerless. You’d be doomed to failure. That’s what will happen to you if you buy the idea that you have no control over alcohol. Is that what you want?

Or do you want to be someone who is in charge of your life and on the track to success? If this is the case, your thinking is going in the right direction and you can achieve your goals. The real “first step” is to ignore the idea that you’re powerless. You have the power to make choices and changes and don’t need groups, labels, and more irresponsibility to go with it.

Research shows that people who believe they are “powerless” are far more prone to relapse into destructive drinking than those who don’t and actually increase their binge rate four to seven times what it was before they “admitted they were powerless.”

Don’t let failed models keep you from seeking help in the early stages of alcohol abuse.

Myth #2: You Have an Incurable, Progressive Disease!

If you have ever been to alcohol rehab or AA or talked to almost anybody about alcoholism, you have probably noticed that nearly everyone immediately puts on a solemn face and says, “Well, you know, it’s a disease. You’ll need to stay clean and sober for the rest of your life, or it will kill you.”

Wrong! There is no evidence that it’s a disease and ample evidence that it isn’t progressive. Alcoholism is a symptom and a coping mechanism that’s gotten out of control. It’s easy to forget that alcohol is a drug, and—as its popularity shows—an extremely effective one. It reduces anxiety and tension with speed, effectiveness, and availability that other drugs can’t hope to match.

So stop thinking about alcoholism as a disease and think about it as a symptom of other things in your life that are not working. Drinking too much is a behavior that needs to be modified or eliminated. You do it with other behaviors all of the time; you can do it with alcohol, too.

You might be asking, “So where did this ‘disease of alcoholism’ come from?”

In part, it came from treatment programs hoping to cash in on medical insurance; if it’s a disease, insurance should pay to treat it. The problem was, the insurance companies quickly realized that disease-based programs didn’t work, so they quit paying for them.

What the disease concept does provide is an “out” for people who wish to continue an alcohol-centered life under the guise of being “powerless” victims—people who wish to maintain the behaviors but escape the criticism of spouses, employers, and judges while they “work their program.” You have to admit there is some appeal there.

But what if you actually want to fix your life? Then it simply becomes a stumbling block, one which, if you embrace it, will kill you. You will just keep going to meetings, relapsing, bingeing, and “recovering” until you’re dead, never realizing that quitting is a choice you have—a choice you can exercise. Don’t you want to be a fully functional person who re-asserts control over your life?

So skip being powerless over a non-existent disease. You can, you know. It’s your choice.

© Copyright 2009 by Edward Wilson, Ph.D., MAC, therapist in Rolling Hills Estates, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Margaret

    Margaret

    April 19th, 2009 at 4:07 AM

    I am not powerless over anything. When I set my mind to it I know I can do what needs to be done in order to be a success. Alcoholism is a problem but not one that cannot be overcome. It is the 12 step programs that perpetuate this powerless issue not great blogs like yours. Keep up the great work!

  • Carla

    Carla

    April 20th, 2009 at 4:58 AM

    Thanks so much for this informative article. It is thoughts like these that I have been thinking for years but never have the guts to say aloud because all of the avid 12 steppers are sure to shoot you down. I have been thru a 12 step program, not for alcohol but for another addiction, and I swear these programs are like moving from one sick coping mecahnism to another. They make you feel like this is the only way to heal and get strong, whereas my experience gave a whole different perspective on the issue. The 12 step program actually wore me down because it made me come to believe that I was powerless to do anything about it without them behind me. That is simply not true. I found so much love kindness and support from my friends family and my faith that I found more success after I actually stopped going to the meetings and began focusing more on the things and the people that I loved the most. It may work for some but I think that overall it is just a scam to keep you on your painful cycle and no closer to recovery.

  • Mary Ellen and Ed

    Mary Ellen and Ed

    April 20th, 2009 at 6:38 AM

    Thank you so much for your comments, and you are correct, it is largely a scam perpetrated by the treatment “industry” which relies on on recycling clients time after time after time until there isn’t another dime to be squeezed out of them – then blaming the client for “not working their program.”

    I have not forgotten being terminated 25 years ago from a still famous and operating MN residential program at the end of my probationary year because my clients weren’t relapsing! I was proud of my 60+% success rate and was told that anything over 10% was unacceptable.

    Unhappily that hasn’t changed – it’s actually gotten worse with the target now more like less than 5% “success.”

    So, congratulations on finding your way out of the traps! And back to life.

    Ed

  • Ben

    Ben

    April 20th, 2009 at 8:46 PM

    I think this article made a lot more sense than any advice on dealing with alcoholism. It’s so true that we are conscious and in control of everything that happens in our life unless we suffer from a debilitating illness. Bad habits are just that. Habits can be broken with determination, change of environment and social set up if necessary.

  • Marilyn

    Marilyn

    April 20th, 2009 at 8:51 PM

    My son is fighting drugs and alcohol abuse. This article made me realise why he doesnt seem to knock it off for good. It’s sad that conventional therapy has never targetted the confidence level of an addict. The cure has to come from self motivation.

  • Lars

    Lars

    April 21st, 2009 at 3:59 AM

    I find it fascinating that AA seems to be the only route that many people try to take when overcoming a drug or alcohol problem. It is almost like the creators want you to fail at it so they can constantly tell you that this is a disease, it is progressive and that you need tham to hold your hand for the rest of your life to help you find your way out of the darkness of addiction. Why not church? Why not faith or friends? Like Carla I think that many things like this when done in as much earnest as some give to their AA participation could be very useful in helping them to overcome their fears and turn their lives into a success.

  • Jean W

    Jean W

    April 22nd, 2009 at 6:14 AM

    What’s up with all of the AA bashing? My brother would have never stopped drinking and stayed sober without it.

  • Mary Ellen and Ed

    Mary Ellen and Ed

    April 22nd, 2009 at 8:05 AM

    It’s hardly “bashing” to report the actual research – perhaps you’re right in you’re brother’s case, an maybe you’re not. He’s sober, it doesn’t matter to him. But it does matter when myths – and both the “powerless” and “disease” concepts are proven myths – prevent others from getting over their alcohol abuse because they’ve been misinformed.

    Let’s remember, AA “works” for about 3% of the men who try it, and less than 2% of women. That’s hardly a success in anyone’s book.

  • Jean W

    Jean W

    April 23rd, 2009 at 2:41 PM

    But for those it has worked for I find it a little dismissive to say that it perpetuates the powerless myth. Can’t we just agree that different approaches work for different people and that there are people out there that AA gives credible support to? I do not think that it is the right program for every single alcoholic out there- nothing ever is. But it has been around for a long time now, and I would have to think that much of that longevity is because of the help that it has offered to so many in their times of desperation and need. My brother relapsed many times before getting sober for good. And maybe you are right- maybe AA was not the cure all. But it helped him at the right time when he needed it and for that he and my whole family are grateful.

  • Mary Ellen and Ed

    Mary Ellen and Ed

    April 23rd, 2009 at 3:29 PM

    We agree that there are people whom AA has helped. However, there are also those whom AA has harmed and those who have been grossly misled.

    If the treatment industry AA has spawned was willing to say, “With our AA 12-Step philosophy, we offer you the possibility of success at 4% for men and 2% for women,” then we would be happy to include them among resources to try. But of course they don’t.

    It’s good to remember that those “going to AA” have a lower rate of maintaining abstinence (5%). Frankly, the research shows that AA has prevented more people from getting sober than it’s helped. Indeed, most people who begin attending AA actually increase their alcohol consumption.

    Again – our aim to to provide individuals with accurate information, which, in the treatment industry is virtually nonexistent. Why would you want us to continue to perpetuate the false concepts that harm those seeking help or relief from alcohol abuse?

  • Dot

    Dot

    April 24th, 2009 at 3:57 AM

    it is difficult to imagine but I was once the raging alcoholic and I can tell you from my own experience that until I was ready deep down inside to make the changes that I needed to make to control my addiction then there was no program in the world that was going to save me.

  • Mary Ellen & Ed

    Mary Ellen & Ed

    April 24th, 2009 at 8:06 AM

    We understand that, both personally and professionally – though the point at which change occurs varies dramatically from one person to another as do the routes back to health. We have never had 2 clients whose “after alcohol life” has matched another’s, though the real underlying problems – loneliness, boredom, anxiety, fear, etc. – are frequently similar.

    Congratulations on finding your way to a good life!

  • Anna

    Anna

    April 26th, 2009 at 10:21 PM

    I think there are 2 sides 2 every coin.

  • Mary Ellen and Ed

    Mary Ellen and Ed

    April 27th, 2009 at 6:48 AM

    Perhaps, but it helps if the coin isn’t a wooden nickle…

  • Steven

    Steven

    April 30th, 2009 at 2:05 AM

    I think I agree with u on AA. I actually had to get into therapy to kick the habit as I kept returning to it with every attempt at deaddiction through AA. This was exactly what I was advised. I realised I was in control of everything in my life. It took a lot of grit, family support and a great therapist but I’ve been clean 2 years now.

  • kERI

    kERI

    April 30th, 2009 at 2:45 AM

    Very good piece of info that needed to be shared. Anyone can do anything if they set their mind to it. It takes work and will power. I totally believe that we do have the power to control some things in our life and make it better. thanks for the great article

  • Bryon Sabatino

    Bryon Sabatino

    April 30th, 2009 at 1:17 PM

    As a specialist in the treatment of substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, I am pro choice. I honor all models of recovery and simply make sure that the model and the client are a good fit. We don’t have to argue over who’s right and who’s wrong. Our jobs as therapists are to meet the client where they are and to skillfully work with them from there. I find when I do that, there is no controvercy, even within the context of group therapy.

  • Mary Ellen and Ed

    Mary Ellen and Ed

    May 1st, 2009 at 6:41 AM

    Thank you, Bryon,

    It’s a point well taken, and if every facility operated on your basis the piece would be unnecessary. However, 97+% of all facilities operate on a “powerless” model which is, at best, marginally effective for less than 15% of their clients. Simply because you, and we, operate on an actual matching model doen’t change the underlying problems of treatment generally.

    Nor does it change the public’s preception that the AA/12-Step model is somehow more than it is: a route for about 4% of the men who try it, and 2% of the women.

  • Caroline the BassPlayinLass

    Caroline the BassPlayinLass

    May 9th, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    Thank you! I’ve been saying these things for years but 12-Steppers act like you’ve insulted their mothers, or their religion, when you try to say they may be wrong. The fact is I was an addict for many years and went to rehab after rehab, all 12-Step based, and all told me that if I didn’t get “the Program” that I would never get clean –and I believed them. I figured that I was a hopeless addict. That I was morally unable to get “it”. I figured everyone would be better off without me and started engaging in some REALLY high risk behavior that I will now have to deal with forever. Because of what the 12-Steppers told me after tearing me down for so long. I FINALLY realized that going to meetings and hanging out with other addicts wasn’t working. And that I DID have control. Been clean for 8 years WITHOUT that horrible NA Program! Meditation and love of thy self! Peace.

  • Jean

    Jean

    April 29th, 2017 at 7:33 AM

    Ok folks AA is not the only way however it is an easier softer way than living in the hell in your head of wanting to drink or use. I am powerless over alcohol when I try to do it myself … But not when I enlist help from my higher power and get out of self. Being clean and sober is not the only deal is learning to live life on life’s terms and having peace. Your right ,I have a choice every day to pick up or not but once I do … God help what happens .. Next … So I choose to turn my will my want over to my God who will take my pain away for the moment for the day … Then I can live in the moment … Not in my head … There fore today I don’t plan to drink. It’s about peace, love and getting out of self … That is the way I choose to live …

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