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Step 1, Explained: The Highlights

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol– that our lives had become unmanageable.

The first step is one of the most vital in the program. It requires the foundation admission that we have a problem. Without that admission, we cannot begin recovery since we haven’t recognized anything is wrong with us.

But upon entering A.A. we soon take quite another view of this absolute humiliation. We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.


The idea behind the first step is the acceptance that we can’t control our drinking. The loss of control looks like the following:

  1. When we drink, we lose control over the amounts and outcomes.
  2. When we try to control our drinking, we can’t enjoy it.

Let us look at the often overlooked but vital concepts that the first step describes for coming to terms with ourselves about the loss of control.

We retain control over other aspects of our lives.

Bafflingly, many of us still manage to hold a job, maintain relationships with friends and family, and lead seemingly successful lives. Alcohol hasn’t turned us into complete failures with no outer accomplishments.

The contradiction makes it difficult for us to accept that we have lost control of our drinking. “I can handle everything else just fine–what makes my drinking any different?” we tell ourselves.

We falsely believe that outward success protects against a spiraling drinking addiction. We may even ignore clear warnings that our obsession is starting to interfere in aspects of our lives that we tried to shield from our drinking. For example, we may have already had complaints from our spouse that it is getting out of hand and harming the relationship. Or we have gotten warnings from employers that we were late or made a scene during a company outing.

We lost the ability to control our drinking.

Despite appearances, we must admit that drinking has taken a life of its own. Our lives had become unmanageable as the result of an out-of-control addiction.

What we have left will eventually be jeopardized by the growing proportions our drinking problem takes on.

We can look back on recent times. We’ll find numerous occasions where we started to dink with no intention of losing control. However, once we started, we quickly forgot the promises we made to ourselves. We would end up at places we had no intention of when we started and feel shame.

We can recall countless times where we end up in complete bewilderment at the result of a drinking bout. This state of bafflement indicates a loss of control — powerlessness once we pick up the first drink.

We can accept step 1 despite our control of most other matters.

With the two points above, we don’t have to struggle with reconciling the contradiction: we control many things, except for drinking. You don’t have to be at complete rock bottom to accept step 1.

Step 1 means you cannot safely use alcohol. It doesn’t mean you have to believe you are a failure in life in general. Alcoholics can build very successful lives, and you don’t have to despair in defeat that you’re one too.

Step 1 doesn’t ask you to think less of yourself or your accomplishments. It asks for the willingness to believe you can’t control your alcohol consumption, and it impairs your ability to live the best life.

We might have genuinely had control at one time

Another confusion is that many point to a time in their life when they showed sane control of their usage. The timeframe is usually early on their drinking careers, before the point where they crossed into alcoholism.

We don’t start as problematic drinkers. Our first foray is often a time of excitement and fun where booze played a critical role. After all, if booze weren’t fun and made us feel good, there’d be no point to imbibe. On the other hand, most of us can’t point to the exact time we crossed over to alcoholism. It just comes.

Sometimes, we drank moderately for many nights and put it down. Our stories also may contain long stretches where we did exhibit control. These stretches may give you the impression that you didn’t lose power. They make you believe you’re an exception to the concept of “powerlessness.”

Don’t be fooled. Even if the periods of control were long, such as months or years, we invariably return to the times of no power. Times of management are no protection, and often we find we are worse off when those times end. Alcoholism is progressive, meaning it only gets worse over time, not better.

We never regain control.

With the first step admission, you accept that you will never regain the ability to drink moderately. Despite all the points in our story where we can debate this, we realize that any period of control we thought we had was temporary.

It is sometimes a struggle to think about the loss. We may mourn that we’ve warped our minds in such a way that we no longer have the privilege to take a substance. It is challenging to be a part of a world where alcohol is a staple, and so many others can consume it without the painful consequences we did.

However, accept the loss we must, if we are to rebuild a sober life without chaos. We may find comfort in the idea that we lost control because we abused the privilege to drink.

There’s no making a cucumber out of a pickle. It has permanently crossed the line into pickle-hood. So we shouldn’t waste our energy in seeking new ways to regain control of our drinking and return to the fun glory days of our early careers.


Step 1 is the admission of defeat. We can’t live life well while we are drinking because we are in the grips of addiction.

The rest of the 12 steps don’t let us recover control. The rest of the steps make us arrange our lives to become comfortable as non-alcoholics. 

The first step is the beginning of our lives as non-drinkers. It marks a crucial point where we see we have the problem, rather than the world around us. With this foundation, we can start the journey with the rest of the steps.

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