Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step One is a paradox for me. On one level, it is the simplest, least threatening and most self-evident of the steps, and on another level, it is terrifying and oppressive. I suspect this is true for many alcoholics and addicts.
Anyone observing my life, especially during my high school years, would immediately see it being played out to the letter, and the last thing they would do is argue the point. I, however, begged to differ, and that is a major component of the disease of addiction as I’ve experienced it: No matter how recklessly I drank and did drugs, how much damage I caused to myself and others, or what I sacrificed in order to stay as inebriated as possible, it remained incredibly difficult for me to perceive (let alone embrace) that there is something fundamentally different about my relationship with mind-altering substances from that of “normal” people. The very concept made me seethe every time I thought about it. How could I ever be at peace with myself?
Taking Step One—really, truly taking it—is likely the most significant turning point in any alcoholic’s life, and it goes without saying that such an important hurdle is not easy to overcome. I have often heard this step paraphrased as “admitting there’s a problem,” but the semantic difference between that statement and the actual wording of the step is like night and day. Admitting that one has a problem with alcohol (or whatever it may be) is easy enough to do, as it leaves open the possibility of restoration; a “problem” can be solved. Powerlessness is far more dire and absolute. To be completely and totally powerless over something summons feelings of great hopelessness.
Being a practitioner of magic, as most Pagans are, this Step posed certain challenges to me that may not come up for others who do not practice magic. The words “magic” and “power” go together like peas and carrots, so much so, that some see little more in magic than a means of obtaining and exercising power. Whether or not that is true is, of course, debatable and has a great deal to do with how one defines the word “power.” On the whole, I would say such a supposition generally holds true despite the fact that there are so many different motives that people have for practicing magic.
In magical acts, we tap transcendent sources of power as a means of effecting change. We may be primarily focused on bringing about said change in the world around us, or we may be more interested in changing ourselves; with continued practice, the lines between the two begin to blur unavoidably due to the nature of magic itself. Thus, even those who seek primarily to use magic as a way of gaining power over the world around them eventually learn that without gaining sufficient mastery over the self, they will only get so far before hitting a brick wall blocking the way to further progress.
Either way, magical alcoholics can potentially be screwed royally by Step One in ways that “muggles” will never understand. After all, whether dealing with external or internal matters, the practice of magic opens up avenues that can bring about desired results when all other means fail to do so; when we cannot manage to manifest our desired situation, magic also gives us tools for changing ourselves instead, so one way or another, magic brings an increased facility for bringing about alignment between one’s inner yearnings and the world around one. It’s kind of a win-win most of the time.
In my case, however, all of the advantages that normally come with magical practice became stumbling blocks. I had previously managed to leverage the power of magic to help me overcome any inner obstacle; no, it wasn’t as simple as waving a wand and transforming overnight, but I had managed to make significant and steady progress toward every inner, psychic change that I put my mind to. I’ve successfully invoked greater patience, fortitude, compassion, courage, discipline, honor and joy over the years. Granted, anyone can do that, but magical work facilitates the process and allows it to happen much more quickly and radically. The quality of malleability had been woven into the very fabric of my identity—but here was Alcoholics Anonymous, telling me that I was born an alcoholic, remained an alcoholic, and would die an alcoholic, no matter what I did.
“No thanks! I’ll fix this, even if it takes me a few years. I am Master of My Domain and can succeed where the weak-willed continually fail.” That is what my magical voice said over and over again, for years.
There is a stigma attached to alcoholism, but unlike most other stigmas, it is one that probably rings even more true to the one carrying the stigma than to those lobbing it at them. It looks and feels like a moral failing, even once one accepts the idea that it is really a disease (and there is growing evidence that alcoholics really metabolize alcohol differently than do non-alcoholics). Pinpointing the biological differences that cause us to experience, process and crave alcohol differently from others doesn’t alleviate the guilt and shame associated with our repeated failures to bring ourselves under control, or the pain we cause ourselves and others, and it has to do with the role that our own agency plays in the disease. If you get cancer, you get cancer–nobody says, “Let’s go down to the liquor store and get some cancer. It’ll devastate my friends and family, but what the hell?” It comes up, and you deal with it. With addictions, it is different; while addicts and alcoholics have a condition that makes them more vulnerable to mind-altering substances than others, we are not victims and the difference between bringing suffering down upon ourselves and our loved ones or living a more healthy, less destructive life comes down to a decision we make.
To one who has built their life around magical practice, constantly honing and training the will, coming up against the failure to employ it in the case of drugs and alcohol is even more devastating than it might be to someone else. Because there is so much emphasis on self-mastery in the practice of magic, the stigma associated with alcoholism is worse and the weight of failure much heavier for the alcoholic adept. Indeed, it felt to me that being an alcoholic constituted an irrevocable disqualification from ever becoming an adept at all.
There was an important lesson there for me to learn: Ultimately, it came down to facing the exact same thing every recovering alcoholic eventually has to face: We can’t do everything, and there comes a point for everyone at which the most empowering thing we can do is to surrender. It is, in fact, one of the great Mysteries that any adept, whether alcoholic or not, must eventually face: The Mystery of Saturn, in which we come to understand that limitations can actually be freeing, and that the principle of expansion and freedom cannot fully bloom and come to its full potential without being counterbalanced by restriction and contraction. Adepthood comes only after recognizing that omnipotence is neither possible nor desirable, and that there is great power in knowing one’s limits and figuring them into the equation of one’s plans. While magic gives us ways to play with reality and seemingly bend the rules, it does not allow us to circumvent them.
There are many, whether Pagan or not, who have rejected A.A. because they refuse to take on the label of “alcoholic” and consider doing so to be harmful to one’s psyche. A Pagan may be more likely to take this route than a non-Pagan because self-empowerment is a core value of Paganism, though. Such people contend that calling oneself an alcoholic brings about a self-fulfilling prophecy and that we would all be better off casting those chains aside and claiming our sovereignty over ourselves. I can understand the reasoning at work there, especially when one has grown accustomed to constantly challenging and transcending labels. Unfortunately, what one should remember is that labels are harmful only in that they distort the truth and thus confine us in ways that are unnecessary and often unjust. However, alcoholism is a physical malady (at least a physical one, for anyone who understands the Hermetic axiom of “As above, so below” will immediately see why the founders of A.A. also considered it to be a spiritual affliction). It has a basis in objective reality and no amount of wishful thinking will change that reality. We cannot banish it and instead must invoke its opposite–that is, sobriety. It’s not just a negative story that we tell ourselves. I am not saying that the program of A.A. is entirely free from labels and negative self-talk; on the contrary, I see it happening in meetings all the time, and addressing those issues is one of my motivations for writing this series of posts. However, the term “alcoholic” itself is not an example of that. Skepticism about alcoholism is a lot like skepticism about magic, in its way: Someone who simply has not had the experience of either alcoholism or magical work will never be able to see through the eyes of someone who has. You’ve either been there or you haven’t.
Thus, those who vehemently object to self-identifying as “alcoholic” are either in denial, or they were never alcoholic to begin with. They can argue all they’d like about it, but won’t make much headway with a person who has experienced and come to accept their powerlessness over alcohol. In the end it doesn’t much matter: (S)he who has had the experience and successfully integrated it will go on to do things they would otherwise never have found the power to do.
And that is magical.