Wednesday, 1 December 2010

What is unmanageability?

A game of two halves?

At Step One meetings, a distinction is often made between 'the first half of Step One' and 'the second half of Step One'.

The 'Big Book' (Alcoholics Anonymous) does not distinguish between different 'halves' of Step One. The first reference to a 'first step' is on page 30:

"We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery." (30:2)

To take this idea further, we turn to page 44, paragraph 1:

"We hope we have made clear the distinction between the alcoholic and the non-alcoholic. If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic."

The definition of alcoholism, therefore boils down to two elements: I have a mind that takes me back to drink and a body that compels me to continue drinking once I start.

Lack of choice—lack of control—lack of power. These are self-evidently synonymous.

Yet, when we arrive at the summary of the Steps on page 58, we are confronted, apparently with a further, new element to Step One.

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

Unmanageability is not mentioned in the Book before this point.

What must the writers have meant?

This leaves us with a question—what did the writers mean by 'unmanageable'. AA meetings and AA oral tradition abound with theories.

Examples we are given include the messy situations we get into drunk, the messy situations we get into sober, the obvious craziness of most newcomers, the 'bedevilments' on page 52, the 'boy whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits' on page 152, the alcoholic with the double life described on page 73. There is also the principle that there are elements of our lives we cannot control directly and consistently (e.g. other people's opinions of us, the fulfilment of ambitions, etc.), and from this is derived the assertion that the unmanageability meant in Step One is this innate unmanageability of external life by the individual. I have also heard the 'powerless over people, places, and things' idea cited with reference to Step One.

The trouble with all of these theories is that they provoke more questions than they answer, namely:

(1) If this unmanageability is so important, why is not mentioned specifically, defined, and discussed in the pages preceding its introduction on page 58? If 20+ pages are given over to the mental obsession, perhaps a line or so on unmanageability would not be too much to expect, surely?

(2) How can newcomer alcoholics with ostensibly very well-ordered lives and less obvious wreckage even than your average non-alcoholic take Step One? (I have sponsored people who created very little external chaos and had clockwork lives as problem drinkers—they never missed a day of work, their houses were perfectly clean, and they never caused trouble to others drunk because they always drank alone. Yet they had no choice over whether they drank or how much they drank and were dying.)

(3) Is it possible, with many years of sobriety, to take Step One with a well-ordered life and a degree of emotional and mental balance that would be the envy of many non-alcoholics?

(4) If unmanageability is the innate unmanageability of anyone's external life due the existence of factors beyond our control, does it make sense for part of Step One to be a proposition that any person on the planet could sign up to?

(5) If we are truly powerless over people, places, and things, how is it possible to harm or help another person?

. . . and there are many more questions like this.

Occam's razor and the principle of simplicity

This is where Occam's razor comes in. This principle essentially suggests that an answer that provokes more questions and requires more assumptions than are cleared away by the answer is probably wrong. In other words, the simpler the solution the better.

To take the first question above, namely the question of why there is no specific reference to unmanageability before it is presented as part of Step One:

Is it possible that, to the writers of the Big Book, the fact of unmanageability based on powerlessness was so self-evident it did not need to be explained?

What would unmanageability as a corollary of powerlessness then be?

Power is an internal attribute. If I have power, I can devise a plan for the day, and follow it through. If I have no power, whatever plan I devise, I cannot follow it through. Powerlessness over alcohol means that, even if I plan not to drink, I may drink, and that, even if I plan to have one or two, I will likely drink a whole lot more.

'To manage' means 'to be in charge of'. Being powerless over my decision to drink and then powerless over how much I drink means I am not in charge of my schedule for the day.

I have repeatedly had the experience of plan (a) (my plan for the day) being instantly swept aside and replaced with plan (b), a plan centred around getting and drinking alcohol. My other addictions have operated in precisely the same manner.

If my day can be hijacked at any time by an overwhelming compulsion to drink and an overwhelming compulsion to carry on (= powerlessness), I am not in charge of my day: my day, and therefore my life, is unmanageable.

The idea that unmanageability is a corollary of powerlessness rather than a separate disorderliness in one's circumstances or emotional turmoil appears to be supported by the examples of alcoholics given in the section of the Big Book devoted to Step One.

The 'certain American business man' (26–27) acquires 'such a profound knowledge of the inner workings of his mind and its hidden springs that relapse was unthinkable'; he is also a good church member. His 'physical and mental condition' were 'unusually good'. This man is not a mess. Yet he is an alcoholic and, at this point in the narrative, will drink again.

'Jim' (35–37) is not particular 'unmanageable' in the sense often described in meetings of having a messy life or emotional turmoil. He has a bit of a nervous disposition (but do not many people?) He has a little resentment (but does not everyone?) He is ostensibly a normal bloke. He is not suffering from any obvious, profound turmoil or abnormally difficult circumstances on the day he drinks again.

'Fred' (39–43) is an even more extreme example. He is successful, rich, happily married, stable, well balanced, and popular. He is in no way unmanageable in the sense often described in meetings. Yet he drinks again.

Unmanageability as a corollary of powerlessness

It appears that, to the writers of the Book, unmanageability denoted not external or even internal chaos or turmoil but the sheer fact that, if you cannot choose when and how much you drink, you are not in charge of your life.

It does not matter whether this happens every day or once a year—if my day (and therefore life) can be hijacked by a compulsion to drink at any time, any day of the year can be the day it happens, and on no day am I in charge. Every day is a lottery, whatever the odds.

It does not matter one jot how ordered or disordered my external and internal affairs are—either I am in charge of my actions or I am not, and, if I am not, those affairs—ordered or disordered, external or internal—are out of my hands.

It it mere coincidence, therefore, that most alcoholics are pretty screwed up?

What is the role, therefore, of the external and internal chaos that seems so universally discussed as being an intrinsic part of alcoholism?

If the first two elements of powerlessness are powerlessness over the first drink and then the amount I subsequently drink, there is a third, which is discussed in We Agnostics.

"If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed will power wasn't there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly." (44:4)

For reasons that the Book admits are yet obscure (24:1), there is an intrinsic link between (a) the powerlessness over the first drink and (b) the ability to quit on a non-spiritual basis:

"Whether such a person can quit upon a non-spiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink or not." (34:2)

Essentially, the psychic change necessary to plug the gap in the mind that allows the desire to drink to turn into a decision to drink despite the known consequences cannot be brought about by human power alone—mine or anyone else's.

The same corollary principle applies—if I have no power, myself, to bring about the psychic change required to recover, I am not in charge of whether or not I will drink, hence my life remains unmanageable.

"For most cases, there is virtually no other solution." (43:2)

The solution—to live life on a spiritual basis (44:2)—reliance on God and performing His work well (63:1)—requires contact with God (using the word as a cipher for whatever Higher Power you can conceive of). The untreated condition therefore entails disconnection from God—from the sunlight of the Spirit (66:1). This is the spiritual malady—not a sickness of spirit, but a sickness deriving from disconnection from the Spirit, and a resultant reliance on body, mind, and emotion as my guidance system. Deprived of reliance on God, I am self-reliant (68:1), and I start making decisions based on self ('I want . . . I want . . . I want . . .'), which later place me in a position to be hurt. I step on the toes of my fellows, they retaliate, I retaliate back, and soon I have open warfare (62:1). Cue bedevilments, cue the 'traditional' unmanageability described at meetings—'making heavy going of life', 'living [being] unsatisfactory', 'confused and baffled by the seeming futility of existence' (50:3).

For me, therefore, the external and internal chaos that derives from self-reliance are merely symptoms of non-reliance on God, the same self-reliance/non-God-reliance that leaves the door to drinking open.

The comfort and the warning

The nature and scale of that external and internal chaos will vary considerably from person to person and over time.

There is both warning and comfort in this:

I can have external and internal chaos but be reliant on God and therefore totally safe from alcohol—the degree of chaos is merely a sign of the stage of development I am at.

I can have virtually no external or internal chaos but be self-reliant and therefore at risk of drinking—the lack of chaos, again, is merely a sign of the stage of development I am at—as we have a daily reprieve, the failure to seek God at an advanced stage of development is as fatal as such a failure when we are still in total chaos.


Powerlessness is a lack of power within me; unmanageability is the consequence in my life. There are no 'halves' of Step One—there is a single idea with two inextricably linked facets—I cannot grasp one without grasping the other—each implies the other.

A lack of petrol means the car ain't going anywhere. If the car ain't going anywhere, there's no petrol in the engine.

And this works at three levels—(1) physical (once I have had a drink), (2) mental (before I have a drink), and (3) spiritual (my inability through knowledge and will-power to bring about my own spiritual awakening to solve (2) and therefore avoid (1)).

To put it another way, Step One says this: I am royally screwed.


Nixs said...

Hi Tim-enjoy reading the posts-thanks for putting in the time! My question to you on this is the 'spiritual malady' a part of the alcoholic illness or a universal experience of those seperated from GOD? Be interested to hear your POV on this!

In fellowship

Rich N

First 164 said...

Universal, I believe. The only difference between me and normal people is that alcohol effectively treats the malady. In normal people, it does not.

Nixs said...

Thats a very interesting point and one I have been discussing in my (DAA) home group of late. I was 'brought up' in recovery with the idea of addiction being a 3 fold problem, but the more i study the book, both in my HG and when working with others the book seems to point to the illness as being of the mind and of the body-and although reference is made of the malady it does not do so regarding the actual alcoholic illness! Infact it points to the internal 'difficulties' (which i have always used when working with others as the 3rd part of step 1) as human problems (52) and further on (step 4)to look on those who have wronged us as 'perhaps spiritually sick' meaning everybody can suffer from the malady! Quite a challenging idea for me but ultimatly one that makes sense in light of my experience and what i see around me!

Damon said...

So refreshing to hear this! I, too, heard "threefold" countless times over the years, often from people who were deeply committed to sticking to the message of our basic text. One day something in the book caught my eye and started a questioning. Over the next weeks and months I began to notice other examples of a different perspective. So I prayed for my old ideas to be set aside and gave our book a read, and found that a twofold problem is very definitely what's being described.

Anonymous said...

"I believe. The only difference between me and normal people is that alcohol effectively treats the malady. In normal people, it does not."

Not sure about this, indeed I would go as far to say that alcohol treats the spiritual malady in non-alcoholics very well, but the side-effects are limited to a sore head for most.


Dan Mitchell

Kesavan Chakravarthy said...