"Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this power?" -- "Alcoholics Anonymous" The Big Book of AA, pg. 45
Ok, first off, can I just say that every time I read that "Obviously" in the passage above it cracks me up. It's like the 1930's speak for: "We were powerless over alcohol(ism) and so we needed to get some power. Well, duh."
On pg. 44 of The Big Book there is a clear, simple definition of alcoholism: "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." I love that. It's pretty clear, but it's nice and roomy. Regular Mr. SponsorPants readers know I'm fond of observing that AA is not selling anything. And the way that's phrased is so very Big Book, in that whole "probably" thing. AA leaves you as much space as you need for you to decide for yourself that you are powerless over alcohol(ism).
And once you've made that decision it comes to this: "We learned we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery." (Big Book, pg. 30) Certainly clear there as well. What is the first step in recovery? Fully conceding to my innermost self that I am powerless over alcohol(ism). Which got boiled down to the pretty much airtight statement in the first half of the First Step: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol --"
Ok. So that's how the dots connect up for me from the literature. I, alone, am without any power at all over alcohol(ism). On my own, in a one-on-one match against drinking, I do not stand a chance. I'm standing on the beach, holding a tattered parasol, as a tidal wave races towards me. I've got no chance. I'm in the ring, with my hands tied behind my back, facing Ali in his prime. I am certain to lose. It's me against the hungry polar bear, and all I've got for weapons is an old Q-Tip and a wooden tooth. (No. I have no idea where that last one came from. I am as disturbed by it as you are.)
So being clear about what I mean when I say "I'm powerless" and then admitting this powerlessness on a gut level, without reservation, without debate, without negotiation, is the first (essential) step in recovering from alcoholism.
But being without power is not the same as being without help. There is an endless resource of help available to anyone who wants it via AA; from the collected sober experience of the fellowship itself, from the extremely practical advice of AA literature as a whole, and from the spiritual experience (whatever that looks like for you) that is a result of working through all 12 Steps.
(In fact, the punch line is that there is usually a lot more help than any of us want to receive.)
But I have to admit, I fear acting as though you're helpless and calling it powerlessness is a great self-con in AA. My admission of powerlessness does not put me in a position of weakness. In fact, paradoxically (and is it too grandiose for my little blog to observe that maybe all the spiritual Great Truths in the universe are in some way paradoxical?) it puts me in a position of strength.
Flag on the Field! 20 Yard Penalty! Passive-Aggressive-Cutesy-Reverse-Rhetorical-Question. Don't make me warn you again, Pants.
Sorry. Sometimes when I discuss spiritual stuff I get afraid that I sound pompous, so humor is my coping mechanism. But that really was dreadfully passive-aggressive. I'll watch that.
So by admitting my lack of power I'm then in a position to ask for help (first from AA and then from a Higher Power -- whatever that means to you) and thus my dilemma, which is the powerlessness, is solved! Huzzah!
But if I play at being helpless -- and call it powerlessness -- then I don't have to do anything. I don't have to ask for help (and thus get some solution to my dilemma) and I can stay nice and comfortable and stuck. (And usually share ad nauseum about the same issue, over and over and over and over again, using the language of recovery to engage in sophisticated justifications dressed in 12 Step speak. Turning into that creature is quite possibly my very greatest fear.)
I guess for me, an important distinction, the final throw-down in this cage match if you will, is that being powerless, and admitting it, and then asking for (and accepting) help is ultimately about action. Because if I have a problem and I get help in finding a solution then I can actually do something about it -- thus it becomes a call to action.
Saying you're powerless, but behaving as if you're helpless, is about inaction -- about keeping things frozen (fear at work again) and not having to make any changes. And if I don't change then I don't grow and if I don't grow then... probably I drink.
As I've heard often over the years: Grow... or go.