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How to Work Step One

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (or drugs, sex, gambling, eating, shopping, etc.) – that our lives had become unmanageable. For a lot of people, walking into a treatment center or 12-step meeting for the first time is equivalent to working step one. The simple act of asking for help is, in and of itself, an admission of powerlessness and unmanageability. However, there is much more that an addict can do to fully work Step One. Most of this work is designed to unearth the addict’s complete history of use and abuse. In this way, he or she is able to see – usually for the first time – the totality of his or her addiction and its directly related negative life consequences. 

Task One: Consequences Inventory

For many addicts, addiction builds slowly over time, making it difficult to actually see how life has changed. Consequences that even a casual outside observer could readily identify as severe have gradually become the norm. Thus, the insanity of addiction looks perfectly ordinary to the addict. The easiest way to break through the fog of addiction is to create a list of consequences related to the behavior. In creating your consequences inventory you should list as many items as possible, breaking the list down into the following categories:

  • Emotional Consequences: These may include hopelessness, despair, guilt, shame, remorse, depression, paranoia, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, loneliness, emotional exhaustion, fear of going insane, feeling like two people (living a double-life), suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts, fear of the future, and more.
  • Physical Consequences: These may include ulcers, high blood pressure, weight loss, weight gain, self-abuse (cutting, burning, etc.), unintentional injuries (falls, car wrecks, etc.), abuse by others, trouble sleeping or waking up, physical exhaustion, sexually transmitted diseases, attempted suicide, and more.
  • Spiritual Consequences: These may include feeling disconnected, feeling abandoned, feeling anger toward God, emptiness, loss of faith, loss of values and morals, loss of interest in the wellbeing of others, and more.
  • Family and Partnership Consequences: These may include relationship strife, loss of respect, alienation, being disowned, threatened or actual loss of spouse or partner, threatened or actual loss of parental rights, jeopardizing your family’s wellbeing, and more.
  • Career and Educational Consequences: These may include decreased performance, demotion, underemployment, loss of respect, poor grades or job reviews, not getting promoted, getting fired or dismissed from school, losing a chance to work in one’s career of choice, and more.
  • Other Consequences: These may include loss of interest in formerly enjoyable activities, lack of self-care, loss of important friendships, loss of community standing, financial problems, involvement in illegal activities, near arrests, arrests, legal issues, incarceration, and more.

Task Two: Powerlessness Inventory

Generate at least 30 examples of your powerlessness over your addictive behavior. In other words, list examples of your inability to stop your behavior despite obvious consequences, such as: “I was warned that if I showed up to work one more time smelling of alcohol that I would be fired, and I still stopped off at the bar for a quick drink before work.” Be as explicit as you can, starting with early examples and ending with the most recent.

Task Three: Unmanageability Inventory

Generate at least 30 examples that demonstrate how your life has become unmanageable. In other words, list ways in which your addiction has created chaos and destruction in your life, such as: “I sold my car for thousands less than it was worth because I was on a meth/sex bender and needed some quick cash to pay for drugs and prostitutes.” Again, be as explicit as you can, starting with early examples and ending with the most recent.

Task Four: Sharing Your Step One Inventories

Now comes the hard part – sharing your Step One inventories with your therapy group and/or your 12-step support group. If you’re like most addicts, you are filled with guilt, shame, remorse, and self-loathing. Plus, you’ve gotten very used to keeping secrets from your loved ones, your employer, and the world at large. So opening up about the nature and extent of your behavior is anathema to your entire existence. It is completely unnatural and you probably don’t want to do it. However, sharing your history and consequences lifts the burden of compartmentalizing them and lugging them around in secret. Letting go of your secrets frees you up to move forward with a different, better life. For many people, the act of sharing Step One is the true start of recovery. Oftentimes recovering addicts state that their life began to get better the moment they got honest with their support network by sharing Step One.

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