Step One – the most often misquoted Step of AA’s 12 Steps

We sit in meetings emphasizing the importance of a complete and perfect First Step – and its Step One – that’s one of the most often misquoted Steps — of the 12 Steps.

The word “and” is NOT in Step One.

I hear it over and over and over again “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol AND our lives had become unmanageable.”

That’s NOT Step 1.

Step 1 is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

I believe it fuels the fire that feeds resistance and confusion about Step One – Step 1 is NOT a “two-part” Step.

Step One is an admission of alcoholism. (See page 30 of the Big Book).

It is an acknowledgement that we have become convinced in our inner-most selves that we are alcoholics.

I made the error, too  – in once thinking “Step One is a two-part Step.”  It isn’t.

When I read the descriptions of “what an alcoholic is” in the Big Book – I have yet to find any reference that “and an unmanageable life” has anything to do – with whether a person is alcoholic or non-alcoholic. It just isn’t there.

For me – when I was new in A.A., part of the reason I was confused and could not become convinced that I was alcoholic – was because I was not convinced that “my life was unmanageable” had anything to do with whether I was alcoholic or not – like I was hearing meetings. I was alcoholic many years before my life became unmanageable.  Some of those years I functioned well and thrived and ran several businesses.

Therefore, I concluded that “if my life is not unmanageable – then, I must not be an alcoholic…. yet.”

What did I do? I continued drinking and letting my life get progressively more screwed up and allowing my alcoholism to progress without treating it – until I could say, for real, that “my life is unmanageable!”

Had I known the proper description of an alcoholic – and realized that the “and my life had become unmanageable” was not part of the description of an alcoholic – I may have had a better chance of grasping the concept of alcoholism and realize that I better do something about it before landing at the gates of insanity and death.

Why is this important?

I believe some of the reasons that it is important are:

  1. It’s wrong. And it’s confusing.
  2. Using the word “and” is adding a “condition” to alcoholism, that just isn’t there.
  3. If we are to succeed in helping other alcoholics to ‘raise their bottom’ the easiest way to do that – would be to admit to our error and correct it.
  4. We can better understand the meaning of Step One – by looking at it as it was written.

Notice in #4 above – where I used the dash (emdash).

To substitute the dash in #4 above, the thought and the sentence – wouldn’t make sense. Substitute the word “and” for the “dash” and it makes no sense.

Look at Step One. Do you see the word “and”?  It isn’t there.

What we have is a “hyphen” — a “dash”.

In our English language, when a hyphen is not used to break up a word, it is used to connect a thought —  or phrase.

Often, we refer to it as a “dash”.

A dash is the mark or sign (—) used to note an abrupt break or pause in a sentence or hesitation in an utterance, to begin and end a parenthetic word, phrase, or clause, to indicate the omission of letters or words, to divide a line, to substitute for certain uses of the colon, and to separate any of various elements of a sentence or series of sentences, as a question from its answer.

~From American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition – dash

A punctuation mark (—) used to indicate a sudden break in thought, to set off parenthetical material, or to take the place of such expressions as that is and namely: “He’s running for reelection — if he lives until then”; “Very few people in this class — three, to be exact — have completed their projects”; “She joined the chorus for only one reason — she loves to sing.” In the last example, where the parenthetical material comes at the end of the sentence rather than in the middle, a colon could be used instead of the dash.

Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

If I were to paraphrase Step One, as it is written, using the dash as a concluding thought, rather than an “and” — I could say “I admitted that I am powerless over staying sober — because I cannot manage to leave alcohol entirely alone.” Or – “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – we could not manage to leave alcohol entirely alone.” The insanity of the first drink. The obsession that prevents us from leaving alcohol alone – while we are entirely sober!

This, then means – that “my life had become unmanageable” – regardless of whether I was drinking or sober – because I cannot manage to leave alcohol entirely alone. We know from the Doctor’s Opinion, and from our own experience – that it is not safe for us alcoholics to use alcohol in any form at all.

If it is unsafe for us to use alcohol in any form at all, and we cannot manage to leave alcohol entirely alone – we are powerless over drinking alcohol. Simple. Complete. No argument.

Those thoughts are more in line with our Big Book’s description of the alcoholic in Chapter Three More about alcoholism and in Chapter Four, We Agnostics.

For references see pages 30, 24, and 44 of the Big Book – Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dallas B.

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