Nowadays I hear a lot of folks saying (to recovering people) things like “You’re so strong!” and “Be strong!” I hear newcomers say “I pray for the strength to beat my addiction,” and other stuff like that. While I understand the thinking behind such remarks (all too well), there are a few comments I’d like to make.
One of the first things we need to learn in recovery is our powerlessness. We are powerless when it comes to our addictions as long as we are using our drugs of choice, and for some time afterward. If this were not true, we’d simply quit and no one would ever relapse. The only strength we need is the strength to admit that unpleasant fact, accept it, and listen to people who know what they’re talking about — since we obviously don’t.
That does require a certain amount of guts. We addicts and codependents hate to admit that we aren’t in control. In fact, though, weren’t most of our problems based on our illusions of control: controlling our drinking or other drugging; controlling our addicts; controlling our kids; getting everything just right and then having it welded, as a friend of mine used to say? (He was talking about tuning his 12-string, but the remark is so addict!)
When we have the strength to admit that we’ve lost control, that we’re whipped, that we can’t go on, then we have finally reached the point where recovery is possible. Without that realization of powerlessness, recovery is unlikely, if not impossible. That’s why I worry when I hear folks speaking in terms of “strength.” When we think that way, we are in danger of becoming convinced that we are no longer powerless, that we can control our using and keep it “social” this time, that he really isn’t a rotten wife-beating s.o.b. when he’s drinking, that if we just took Muffy in off the street and give her a clean place to sleep, she’ll realize that she’s much better off and will quit using those nasty drugs.
In early recovery we don’t have much power, if any. We don’t need strength, we need the humility to learn from others the things that we were unable to learn on our own: how to handle our urges, our relationships, our jobs, our spiritual growth — in short, how to live lives of sobriety. Then, after we’ve gone a good distance in that direction and our bodies and minds have begun to recover from the beating we gave them for all those months or years — at that point we begin having some power over our addictions. As long as we don’t use.
Addiction is like a rattlesnake. I can pick it up and haul it around wherever I please — all day long, if I like. That’s strength. But if I get careless, that’s when I find out what powerlessness is all about.