Powerlessness for Women in 12-Step Recovery
Mental health professionals are often resistant to phrasing in Step 1 in 12-Step recovery, which states the member is “powerless” over their addiction (substance). The reason for this resistance is especially strong for women substance abusers. Many women have been traumatized both before and during their substance abuse by men who held the power in their relationships and abused that power. In many instances, women have been subjected to sexual abuse as children by fathers or other males who were either older, stronger or both. Cases of rape can be underlying cause of shame for these women. There are women, too, who drink and are involved in sexual relationships that they would not have participated in when not drinking or drugging. There is sexual, physical or emotional abuse that women substance abusers have been working to forget, situations where they were powerless. While this is the case for some men, it is more often true for women. Their sense of shame is further deepened upon hearing the term “powerless” in early recovery.
This becomes a sense of hopelessness because they cannot handle substances that had temporarily allowed them to forget their past. Therapeutic communities strive to empower those who are disenfranchised and/or disadvantaged in some aspect. They work with these members to give them a voice where before they had been silent. For women who have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused, “powerless” may not be the desired term to use therapeutically. However, there is much to be said for the importance of this particular word. While it is not desirable to discount the trauma(s) abused women have experienced, it is important to recognize how ineffectual an addict’s best efforts have been in the battle of the addiction. They have brought all in their power to bear against the ravages of the substance abuse.
Time after time, they have used all of the will power at their command to NOT do what they are compelled to do, causing further harm and damage to their lives. Seen through the lens of society and their family and friends, this behavior is certainly out of their control. Few who approach early recovery from substance abuse want to believe that they are powerless over their addiction. It damages the fragile ego defenses that have kept them going despite the horrific effects of substance abuse. For many, however, admitting defeat is exactly the remedy that allows these defenses to be torn down. Destroying the defenses that have supported the substance abuse behaviors and fed the denial that has kept it going is necessary before any inroads to recovery can be made. Most persons will admit that they experienced a sense of relief in admitting that they could not do this thing themselves. They simply could not stop! Our social environment praises those who overcome adversity and triumph over calamity.
When it comes to substance abuse, the hardest thing for those who are introduced to the term “powerless” is the idea that they have somehow failed. What is important to remember when encountering the shame of becoming “powerless” in this instance is that they are soon to be asked to find a power that can help them resolve this hurdle. Even women who have been abused and suffered the pain of that kind of powerlessness can appreciate the strength to be found in allowing assistance in order to gain mastery and power once again.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.