Mental health professionals are often resistant to the terminology that is used in Step 1 in 12-Step recovery, which states that members are "powerless" over their addiction (substance). The reason for resistance to the term "powerless" can be especially strong among women addicts (substance abusers) in recovery. Here we will explore the reasons behind this resistance to the concept of "powerlessness" from women in 12-step recovery.
Understanding Personal Histories of "Powerlessness"
Many of women in sober recovery 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 were 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 also women who, when drinking, get involved in sexual relationships that they would not participate in when not drinking or drugging. There is sexual, physical or emotional abuse that women substance abusers have been working to forget, and situations where they were powerless. While this is also the case for some men in recovery, it is more often true for women. Their sense of shame is further deepened upon hearing the terms "powerless" and "powerlessness" in early recovery.
Redefining "Powerlessness" in Relation to Sober Recovery
Many women who were abused and then, in turn, abused substances can develop a sense of hopelessness because they cannot later 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, "powerlessness" 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 that is in their power to bear against the ravages of the substance abuse, and yet they are still powerless to overcome its hold on them.
Women in Recovery
Many women in sober recovery have tried multiple times to get clean and sober. Time after time, they have used all of the will power at their command to NOT do what they are compelled to do, in order to stop causing further harm and damage to their lives. Seen through the lens of society and their family and friends, addictive 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 addicts, 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 addicts will admit that they experienced a sense of relief in admitting that they could not beat this thing themselves. They simply could not stop without help!
"Power" and "Powerlessness" Seen through a Different Lens
Our society seems to frown on failure, and praises those who overcome adversity and triumph over calamity. We generally feel good about words like "success," "succeeded," "won," or "overcame." Perhaps for this reason, the hardest thing for those who are introduced to the terms "powerless" and "powerlessness" during early addiction recovery 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 you will soon be asked to find a power that can help you overcome this hurdle. Even women who have been abused and suffered the pain of that kind of powerlessness can appreciate the strength that is to be found in accepting help in order to gain mastery and power once again.