Steve Orma Responds to His Critics

Steve Orma’s four-part series, critiquing the 12-Steps, continues with his response to his commenters’ criticism. He takes on the subject of powerlessness today, which is a tough one, because AAs shift the meaning of the word to fit the argument. That makes approaching the subject logically a great feat.

In my experience, “powerlessness” is a slippery term. Depending on whom you’re talking to, powerless can mean any number of things: being powerlessness over the fact of one’s alcoholism (the way someone is powerless over the fact of one’s diabetes); being powerless over alcohol itself, meaning that until they turn their own will over to HP(tm) they cannot control it; being powerless after taking that first drink (meaning that once they start, they can’t stop… until they stop, I guess); being powerless over everything, as a lowly human being…

Steve asks a lot of interesting questions in this piece. I am curious about how the AAs will respond.

And here’s a relevent video from blamethenile:


  • Uberdog

    Ever see the Monty Python sketch where high rise buildings were created by a hypnotist?
    The trick was the tennants had to believe in the building or it would collapse.
    Sound familiar?

  • AndyM
  • AndyM
  • K

    Its arguing over semantics. Most people in AA take it to mean powerless after the first drink. I cannot think of a more single simple declaration for a group of people who feel abstaining is their best option.
    For years I thought the opposite, I used to go saying I had the power to control, before I even knew what the 12 steps were.

    I believe I am powerless over alcohol, hence I don't drink and my life has improved considerably

    By the way I am heavily critical of many aspects of AA and have been verbally abused by a mr mad dog macdowdog on his blog for expressing my views on sober recovery. but this one of the only things that made sense to me. If it doesn't work for you don't use it.

    • speedy0314


      i agree that it is a semantic argument & it's not my place to say that your semantic interpretation of the "powerless" condition is definitively wrong.

      i would, though, point out that your initial stance is not in keeping with how "Alcoholics Anonymous" (the BB) posits the condition of "powerlessness" (e.g., Chapter 5's, "A) That we were alcoholic & could not manage our own lives; B) That no human power could relieve our alcoholism; C) That [g]od could & would if [h]e were sought.").

      i think you know i could gather up plenty more quotes just like that, but for now i'll leave it there.

      this is an honest & sincere question: which is it?

      a) you're powerless "after the first drink" (your own initial words)?
      b) you're completely powerless over alcohol even before the ingestion of that first drink (implied in your 3rd paragraph) & closer to the BB definition?
      c) you're completely powerless over alcohol even before the ingestion of that first drink & only the reliance upon a personified deity will empower you to avoid that predicament?

      i ask you this because i sense the sincerity in your comment & i'm wondering how you've reconciled what finally felt to me like hopeless, ugly (my perception – not yours', i know) contradictions.

      i remember talking with the last sponsor i had while in the program (almost 4 years ago) — a guy who wore the buddhist bead wrist band & talked the 'opening your heart' thing to death — about my reservations with the steps.

      "i don't believe in god today. i didn't believe in him yesterday & i'm fairly certain i won't believe in him tomorrow. even if i were to somehow come to believe in something, i would think it anything but humble to achieve 'conscious contact' with it," i said. "i don't believe that it was my best thinking that got me here, but, rather, my worst intentions. and i don't believe that i am utterly without agency in the presence of alcohol."

      he just smiled & nodded. i took that as a good sign — a sign that he was open to discussing what i thought at the time were deathly serious matters.

      "so," i continued, "is it fair for me to interpret the first 3 steps as: 1) i need help; 2) i believe that this community of people can help me; 3) with all the humility i can muster, i'm asking all of you to help me if you can."

      long story short — super-enlightened 10 years sober buddhist/new age/what the bleep do we know? sponsor guy goes on to tell me i'm on the right track but that i NEED to recognize that i am powerless & the people i would be asking for help are my 'higher power' — that god is acting through them.

      "no," i replied. "they are an entirely 'human power'. there's nothing super-natural about them, nothing super-natural about the process, nothing super-natural about booze. i am not beseeching a higher power; i'm just asking for help."

      the relationship ended that evening … in kind of an ugly way.

      i tried to stick it out. came in & out a few times, each time the rhetoric seemed harder to listen to. don't get me wrong, there were some good times — mostly after meetings, when people actually spoke english & didn't try to impress everyone with the measure of their spiritual growth. (that's harsh, i know. sorry.)

      IMHO, a commenter at YouTube put it best: he tried "squaring the circle in AA" until he just couldn't do it anymore.


      that's my long-winded way of saying "semantic arguments" are not necessarily inconsequential arguments.

      take it easy,


  • friendthegirl

    Hi K. Thanks for commenting. You're right, it is arguing over semantics, but I'm pointing out how AAs parse language when the subject comes up. I understand that, generally speaking, powerlessness refers to the effect alcohol has on an alcoholic who drinks it. That's not clear from looking at the steps, but that is how powerlessness has come to be understood, generally. Right? You have the power not to take the first drink, but when you do, you're not in control of your behavior after that.

    But, the thing is that when we delve into that a bit — for instance, say we ask Mr. M if an alcoholic takes a drink, and becomes powerless to choose his actions after that, is he therefore unaccountable for the damage he does while drinking? I mean, if it is a disease that one is powerless over…? You know, I mean, when we start to try to get a handle on the word.

    And thus begins the infinite loop of parsing.

    I think I saw where you were verbally abused by Mr. McSerenity, and it was ugly. I'm really sorry you were subject to that. You got it worse than I did!

    But look, if you are critical of AA, then I'm sure that you've been told what you just advised us to do: If it doesn't work for you, then go do something else.

    But we have a point, here, which I admit can get bogged down in rhetoric and nit picking and screwing off, generally: keeping the conversation going in the interest of furthering the avancement of treatment by questioning the status quo.

  • K

    Before I reply just want to correct what I originally said. I have only been abused on the internet by mcgowdog I have unfortunately (hehe) never met him person to receive actual verbal abuse.

    Agree with what both are saying. On it’s own its open to interpretation but when combined with the almighty BB and ‘its we without mental defence from the first drink’ etc. etc. then it explains what it was perhaps originally set out to mean.

    Also agree in believing you are powerless over alcohol, it could used to excuse behaviours and reinforce lack of control once the first drink is taken.

    Think I am in the process of trying to square the circle in AA and yes eventual I will almost certainly give in but at least I will have given hope to the few members who would have gone out of meetings thinking AA is the only way. Just hope my sanity holds Lol.

    Its great to know I am not alone. Keep up the good work guys. We are powerful

  • H

    K, it is not necessary to square the circle. One may decline to participate in that drama.
    You have taken the decision to abstain. Carry out that decision. Thare is no circle to square. It does not exist.

  • AndyM