How Powerless and Unmanageable Can Become Positive Words


diagram of 12 steps

When I first look at these two words, I am frought with anxiety and fear. How can I function if I am powerless? How does one manage the unmanageable?

Well, herein lies the rub.

These are seen as all or nothing words. They appear to illustrate completion.  There can be no power in the powerless and no ability to manage the unmanageable.  In my lifelong journey of abuse, addiction, recovery, wash, rinse and repeat I have come to learn everything exists together all the time. 

This is how I can smile and laugh after losing my daughter Molly.

I taught high school health for seven years. I feel that, alongside coaching track and cross-country, it was a life purpose. I was a natural. In my lessons on addiction, I spent little time on the substances themselves, rather focusing what limited time had on the causes and reasons we become addicted and steps we can take to find recovery.

The conversations were amazing.

I am starting Season 9 of my podcast “A Thousand Tiny Steps”. Interestingly enough, I call it this because of a lesson I did in my health 2 classes around decision making as it relates to addiction and other potentially tragic occurrences, we all may face in life. “No one wakes up and says to themselves, “I think I will kill my neighbor’s kid with my car today” I would say. “But people are killed by drunk drivers every day. Let’s walk back from that moment.”

Where did this person’s alcohol addiction begin, how did they get here, to this moment, drunk behind the wheel of a car, responsible for the death of a child? This was not an easy conversation, but it was always valuable. It always connected in some way with a small part of every student. I didn’t always use negative examples. We also walked through winning a gold medal in the Olympics, or getting an academic award, or climbing a mountain. 

How does this relate to powerless and unmanageable? 


A big piece of the review of the 1000 tiny steps that got you to your tragedy or victory is figuring out what you do and do not have control (power) over. This is followed by creating ways to manage the unmanageable. While nothing guarantees success, there are strategies for every challenge. 

This discussion leads into the presentation of 12-step recovery programs.

Alcoholics Anonymous is the creator of The Twelve Steps. A series of “steps” to move through, and then live by creating an optimistic path to sobriety and recovery. (But wait! Aren’t sobriety and recovery the same thing?)

Oh heck no!

Dry drunks are described as people who no longer drink, but have done nothing to address, remediate, and potentially heal the issues that caused the addiction to alcohol in the first place. While many people are able to string years of alcohol-free living together, they are not living in recovery. They are simply sober. I often share that the seven years I spent in AA in my late twenties and early thirties healed a lot more for me than just alcohol, I addressed and investigated several other behaviors and symptoms.

Those twelve steps apply to a lot more than alcohol!

I decided to dedicate a season of my podcast to The Twelve Steps for several reasons, but the main two are helping myself and helping others. Notice I do not mention alcohol here. I found this amazing book and accompanying journal called “Breathing Under Water”. It is one sober Christian’s take on spirituality and the twelve steps. Whole his spiritual references and connects are biblical, any and all religious and spiritual teachings apply just as easily to the twelve steps.

This past week’s episode is on Step One, Let’s do this!

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.

That’s it. All of it. The entirety of Step One. How hard can this be one might ask. It is actually much harder than one might think. This admission is not lip service. It is not a snarky retort to an accusation. It is the ultimate admission, the internal, external, private, share it with the world admission that you are powerless and your life is unmanageable.


The 1000 tiny steps that lead people to this very spot vary, but they do the same thing. They illustrate the chaos that addiction brings. It is trying for the qazillionth time to give it up and the gazillionth time going back to what-ever your “alcohol” is.

In the journal companion to Breathing Under Water there are things to do, breathing lessons they are called to strengthen your work and success in the step you are on. For step one, the first one is actual breathing. Spending time each day simply sitting and breathing. Sounds easy doesn’t it! Not for me, so I am spending a little extra time on step one. 

Inhale, hold your breath for 20 seconds, exhale. 

I can do this in and of itself quite easily. It is making the commitment to sit down and actually do it. I just did it twice after completing that last sentence. I can only get to ten seconds. Two things happen. I become anxious about not breathing, and my mind goes to dark places. I know that committing to engaging in this breathing exercise on a regular basis will improve both of those things… cognitively… but I fight them neurologically. 

Tiny Steps Barbara Jeannie (self-talk in my Ellie Dore voice). Ellie was a neighborhood mother from my childhood and her name for me was always Barbara Jeannie.

The next breathing exercise for step on is reflection and resonation with the following four statements. 

We suffer to get well

We surrender to win

We die to live

We give it away to keep it

I can find connections and meaning in all aspect of my life that connect to these statements. 

Going through two craniotomies in three months-time caused me a great deal of suffering, but I am not well.

I often had to let go of what I thought I needed to do training wise and listen to my coaches, so that I would actually win some races.

So many versions of me have “died” over the years (or so I think) so that I could survive, or live.

Letting our children have freedoms so that they will remain in our lives.

The one I have clung to this week is the surrendering to win. I have just got to “let it go”. The “it” is mostly myself but also the many ways I cling to realities that are clearly no longer working for me. The may questions in the journal for Step One are all self-reflection around powerlessness, ego vs love, God and our potential anger with Him (Her, Them, It, Higher Power etc.) 

What came out of this for me was my need for control. So perhaps I should refocus on “giving it away to keep it”.

I think I will re-read the poem “Breathing Under Water” for which the book is named. That might help.

Breathing Under Water

I built my house by the sea.

Not on the sands, mind you.

Not on the shifting sand.

And I built it of rock.

A strong house.

By a strong sea.

And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.

Good neighbors.

Not that we spoke much.

We met in silences.

Respectful, keep our distance,

But looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.

And then one day,

(I still don’t know how it happened), but the sea came.

With out warning. Without welcome, even.

Not sudden and swift, but a sifting across the sand like wine.

Less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.

Slow, but coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.

And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.

And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.

I knew, then, there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.

That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbors.

Well acquainted, friendly-from-a-distance, neighbors.

And you give your house for a coral castle,

And you learn to breathe underwater.

-Carol Bialock

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