Today starts at the Top: Leading Step 1

The Al-Anon 12 steps are empty words on a page until connected to action. They are aspirations yearning to become accomplishments until attached to a movement.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Maya Angelou

Note: Since I published the first draft of “Step, Release, and Care” I further reflected on Step 1. To help illuminate my understanding of this step, I spoke with my uncle who has been sober for 44 years yesterday. His perspective made me feel a little more sane and self-assured about where I am at today. I’ll use this copy to lead the discussion of Step 1 at Al-Anon meeting today.

“The ultimate lesson that all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.” Elizabeth Kubler Ross (Courage to Change, Feb. 26)

It took about four years for my uncle to accomplish Step 1. During that time he often led AA meetings, sometimes sober and sometimes not. He doesn’t recall a rock-bottom moment that we like to point to, to help make recovery seem cleaner. Because it’s not. It’s messy. Really messy. It messes with people’s lives. The alcoholic is at the center of the universe and everyone, everything is left to be disturbed in the wake. I first identified its impact as the wake and the ripple effect of a boat’s motor on the water, this morning I turned to the wake, a precursor to a funeral, which is more appropriate, given the level of grief that is embedded in this step.

Page 45-47 of the blue book details Step 1:

  • Its effects continue to permeate our lives.
  • Our self-esteem suffers, our energy depleted that we can’t even care for ourselves.
  • We surrender. We know this battle will not be won.
  • We find ourselves lost in a desert chasing a mirage of the life that we believe we can have. When we stop and realize that we need to change direction.

The Al-Anon 12 steps are empty words on a page until connected to action. They are aspirations yearning to become accomplishments until attached to a movement. Success and graduation are contingent on our ability to approach them, thoughtfully and willingly. Forcing them is sure to result in failure.

Step 1 | We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

As I worked on this Step this last week, I read my books and the literature. The words that stuck with me throughout this process follow, and I pulled one part of each word’s  definition from Merriam’s, that I thought fit best with this step:

  1. Acceptance: to endure without protest or reaction
  2. Step: an action, proceeding, or measure often occurring as one in a series
  3. Release: to relieve from something that confines, burdens, or oppresses
  4. Care: a person or thing that is an object of attention, anxiety, or solicitude
  5. Grief: a cause of such suffering

“Transforming Our Losses” (p.13 – 20) focused on grief, which is the emotion that has flooded me most this month. I thought I knew when I took this Step, some 16 months ago, but I was wrong. Ironically or serendipitously, I can look at it from both sides now. Saturday night I pulled the car into the garage. I just had a lovely afternoon. I stopped and bought a nice bottle of wine. I saw the box with the crystal glasses that were made to celebrate the essence of the grape’s bounty. I had forgotten about those glasses. I walked over to the box, covered in dust and grime, inside I found two. There should be more. Odd, one wasn’t crystal. A blush pink plastic wine glass, one of a set whose siblings were long ago donated to Goodwill, stood upside down. I remember buying the set because too many glasses were broken outside when he sat by the fire or inside the garage. I pulled her out of the box. Reddish black sulfites stuck in her belly. When did he start using this glass? When did he start hiding this glass? Were there others? How many were broken? Right here in this very spot, sixteen months since I found him, crouched down as if practicing malasana. He discreetly sipped from it and then secreted the glass underneath the workbench. Unbeknownst to him, I witnessed that. I approached with the intent to ask him to join me for a walk. I lost my breath for a moment. I knew the promise was broken, but here it was staring at me in my face, deceit, and disease all over his. I pivoted, said I was going for a run and told him I’d be back soon.  I can’t remember now, if I confronted him when I came back, or if I waited for the next day. How appropriate for this glass to pop out Saturday. Looking back at September in 2016 I know now that selling the house, moving to New Hampshire, and starting over would not have changed anything. She would have come to. The other woman. She was always there in our marriage. She owned him. This blush pink wine glass was an unwelcome guest, a symbol of someone who I abhorred and he adored. Here I foolishly thought I conquered Step 1, sixteen months ago, but I conquered it yesterday when the garbage truck pulled up and took that blush pink plastic wine glass, with the rest of the trash off to the landfill.

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first step is always the hardest.

Imagine a baby’s first step. The pause. The hesitation. The determination. All of the feelings behind the babe moving one foot forward. We celebrate it. There’s excited applause and hugs. Pictures. Lots of pictures. And calls of “Do it again, do it again.” Sometimes we’ll quip, “She didn’t even think about it, she just did it!” The description appears true but is a fallacy. Because even the fearless and innocent child contemplates taking the first step. If walking was natural, then newborns would walk out of the womb.

Recall the best moment with your alcoholic. Envision the expression on your face. Remember what you looked like at that moment. Your smile. Your eyes. Your voice. At that moment, warts and all, you loved that person. That moment was bathed in unconditional love.

Recall the worst moment with your alcoholic. Think of your facial expression. Where your hands were. If your fists were clenched. The tone of your voice. The thoughts in your head. That moment was bathed in so many emotions, underneath all of them propping them up, was unconditional love.

In two marriages my worst moments were the ones when I stopped wishing the alcoholic stopped drinking, I wished the alcoholic at a minimum would leave, or die. Just like a baby who needs to scoot and crawl, the realization, admission, and the execution of Step 1 will not happen overnight. Step 1 in my first marriage started on my honeymoon and was fully executed until 21 months later. In my second marriage, Step 1 began on my third wedding anniversary and took 10 years for me to articulate an admission.

The words that are the roots of this step, acceptance, step, release, care, and grief are part of life and love. When we accept that alcoholism is out of our control, things just start to fall into place.

In my experience, believing that “love conquered all” was my downfall. I thought it meant that love would not let the marriage fail. A naive belief in my first marriage, that became steadfast in my second. Admitting that love could not conquer and that alcoholism was a disease, like cancer that I did not cause nor could I control,  was the absolute worst, ugliest admission of my life. It meant stepping away from the person I loved. Releasing and relinquishing control, and putting myself first. And that’s when love truly conquers all. When our love for someone is so strong that we can walk away, that is unconditional love.

That step that turns the other cheek to the mirror, our cheek; you pay attention to yourself, and you find an ugly unrecognizable person in its reflection.  Moving away from our addiction of enablement is messy. We grieve for the life we had before we turned away, we grieve for the life we know we’ll never have, and we grieve for the life that we have now.

It doesn’t matter if your alcoholic is a spouse, parent, or sibling because everyone in the alcoholic’s life is a subordinate. Years, of pity and self-loathing, of making excuses, of blaming parents, of believing and dismissing and ignoring, and joining the pity party, pent-up. In each marriage, I was like a machine gun loaded with resentment, disappointment, and anger. Instead of exploding, I put the truth on the table. When asked to face it, each man walked away. They made a choice, and I did, too. We all chose self-preservation or destruction, depending on your point of view.

My uncle, God love him, doesn’t miss it. Doesn’t crave it. Alcohol created a life of deceit. Were you to know my uncle, you’d know there is not a deceitful bone his body. But his body then was not his. It was owned by vodka, you know alcohol that he thought no one could smell, just one among other spirits. Yesterday’s conversation triggered a memory of AA. And after a few weeks, he was doing so swimmingly that he was asked to lead the meetings. This went on for quite some time. They didn’t know he was still drinking, or so he thought. As time went by, and he was dry for a while, which later became forever, he confessed. He was told he wasn’t kidding anyone. They knew. And he asked why then, why didn’t they call him out. Because “you wouldn’t have come back” they told him. Sometimes deceit is veiled in good intentions. Through his recovery, he found a life that fulfills him without removing him. Alcohol removed him from reality, its absence allows him to connect with the present.

Step 1, is our choice and ours alone. It requires detachment. And the amount of time to take on this step and graduate is yours and yours alone. I don’t think we ever graduate though. Love and grief are inseparable. There will always be unexpected and sometimes unwelcomed moments when old wine glasses reappear when distant memories emerge, and nostalgic songs pierce us. These moments rebreak our hearts. And we have to accept them. Their emergence makes us zigzag through the 12 steps and returns us to the first as if we are the babe learning how to balance.

We are human. We are not perfect. We are creatures that love and long to be loved. Step 1 always comes back to this, “it begins with me”.


  1. What am I grieving today?
  2. Have I admitted my powerlessness over my grief?
  3. Or am I trying to control it?
  4. Am I worried about how long this Step will take?
  5. What can I do today to be gentle with myself?


2 comments on “Today starts at the Top: Leading Step 1

  1. It’s such a desperate, helpless feeling when the person you love is lost to you. But you’re right, their life (when they are in this dark place) becomes front and center, and it dominates everyone else’s life who is close to them.

    Peace to you

    Liked by 1 person

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