Control issues and alcoholism
Alcoholics and their addiction to control
What is this compulsive need that alcoholics sometimes have to be controlling? Is it different from more balanced people? In all likelihood, they are not dissimilar. The Big Book of AA makes it clear what lies at the core of an alcoholic’s addiction to control.
“Selfishness- self-centeredness! That we think is the root of our troubles.” (BB p.62)
Step one: Admitting a loss of control
What also separates us from ordinary folk is our powerlessness over alcohol.
The first step in AA declares:
1) “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.”
2) “That our lives had become unmanageable.”
These two ideas presented in step one imply a loss of control. Firstly, alcoholics have lost the power of choice over their drinking. The compulsion to drink dominates them. They can only stop when they reach out for help. In AA, this help is a power greater than themselves. For most recovering alcoholics, this is initially the AA group itself. (Group Of Drunks – acronym for GOD)
After they get sober, a second and even more shocking truth begins to creep in. Leaving aside their powerlessness over alcohol, they begin to realize another startling fact. The more they try to exert control over their sober lives, the more unmanageable their lives become. Driven by a self-willed determination to get their way, they create chaos, resentment, and misunderstanding.
The maladapted alcoholic ego
After years of drinking and a self-destructive lifestyle, the ego of the alcoholic becomes maladapted. Bill W, the author of the AA Big Book, called this “self-will run riot.” He presents it as a core symptom of alcoholism.
“The alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so.”
Is there a solution?
The “On awakening” reading (BB p.86)
One of my sponsors showed me a passage from the Big Book. He suggested I read it every morning. It was the perfect prescription to treat my compulsive need to be in control. In AA, I gradually learned that this was true not only of my inner life but also of my external life. I had a fear-driven need to have control over people and circumstances.
The reading starts with “On awakening………” It’s on page 86 in Chapter 6 of the Big Book. The suggested reading runs till the end of the chapter.
Bill offers three powerful solutions to disarm our compulsive need to be in control. In my case, this addiction resulted in multiple relapses. The words ‘surrender’ and ‘letting go’ were not even in my vocabulary.
“We relax and take it easy; we don’t struggle.”
“We ask especially for freedom from self-will.”
………..and my absolute favorite: –
“We constantly remind ourselves we are no longer running the show.”
These three powerful suggestions have been instrumental in helping me get off an uncomfortable, dry drunk. When I put these ideas into my life, I began to find acceptance and inner peace. The Acceptance Reading on page 417 of the Big Book helped me accept that whatever was going on in my recovery, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.”……(BB p.417)
What I learned was that at the core of my untreated alcoholism was chronic insecurity. To feel more secure, I succumbed to the illusion of control. The plain truth was that from an early age, whatever or whoever I tried to control would end badly. Usually in disappointment and, ultimately, rejection.
“He is very much the actor” (BB p. 73)
It went even further than that. In my alcoholic mind, I was also trying to control how people perceived me. I had an image that I liked to project. My agenda was to be liked and admired. But then, as I discovered in Steps Four and Five, I would never do anything for anyone unless there was something in it for me.
Although in complete denial as a newcomer, my agenda, even years before I started drinking, was to fix my inner emptiness. Sadly, this was frequently at other people’s expense. I was trying to fix myself from the outside. More often than not, this required manipulation and dishonesty.
Growing up in the loveless environment of foster care, I felt unloved. It became everyone else’s job to give me the affection and validation I craved. The dichotomy between the image I tried to project and my wounded true self required effective control strategies.
I even tried to control my past and future by obsessively thinking about them. Since childhood, I had a compulsive, obsessive need to regulate my experience of reality. Without instant gratification, I was “restless, irritable, and discontent” (BB p XXVIII). Eventually, my demands and expectations of myself and others ended with the arrival at my first AA meeting.
First non-God-centered spiritual awakening
The revolving door of relapse had me firmly in its grip. Some of these alcoholic benders were life-threatening. I began to suspect that I wasn’t going to make it. Besides alcohol, my addiction to the illusion of control made surrendering to Step One impossible. Did I belong to that class of alcoholics whose chances were “less than average.“? (BB p. 58) It gradually dawned on me that if I didn’t stop doing life my way, I wasn’t going to stay sober.
Then, I had what I have come to call my first non-God-centred spiritual awakening. The day came when my ego collapsed. On that day, I surrendered and became willing to ask for help. My very best thinking failed to keep me sober and make something of my life. I admitted both my powerlessness over alcohol and my life’s unmanageability. After being beaten in every area of the sober life I was trying to create, I became willing to follow the suggestions of a sponsor. It became apparent that continuing to sponsor myself would end tragically.
Second non-God-centered spiritual awakening
My second non-God-centred spiritual awakening was becoming teachable. Finally, after years of defiance, I received the Gift Of Desperation. This only happened when I felt utterly hopeless;* I became willing to follow Good, Orderly Direction. (2 helpful acronyms for GOD)
*” The more hopeless he feels, the better. He will be more likely to follow your suggestions” (BB p.94)
The twelve steps helped me to begin resolving the issues that I had always avoided facing. I discovered that I was a deeply conflicted person. This inner duality was the cause of suffering, both drunk and sober. The harder I tried to achieve my goals on willpower and control, the closer I would get to my next drink or some other unhealthy addiction.
I gradually warmed to AA’s idea that alcoholism is an illness. Psychological talk therapies failed to keep me sober. I slowly learned why therapy hadn’t worked. It came as a shock! I was trying to fix a spiritual problem with a psychological solution. Eventually, I warmed to Bill’s idea of alcoholism being a “spiritual malady” (BB p.64)
My maladapted alcoholic ego drove the need to control people, places, and things. I learned that it was “the chief activator of my defects.” (12&12 p.76) They made life not only unmanageable but unbearable! Through surrendering to the work of the twelve steps, I was able to name these shortcomings. With the help of humility offered in step seven, I gradually began to find freedom from my crippling handicaps.
Exerting control over defects of character
Some of these shortcomings were not easy to overcome. I was as addicted to them as I was to alcohol. A determined attempt to eliminate character defects using willpower made them even worse. My neurotic need to be in control also plagued my relationships. They were doomed until I accepted the second half of step one. I had to face the defects that made my relationships unworkable. Steps six and seven helped me understand that it was through daily surrender to AA’s principles of “love and tolerance” (BB p.84) that I would make progress. I realized that ego and humility could not co-exist.
With the help of my sponsor, I realized that I was a very controlling person. Ironically, I avoided what I called ‘control freaks’ like the plague. The truth was that I was just like them. All my life, I liked to see myself as a friendly and easygoing guy. The Step-work revealed that I was selfish, self-centered, and manioulative. Underneath the Mr.Nice Guy image, I had to get my way.
What drives the need to be in control?
The AA literature revealed the root cause of my addiction to control.
Bill W describes it perfectly in Step Seven of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
On page 76, Bill declares that FEAR is the chief activator of my control issues. I was amazed at how accurate he was in pinpointing the core of my problems:
A) “Fear of losing something we already possessed.”
B) Fear of not getting something we demanded.”
It was impossible to find any serenity as long as these two fears ran my life. I had to begin reducing the demands and expectations I had of others. They turned me into an angry, intolerant, and impatient dry alcoholic.
The solution offered by Bill
Although I am powerless over people and my circumstances, with the help of the steps, I am now responsible for how I react when things don’t go my way. I not only had to stop “running the show” (BB p. 86) of my life, but I also had to stop “running the show” of other people’s lives as well. Getting out of the driver’s seat has been the solution to overcoming my paralyzing addiction to control.
The challenge of recovery is to surrender daily and go with life’s natural and spontaneous flow. People will be people; I remain powerless over their behavior. With the help of AA’s program of action, I have learned that I am not powerless over how I react to people’s behavior. I have to stay conscious of the negative power of my ego. With this awareness, I become willing to change. How successful can I be in creating a sober and happy life if I don’t let go of the illusion of control?