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Primary and Secondary Powerlessness Over Alcoholism

by Robert G. Waldvogel


Powerlessness is the primary byproduct of those who deal with the disease of alcoholism, whether they actually drink or become what can be labeled “innocent bystanders.” As a complex intertwine of body mind, and soul effects, it poses an insurmountable obstacle. Few fully understand them and there is no known cure for them. It resists treatment and tends toward demise. Even if an ameliorating aspect or altogether remedy of one of its elements were discovered, would it resolve the other two, it can only be wondered?

But for those who have been exposed to either pure- or para-alcoholism during their upbringings, there may be a need to differentiate between primary and secondary powerlessness.

“I listened to others speak at step meetings, read the literature on step one, and even tried to share when step one was the subject of the meeting,” an Al-Anon member, who had not lived with her alcoholic father for many years, stated in its Hope for Today text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 59). “However, I still didn’t know how to make it apply to me. How could I be powerless over something that was no longer an issue in my life?”

While a person can be physically removed from exposure to alcoholism, it is not easy to remove the alcoholic effects from him, since they assuredly changed who he was after some two decades of absorbing and enduring them. This can be considered “secondary powerlessness.”

Imprinted with them and forced, without cognizance or understanding, to rewire his brain to field what he believes are universal aspects of others, he “survives” a world he concludes will be similar to the one he experienced during his most formable, impressionable years, with traits such as mistrust, people-pleasing, low self-esteem, a propensity for reactivity, and fear of those who most remind him of and therefore trigger his alcoholic parent.

As an adult, he continues to recreate the adversity and distortions that were bred as a child, and even if that parent ultimately passes from this world, his defenses do not. Scarred and marred for life, especially without intervening recovery and understanding, he may never question why he negotiates life the way he does and is most likely unaware that he does so differently than others.

“To survive such an upbringing, I developed many defenses,” the Al-Anon member continues (ibid, p. 59). “When no longer needed, these defenses become character defects. As an adult, I was still powerless over the effects of my father’s abuse. It was the effects of alcoholism over which I was powerless.”

The ultimate demonstration of powerlessness is accepting it and surrendering to God or a Higher Power of the person’s understanding. Denial will only serve as the barrier between him and God himself, ensuring that what poses an insurmountable obstacle remains in place.

Defenses erected because of what occurred in the past during childhood become offenses against something a person believes will recur in the present during adulthood. But the reality of this phenomenon does not exist in the outside world. Instead, it only exists in the inside one—that is, in his mind, where its unresolved and unprocessed effects continually replay.

Pride and ego intervene when only admitting powerlessness, whether it be of the primary or secondary type, will serve as the threshold to recovery, and further increase that immobile state.

“The pain is not in the surrender and acceptance,” Hope to Today concludes (ibid, p. 284). “It’s in the resistance.”

Robert G. Waldvogel has earned the Interdisciplinary Certificate in Behavioral Health for Late Adolescence and the Emerging Adult and a Postgraduate Certificate in the Fundamentals of Cognitive Behavioral Treatment at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work. He has led Twelve-Step support groups on Long Island for the past decade, and created the Adult Child Recovery-through-Writing, and the Strengthening Our Spirituality Programs taught at the Thrive Recovery Community and Outreach Center in Westbury. He is a frequent contributor to Wisdom Magazine.


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