Alanon and Powerlessness

by John McMahon
(Exeter, UK)

Alanon has helped many people round the world for over 50 years now. It has provided a haven for people to get support and understanding and to be able to talk about things that they have kept secret, maybe for years.

One of Alanon’s central concepts is that you are powerless over the drinker’s behaviour. They sum it up in the 3 C’s. You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it. People have a mixed reaction to the concept of being powerless.

They can be completely disbelieving, after all that was probably not why they went along to Alanon in the first place. Alternately many people find relief. For many years they may have felt guilty and ashamed.

Ashamed at the way they are living and that they could not seem to do something about it. Guilty that they were the cause of the drinking. So in Alanon it would appear that powerlessness is a positive and healing concept, or is it?

For some time I have had some fundamental problems with the concept of powerlessness. Firstly as a practicing alcoholic myself I changed, like many people do, when I hit bottom. However for me ‘bottom’ came very rapidly when my wife at the time left me.

I continued to drink without ‘her interference’ and in a short space of time I almost killed myself and had to be hospitalised. The point here is that she influenced whether I got help by changing her behaviour towards me. It was not her intention and it was a rather drastic change but it was effective at accelerating me to hitting bottom.

My second problem with Alanon’s concept of being powerless comes from my role as a therapist and researcher. If I felt that I was entirely powerless in helping people change then I am most definitely in the wrong job.

About 20 years ago most alcohol treatment centres, especially in the USA and less so in the UK, subscribed to the 12 Step model. This meant that they believed that their job was to be there when someone wanted to change but that there was little that they could do until the drinker was ready.

In many places, less so in the USA, this all changed in the early 1980’s when research, ironically mostly originating in the USA, showed that addictive behaviour was governed by motivations - just like all other behaviour. What this means is that ‘addictive behaviour’ is not a special kind of behaviour that defies the rules of psychology.

Instead it can be studied, understood and influenced using many of the same principles that are used to modify other behaviours.

That made much more sense to me than viewing it as some kind of behaviour that was completely outside the laws of other behaviours. However, just because we can understand it that does not mean that we can change it easily.

Think about criminal behaviour. We can understand what motivates it, but in thousands of years we have been unable to eradicate it. Think also of some other behaviours that you have tried to change, for example lose weight, take up exercise. Many people succeed at these changes but many others fail.

The point that I’m trying to make in this article is that Alanon’s concept of powerlessness is good for relieving guilt but it is not a true and accurate reflection of the situation. In recent years there have been new treatment interventions created to help people change.

Some of these have been used in treatment centres but others have been created for partners and families of the drinkers. If we were to truly believe that we were powerless to change the alcoholic then progress would cease entirely.

Thankfully we don’t and it doesn’t. Alanon is a great organisation but it does not have all the answers, but then where does.

John McMahon Has worked in the addiction field over 25 years as therapist, university lecturer and researcher and published widely Help for people living with an alcoholic

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