The 0th Step

December 1, 2022 Comments Off on The 0th Step

Alcoholics Anonymous is a recovery program with twelve steps, plus one if you include the “Thirteenth Step” … google it. Each step (except that one) forms an integral part of the program, and although participants are supposed to logically progress from one step to the next, in practice they never do, and as AA continually reminds you, “Take what you need, leave the rest.”

But what about not being able to even take the First Step? Doesn’t that leave you with a scenario in which you’re “Taking nothing, leaving everything”? And if so, why bother going?

AA’s First Step is to admit your powerlessness over alcohol and to admit that as a result of this condition your life has become unmanageable. This is for sure a step I’ve been unable to take, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, and like many people who founder on AA’s program in the first days, weeks, or years, this core idea of one’s alcoholism is inordinately hard to accept, regardless of how often we notice the correlation between booze and catastrophe, get told that we have a problem, or repeat the mandatory AA daily self-introduction: “Seth, alcoholic.”

Getting to that first step is hard because there’s so little discussion about what comes before it, which is what I call the 0th Step. In short, the 0th Step is the one where you a) step into a meeting and b) recognize that it is a meeting for people with a drinking problem. Seems simple and rather obvious, but it’s not.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a guy who had left one career in search of another. The first and second careers were totally unrelated and he had zero training in the new field, an endeavor that requires highly specialized training and education. He had begun studying on his own, and after a year realized that he was going to need formal training, so he left his secure but unsatisfying job, despite the financial pressures of quitting, in order to get the schooling he needed.

His self-study had given him a leg up, and his earlier career had given him people skills that are sorely lacking in the IT field, and after a couple of months at school, and the relentless submission of job applications, he lined up a series of five interviews. One of those became a job offer, but due to his thin qualifications, the job and pay that were offered were different from the job he’d applied for. Regretfully, he declined.

Rather than being demoralized about the results, he simply redoubled his efforts with the conviction that the right job would come. My guess is that it will. But regardless, he has ascended beyond the 0th Step. That was the step where he realized that his current job sucked and that however hard it was going to be, he wanted to do something different.

In that vein, we talked about the true size of the applicant pool he’d beaten out for those interviews, because it was vaster than the many people who sent in resumes. The true applicant pool comprised the people who never even applied, and even more significantly, the people who wanted to get into IT just like he did, but had never so much as cracked a book. In other words, the 0th Step, as daunting as it seems when you’re there with your foot on the threshold, already means you’ve taken a stride far broader and more purposeful than the countless people who have never graduated beyond wishful thinking.

I’ve experienced it in my own life in other areas, like the time I failed the California Bar Exam. It was crushing, to say nothing of the shame I felt at having let my family down. Of course, I gathered my strength, took the test again, and passed on the second try, and though my sense of failure wouldn’t let me consider it at the time, simply failing the exam meant I had gone way past the 0th Step. That step involved deciding that I wanted to go to law school in the first place such that I was willing to study and pay for the LSAT, to say nothing of actually getting into and out of law school. It’s the conviction that you want to do the thing even though you don’t know what it entails that is at the heart of every 0th Step, whether a job, a relationship, an investment of time, the purchase of a bicycle to get fitter, or the decision to have a family. It’s an endless list.

Circling back to AA, there are many people including me who may feel like they don’t belong, or that the program is a bad fit, or that they’re destined to fail because they can’t even take the VERY FIRST STEP.

I’d argue that if you’re at an AA meeting, you already have.


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