Step one

She collapses on my sofa, and I hear myself thinking Looks like shit.  Carelessly dressed, hair disheveled,  circles under her eyes.  Pale.

But you don’t tell clients they look like shit.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Shitty,” she says.

“Why?” I ask.

“I can’t do it anymore,” she says.

“Do what?”

“Any of it.  All of it.”

I know what she’s talking about.  We’ve been over this ground many times.  She lives with a self-absorbed, unpleasable husband.  Her three adult kids are needy and crisis-prone.  Her aging parents call her at all hours with requests, demands and emergencies.   And she belongs to a volunteer organization, a peace group apparently unable to function without her.

“I just can’t manage it all.”

I’m quiet.

She looks at me.  “Can you help me?” she asks.

“Manage it all?”



She sags into the cushions.  “Why not?”

I think a minute.  Again, not new territory.  I’ve explained over and over why what she’s attempting is impossible.

But this woman is a control addict.  And like any addict, she can‘t see the obvious.  No matter how often life spells it out for her.

She’s no dummy, though.  Now she looks at me and reads my mind.

“I know,“ she says.  “I know.  I’m not getting it.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s nothing to apologize for,” I say.  “It’s part of the problem.  A symptom. Like throwing up when you have food poisoning.”

“But I need to get this, Steve.  Please.  Explain it again.  Why can’t I manage it all?  What’s wrong with me?”

That control can be a problem is hard for many clients to accept.  It can take months for them to get past seeing control as the solution to just about everything.  At our last session I’d suggested we speed up this process by relating every problem she brings up to her addiction.

Now I say, “Know anything about the Twelve Steps?”

“Sort of.  I went to Al-Anon when my first husband was drinking.”

“I’m thinking of the First Step now.  Remember how it goes?”

Admitted we were something or other,” she frowns.

Admitted we were powerless over X – fill in the blank — and that our lives had become unmanageable. 

“For the alcoholic that means powerless over alcohol.  For the overeater, it’s powerless over food.  For the control addict, it’s powerless over people, places and things.”

“I remember now,” she says.  “I always hated the idea of being powerless.”

“Me too,” I say.  “But I think powerless is the wrong word.  I think what Step One really means is beyond our control.”

“Aren’t power and control the same thing?”

“No.  Powerful means able to take care of yourself, get your needs met, do what’s necessary.  Controlling means trying to make people, places and things the way you want them to be.  Most of the time, they’re opposites.  The more controlling you are, the less powerful you become.   That’s why you feel like shit now.”

“Because I’m always trying to control things.”

I nod.  “So hard, and so constantly, that you lose all your power.  Sleep at all last night?”

“A few hours.  I kept waking up.”

“To worry about stuff?”


“In other words, trying to control stuff in your head.”

“Yes,” she says sadly.  “I just can’t stop.”  Tears come to her eyes.

I pass her a box of tissues and wait.  Good, I think.  She never cries.  Control addicts rarely do.  Like sleeping, crying means giving up control, letting the body have its say.  So these tears signify a small victory.

After a moment she wipes her nose and blinks.  Now she looks angry.

“Help me stop,” she says.

“Okay,” I say.

“Where do I start?”

“Well, our Step One will be:  Redefine the problem.”


To be continued.


2 responses to “Step one

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