You may remember your old high-school English lessons about the “Hero’s Journey” that involves four distinct parts: Separation, Initiation, Change and Return. This pattern can be observed in everything from Shakespeare classics to Disney films and even in your own life – especially if you are a person in recovery.
Opening Scene: Normal life is established
What did things look like before the hero was called away? For me, it was a scene of hectic over-achieving, each exhausting day ending with a heavy dose of white wine to reward and numb myself. For some, it is a time of dysfunction and humiliation. For others, a silent descent that is painfully unnoticed. What was the opening scene for your personal hero’s journey?
If you are still drinking but contemplating recovery, this scene opens on you now, today. Right here, reading this post. You set down your mug and lean forward toward the screen. You’ve heard the call. Your journey is about to begin.
Scene Two: Separation
In some cases, this scene is literal: sequestered in a detox or rehab facility; retreating to the mountains to sweat it out alone; locking the door and hiding from the world. For many others, myself included, this was a time of internal separation. I was physically present but mentally became “other” than those around me.
A new set of unfamiliar circumstances (physical or emotional) is forced upon the hero, who must adapt and navigate in order to survive.
Scene Three: Initiation
Difficulties arise. For a Recovery Hero, this can be the physical hardships of detox, the fall-out from personal dysfunction such as financial strains, relationship breakdowns, or career challenges. Consequences must be faced so a new order can emerge.
Often in this part of the journey, new relationships are formed. These characters will be markedly different from those in the opening scene, bringing delightful new insights. Buzz Lightyear. Hans Solo. Mr. Darcy.
In real-life recovery, these “impact characters” loom large and play a vital role. They can be others at a recovery meeting. A relative with long-term sobriety. A sponsor, therapist or mentor. A supportive friend who rejects shame and stigma.
The initiation period can feel prolonged for the recovering alcoholic encountering many sober “firsts”; first sober wedding, first sober Christmas party, first sober convention, first sober vacation. Since events happen occasionally, it can take a few years for the purpose of the initiation to be fulfilled. That purpose is revealed in the next scene.
Scene Four: Change
The changes the hero experiences as a result of initiations are revealed in this act. This is narrated by harkening back to a problem or situation from the opening scene. The audience realizes that the hero has not only overcome hardships and obstacles, but has a new perspective or understanding as a result. It’s implied that this change is far-reaching and emotions swell (cue orchestra!) as we anticipate the impact this will have on the hero’s previous life.
Scene Five: Return
Here we glimpse the long-anticipated resolutions from the journey and the benefits of the resulting changes. The sufferings or consequences of the opening scene are addressed and the improved circumstances are revealed. Life is better. The future is hopeful.
It is my duty to add a word on tragedy. Tragedy ensues if the hero does not make those positive changes or uses free will to make the wrong choice. Usually there is a great loss as a result – of fortune, love or life (think Othello, King Lear, Romeo and Juliette). In the recovery parallel, tragic events occur when someone just can’t conquer their addiction. It is heartbreaking for anyone to continue to live a life of suffering or to die as a result of the disease; to abandon the heroic journey of recovery before the process is complete, giving up on the hope of overcoming addiction.
Don’t be shy about casting yourself into this play. Visualize the blockbuster, feel-good narrative you are creating. It is your story. You own it, you write it every day. It is never too late to change directions, rewrite a chapter, or add a sequel.
My wish for you is a happy ending.