Individuals with long-term recovery from addiction and related issues are happiest when they view their recovery as a journey – an ongoing learning and growth experience – rather than a destination of some sort. Yes, we want to achieve the very specific long-term goal of sobriety from problematic behaviors, but there is much more to the recovery and healing process. To help visualize this, we sometimes use the Hero’s Journey, as conceptualized by Joseph Campbell.
Interestingly, Campbell was not a psychotherapist. He was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, specializing in comparative mythology. As he taught the classics to his students, he developed his theory of the archetypal hero in world mythology, and from that emerged his theory of what we now call The Hero’s Journey.
Campbell noted that the most appealing and beloved stories, from Greek mythology to the present, tend to feature a reluctant hero who must overcome both challenges and temptations, only to transform, atone, and emerge a stronger and better person. Typically, this hero is aided early on by a mentor or spiritual guide, and then, by the end of the story, the hero reaches (and often exceeds) the level of that mentor or spiritual guide.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tome, The Hobbit, is a prime example of The Hero’s Journey. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is a plump, pleasant little fellow who enjoys afternoon tea and the creature comforts of his cozy underground home. “Adventures? None for me, thank you very much.” But then Bilbo is dragged along on a quest – a journey – by the wizard Gandalf and a pack of surly yet lovable dwarves. Before he knows it, he’s outwitting trolls, slaying orcs, and provoking a dragon. His reward at the end of all this is 1/12th of a mountain of treasure, which he trades to achieve peace in a land that is not even his own.
Bilbo becomes, in his own way, a mighty adventurer. He also becomes a selfless hero – a Hobbit who is more interested in making the world a better place than in living his previous life.
So what does this have to do with addiction? Everything, when viewed through the correct lens. As we begin our journey, for example, we’re a lot like Bilbo, avoiding anything stressful or adventurous. We live in a predictable (though stifling and soul-crushing) world where we escape any and all emotional discomfort by drinking, drugging, using porn, etc. Everything we do is familiar and seemingly safe, and we do whatever we need to do to protect this ever-shrinking universe.
Eventually, we are called to adventure. Partners, parents, friends, and even our workplaces suggest that we need to step away from our lives as they are. And like Bilbo in The Hobbit, we initially resist. Even noticeable consequences – ruined relationships, trouble at work or in school, depression, anxiety, physical woes, social and emotional isolation, etc. – are not enough to pry us out of our escapist behaviors. “Treatment? None for me, thank you very much.” Honestly, how many of us have said things like:
- I don’t need help with this.
- I just need to cut back.
- You’re overreacting.
- I’m just going through a tough time.
- I can quit on my own.
- I just need a bit of time to get this under control.
But ultimately, like all heroes, we decide to cross the threshold into recovery. This is not without hardship. We face temptations, challenges, and sometimes even life and death struggles, yet amazingly this simple act of crossing the threshold and making the journey brings about a complete psychic change. We accept the help of a mentor (or mentors), we opt to face rather than avoid life’s challenges, we make amends for our wrongs, and we find, as we continue our journey, that we become different people. Usually, we become some version of our best selves.
So why is this heroic? Are we really that awesome when we finally step forward into a quest for sobriety and healing?
It is, and we are.
Recovery is heroic because the changes we must make send us on a journey that not only saves our own lives, it prepares us to save the lives of others who struggle with similar issues. Life takes on new meaning for us, just as it did for Bilbo.
First, we recover, then we help others recover, and then we get to watch them help still more people recover. This is a joyful and fulfilling experience that no amount or variety of addictive behaviors can match. In time, we realize that this journey of self-discovery, growth, and service is more rewarding than any destination we might eventually reach. At that point, we truly become Adventurers on a Hero’s Journey. This journey defines us and becomes our purpose, and we would not trade it for anything.