The hero's journey is a concept explored by Joseph Campbell. A great admirer of Jung, Campbell observed that across time, many cultures told tales about the journey of a hero. He saw the monomyth lay beneath all these stories, with similar arcs occurring in cultures with geographic and temporal separation. He realized that the hero's journey is a blueprint in the human psyche. As the stories we tell follow this arc, so do the journeys we take in our lives. So, it is no great surprise then that the journey towards sobriety can take a path similar to the hero's journey.
The hero's journey is often shown as taking place over 12 steps, though not all myths have all these steps. However, since 12 is the number of steps in many programs of recovery, it is well aligned for this topic.
The hero's journey begins in the ordinary world. Harry Potter is living under the cupboard. Luke Skywaler is farming with his parents. Our hero is going through the motions of daily life. This is in the heart of the ordinary. For someone using substances, perhaps the substance itself has become ordinary, and is simply part of life. For me it had become background noise. I took it at the same time I brushed my teeth every morning. Somewhere along the way the pain that had once motivated me to use had softened, and all that was left was dissatisfaction with how my life was going.
The second step of the hero's journey is the call to adventure: Harry receives a letter in the mail. Neo learns about the matrix that imprisons him. In recovery, this could be learning about sobriety through a counselor, or watching a friend go to rehab or stop using substances.
Sometimes this is followed by a ‘refusal of the call.’ Recovery literature talks about how many ways people try to change their habits on their own. I tried to stop drinking and just do other substances, and vice versa. I went to a SMART recovery meeting, and never went back to meetings for over a year and a half. Other refusals of the call could be slips or relapses early in the process before a more stable sobriety occurs.
The fourth step on the hero's journey is meeting the mentor: Neo meets Morpheus, Luke meets Obi Wan Kenobi. Harry meets the wise old magician, Dumbeldore. Although I’ve had many mentors in my life, and would soon meet many more, here I think of the psychiatrist who helped place me in rehab. He and I had been through a lot, and when I was ready to stop going through the motions and try something new, he helped me find a place to go. In the twelve steps, this could also be seen as beginning the fourth step with a sponsor, an act that takes courage, trust, and dedication.
The fifth step is crossing the threshold. This is a visceral, painful event. When Neo wakes up, he is in a tub filled with goo, pulling suction cups off his skin. His own body has become alien to him. This was how going through benzodiazepine withdrawals felt. It felt as if my body, mind, and soul were dissolving. I felt disconnected, alternately hot and cold, with my skin itching. I was so anxious I thought I’d explode, while also nodding off randomly and jerking awake. In short, my body had become alien to me. The ordinary world had been left behind, and at first it was extremely painful. The 5th step in any 12 step program is also a crossing of the threshold, though it is more internal. It allows an individual to see themself in a new way for the first time. During my 5th step, I realized how many of my own regressive behaviors I had justified. I had been blind to large truths about myself, and was able to see my own imperfections in a way I never had before. It was a tough pill to swallow.
The sixth step in the hero’s journey is known as ‘Tests, Allies, and Enemies.’ Upon his arrival at Hogwarts, Harry meets Ron and Hermione, but also Snape and Malfoy. He finds Hogwarts challenging, and finds himself pitted against Malfoy on the quidditch field. Neo learns that agent Smith is hunting him. What this step calls to mind for me is what it was like making friends in early recovery, and finding which of my friends were people who I could be my best self around. Lots of people I met in recovery are my closest friends. With some people I found that I felt more like using while I was around them. Some of my friends I no longer had things in common with. I also found this to be a time where I needed to question who I decided an enemy was. As often as not, these were stories in my head. The enemies and the allies can be internal energies as often as they are external. The drive to use a substance I knew I no longer wanted in my life was the adversary, and the challenge was whether or not I chose that route. The allies were my friends and mentors, and the voice in my head that helped me see why using was anathema to the person I was becoming. I was starting to be proud of that person. In the 6th step in 12 step recovery, the character defects or defaults are identified, and these are the regressive behaviors that will be left behind by the hero.
The seventh step of the hero's journey is the approach to the inmost cave. In Star Wars they must enter the Death Star, in Harry Potter they go into the dungeons below Hogwarts to find the philosopher’s stone. Here, Frodo puts on the ring, and sees that he is susceptible to the same evil powers that created Sauron. In the 12 steps, step 7 is turning over character defaults to your Higher Power, and identifying their opposite behavior. If avoidance is the default, opposite action and moving towards the fear is the new behavior. My experience was that while these steps were as enlightening as any other steps, offering me concrete options to change old patterns, I felt myself energetically approaching the 9th step of the 12 step recovery journey.
While my eye was on the horizon, I found that after the revelations of the 5th step and sharing my innermost secrets with my sponsor, I felt myself looking inward more. I was seeing my part in creating my problems, and could witness myself hurting loved ones. It was not a good feeling, and my trust in myself was shaken. It felt like midwinter, and since it was during the first shutdown of early Coronavirus, the slow pace of quarantine offered me lots of time to journey inwards. I was afraid of the person I was, and the things I had done. At that time I couldn’t imagine myself as a good person. I very much wanted to hide.
The eighth step of the hero's journey is the ordeal. Here Harry faces the challenges in the dungeon’s that protect the sorcerer’s stone. Stitch wants a family, and so he must rescue Lilo. For me, I knew I needed to complete the twelve steps in my recovery program so I could stay sober. I also knew I needed to make amends to the people in my life who I'd hurt. Writing these amends, and getting ready to offer them was a nerve wracking process, yet I was committed to doing something difficult and unpleasant, a sensation I had never before experienced. To me this seems the paradox of the self: before sobriety, I was primarily only able to think about what was comfortable for me. While thinking about myself, I felt impermanent, as if I were blown about like a leaf. As I prepared for the ninth step, dedicated to doing something that would make me uncomfortable in exchange to do something good for others, I felt stable, permanent, and capable. In short, as soon as I was focused on doing something for a purpose ‘greater’ than myself, I found my sense of self and began to feel stable and real. In my eyes, the 9th step of making amends in recovery corresponds with the 8th step ordeal in the hero's journey.
The ninth step of the hero's journey is the reward! Luke kisses Leia, Harry saves the stone, Stitch gets a family. Famously in the AA big book, the ‘promises of the program’ are listed right after the 9th step, and oftentimes occur in an individual's life upon completion of the ordeal that is amends. It is interesting to note that Campbell originally identified the ninth step as Atonement With The Father. ‘The Father’ can be understood as the sense of doing right and being aligned with one's own morals and higher power after making amends.
Step ten of the hero's journey marks the transition back to the ordinary world. This is ‘The Road Back.’ The hero has completed the ordeal, and has gained the reward. For Frodo he literally walks back home after destroying the ring. In AA the 10th step is the daily upkeep, an inventory done to make sure one is living in accordance with the wisdom of their new self. Integrating from the extraordinary world and the journey back to the ordinary world can be challenging. Here the new skills learned are brought back into mundane life.
The eleventh step of the hero's journey is the resurrection. Harry has already found the Sorcerer’s stone. Now he must face professor Quirrel, who is harboring Voldemort on the back of his head. When I consider that the 11th step of 12 step recovery programs is prayer and meditation, I think of my greatest challenge in recovery, and in life: learning to accept all the thoughts and emotions I experience in my own mind, and to hold them with lightness and ease. In this step the Hero defeats their enemy. In recovery, this could be seen as someone finally growing beyond the regressive energy which keeps them stuck in unhealthy patterns with substances, allowing them to become the person they were meant to be. In learning to meditate in recovery, we can come to terms with the great challenge that it is to handle our emotions and thoughts.
Which brings us to the final step of the hero's journey, and the 12 steps to recovery: The Return With The Elixir. Having completed the final challenge, the Hero can return to their life. The elixir represents having gained something on their journey which they can share with the people around them. The knowledge gained on their journey has transformed them. In the 12 steps of recovery, the 12th step is sponsoring others. Having learned how the steps work and found sobriety, a person can then help another find sobriety. They share the elixir of recovery wisdom.