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The Ultimate Hero’s Journey

The idea of the Hero’s Journey in the human experience is as universal as the stories of creation. We have all experienced it…the process of hearing a call to make some fundamental change in our lives, the decision to pursue such change and deal with all the challenges and conflict that might ensue, the need to travel to the ends of the earth to effect that fundamental change, and then the opportunity to incorporate it into our lives and those we love; it is a constant for all of us.

Joseph Campbell made the idea of the Hero’s Journey the central tenet of his 60 year life of exceptional scholarship in Mythology.  He found this theme in all of history and in all cultures everywhere in the world.  The schematic below is a good depiction of the process.  The Call to Adventure is the beginning, the call to pursue some fundamental change in our lives.  We seek help in the process, maybe pray over it and talk to those who could help us understand the process we must go through.  We finally make a decision and begin.  Those we sought for help might provide guidance as we meet challenges along the way.  Most likely we will confront some serious obstacles which we must work to overcome; in effect some part of us might have to die for us to be reborn to a new way of thinking about and seeing the world.  These struggles ultimately result in a transformation; in effect, a fundamental part of us is renewed and restored.  The final result is a new way of dealing with the world, a new way of seeing things, as we grasp a new mechanism for changing the original malady.  We then return to our world a new person. 

Nowhere is this idea of the Hero’s Journey more poignant than in the quest for Sobriety for the alcoholic. I am sure that if Joe Campbell was ever a fly on the wall of an AA meeting he would hear the themes of this story over and over again. Let’s imagine a long suffering alcoholic whom we can call John B.  He is in his early 40’s.  He began drinking seriously in high school; had horrendous experiences of alcoholic stupors in college; and was never able to make the transition to adulthood in his drinking behavior in his 20’s.  His innate talent and grit gave him some significant success in the business world; he gained some fame and stature.  He was married and had 2 children before his 30th birthday.  But his alcohol consumption just continued to plague him, as he drank more and more and had increasingly more and more serious bouts of binging and blackouts.  He acquired a series of DWI’s, spent some nights in jail, and was ultimately fired by his company.  His wife left him, taking the children.  It became crystal clear to everyone that the only eventual outcome of his continued drinking was destitution and death.

At this point, a friend tells him of AA and, as much as he wants his life to change, he continues to resist and drink.  Finally one day in complete desperation, he prays for deliverance and professes to his friend his willingness to “do whatever it takes.” He begins the journey to sobriety.  From this point, his process follows the Campbellian sense of the hero’s journey in lock step.

Similarly, a woman, let’s call her, Mary C., a businesswoman and a spouse and mother, who’s adolescent and teen years resembled John’s with increasingly severe bouts of alcoholic acting out, finds herself at an impossible bottom in her late 30’s.  A successful career in advertising, and a marriage and children in her 20’s and early 30’s are attended by an unlikely slide into aimless, incident filled drinking.  Just before losing her job over this behavior she decides to stay home to care for her children…but the incidents never stop, to include driving her kids to and from activities while in a blackout.  After an incident of forgetting about her kids at activities entirely, her family and close friends organize an intervention.  In a fit of complete agony and desperation, seeing the unfathomable grief in all their faces, she finally comes to the realization that something dire and permanent must be done.  She enters rehab and begins the final journey.

Or maybe the young girl or boy whose teenage behavior and the despair of their parents lead to a trail of rehab visits’ with no recovery.  By their early 20’s they are on the streets living with whomever, wherever…using pickup jobs here or there, or occasional petty thievery, to stay alive and stay high.  One day a stranger stops them and convinces them to come to a meeting.  Sitting there, holding their hand, he says  “You matter.  You are worthy of being alive.  Let me help you.” …and something clicks.  They follow the stranger to a halfway house, spend a night and a day and another and slowly the journey begins.

This blog is about these journeys and thousands like them…about how they parallel all of the “hero’s journeys” in literature and film, and about all the resonant themes therein that hearken to our lives in the disease of alcoholism. There have been some great movies about this malady –Days of Wine and Roses, Leaving Las Vegas, Clean and Sober, Tender Mercies, to name a few– all dealing with the tragedies and sometimes hopelessness of the disease.  The beauty and scholarship of these treatments, from whatever aspect we might see them, are what artistic achievement, and its ability to strike wonder in the hearts of all of us, is all about.  For those of us living with these pathologies, those of us on the lifelong journeys towards recovery from addictions, it provides a wonderful sense of our presence in all the great stories of the human experience.

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