(*spoiler alert- there is no such thing)
No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. This point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines…We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.
–Alcoholics Anonymous – “How It Works” -page 60
When I started my career at MARR over a decade ago, I was fortunate to learn a teaching from a cherished, seasoned colleague. This singular concept has stood the test of time, and continues to be one of the most powerful moments of teaching that I have the privilege of passing on to the women in our program. This simple concept has been responsible for a lot of “aha” moments over the years and I have seen it be fundamental in helping folks persevere through the learning curve of decision-making as a person newly in recovery. Whether you are a person in recovery yourself — or the loved one of a person seeking recovery, my hope is this can provide some context for the tough moments that inevitably happen along the recovery journey.
Admission to treatment is often viewed as the end of the addiction and beginning of the recovery story. The thought is, “I have hit my bottom- I’ve finally made it to treatment, now things can only get better from here. If I just ‘do the next right thing’ everything will get better until I am ‘happy, joyous, and free.” Depicting this expectation visually would look something like this:
This expectation can be the cause of a fair amount of frustration for both the individual who is recovering and their loved ones because it never (yes, I said never) matches up with reality. Moreover, trying to make this expectation become the reality creates more suffering than is necessary. If you’ve ever tried to create a do-it-yourself project or a new recipe that you found on Pinterest- you understand this concept very well. As hard as you may try, and as perfect as you may want your project to be, somehow it never ends up like the beautiful, professionally photographed photo that you pinned to your board on Pinterest (see Pinterest Fail website for a good laugh).
Instead, below is a visual depiction of the reality of the Normal Cycle of Recovery:
Each forward line represents forward movement, growth, change, and progress in recovery. While each loop backwards represents a mistake or misstep or a moment when we were just not our best selves. Both the forward movement and the temporary backward motion are inherent in the process and each is necessary for our growth. Just like so many other things in life- ebb and flow is to be expected.
When I draw this visual on the board in our group room, and write “Normal Cycle of Recovery” above it, I usually hear laughs of recognition and sighs of relief. This simple illustration reminds us that perfection is not expected nor is it achievable. It reminds us that mistakes and missteps never define the totality of our experience or our identity. Though these understandings never absolve us of the responsibility to course-correct and make amends, it gives us the context and the courage to not give up even in moments of difficulty. And, of course, persevering through difficult feelings and experiences is essential on the path to letting go of substance use.
Thankfully, the recovery process is vast enough to hold space for both the forward motion and the temporary setbacks that are all a part of the reality of “trudging the road to happy destiny.”
By Courtney Robbins, CACII
Primary Counselor, Women’s Recovery Center