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Relapse as Part of a Heroic Journey

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

~T. S. Eliot (Little Gidding, from Four Quartets)

Our collective understanding of relapse (a return to a substance or addictive behaviour) is in drastic need of an overhaul. Rather than getting help before their lives spiral out of control, many people who relapse fail to reach out when struggling with negative emotions, particularly shame. Shame is a powerful emotion and too often it keeps people from seeking help. So how does society get a new perspective on relapse?

Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from one of the world’s great teachers, the late Joseph Campbell. In his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell identified that many of the world’s great myths told of heroes following a standard rite of passage: separation – initiation – return. These three stages embody what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth.

This monomyth is not unlike the path of recovery: addiction – treatment – recovery. Unfortunately, our modern world has forgotten about myths and legends, so many of us fail to see recovery as a heroic journey.

I found an excellent video that compares Campbell’s monomyth to The Matrix:

Mr. Vogler expands Campbell’s heroic journey into 12 separate stages.* Following the same lines, I have added the recovery journey:

*Note: not to be confused with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.


Stage 1 – “Uncomfortable Home”

The hero senses something’s not right with the old world and something has to be done.

An individual with addiction realizes that his/her life is no longer working and that drugs ** aren’t helping.

Stage 2 – “Call to Adventure”

The hero is now certain that something has to be done.

The individual with addiction realizes he/she can’t beat it alone and needs professional help.

Stage 3 – “Refusal or Denial”

The hero confronts his fear of change.

The individual with addiction has second thoughts about getting help or staying in treatment.

Stage 4 – “Meeting the Mentor”

The hero is aided in his journey by meeting a wise person or a mentor.

The individual with addiction meets his counsellor (and hopefully the counsellor is mentor material!)

**Note: the term “drug” here denotes addiction to substances (alcohol and/or drugs) as well as behaviours (shopping, gambling, surfing porn, etc.).


Stage 5 – “Crossing the First Threshold”

The hero has done all his prep work and now the adventure begins.

The individual with addiction settles into treatment and begins to face the negative consequences of his/her past and the fear of an uncertain future.

Stage 6 – “Test Allies & Enemies”

The hero begins to experiment with the new world and finds out who his friends and enemies are.

The individual with addiction encounters his share of friends and enemies in his “new world” of recovery. He or she learns that some people are supportive of recovery while others are a hindrance.

Stage 7 – “Approach & Preparation”

The hero is now deeply embedded in the new world and is getting ready for the big struggle.

The individual with addiction begins a life built around recovery.

Stage 8 – “The Ordeal”

The hero now faces his fear where he/she has to go through some test that may involve death.

The individual with addiction encounters increasing negative thoughts and feelings which may threaten his recovery.

Stage 9 – “Reward”

The hero survives the ordeal and there is a big payoff.

The individual with addiction survives an emotional relapse or a slip and is rewarded for recommitting to recovery.


Stage Ten – “The Road Back”

The hero has to collect him/herself and prepare for the big battle.

The individual with addiction has returned to the “old world” where all his/her “demons” await.

Stage Eleven – “Resurrection”

The hero faces the enemy one more time, but in a final way on a bigger scale and at a deeper level (the real test).

The individual with addiction encounters a major threat to his recovery such as the death of a loved one, divorce, financial ruin, etc.

Stage Twelve – “Return”

The hero returns with the elixir (some form of magic) which brings back life to the old world. The hero has to bring something back to share with everybody or it’s a total waste of time.

The individual with addiction brings back his/her recovery “elixir” and begins to transform the old world (his/her old people, places, things). He or she comes to learn that his/her recovery elixir is finding a purpose in life that makes a difference to others.

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