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How the 12 Steps take you on a Hero’s Journey

What do many of the world’s greatest movies such as Star Wars, The Wizard Of Oz, Batman, The Matrix, The Lord Of The Rings and Superman have in common with recovery? They are stories about a character finding a hidden reserve of inner strength to deal with adversity.

This resonates with us because the main character represents our own hopes and fears. They confront their fears to realize their greatest hopes.

So they have discovered their hero inside. It’s why something stirs in us when Superman rips open his regular guy’s cotton shirt to reveal what’s underneath all along…  

There is a hero inside all of us where we have that exceptional resolve to do something that requires the utmost courage.

A major result of finding the hero inside in these movies is often that the world or a community is saved. One of the many rewards for someone who finds recovery is that in saving themselves everyone around them benefits too.

Many of these movies and the world’s bestselling books such as by Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King are stories that take us on what is known as the “Hero’s Journey“. An American professor of literature called Joseph Campbell coined this term in 1949 with the publication of his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

He studied story structures and realized the format was the same throughout history even in cultures far apart and without contact with each other. This included Greek myths, ancient legends, biblical stories, bestsellers and Hollywood blockbusters.

He was referring to the story in which a character ventures from their ordinary world into an unknown extraordinary world. On their journey there are all sorts of temptations and tests they have to overcome to gain what they need to achieve.

Just think of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, James Bond and all superhero stories.

They go to places they don’t want to go to get what’s most needed.

Not only do they achieve what they set out to, they also find a fearlessness and an almost supernatural brilliant energy that was inside them all along. When they return to the ordinary world they are able to deal with everything in a manner way beyond their previous capabilities.

They also return with a great privilege. As Campbell put it in his book: “The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

But that they never would have discovered any of this without the adversity that pushed them to take their drastic action.

The Hero’s Journey is usually divided into 12 stages. Many recovery experts have noted the strong connection to the 12 Steps program.

As with the 12 Steps, the 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey reveal a way that enable someone to live a self-assured life. The starting point is the adversity – or the rock bottom – that many people need to force them to try a different path.

The 12 Steps are normally undertaken with the guidance of a sponsor, who is someone who has been through the 12 Steps themselves. In the Hero’s Journey stories there’s always a mentor guiding the potential hero in a similar way such as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings.

In the 12 Steps and the Hero’s Journey there is a process of facing fears to realize the inner strength that was always there. Then of being able to show others how they too can find their own inner strength, especially in the face of adversity.

Many of the best self-help books are Hero’s Journey stories like this, written by people who wanted to share the great strength they found through facing up to their mental-health problems. These are such as John Bradshaw’s Healing The Shame That Binds You; Codependent No More by Melody Beattie; Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones; Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now; and 12 Steps To 1 Hero by David Hurst.

Originally devised in the 1930s by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) founders Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith to help alcoholics, the 12 Steps have since been adapted to help with all addictions. The 12 Steps are guiding principles that give a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion and other behavioral problems.

They have played a major part in millions of people’s recovery around the world. An increasing number of people without any addiction problems are also realizing their overall benefits to lead a fulfilling life.

It is estimated that the 12 Steps philosophy is utilized to some extent by three-quarters of treatment centers. A survey conducted by AA in 2014 showed that a third of its members were introduced to AA by a treatment center.

The 12 Steps take a person through a process that can be interpreted as:

  1. Admitting their problem and that their life is unmanageable.
  2. Gaining hope there is a solution.
  3. Deciding to commit to this solution in which they vow to get out of their own way by relying on a power greater than themselves. This can be such as a deity, nature, the recovery process or the others involved in their recovery.
  4. Being rigorously honest to discover the weaknesses that are causing most of their problems. Also a look at strengths.
  5. Being fearless enough to read out all resentments and secrets to a trusted person. This helps alleviate feelings of shame and guilt.
  6. Having learned their weaknesses they ask whatever they consider to be a greater power to help take these away from them.
  7. A continuance of the previous step, but with emphasis on the need for humility to realize their way of living was not working.
  8. Reflecting on past behaviors by writing down all people they may have caused harm to throughout their entire life.
  9. Taking responsibility for these harmful behaviors by asking face to face wherever possible for forgiveness, unless that would cause harm in itself to the person or others.
  10. Looking at personal conduct on a daily basis – and promptly admitting it if wrong.
  11. Praying and meditating every day to develop a relationship with their Higher Power to guide them.
  12. “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps” the next stage is to live in a manner that avoids falling back into old ways and to offer help to other people who are struggling in life.

As part of our treatment here we often incorporate the 12 Steps. But we also acknowledge the 12 Steps are not for everyone in which case there are plenty of other treatment options that we can offer each guest.

Whether you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction, depression, or other unhealthy behaviors we can help. To begin the journey to recovery, contact us today.

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Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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