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Why the “Hero’s Journey” is key to recovery

Why the Hero's Journey is key to recovery

It was a professor of literature called Joseph Campbell who in 1949 coined the term “Hero’s Journey” in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book, he described how all stories throughout history really only told one story and had one main character.

But that character was presented differently. So it was “the hero with a thousand faces”.

Campbell spent years studying stories from the ancient legends to the Greek myths and religious stories to Hollywood blockbusters and bestselling novels. He concluded that the story was the same, just presented in different ways.

Amazingly, this was even in people without any contact or even knowledge of each other. This all has an undoubted connection to recovery.

The vast majority of the world’s most-watched movies take us on a Hero’s Journey through the main character. This includes movies that might seem very different.

But all of these movies follow the Hero’s Journey format: The Wizard Of Oz, Star Wars, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, Superman, Rocky, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Harry Potter, and The Lord Of The Rings? Also bestselling books by such as Stephen King, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway.

But not only are they in common with each other but they are also connected to recovery. This connection is that recovery similarly takes us on our very own personal Hero’s Journey.

Rock bottom, breakdown and burnout

Hitting the rock bottom

A Hero’s Journey is a story about a main character who – due to some adversity – manages to find their inner strength. This is their hero inside, something that was always there but they didn’t know how to find it.

We can think of the adversity the main character experiences as something akin to a rock bottom, an emotional breakdown, burnout or just that deep-down knowing that there’s more to life than the one that’s being presently lived.

The world’s most popular movies and books are so popular precisely because they stir something inside us that tells us what we all know in our innermost feelings. They take us on a journey that we all subconsciously know we have to take for a life with meaning.

For someone who’s struggling with a mental health condition – including depression, anxiety, drug addiction, alcoholism, and behavioral addictions – it signifies the inner strength they need to find to beat their problem.

Finding the hero inside

It is the knowing that we all have the capability to summon our own protective force. In fact, the word “hero” derives from the Greek word meaning “protector”.

Now, many mental health experts are realizing the irrefutable connection between the Hero’s Journey and recovery. Perhaps most strikingly it can be seen that the Twelve Steps method for recovery guides people on their own personal Hero’s Journey.

But any sort of recovery requires something similar. It’s what stories are urging us to do – from those of our ancient ancestors up to the latest Hollywood blockbusters. As well as stories in books and films, to a large extent, many computer games often take players through a similar Hero’s Journey.

Utmost courage

One of the utmost qualities that someone needs to find to start and then gain recovery is courage. In a Hero’s Journey story, the main character always has to find their inner strength to achieve what they need to do.

This is from such as saving a community from a dark force to saving the world. In doing so, the hero always resolves an inner issue they have had as well, something that’s always stopped them from fulfilling their full potential. This really talks to us because the main character has to confront their fears to realize what they need to do. They go to where they least want to go in order to get that which they most need.

Slaying the dragon to gain your treasure

This is often a geographical place, but it is also taking the journey inside themselves to find the truth. In these stories the main character most often has a mentor.

So it is with recovery. This is because, to deal with mental health issues it most often means looking back at unresolved histories, usually with a coach, therapist, or sponsor.

When this is done successfully, it allows the person to recover their true self that at some time, most frequently in childhood, was broken, cracked or hidden away to protect it. The mentor, like the coach, therapist or sponsor in recovery, is the one with abounding wisdom.

Think of M in James Bond, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings and Morpheus in The Matrix. As with the person helping someone in recovery, the mentor fully believes in the person in front of them and they have the knowledge that will enable the person they are helping to reach their goal.

A truly transformational process

Transformational process of rehabilitation

Joseph Campbell wrote in his book: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

This is the reason a sponsor and many therapists are able to be like a Hero’s Journey mentor: because they have been on their own recovery journey. Now they know it can be achieved, they can encourage and guide someone else – and believe in them until the other person finds their own inner belief.

This is a great incentive in recovery, that not only can someone find their true self again, they can then pass this on to others. In doing so, they will strengthen their own recovery because they will feel good and strong from within – because they are helping someone else.

In fact, many of the world’s bestselling recovery books are written by people who have been on their own Hero’s Journey stories by facing up to their mental health issues. These include Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now; John Bradshaw’s Healing The Shame That Binds You; Codependent No More by Melody Beattie; and Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones.

This is also why Step 12 of the Twelve Steps is in part about “carrying the message”. It means trying to reach out as much as possible to help others going through similar struggles to those that the person in recovery has found a reprieve from on a daily basis.

Another astounding connection is that the Hero’s Journey is most usually divided into 12 distinct stages. This is just as the Twelve Steps recovery program is – and our treatment at Tikvah Lake often introduces guests to the Twelve Steps.

But there are also several other treatment options that we can offer each guest after carefully listening. We then create a completely personalized method for the best and most enduring recovery for each person who seeks our help.

Our friendly experienced team of experts here has treated people for decades now with all emotional disorders and types of mental health problems. Call us today to speak in confidence about how we can help you or someone you love.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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