There’s a book that many people are required to read in college called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s written by a man named Joseph Campbell, who started a whole school of thought of comparative mythology. The easiest entry into his mind is through the DVD series called The Power of Myth. If you like what he has to say, check out The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Hero, as I like to call it, is a standard textbook in many universities. That being said, it’s also a really dry, dull read. Campbell’s ideas were compelling, but the writing really isn’t that interesting. If your reading skills or comprehension aren’t that great, this may not be the book for you. But if you can power through Hero, you’ll be well rewarded.
Campbell sought to find all of what he called “universal truths.” He looked through thousands of years of mythology and religion seeking the similarities between them, the themes that run through the lives of humans then and now. For us to still suffer from the same pathos of a human who lived ten thousand years ago astounds me; we still have the same basic problems we’ve always had.
The Hero’s Journey
Campbell also described what he called “the hero’s journey.” Much like he looked for the truths, Campbell found that heroes of all cultures seem to have similar life paths, with challenges and victories along the way. The concept has become a standard with Hollywood screenwriters, since George Lucas’s endorsement of the book when discussing his Star Wars films. Often, what we are seeing as the clichéd plotlines of blockbuster cinema are millennia-old themes; these stories worked thousands of years ago, and they work now.
There’s a lot to be learned by the atheist-addict from reading Hero. Seeking universal truths is a noble effort and will serve you well when taking moral inventories of yourself. Also, without banking on a set of dogmatic verbalism it shows different ways that humans have described victory and transformation.
Part One: The Departure The Call to Adventure. This is the beginning of the story. The hero learns of a great danger, a threat to himself, his family, or his community. The hero must take action or all will be lost.
Read this as The Call to Sobriety. Your adventure doesn’t start without sobriety. In fifteen years of drinking and writing, I wrote one book that didn’t sell very well. In five years of sobriety, I’ve published two books and released a CD, as well as having a number of really nice gigs. More than anything, I wanted to be a writer. As I was living, it wasn’t going to hap-pen. That Moment of Clarity, as it’s often called, is your calling to get sober.
I don’t know what your personal adventure will be. Maybe it’s a more grounded life than mine, maybe as a parent or as a better part of your family. You may be a successful businessperson hidden inside a drunk’s body. For the artist, I can attest that once past a certain point of usage, the drinking and the drugs have to go away for you to be able to create.
Thinking of my life in this manner helped me understand that getting sober was the beginning of my story, not the end. I’m particularly miffed at the movies Walk the Line and Ray, as they both end with the protagonist getting clean. In both cases, the best parts of the artists’ careers came after they quit drugs. Initially, when I got sober, I thought my life and fun were more or less over. It was just the opposite.
Refusal of the Call. In this part of the journey, the hero declines the quest. The hero may not think himself qualified, or he has other things to do. He returns to his regular life, but things become much worse. His health, family, or community suffers, so he must begin his quest. Think of all the movies where the hero is coaxed out of retirement; he refuses, until his daughter is kidnapped, and then it’s on!
The first time you know you should get clean and sober, you don’t. Usually you put a “system” into place, such as switching to beer from whiskey, or only using after certain occasions. After a system fails, it’s back to sick reasoning that it’s not such a problem; I thought it was everyone else’s Protestant ethics that made my drinking shameful.
If you have a system, you’re an addict. If I told you I had a system for beating the horses, blackjack, or roulette, you’d tell me I was an idiot. Here are some of my favorite systems
that never worked: only drink after 6 p.m., only drink one pint of whiskey per day, or only drink at home. All of these worked worse for me than regular debauchery.
Supernatural Aid. The hero is given tools and/or weapons with which to complete his quest. He may not understand their use or power, but somehow, with these items, he’ll be victorious. The fun of a James Bond movie is in all the gadgets he has to accomplish his mission; it’s not about any inability on his part, it’s about having the right tools for the job.
The 12 Steps are your tools. Use them like a Magic 8 Ball, duct tape, or a Swiss Army knife. Dump any random problem you have through the steps like a strainer and see what you’re left with. The steps don’t solve any of my problems. What they do is help me see what my problems are, and in what order I need to solve them. I still have to figure out what to do, but the steps let me know where to start.
The Crossing of the First Threshold. The hero must enter a new, strange land. There are all kinds of rules that don’t apply back home. The hero may be lost and without a map.
Finding a recovery program is frightening at first.Whileyou may be totally comfortable negotiating a drug deal or drinking in the scariest of bars, walking into a 12-Step group for the
first time is scary. It’s better to go with someone else, but plentyof people walk through that door alone for the first time.
Rebirth: The Belly of the Whale. The hero appears to die, but she is actually reborn in another place. This takes place either literally or metaphorically. One way or another, the old self is dead, and the new self is ready to face the task ahead.
Admitting you’re an alcoholic or addict is the first step. That’s what makes you a recovering addict rather than an addict. You’re not reborn a strong warrior, but you are moving categories. You’re now ready for the next phase of adventure.
I also see the addict’s life as similar to what Campbell refers to as “The Belly of the Whale.” Often a hero is swallowed by a great beast. He’s dead to the world. He can either emerge from the creature’s belly or die where he is.
The addict in the same way creates a world around him that excludes his prior life. The only ones who know him anymore live in the same underworld he does. As far as his family goes, they often do not know his whereabouts.
Part Two: Initiation The Road of Trials. The hero must face a series of small tasks or obstacles before the confrontation at the end of his quest. Sometimes this is merely finding his way. Other times, it is a series of smaller foes to be defeated before the “boss” character appears. This is the most standard way of developing the plot of a video game.
The Meeting with the Goddess. At some ridiculous location, like the top of the world or the bottom of the sea, the hero meets with the Goddess, who holds all knowledge of the cosmos. This is a vague part for me, as I’m not quite clear on its purpose. But as far as I can tell, she makes a man out of the hero with her seductive knowledge. Yep, she devirginates him. Again, maybe only metaphorically; as he’s recently been reborn, this part takes him from being a boy to a man.
The correlation I draw here is in the fearless moral inventory that you have to draw up as part of your fourth step. You go deep into yourself, into the blackest parts of your mind, and find out who you really are and what you’re doing here on Earth. In the fifth through seventh steps following, you transform internally; that is, you mature spiritually.
Woman as Temptress. In many stories, the sexy woman is evil. The hero is led to her by her beauty, and she accepts him. But there is a condition that he discontinue his quest. Other times, she directly destroys him. The desires of the flesh get in the way of the journey’s progress.
Don’t read this only as men or women; this part is all about physical temptation. When drug use and drinking start, they feel really good. There are times that I remember a good high and I want to go out and get loaded. I feel the pull of the whiskey bottle into the store. But I know it will take me back to where I was. I can’t have that one night of drinking without risking everything.
Dating sober is weird at first. I think the biggest urge to drink for me was on a first date. Every part of me wanted a shot or two to take the edge off. I didn’t really know what to do on dates that didn’t involve getting wasted.
Also, the women I was choosing were still the types I dated when I was a drunk. Often, they were drunks or drug addicts as well. The last thing you need while you’re sobering up is your date getting wasted in front of you. For those of you with one alkie parent, you may not understand this. There are plenty of men and women out there who would love to go out on a date with someone who is sober. Trust me, awkward or shy is rated much better than loaded.
Atonement with the Father. The father, for mythical purposes, is the authority figure in the story. While it may be a literal father, it’s often a figurative father. The father figure may be a battle leader or a demanding god.
For me, this came in several parts. I had to give up my resentment against churches, schools, teachers, and my father, who had all exerted what I thought to be undue authority upon me. But the authority that I really had to embrace was the program itself.
I have so many negative approaches to recovery meetings. I don’t like being in church buildings at all. I don’t like people telling me what “God” can do for me. I don’t like being told how I should live my life. But the meetings were the only place I could find the way to really heal myself. The point is, I need to not let my authority hang-ups stop me from getting the help I need.
Apotheosis. The apotheosis is when a human crosses over into a divine entity. In some ancient cultures, a ruler achieved god status upon death, as decreed by the ruler’s successor. In Campbell’s hero theory, it’s a knowledge-based deification, when the prophet goes from being just a person to an all-knowing and wise god-on-earth, worthy of worship.
You may hear the phrase “spiritual awakening” used in 12-Step circles. This is the moment they’re talking about. It’s a sudden gaining of knowledge so profound that it changes the individual’s spirit permanently. It’s the “Eureka!” “Aha!” “I get it!” moment of 12 Step. Honestly, most of 12 Step seemed like a real drag until, at some moment, I began to really enjoy it.
This was the moment when I became excited to be a part of the program. I applied its principles to every part of my life. I looked forward to my favorite meetings. I truly embraced its group nature.
The Ultimate Boon. The hero is now ready to obtain that which he has set out to find, an item or new awareness that, once he returns with it, will benefit the society that he has left.
The hero has something that will help all his family or community back home. For instance, many stories tell about a single person finding or stealing fire and bringing it back to the tribe. It can also be knowledge.
The twelfth step is the one telling us all to carry the message to those who still suffer. Even though the eleven previous
steps are the ones necessary for our immediate survival, it’s not complete without bringing the message back. I’ve taken a number of old drinking buddies with me to meetings.
Part Three: Return Refusal of the Return. After all the trials are completed, the hero doesn’t always want to go back. He may not be seen as the hero in his old circles. His old land may not be as good as the new one. He is reluctant to share his knowledge with others.
Honestly, it’s a pain in the ass to have sponsees and to keep commitments such as being the secretary at the meetings or even making the coffee. Suck it up. If keep commitments such as it weren’t for people doing these things, I wouldn’t have gotten sober. Now it’s my turn to help out.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold. The hero returns to the “normal” world, which seems bizarre to him. After that long period of his life completing his task, the mundane life of normal humans makes no sense to him.
Going back into the Normie world after being a drunk or an addict for a long time takes awhile to adjust to. Most people have never used garbage bags to block out windows,nor have they smoked anything off tinfoil. They don’t know the difference between speed and coke.
The Normies have their own system of living that must be learned, and they assume it’s simple knowledge. Getting jobs, apartments, socializing, going on dates—all of these things seem foreign to someone living outside of it. You may know how to break up a pound of weed and sell it in eighth-ounce bags, but getting a job in an office is beyond you. What I did was ask people at meetings. You can ask them anything: how to do your laundry, how to find a dentist, how to work your stove. They will be relieved that other people did not know these things either.
Master of Two Worlds. The hero is able to live in both the god realms and human realms. Maybe he comes back from the “dead.”
This, to me, meant that at some point I could go out to nightclubs and bars without drinking. I really wanted to get back into performing, and most of the venues are in spots that sell liquor and give me free drink tickets. I got sober so I could live the life I wanted, not hide from it.
I also saw it as a return to the Normie world. I won’t be a Normie again, but I can hang out with them again. When I first got sober, they made absolutely no sense to me. Although I’m mostly at home with recovering addicts, I can hang out with Normies without feeling socially awkward.
Recovery is where you find it. Hero spoke to me at a time when I needed inspiration. Maybe for you it will be a band, a movie, or a different piece of literature. Hero speaks of the human condition, as do many art forms. Keep your eyes open for answers in unlikely places.