Progress Sometimes Feels Like Going Nowhere – Part II – Tightrope Walking / by Michelle Cowan

I am blatantly retelling a metaphor I heard in a meeting last week.  But I don't think the teller will mind…

Recovery is like walking a tightrope, but not in the way many people think of it—as tentatively taking one step after another, unsteady, unsure, risky, fearful, dangerous.

According to my friend's telling, when a person walks a tightrope, he isn't walking from one end to the other.  He's falling down from one end to the other.  As he crosses the expanse on his tightrope, the walker carries a long pole for balance. With each step, he falls a little to one side, shifting the bar to the other side to compensate.  Each step is a process of falling and recovery, of falling and recovery. 

My friend in the meeting suggested that each moment of recovery is where we meet God on the most honest level. We don't feel our need for a higher power until we really need one.  Without falling, we are never required to try anything new. We are never required to grow.  If we fall, we must do something differently in order to reach the other side of whatever expanse we are trying to cross.  Growth is rarely a matter of taking several steps in a straight line, even though to people who don't see the internal life of the tightrope walker, it may appear to be so. 

Another way to think of oneself living life and pursuing recovery is as a pendulum. We swing back and forth across a balanced middle. In the midst of our disease, we swung wildly, barely seeing that middle.  As we mature, we usually swing more slowly and don't necessary fly as wide away from the center as we used to.

But back to the tightrope.  Before we get much awareness of ourselves or of true recovery, we approach canyons and open expanses with trepidation. We take a deep breath and promise ourselves that we can make it across.  It's only a few steps.  We just have to keep our path straight.  When our assistants and friends come to us with a balancing pole, many of us shake our heads and claim we don't need it.  It will be too heavy, we insist. It would impair our progress. 

Then, no matter how strong we start out across that expanse, we each, inevitably, begin to fall.  Those of us who agreed to take the pole but have not yet learned how to use it throw it from our hands. Those who refuse it are out of luck from the get-go. We falling to one side.  What little we know about recovery is not enough to keep us on top of that rope.  The only thing we can do was grab onto that rope before we fall completely.

We cling to that rope, hanging on with our feet dangling.  We might try this for a long while, pretending we are some kind of hero in a spy movie, muscling our way across the canyon with our hands. But even the strongest among us can't move forward that way for too long. We have to stop at some point.  We stop and simply hang on.

That's what some of those plateaus I talked about in Part I of this post feel like.  We are merely hanging on.  Maybe someone gave us some techniques to use to recover, but we don't always know how to employ them all.  We aren't used to trusting a higher power.  We aren't used to doing things any other way than the way we've always done them.  We dangle from the rope and wait.  

At this point, some people let go.  Some people relapse.

Others of us are fortunate and brave.  Somehow, we take a rest and get back on top of the rope.  Usually, it's our higher power that manages this feat, but we must be willing.  This time, when someone hands us a balancing pole, we learn how to use it.  We watch other tightrope walkers and see how it works.  And it all eventually comes to together, sometimes after multiple turns under the rope.  We realize that we don't have to muscle through life anymore.  We just feel ourselves fall and move that pole. 

Did you read that?  We feel ourselves fall and move the pole.  This depiction of recovery explicitly states that we will not be urge or symptom free 100% of the time.  Recovery isn't about that.  Sometimes, the addictive thoughts go away.  Sometimes, they do not.  In either case, it usually takes time for them to leave us. 

Recovery is about how we react to those urges and thoughts.  It's about not going crazy or freaking out when they happen.  Even if we act on ED impulses, it is to our detriment to think it's the end of the world.  All we have to do is move the pole slightly.  It's a barely perceptible movement sometimes. We learn how to accomplish these slow, steady movements over time.  We learn how to not completely lose our minds (most of the time) and change one thing in our lives. We do one thing differently.  We discard something that used to work for us that no longer works. We find a new way to handle a situation.  We move that pole.

And we find the middle again.  We can walk forward. 

This is such a different image than the hero or the whirling dervish that picks herself up and does everything possible to stay in recovery. Sometimes, these wild attempts at changing our lives do more damage than good.  Maturity in recovery means we get a little more discernment—at least a lot of the time.  Or maybe it's simply that we start being able to see the difference between extreme and prudent action.  

Risk-taking is essential.  Tightrope walking is inherently a risk!  I'm not saying we live our lives in a boring way and always make "safe" decisions.  But we can make smart moves instead of panic and fear-driven ones.  Recovery helps us do that. 

I feel that recovery is helping me do that, even if I still find myself driven by fear no again.  At least I can see it now, and move that pole.