Finding the Right Height

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What the Story of Icarus Did for Me

Many know the Greek mythological story of the failed aviator Icarus, or at least they know it ended with losing his feathers from flying too close to the sun. What most people don’t know about the story is the complete instructions Icarus’ father gave before he flew. He also warned him not to fly too low. While this advice was less known, it was equally as important and just as valuable of a lesson to us all.

Icarus and his father Daedalus were held prisoner in a tower. A consummate problem solver, his father fabricated feathered wings anchored in wax for he and his son to escape. Before flight, Daedalus gave his son the two important warnings.

Flying high, close to the sun, would melt the wax that held the feathers together. Still, flying low was equally as deadly because the feathers would become soaked with sea foam, causing them to become waterlogged and too heavy to fly. The real moral of the story is to fly at the right altitude: not too high and not too low.

Icarus flew too high because his ambition got the best of him. His new-found freedom made him feel god-like and wanting to be higher in the heavens. That is where he met is famous fate. Like in our recovery, eventually we feel better, possibly invincible, to the inapparent consequences of returning to alcohol consumption. Like Icarus, when people fly too high with over-confidence, their wax can melt causing them to fall. It’s hard not to miss it when it happens in recovery: it’s the overt and dramatic tragedy of relapse.

Flying too low is seemingly inconsequential, but it will prevent growth to those recovering and/or in remission from alcohol use disorder. Here’s its big problem: flying too low goes practically unnoticed.

Most generally fly lower in life to positively ensure extreme safety, and are applauded for doing so. It could be because they don’t want to look up to see others leave them behind, or it could be that they are just too afraid to do so themselves. No matter why we do it, when staying low, we don’t notice our feathers soaking in the sea foam.

As you continue past your initial stages, flying too low in recovery is represented by living in the rooms daily, using only one [big] book, simply not searching beyond what one can see, and only listening to what you are told. It may be a great place to start, but staying there keeps you from reaching a greater potential of an even better life. You might not even fall while flying low, but you still greatly limit your ability to climb and maneuver with your heavy, wet wings.

Having the courage to climb to the right altitude immediately gave me the ability to seek better ways of sober living, and it alleviated being bogged down in a limited spectrum of improvement. When I first looked around in my new world of recovery, to me everyone seemed to be on the same, basic level; whether they were brand new or had been there for decades. They were either half-heartedly learning the Big Book passages, or they had long since committed them to memory. Month after month, it was the same thing at these low altitudes. Yet, once I flew higher, I could see further, exploring new areas, people, and ideas.

What were the literal examples of flying higher for me? It was exploring beyond the traditional 12 step methods for improvement, including secular based AA as well as exploring other recovery programs outside of AA. It was correlating lessons from other types of self-improvement such as using Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) management techniques for managing invasive and intrusive thoughts of drinking again – something not addressed at all in the traditional rooms. It was applying the seemingly opposite strategies of philosophy (the Stoics) and critical thought (Psychologists/Psychiatrists) to my approach, both of which lead to taking action, accepting responsibility, and exercising self-will. I also stopped identifying with those who refused to challenge themselves and grow, because psychologically, we tend to mirror those around us. Finally, it was reading books that provided insight not only the medical and biological reality of the situation, but provided real, tangible improvement techniques on top of living practically and realistically.

As you progress in your sobriety, if you don’t rise away from the same-old, same-old, you will continue to be the same-old, same-old. You will age in a rut-filled routine, and your soon rigid life will stiffen more. If your only goal in life is to abstain from drinking again, you will reach this with little problem. Still, it very well could cost you reaching greater potential of completely moving away from the enslaved life of alcohol obsession that you desperately wanted to leave in the first place, every day referring to yourself as an alcoholic and enthusiastically reliving the past in your shares at the meetings.

Like other mistakes in my past, I cannot ignore what was not good for me when I drank, but I don’t need to routinely relive it. If I did that with everything I did wrong, I would overwhelm my thoughts with failure.

For too long I was truly stuck flying low in early recovery. It was laden with self-soothing traditions and references to a magical self-help book that encouraged me to find a higher power. The claim was that deity, which I was conveniently allowed to manipulate to fit my understanding, would passively and supernaturally intervene in my life, removing all of my character defects and shortcomings. Legacy AA rooms got me going, but soon they wouldn’t be enough. Beyond just abstinence, I truly needed to be free, to live life, and to soar.

With dry wings now, my eyes are now opened to new adventures with even more freedom, with greater efficiency, and with far less weight. Mindfully and cautiously, day to day I assess my situation. Occasionally I fly higher and yet sometimes, for whatever reason, I go lower. Evermore I search for the perfect height.

In the end, it came down to this: I really didn’t need a higher power… I needed a higher altitude.

By Chuck S.

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