Recycling in Recovery

Spiral in Sand

This blog entry is about an important but neglected issue in recovery that I call “recycling.” In my experience, many people seem to believe that once you deal with an issue (a ‘character defect’ or psychological issue), then you are done with it. It’s totally over with, and you can just move on from there. The underlying belief is that recovery is basically like a straight line – onward and upward. Nothing could be further from the truth. The process of long-term recovery is more like a spiral than a straight line.

What that means is that, at different points in our recovery journey, it is absolutely normal, even inevitable, that we will be faced with the same kinds of life difficulties, relationship problems, and “character defects” that we thought we dealt with years before. When this happens, it can feel like ‘déjà vu all over again,’ in that the life circumstances will be different, but the underlying, essential nature or character of the problem or challenge will be almost exactly like one we dealt with years before. This process can, and does, happen over and over again.

Many people in recovery think that if this happens, it means that their recovery is somehow suspect or defective, or that they are defective – that something is ‘wrong’ with them. That is a total misconception, rooted in ignorance of human development. The truth is that this recycling process IS the process of healing and growth. It’s both natural and inevitable.

The healing process is more like a spiral: we repeatedly circle around our issues, but each time we encounter them, we get closer and closer to the core. Human development and growth are gradual and evolutionary. We aren’t machines where you can just throw a switch and turn off an issue. Each time we reencounter a life issue or ‘character defect,’ our challenge is to work through it – to a greater degree each time. It’s NOT about perfection; it’s about gradual healing.

Even though the recycling process can be painful, it is filled with an inner grace. Each time we ‘circle around’ and reencounter an issue, the healing process takes place at deeper and deeper levels. As we go through it again, we gain a deeper inner strength, grow in compassion and acceptance, and the core wounds underlying our “issues” or “defects” are healed at much deeper levels. We are renewed and revitalized as human beings, and we gradually become who we were meant to be in the first place.

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