Turning Inward: The Process of Personal Recovery

Originally printed in the FALL 2011 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bull, James L. "Turning Inward: The Process of Personal Recovery." Quest  99.4 (FALL  2011):133-135.

James L. Bull, Ph.D. 

Theosophical Society - James L. Bull first learned about Theosophy from his mother, Evelyn Bull, who had a number of articles and poems published in The American Theosophist. Now a retired psychologist, he remains active as a hospice volunteer.He poured us each a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table as I got out a tape recorder. 

I don't know if I can describe what the hole was like at Folsom to you, but it was pretty soul-shattering, I guess. I just really took a good look at myself and went through quite a psychological thing there, and just decided I was going to get the hell out of there and I was going to get out of prison and get out of the whole kind of pattern that I had lived all my life. I had been, you know, a criminal ever since I was this high; I had grown up with that sort of thing and had just been fortunate that I had never been caught till I was twenty-eight years old. So I really just made up my mind that I was going to change, that's all. There was no future in it for me . . . I was in there four months.

I had gone through that kind of change to a much lesser degree a number of times before. When I first got busted and did five years, I felt like, "Maybe I'm on the wrong track; maybe this isn't heading anyplace." But I always came back to that feeling, "Hell, if I can't have it the way I want it, to hell with it." Well, I arrived at the point where I just felt like this was not for me; I had to do something different. It was either that or go under; either that or resign myself to being in Folsom for the rest of my natural life. I had never been so thoroughly trapped before in my life. I really think for a man to make a profound change in his life, he has to go through some kind of experience that shakes him to his roots . . . otherwise, he goes along in the rut and makes half-hearted changes.

This man, whom I will call Frank, was put in the "hole"—solitary confinement—after being captured during a brief and failed escape attempt from Folsom Prison, a very old high-security prison in California. (The truck he escaped in had run out of gas on Folsom Dam, behind the prison.) Note that his effort was strikingly individual: because it was directed at and made use of the values of a community that existed outside the prison walls, it could receive no immediate validation. It was necessary for Frank to separate himself from the prison community. As he put it, "There are activities available, but they are all convict activities. In order to do anything that really gets you involved with the world, outside of prison, you have to develop activities on your own." Frank went on to become involved in a number of activities in prison—an art show, a drama group, a Toastmasters affiliate—that were oriented toward the outside world.

Frank was the first person that I spoke with in a study of personal recovery. I had wanted to meet some people whose lives had at one time been seriously misdirected but who had recovered a measure of indisputable success. I decided that talking with ex-prisoners was a good way to begin. When I first spoke with Frank, he had only recently been discharged from parole. I later realized that an equally appropriate pool of recovered persons could have been found at any local meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

After I talked with recovering ex-prisoners, I reviewed some observations made by the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Saren Kierkegaard. At one point—in Either/Or, volume two—Kierkegaard speaks (through a character, Judge William) to a young man whose existential condition resembled Frank's: 

One is not tempted to pity you but rather to wish that some day the circumstances of your life may tighten upon you the screws of its rack and compel you to come out with what really dwells in you, may begin the sharper inquisition of the rack which cannot be beguiled by nonsense and witticisms. Life is a masquerade, you explain, and for you this is inexhaustible material for amusement; and so far, no one has succeeded in knowing you.

Kierkegaard described a stage of spiritual development and a lifestyle which he called the aesthetic. This refers to much more than the appreciation of art and beauty, and includes the pursuit of the immediate things of life—including pleasures and sensations and the erotic and the sensuous generally. It refers to that which is experienced immediately and nonreflectively. The ability to experience pleasure is taken for granted. Choices are made toward the acquisition of unquestioned values; one is oriented toward "getting the most out of life." Because such experiences cannot be fully conveyed to or shared with others, they must be experienced to be fully appreciated. (As examples, consider skiing or sky diving, or marijuana smoking.) Disdain for nonparticipants is well-expressed by the phrase "Don't knock it if you've never tried it." Note that this consumption-oriented life does not lead to self-examination, nor does it does foster intimacy. This is especially true of intoxicants. Drinking does not unite alcoholics; it prevents them from being together on a deeper level; they are only experiencing stimulation in concert. Indeed intoxicant use prevents them from examining the facts of their lives that make such use necessary. They are trapped, and only radical change will extricate them.

Kierkegaard suggests that the pursuit of a life continually oriented toward externals leads to boredom and despair. Thoreau said the same thing: "A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind." Kierkegaard maintained that the aestheticist is in despair whether or not he is conscious of it. For the person who is consciously hurting, there is more hope than for the one who is able to stumble through life, compensating for one pleasure grown stale with another fresh with novelty. (How well this pattern applies to the stereotype of the playboy or the jet-setter. Perhaps I could have chosen the despairingly wealthy instead of prisoners as a study group!)

The key, then, to radical change is despair. Mere misfortune may only cause the individual to redouble his efforts toward the same objectives. Thus Frank, upon finding himself in solitary confinement, might have responded with a familiar convict phrase, "I can do that time standing on my head." Failure, on the other hand, may call attention to the hopelessness of the entire game. Thus finding oneself in the hole in Folsom Prison or in the gutter on skid row may be an important event. It may direct attention to the entire pattern of which the present situation is only a symptom. The task is for the individual to choose himself, and it is the choice to be made, for his survival is at stake. When oneself is chosen as a task and a challenge, one is transformed, for one has turned attention inward for the first time. The individual may now feel some self-determination—not in the pursuit of externals but in setting the course of his life. He has taken possession of his life. As Kierkegaard states, "He does not become another man than he was before, but he becomes himself, consciousness is unified, and he is himself."

Consider the case of another ex-prisoner whom I will call Pablo. He had been out of prison for about six months. During this time he had abstained from alcohol and drugs but had maintained an otherwise unchanged life style of thefts, con games, etc. He eventually resumed drug use and decided to go to Synanon, a residential recovery house. However, after a short stay he felt that he was institutionalized again and decided to make a complete break with his old life. In throwing himself into the world, so to speak, he called upon God to not let him die:

I told myself, "Whatever happens, I'm not going to use; I'm not going to drink; I'm not going to steal." I had remembered something said about, "If you do what's right, God is obligated to you," and I knew that emotionally I had problems . . . It was going to be hard for me to become independent, and I knew I needed help. I made, like, a bargain with God. I said, "Look, I'll do what is right, but you've got to take care of me. You've got to take care of me." I was, like, right up against the wall. "You've got to, man, because I can't make it. But I'll do my part: I won't use no stuff, I won't drink, and I won't hustle. I'll try to make it on the righteous." This was the beginning of a change in my way of life.

Upon leaving Synanon House on Christmas day, Pablo hitchhiked to downtown Los Angeles. There he decided to take the first bus he saw to its destination, where he would begin his new life. The bus took him to the nearby community of Glendale, where he located an Alcoholics Anonymous center and attended a meeting that evening. The following day, he began ringing doorbells, asking to do yard work. For over the next year, he attended AA meetings at least daily. When I interviewed him years later, he had a roofing company with four trucks.

Pablo's previous releases from custody were largely the constructions of others or were simply manipulations to get out—"can openers" in prison jargon. Those releases were part of the chain of events, including use, arrest, etc., that had been his life. This time he was not being released; he was releasing himself. He was not getting out of someone else's prison; he was getting out of his own. By beginning at rock bottom he could take responsibility and credit for what followed. Such a leap of faith was only possible through an act of faith. Again, Kierkegaard:

So it is too that in the eyes of the world it is dangerous to venture. And why? Because one may lose. But not to venture is shrewd. And yet, by not venturing, it is so dreadfully easy to lose that which it would be difficult to lose in even the most venturesome venture...one's self. For if I have ventured amiss—very well, then life helps me by its punishment. But if I have not ventured at all—who then helps me? And, moreover, if by not venturing at all in the highest sense (and to venture in the highest sense is precisely to become conscious of oneself) I have gained all earthly advantages...and lose my self! What of that?" Therefore, it requires courage for a man to choose himself;...for when the passion of freedom is aroused in him he chooses himself and fights for the possession of this object as he would for his eternal blessedness; and it is his eternal blessedness.

And to venture in the highest sense is precisely to become conscious of oneself.

Such choice lifts the individual to the next stage of Kierkegaard's progression: the ethical. What is of importance in ethical choice is not so much what is chosen but the transformation experienced by the chooser. Such a choice initially puts the individual in a very exposed and vulnerable position, and much more dependent on others—or, in Pablo's case, on God. Such vulnerability may also open the person to others. Another man explained:

I was going to walk across the street to get a toothbrush, and the realization hit me that I couldn't trust myself. I was afraid that if I went across the street to the drugstore, I wouldn't get back—that I'd go out and get loaded. It was the first time I ever really asked for help. I turned to my friend and said, "Hey, Tom, will you do something for me?" And he said, "What?" I said, "Walk across with me. I'm afraid to go." He was the first guy I could pour out my life story to. I don't think I held anything back.

A person who has limited his options, his relationships, and his experiences—who has painted himself into a corner of life, so to speak—has little flexibility left. He may possess sophisticated skills needed to survive within his specialized world, and he may be adept at handling all the dangers and contingencies involved, such as learning how to do time in prison. But all such threats are external, and they leave him unprepared to cope with deeper anxiety. Hence a man who has spent his life as a sophisticated hustler, thief, and drug dealer leaves Synanon only through an act of faith. And another, with similar credentials, is afraid to walk across the street alone to buy a toothbrush. These are acts of greater courage than either man has yet exercised, for in taking these risks they confront, not concrete situations, but their own capacities. This time the threat is not in being arrested, but in losing oneself.

A shift has taken place in which strength is shown, not through toughness, but through vulnerability. Kierkegaard notes, "But he who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man of all." How precious this vulnerability, which reveals us at last to ourselves and to others—and even to God.

These examples involve persons whose lifestyles had progressively closed them off from themselves and from intimate contact with others. Any form of addictive behavior provides an extreme example, in which one's attention becomes exclusively focused on the objective, the appetite, the obsession. In these examples, a radical shift was necessary in order for them to begin a deeper and far richer life. Note that our economic system tends to focus attention on commodities, acquisitions, and pursuits. How important for all of us, then, to maintain a capacity for reflection, intimacy, and self-discovery.

James L. Bull, Ph.D. is a semiretired psychologist. His article "Saving Nature: In Praise of Frugality" appeared in the March-April 2007 issue of Quest.

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