Back when battles were fought with soldiers close enough to lock eyes amid the chaos, there was no greater weapon than the sword. Deadly and beautiful; nigh invisible when skillfully employed— a measure of greatness and a testament to its maker upon its flawless return from battle. For if a sword is flawed leaving for battle, it will not make it home. Exceptional care is taken in the creation of each sword- and not all are declared fit for battle. Only the ones who’ve endured throughout the entire process can be sent into battle; utilized in the fight for the lives and futures of many more to come.
The process I now detail is a direct analogy for addicts in recovery; this has been one of my favorite groups to teach. Though not usually filled with laughter, nor an excess of discussion; rather, the room is filled with strength and hope—I am usually left drying my tears after we have joined together for the Serenity Prayer upon the group’s end. I hope I can fully explain my rationalization throughout.
While steel is utilized in nearly every aspect of commercial production today, only high-carbon steel can withstand the hardening and tempering process needed to create the different properties of hardness and softness in battle swords. However, high-carbon steel will be no harder than other steels unless it undergoes the techniques for battle swords. A classic test is to file or cut a piece of steel with a hacksaw—only high-carbon steel can harden to the point where this is possible. Not all people are able to withstand the point of complete humility an addict must come to in order for them to break completely, making it possible for them to start anew.
I have noted many times that addicts have ‘creative souls’; they are the ones wrapped up in passion and brought alive by things not tangible—art, words, music, ideas. I believe this perfectly equates with having a higher carbon content than other steel, or people; their souls are grounded on another plane- the plane where true humility happens, and recovery is born. It is hard to grasp, hard to explain, as I, too, have a creative soul; borne in recovery on this alternate plane.
After acquiring steel worthy of becoming a battle sword, the sword maker heats it to a point just below boiling, then slowly and repeatedly hammers and re-heats, while working the sides and edges to individually specified characteristics. Different blades require different lengths, widths and cross-sections to make them the perfect instrument for a specific intent. There is never an addict whose story mirrors another; nor is there one person whose purpose can be fulfilled by another. Some have been re-heated and hammered ten times, perhaps fifty; others only once.
After being shaped, the steel is removed from the heat and quickly plunged into clean, cold water; the rapid cooling produces waves of steam. At this point, the steel’s shape resembles the sword it will be, but it remains somewhat brittle. This is the part of the process referred to as Quenching, or hardening. The quicker a blade cools, the harder it becomes; as more of the blade enters the water, the water heats up—thus, the first part of the sword to enter the water will be the hardest. Depending on the type of sword, the technique of quenching is done differently, sometimes entering the edge and tip first, others entering flat, then dipping and resurfacing.
I cannot help but refer to the 12 Steps; the order in which they are performed is so poignant, first to acknowledge our utter powerlessness and the chaos we’ve created for ourselves. Then, slowly familiarizing ourselves with faith, and a higher power (however we understand that to be), slowly building up and out; creating from within a connection to the world.
No matter the process by which one enters recovery- as the 12 Steps are merely one of many methodologies employed- the analogy remains; we build from the ground up. The first part of the blade to cool is the hardest, the toughest, the most in need of unyielding strength; that is the foundation upon which we decide to rebuild. That is the core of our Recovered Self.
IF A BLADE HAS ANY FLAWS, CARRIED OVER FROM FORGING, IT WILL BREAK IMMEDIATELY DURING THE QUENCHING PROCESS. If we ever wonder, how can someone come so far simply to relapse again? It is because flaws remain- an unanswered question, an open wound, an uncleansed secret- and the only way to remove it is forging; re-heating and hammering and until the impurity is gone.
While quenching (or hardening) gives the blade its strength and toughness, the tempering (or slightly softening) is what gives the blade its resilience. By slightly relaxing the blade, it is better able to absorb shock and impact. Tempering is the process of reheating the blade to a certain degree after it has been quenched, and then allowing it to cool naturally. This is repeated until the blade is pronounced in perfect balance for toughness, sharpness, and flexibility.
I don’t know that we are ever able to pronounce ourselves in perfect balance. I was told, upon leaving a 90-day residential treatment, that the second I stopped assuming caution is when I would need it most. That being said, is recovery more akin to battle, or the quenching and tempering process?
I think it’s a bit of both. There are days I am a warrior, and want nothing more than be utilized in the fight for awareness, prevention, and recovery of addiction. I was borne in humility; brought to my knees by addiction, and empowered with an appreciation for myself in addiction treatment and recovery. I was enlightened as I learned psychology, ethics, sociology, and philosophy with a mindset capable of accepting and appreciating information in ways I’d never experienced before. I am empathy, compassion, karma, love, and service. I want to share with others what I’ve gained through it all; enable others to achieve freedom from addiction, to recover their true selves, and embrace that self as a partner, an advocate, a reason to fight- live- love.
Then, there are days I feel myself undergoing Quenching in my cumulative interactions; hardening to others- to the world- building callouses with each slight, and every offense. Becoming so much smaller as I recede into myself, convincing myself I am an island- at the hands of those who overlook and undervalue my very existence. I pride myself on being so strong that I don’t need anyone else- – – until along comes the Tempering; bringing me to my knees to remember the days of my forging, mindful of my purpose—a sword cannot use itself. My voice cannot be heard if it exists only in my head.
Perhaps we are all galvanized between battles; undergoing heat treatments to remind us that once were only steel, no harder than any other, until electing to be shaped by relentless hammering and intense heat into a weapon revered above any other. Maybe the true balance of toughness, sharpness, and flexibility is not a point of perfection, but a mindful acceptance of all three traits; rotating and exercising them equally. Maybe life- recovery- is more about juggling than balance, after all.