I have no true talent for chess. I know the rules, and I am intelligent enough to think several moves ahead, but I lack the special strategic gifts that some have. My grasp of the game is not intuitive, so I have to use brute mental force to focus on the many possibilities. It’s fatiguing, and I tend to play less well as the end game approaches.
Too bad, because I love the idea of chess. I love that it’s easy to learn but impossible to master. I love the refined, studious feeling of it. I love the elegant pieces and the pleasing symmetry of the board. I love the quiet intensity, so out of place now in our overstimulated culture.
Last night I began thinking about chess after I wrote my little update about needing to pick up my meds, tighten up my recovery, etc…I had compared integrative recovery to keeping multiple plates spinning in the air, and I think it awakened my metaphor maker. That’s good. That’s very good. If I’m spontaneously coming up with metaphors and analogies, even lame ones, it means I am moving toward getting some creativity back.
So, back to chess (metaphor maker online, focus maintainer not so much.) During a chess game, the word “check” is a danger signal. It means the king is threatened and we must take action. If no action is possible, the opponent would say “check and mate,” or simply “checkmate.”
Being put in check sucks, because you have to stop whatever your current plans are and address it. Your elegant plan to trap your opponent has to wait. If another piece of yours is threatened, you may have to let it go because you have to protect your king instead.
Dual diagnosis recovery, or integrative recovery as I seem to call it more often these days, lends itself to this parallel because I am sometimes in check. My current situation is an example: I got a clear message about something that needs attention right now. Failing to address it isn’t an option if I want to stay in the game, so whatever plans I had must go on hold.
Also as in chess, making the necessary move doesn’t always end the problem. Next turn I might hear the word “Check” again, and my plans still have to wait. The new threat might come from the same piece, or from a different one. When responding to each check, I have to make a move that does not place me in check from a different source.
This analogy captures the process for me better than the spinning plates does, I think. Take the current situation, for instance. Let’s say that the first “check” came from my eating disorder. I’m going to call that one the opponent’s (black, by chess tradition) knight because it’s so tricky. I got rattled retreating from that and made unwise moves, and then heard a “check” again. Now I’m in immediate peril relating to my bipolar disorder. I’ll assign the black bishops to that one: each limited to one color, but deadly even from a distance.
I must respond, but the rules of chess say I’m not allowed to make any move that places me back in check. So, as I fight the threat of the bishop, I must still beware of the knight. I can’t evade the mental illness by putting myself at risk from the eating disorder. And, as I scamper around the board in response to threats from these two types of pieces, I must at all costs not forget the presence of the tall, ominous rooks, whose power sweeps over both distance and color. I’ll let them represent the drug addiction. (Ah, but who or what is the black queen? I’ll let you ponder that one.)
All right, now I’m enjoying myself. I can give my psyche a playful treat by designing my “recovery chess” pieces in my head. What should the opponent’s knights look like? Do I make the two bishops look the same, or look like hypomania and depression? Shall the black pawns be named after my top character defects? And what about the white pieces on my side; what shall I name them and how shall they appear? I foresee some archetypal fun!
Seriously, though, if you’ve played chess, you know that when you have lost the advantage, one check can lead to an ongoing chase as you are forced into move after move that only seems to be prolonging the inevitable. To have a chance, you have to get out of check long enough to go on the offensive again. I think that’s true for recovery too. For me, I think it’s better yet not to get into check in the first place. It’s better to think ahead, to play wisely, to be proactive.
So how do I become a better chess player? If I pursue the parallel between real chess and recovery chess, I see that I can get better with practice, but talent at chess isn’t something that can be learned by sheer will. It’s intuitive and mysterious. In the same way, some of what I need to learn and do in recovery goes deeper than logic or skill. That’s why I need a power greater than myself.