The Five Elements

Balance is essential in recovery, but often hard to find. Sometimes balance means doing things we don’t want to do, or easing up on something we’re spending too much time doing, or experiencing uncomfortable feelings. It helps me, at times, to think of important elements in my recovery as analogous to the five Elements spoken of in many traditions: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit. We can’t do without any of them, and what they have to give us is as beautiful and varied as the universe they compose. Here are some of my personal thoughts about the Elements.

Earth

Sometimes daily life flows, and I don’t resent the many chores that make up a day. But on other days, everything feels forced and repetitive. It feels as if I’m stuck in the mud. Well, maybe I am, but I need to remember that what I really feel stuck in is Earth.

Earth is the element I most often resist in recovery, and it’s the one I often need the most. Earth in this context is discipline; routine, chores. It’s going to the meetings even when I don’t feel like it and it’s doing that bloody writing even when it feels stupid. It’s taking my vitamins and going to the doctor and brushing my teeth and all the crap that I’ve never been good at doing consistently. When I was in rehab, my Earth was the institution’s schedule and all of the rules I chose to obey even though some seemed foolish or arbitrary.

Earth is also mindfulness. There’s a reason certain calming techniques are referred to as “grounding.” When I seek tactile sensation to help with an anxiety attack, I am seeking Earth. I honor Earth when I make a point of getting some physical activity or doing something with my hands; when I get anchored in my body and stay there for more than a minute at a time. I bring Earth in when I give thought to what and how I eat, or when I take time to eat slowly and without distractions.

As a dually diagnosed person, it’s even more important that Earth become a regular part of my program. I need the grounding to balance out the extra variations that my mental health issues create, and I need the discipline to manage my mental health responsibly.

It’s not surprising that as an addict I resist Earth-related changes, nor is it surprising that so many of the suggestions given to us in early recovery are related to this. We’ve been used to living like pinballs, ricocheting wildly from mood to changing mood, craving to withdrawal, crisis to crisis. Being in Earth feels alien, uncomfortable, and eventually boring. “Is this all there is?” we say, tired or overwhelmed by daily responsibilities that we see others apparently taking in stride.

Many of us also haven’t had the chance to experience the parts of Earth that are meant to feel good. We don’t know what it is to feel secure, to till a garden all season and enjoy the harvest. We only remember feeling trapped or confined. We’re like a cleanliness-obsessed person in a mud bath, squirming around and thinking we just have to get out and wash all of this clinging stuff away. We’re desperate to feel free and unencumbered.

So what do we do? What do I do when I feel this way? There’s no easy way to explain the process of yielding to Earth. I use prayer, I use the principles of the steps, I use a little tough compassion and I dig into my discomfort until I feel something inside me relax. Until I stop thinking up excuses or dwelling on issues of fairness. It can take minutes, or days, or weeks, depending on what is making me feel smothered.

Then, and only then–when I am capable of looking at it honestly–do I look at the other side of the issue and ask the question: am I too much in Earth at the moment? Do I have a genuine need for something to balance it? Maybe it’s time to pay attention to a different element that may be lacking. Recovery’s all about balance, and recovery’s not meant to be a life sentence of drudgery and deprivation.

Air

My love of this element has led me astray many times. Ever since I was a child, Air was where I always wanted to be: floating, drifting, disconnected from whatever might try to drag me down. Spinning happy daydreams and fantasies. Living safe and free in my castle in the clouds. Using the wings of my mind to soar from one plan to the next, creating new paths and trails to a way of living that would surely work this time–and if it didn’t, well, I’d just take off again.

As a child in situations I did not choose, this was an adaptive response at times. As an adult, this extreme need for Air almost caused my death, because I needed to do more and more drastic things to get Airborne. In recovery, I need to learn wholesome ways to experience Air. I need to learn to balance it with the other elements.

We all need Air in recovery: without it, the heaviness of our responsibilities and our emotions would surely pull us down. We need fun. We need spontaneity. We need happy thoughts and whimsical dreams of things that we may be able to achieve in the future, and we need to have times of feeling light and free. Many people who started addictive behavior at a young age never really had the chance to learn how to have fun without it, so we have to open our minds to doing things that may make us feel silly or awkward.

People in recovery sometimes talk about the “pink cloud.” It’s an expression for when a person in early recovery has a happy or even euphoric period. They’re in love with recovery, things in their life seem to be falling into place, they feel better physically than they have in ages and the future looks really bright. For many, this early stage gives way to a stage of deeper and more difficult emotional processing as recovery continues.

Not everyone has a “pink cloud,” nor do I think that if you have one you must dread a correspondingly worse time to come. Maybe a stage like this is just a massive influx of Air, coming at a time when the person may have been Air-deprived for some time. I never had a stage like this, perhaps because my addictive behavior involved so much of it.

So how do I get the right amount of Air, and the right kind? I’m not going to lie–I’ll never stop missing the complete, “all is well” floaty euphoria that my addictive mind tries to associate with using drugs. If I allow myself to remember only that, I’m at risk for relapse. I must remind myself that there’s no way to capture that again; that using anything would only lead to an endless chase down into the dark. (Make no mistake. It would. If you’re like me, if you just had a romantic thought about your substance of choice, take a moment right now and play that little tape to the end. I’ll join you. There, that’s better.)

The kinds of Air that will help me grow in my recovery and my humanity are harder to get. I can’t just float away at will, needing nothing but my (augmented) brain. Scary as it is, I have to learn how to have fun with other people more. I have to develop my creativity and try new activities. Daydreams need to be enjoyed in moderation, or harnessed into action that will incorporate a mix of elements. Even healthful Air has to be watched closely for imbalance, especially when my bipolar issues are at play.

The little girl in me will always long to fly. The more I can learn to love and care for her, the more I can grant her wishes in ways that won’t harm her or sabotage the adult I am becoming.

Fire

Fire warms. Fire brings life. But Fire can also be destructive and deadly. I was so afraid of the dangerous power of Fire that I never learned how to use its good and necessary qualities when I was younger. Like many who grew up around violent or hostile situations, I grew to believe that someone getting angry meant someone else was about to get hurt. So I feared anger, and I tried to stay out of things as much as I could. As an adult, I feared it so much that I was seldom even conscious of anger in myself–it was automatically turned inward, manifesting as depression or anxiety.

Fire is much more than anger, but anger is the aspect of Fire we with addiction struggle with the most. Some are like me, and others took an opposite path, becoming adults who have trouble controlling their angry impulses. It’s really two sides of the same coin–either we’re smothering the flame because we don’t know how to use it well, or we’re flinging it around wildly for the same reason.

In recovery, we are encouraged to look at and let go of our resentments. We’re warned that resentment will sabotage our recovery and growth, and we might think this means we have to learn never to get angry. This is not true. Resentment is anger that has been misfiled–not fully felt, not dealt with, not mixed with the other elements. It’s another way of reacting to Fire in a way that harms ourselves. As such, it’s something we can do without.

But we can’t do without the ability to feel anger. Anger, in its purest and cleanest form, is a survival trait and a catalyst for needed changes. It’s that voice that tells us this is not right. It’s the tool we use to jar ourselves out of apathy and fear and DO something about what’s making us unhappy. It’s Gandalf at the bridge shouting “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

Working our program teaches us to examine our reactions and our motivations. We learn, gradually, to understand what parts of our reactions are genuine and appropriate anger and what parts are coming from fear, wounded pride or a hundred other sources. Our spiritual work helps us acquire the courage to deal with the real anger by taking useful action.

As we begin to channel this aspect of Fire more constructively, we clear space in ourselves for other aspects of it to come forth. The spark of creativity is awakened, sometimes in completely new ways. We become able to feel passionate about our goals and to harness that passion into work. We find our voice with others and speak honestly about our needs. Fire gives us conviction. If we connect with Fire, it burns away all of the BS and self-doubt we collect, leaving our purified truth behind.

I’m not going to lie. Fire is still tricky for me to hold, and I have a long way to go before the changes I’m talking about are a consistent part of me. When I’m angry–and actually aware of it–I feel a whole new set of sensations in my body and a new set of reactions in my mind, and it’s hard for me to know what to do with them. Even when I feel that I’ve processed it and acted appropriately, it’s hard for me to get back to feeling calm and grounded afterwards. The energy of Fire is still zinging through me and I’m not experienced at channeling it, so I feel out of control even if I’m not acting that way. Eventually, it all comes back to balance. I’m not meant to dwell in Fire all of the time, and when I feel zingy or shaky it might be time to bring in some of the other elements. The important thing is that I don’t do this out of fear or out of a desire to escape the truth.

Water

Whatever Water is to us in recovery, it’s deep. It’s mysterious and even frightening at times. Like the ocean, it has hidden treasures and hidden perils, and it’s an endless frontier. Like actual water, Water moves us in different ways: emotions crashing over us like waves, our rhythms and moods rising and falling like tides, even old emotional patterns wearing us down like the relentless dripping of a faucet.

Like many of us, I never learned how to “swim” in Water when I was growing up. I didn’t have the chance to watch people coping with Water in a healthy way: grieving losses, expressing needs, looking at their internal cues to see what they’re feeling. From where I was standing, Water only seemed to cause trouble. So I learned to fear it because it made you vulnerable, it was most likely polluted, and who knew what predators lurked under the surface?

When I think about Water in recovery, I think about tears. They are not the only kind of Water, but they’re something we have to deal with differently in recovery. I don’t just mean that we have to cry, though we do. I mean that, if we do the work of recovery on more than a surface level, we are led to form a new relationship with sadness.

I think the culture I grew up in doesn’t do tears very well. I was taught that strong emotions or tears make other people uncomfortable, and that the best way to be accepted was to suppress them and return to a “normal” manner as fast as possible. It’s worse for men, in my opinion; at least as a female I could theoretically cry without being shamed for diverging from a gender role. Still, I can remember very few times I cried without fighting the tears, times that I let my sadness wash over me instead of damming it up until it had no choice but to spill into other channels.

I’ve seen people sob through meeting after meeting when they’re going through certain stages of recovery or just life. I’ve seen people dry-eyed but with that spent, quiet look that tells of recent and frequent weeping. I’ve listened to people with many years of recovery tell of their wrenching emotional experiences and I’ve even thought sarcastically “Well, here’s a sales pitch! I stay around and work the Steps and I get to be in intense emotional pain too? Sign me up!”

Of course I felt this way, because I had not yet experienced much of the cleansing and healing power of Water. I didn’t know that actually crying is a lot less painful than trying not to cry, and I didn’t know that expressing real, undiverted grief leaves me feeling better when I’m done. How could I know? The nonverbal part of me held a belief that negative emotions must be not only repressed but kept out of my consciousness as much as possible, lest they consume me forever. I didn’t know that emotions come and go.

The other thing I didn’t know about being present with Water is that feeling sadness until it’s done for the moment leaves me able to feel other things. That it makes me more able to feel all emotions and transition from one to another more cleanly. It makes me feel closer to other people, and it makes me more capable of love. There’s no greater gift I can give someone I care about than my honest emotion, because with it I give my trust and my willingness to risk being hurt, rejected or judged. So I seek safe places to experience Water and work with my fears until it flows more naturally. Tears can come freely; tears need not be held back by fear or vanity or the need to control.

When we learn to fear Water less, we are given access to who we are in a new way. No longer do we need to hold ourselves rigid. Now we can change shape, adapt, develop and heal.

Spirit

Each one of the first four Elements is precious in specific ways, and each one is clearly dangerous when it gets out of proportion or is used wrongly. I have this image of myself as a chef adding tiny bits of ingredients to a sauce; tasting and titrating until the mix suits my sensitive palate.

The problem with this visual is that for most of my life, my idea of cooking has been finding the can opener and the plastic spoon for the Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli. How can I navigate my recovery, manage my mental and physical health, raise my child, and attempt to have relationships while constantly performing this delicate task on a mix that is always changing?

I have to have help for that, and that’s where Spirit comes in. Something that knows more than my conscious mind knows, something that has power I don’t understand. There are so many ways to conceptualize Spirit, and a real exploration of them is beyond the scope of today’s work. I certainly haven’t figured out one right way to think about it. Spirit is by its nature mysterious; I know I’m on the right track when I realize that my words are totally inadequate. But since I’ve been talking about the Elements in relation to recovery, let me focus on the role Spirit and spirituality play in recovery-focused groups.

When we seek help for addictive behavior that we’ve lost the power to control, we’d probably find it pretty odd if someone responded by saying “Congratulations! You’ve just become a spiritual seeker! How does it feel?” We didn’t come here for enlightenment, we just want to stop hurting. But whichever path to change we follow, we often end up seeking a source of Spirit to help us. Seeking it again and again, seeking it in new ways if the old ones stop working.

People who consider working certain programs of recovery are sometimes turned off by the references to a power greater than ourselves, or the outright references to God, in some literature. It’s a large source of controversy and misunderstanding, and for many people seeking recovery it starts out as–and sometimes remains–a deal-breaker. “Aha, here’s the catch,” we say. “These people offer hope, they tell me I can be free of this obsession, that I don’t have to die…IF I do this religious stuff. Sure, they say my higher power can be whatever I want it to, but I’m no fool…it says G-O-D right there on those posters.”

I imagine that if the program had been invented today, the ideas would have been expressed in much more general and inclusive language. Many in recovery choose to overlook any terms that feel awkward because it’s working well for them to share the language of such a path with people who want and need change for the same reasons.

Whatever path a person seeking recovery chooses, why is Spirit necessary? Why this need for humility, for self-examination, for change? Why can’t we just do what makes sense? Why can’t education and group support give us all we need to keep from destructive behavior? I don’t know, but when it comes to my own survival I’m tired of beating my head against the wall. If Spirit is what it’s going to take, bring it on. My obsession is illogical; perhaps an illogical solution is what I need.

The work I do on myself in my program is designed to lower the barriers between myself and whatever Spirit is. When I let Spirit in, it can help me balance the other Elements intuitively. It creates a matrix within which they can float, bobbing into and out of view. I can take care of responsibilities with the right provision for rest and fun, or make transitions between anger and sadness quickly yet with respectful attention to both. If I feel connected to Spirit, I’m not afraid of anything else I feel. I don’t have that fear that the scattered parts of me will fly in all directions and never come together again.

To be in touch with all five Elements is to be a person growing toward wholeness in recovery: giving attention to the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves. Balancing work, play, and rest. Growing toward a new type of adulthood while honoring the needs and dreams of our younger selves.

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