Shedding Skins in Recovery



For years, the following quote has rested over my writing desk: "The Phoenix does not mourn what lies in its ashes; the serpent does not mourn its old skin." --Arthur Frank

Addiction recovery involves a progressive unpeeling of the self and focused efforts of self-construction. It is helpful in thinking of this to distinguish between remission and recovery. Remission of an illness can involve little more than the removal of symptoms and a return to the earlier trajectory of one's existence. In this sense, remission is regressive--a return to an earlier level of functioning. In contrast, recovery can involve a reformulation of self and a fundamentally altered trajectory of one's life. In fact, long-term addiction recovery often involves serial reincarnations of the self. I've described this process earlier as one of shedding the masks of addiction and recovery.

The metaphor of masks captures the duplicity and imposterhood that often rests at the experiential core of addiction, but these masks could also be thought of as onion-like skins. The notion of skins conveys a deeper level of connection and something that cannot be as easily attached or removed--something closer to what many reptiles experience as they mature. Skins can be thought of as the disturbed thoughts, feelings, actions and traits of character one brings into the recovery process and the burdens of past actions carried into one's effort to construct a new life. Such baggage must be peeled away to free one to walk upright and to face others and face oneself. To shed old skins, forge one's mature skin and to live comfortably within that skin are essential tasks of addiction recovery.

The old stained self cannot be retrospectively changed--we cannot rewrite past history, but it can be shed in the present through a sudden transformative change experience or through a prolonged process of awakening and growth. Both processes involve periods of incubation and sustained action. We must nurture and protect the circumstances that allow such incubation and action, but we must also be patient and willing to live in the present through each stage of this process. The goal is not to reach some ultimate state of being, but rather to live within and finding meaning and contribution to others within this evolutionary process. We don't go through this process to live fully in its final stages; the meaning is instead found within each step in the process.

Each new self requires a period of incubation and growth before the next incarnation can emerge. You can think and feel your way through this process, but ultimately you must act your way through it. Like the snake, we must shudder, slough and scrape off layers of the old self to stimulate new growth. This is a journey through "act as if" (and the feelings of imposterhood that this "fake-it-til-you-make-it" stage elicits) to a state of acting out of an aspirational core with full awareness and acceptance of one's continued imperfection. We must embrace each new skin without getting too attached to it--with full knowledge that this newly drying self will also one day be shed. I think this idea of shedding skins as a process of maturation has value in helping understand the personal transformations that can unfold in long-term recovery.

What prompted this meditation was encountering the following words within one of my favorite author's latest novels--Walter Mosely's Odyssey (2013):

"The snake is possibly the luckiest of all creatures...He sheds his skin, goes into hiding because his new scales are sensitive, and then comes out into life leaving behind his old bonds and pains...The snake doesn't look at the husk and call it a waste. He simply feels the exhilaration of freedom and the strangeness of transformation."