Mental Maps

I’m re-reading two books that have been a tremendous help to me in my recovery, Deep Survival and Everyday Survival. Both are by Laurence Gonzales.

“Anyone can get lost. I know. I have. But surprisingly few are genuinely prepared to live through the experience.”

“Everyone who dies out there dies of confusion. There is always a destructive synergy among numerous factors, including exhaustion, dehydration, hypothermia, anxiety, hunger, injury.”

“Being lost, then, is not a location; it is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind. It can happen in the woods or it can happen in life. People know that instinctively. A man leaves a perfectly good family for a woman half his age and makes a mess of it, and people say, he got off the path; he lost his way. If he doesn’t get back on, he’ll lose the self, too. A corporation can do the same thing.

Research suggests five general stages in the process a person goes through when lost. In the first, you den that you’re disoriented and press on with growing urgency, attempting to make your mental map fit what you see. In the next stage, as you realize that you’re genuinely lost, the urgency blossoms into a full-scale survival emergency. Clear thought becomes impossible and action becomes frantic, unproductive, even dangerous. In the third stage (usually following injury or exhaustion), you expend the chemicals of emotion and form a strategy for finding some place that matches the mental map. It is a misguided strategy, for there is no such place now: You are lost.) In the fourth stage, you deteriorate both rationally and emotionally, as the strategy fails to resolve the conflict. In the final stage, as you run out of options and energy, you must become resigned to your plight. Like it or not, you must make a new mental map of where you are. You must become Robinson Crusoe or you will die. To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.”

It’s a really good book. The quotes are from page 165-168. On page 170 it turns out that children under the age of six often survive when grown adults don’t. This, despite the fact that they lost body heat faster! That’s because they rest when they’re tired, they cuddle up as best they can when they’re cold, in short, they practice good self care. And (perhaps most importantly) they don’t yet have the ability to create mental maps, so they adapt to the reality that is.

A mental map is like a transparency of our own design that we drape over the world. The problem is that we often don’t change or update those maps when we need to. Recovery is about updating your mental map, which is difficult for me because a lot of what I used to call lazy or selfish I am trying to remap as self-care. And a lot of what I used to call self-care has been remapped as addictive and self-abusive. Actually, most of the map is the same, it’s my map key that’s different. That blue triangle used to mean “harmless pastime that has no calories.” Now it means “dangerous activity that will lead me into the abyss.”

A fellow blogger recently returned after a relapse, wondering if we’re all as tired of hearing about the “same ole, same ole” as he is of living it. The answer for me is no. He’s a good writer and I enjoy his posts a lot. It’s difficult to rewrite your map and reading his post this morning reminds me of that.

Lately I’ve been following my old mental map, the one that tells me that good people do all their work before they rest. Good people don’t get angry, good people need to take care of this and that before they act all lazy and sleep in or lay around reading. That path used to be labeled GOOD PEOPLE DRIVE but in recovery it’s been renamed to MARTYR ROAD. Not surprisingly, following this map has led me to the same blue triangle it always does: HAPPY SEXUAL RELEASE. Except that’s its old name.

I stood outside that door for a long, long time trying to decide whether or not to go in. Eventually, I fell back on my old rule. If I’m going to break my sobriety, I’ll do it tomorrow. Tomorrow if I still feel the same way, I’ll go in. But not today.

It’s weird how that works. In the moment, that place looks really nice. Like a fun night club or something. But the next day, it just looked sick and pathetic. I thought maybe it would look like a healthy spa or something. To tell the truth, I can’t tell if that’s wishful thinking on my part or not. Whatever. The world is a big place and there are lots of other places to go; I really don’t need to decide today whether it would be okay for me to go in that particular blue triangle.



  1. GP,
    Thanks for this post. I want to keep reading it. Great stuff in here, and well presented. I love your thoughts about the blue triangle, and I love the idea of “acting out tomorrow” instead of today. I used to say aloud in SA meetings when I felt blue that “I’ll probably act out tomorrow, but not today”, the way the Dread Pirate Roberts would say “Good night Wesley, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.” But I quit saying it because it happened too often. Thanks for this post!

    @Eli, I don’t think we unlearn self-care. I believe we’re taught it. I was taught to place the preservations of my care-givers’ feelings over that of my own. My mom was not able to care for herself, and before I could even speak she had taught me to read her needs and meet them.

  2. I think that’s why we need fellowship in recovery – to my eyes, that “lazy” map clearly doesn’t fit the terrain.

  3. Great quotes. The idea of being lost as a transformation rather than a location is thought-provoking. Fascinating about children under six – how do we unlearn that natural self-care? It’s really tragic when you think about it, especially for us addicts who replace it with such devastatingly destructive self-soothing habits.

    Thanks for the kind mention. I think that is very perceptive to see recovery as remapping – I really identify with having to remap things that I used to see as selfish or lazy. Even when all the recovery literature and therapists are telling me to do something, it is still difficult if my old map says “lazy.”

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