The Lion King and Addiction Recovery

This weekend I went to the Lion King with my family. It was a familiar story–almost the exact same script as the original animated film from Disney–but the incredibly realistic images kept my attention fresh. As always, recovery colored my experience as I watched the film.

Most of us are well-acquainted with the story of Simba, a lion cub who unwittingly gets pulled into his uncle’s plot to murder his father, the King. Overcome with shame, Simba runs away from the responsibilities of his shattered world and begins a new life, built on the philosophy of “Hakuna Matata.” Essentially, this way of life amounts to doing whatever you want whenever you want, and not worrying about the consequences…a self-absorbed lifestyle that offers the escape his shame demands.

The turning point of the movie occurs when Nala, his childhood friend and intended queen finds him, and the wise old baboon uses a bit of magic to remind him who he really is…the son of a king.

But, it isn’t until Simba acts on this awakening and chooses to return to his responsibility as protector of the pride land that his journey actually means something.

As powerful as his vision of his father, his recognition of his royal identity, is…it would be meaningless without the action it inspires. His change of heart is defined by his decision to face his demons, face those he abandoned and betrayed, and take full accountability for not only his choices of the past, but for making things right in the future.

Humble. Honest. Accountable.

This realization reminded me of a profound truth in my and my husband’s recovery journey.

For the first 2 years after rock bottom, my husband was shocked into immediate sobriety. Not looking back, he clung to dailies and checklists that kept him safe from acting out, and we both grew quite confident in his surprising and quick transformation.

But, things weren’t improving in our marriage. I still felt so afraid, so depressed, so dark. The trauma was still so overwhelming. I had so much pain and no matter how sober my husband was, I couldn’t find it in myself to trust him, to open my heart up again. I had been hurt so badly I felt powerless to create space for him in my soul again. I was grateful for his many recovery efforts, grateful for his sobriety, and miserably felt responsible for the darkness and disconnection that still enshrouded our marriage.

It wasn’t until 2 years into this sobriety  that the crucial component clicked into place.

Finally, through the unprecedented gut-wrenching process of full disclosure, my husband was fully honest for the first time in his life. Ever.

Humble. Honest. Accountable.

In the aftermath of this honesty, both myself and our therapist helped him recognize that despite his two years of sobriety, he was just barely beginning his deeper recovery. His attitudes and reactions to the disclosure had revealed deep addict behaviors and belief systems that were still present, still untouched–even after 2 years of sobriety! This was an overwhelming, shocking revelation for all of us, and one that brought a magical effect to him: humility.

Humble. Honest. Accountable.

In the weeks after full disclosure, separated for the first time, trying with deeper desperation than we ever had to save our marriage, we watched Doug Weiss’s DVD Helping Her Heal, and my eyes were opened to the many, many ways that my husband had put the responsibility for his actions, for his addiction, for all of the mess on me.

And I had taken it.

I had willingly accepted the burden, believing that something was wrong with me, that he would never have done what he did if I had been different. I had shouldered the weight of our floundering marriage, sure if I could just “get over it,” things would go back to normal. From the second he told me of his online affair with the words, “I haven’t felt you loved me in two years,” I carried the weight of shame and responsibility for his choices and both of our pain. And he had let me do it.

Our marriage couldn’t heal, not really, not in the deep-down-to-my-soul, not in the ways that changed the content of my dreams and my fears and my walled-in desperate heart, until my husband took accountability for his actions, and for my pain.

Not until he stepped back from the realization at the watering hole, the realization of who he was and who he had been, and he chose to be man enough to return to the pride land, this time not as a justified boy, but as a man. As a protector.

As I watched the Lion King, I was reminded how this role of protector has played such an important role in healing our marriage. In addiction, my husband was always a provider. Providing played into his ego-identity and his self-centered addict mindset.

But he was never a protector. How often have I had dreams of being abandoned, of my husband leading me and my children out into a wilderness, into a storm, and I am left alone to somehow protect us and save us all from the life-threatening danger he led us to.

No, not until I consciously lifted the burden of responsibility off my shoulders and gave it back to my husband where it belonged was I able to finally break free from years of quick-sand-sucking-me-under trauma. Only then was I able to finally let go of my own self-defeating belief systems that kept me trapped in self-loathing and depression.

And when my husband finally made concrete, emotion-filled amends to me, taking full accountability for his choices, for my pain, and even for letting me carry the weight of it, our marriage was finally able to begin its healing. Only then did the nightmares stop. Only then did both of our hearts fully open.

It felt so good to be able to lean on him, and experience him holding me up, protecting me instead of protecting himself. And, surprisingly, I think this felt good to him too. There is something about this role of protector that brings out the best in our coupleship, the complement of our inherent masculinity and femininity. In addiction, he could only protect himself. To find recovery, he had to learn how to protect me, and protect our children.

Humble. Honest. Accountable.

In this addiction, so many marriages continue to flounder, even after sobriety has been established. In my marriage, I can say that for 2 years, this was the case. My husband was stuck at the watering hole, feeling quite satisfied and pleased with himself at his vision and his discovery of his true identity. It took us 2 years to figure out that to really heal things, he would have to come back to Pride Rock, to his responsibilities, his burdens, the family he had abandoned, and shoulder the load. And I would have to get myself out of the way to let him do that.

The story ends with Simba and Nala, side by side, protectors over their land and their family, a new hope in their arms, carrying the burden together, committed to each other.

Humble. Honest. Accountable. One day at a time.

4 thoughts on “The Lion King and Addiction Recovery”

  1. I love this so much! Thank you so much for sharing. My husband and I are only 6 months into recovery— there was some disclosure but I can still feel his fear when I am triggered. He tries to be there for me but tells me it’s too much for him. The triggers may hurt him more than me.
    I need to share my feelings in couples counseling next week. You helped me clarify what’s been bugging me.
    Thank you!

  2. I feel like I am falling. We are years into this and for the first couple I feel like I was working and trying and he wasn’t. Now he is starting to try and I feel like I have nothing left. I guess I am not sure where to start. We are working with a therapist but I have no support network as we have moved a couple of times in the last few years and I have effectively become so self absorbed that I have no friends. I am worried about the scripted nature of a group because I feel like I am being placated. Is that the same for everyone?

    1. Carli,
      I can relate to the feeling of being wary of a group, wary of 12-step. From my experience, though, I cannot imagine finding my pathway to healing without my Group. I have learned so much from sitting with women who were ahead of me on this journey and learning from their strength, hope, and experience. So much of the way I approach life has been shaped by the wisdom I have gained through my SAL Group. This has been an experience that could not be replicated anywhere else. Someone told me early on to commit to coming, even for 4-6 weeks, before I make up my mind whether or not it would be helpful. This was good advice. It took time to get comfortable with the new vocabulary and the unfamiliar structure of the meeting. It took time to let my guard down. When I was able to, I found I had so much more to learn than I realized. I will forever be grateful to these women who have changed my life forever.

  3. I stumbled upon this tonight and I feel it’s a sign that I need this in my life. It’s been a year and a half and I want peace and clarity but feel so alone. Trying to express my hurts to my husband ends up in an explosive fight and I feel rejected. Have I come s long way? Yes. Am I pretending I’m okay and holding in hurts and have no one to talk to? Yes. So, carli, I want to go. We could start this together. Sometimes you just need the push.

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