Holding it All Together

Posted on December 10, 2013

Triggers v. Tethers
~ Matt Robert

The world of addiction recovery has plenty of negative terms for relapsing and its causes. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a reliable term for the positive stuff we do to keep it together?


I’d like to propose introducing a new term into the language of recovery — one that fills an empty space, where a core term might be useful. I’m talking about a positive counterpart to the term “trigger.”

Most people know “trigger” as a cue that can initiate a negative behavior. It can be a person, place, a familiar situation — anything that may compel somebody to return to the behavior they are trying abstain from. Common triggers involve seeing a familiar bar or liquor store, running into a using buddy from the old neighborhood, something that causes undue stress. These are things people spend a lot of time avoiding in early recovery, and developing strategies to manage them more effectively.

But what about the things that help re-engage a person in life — that give their life meaning? Going to church, exercise, meditation, walking their dog — the things that help to hold on to sobriety, not threaten to wrench it away, like triggers do. Things people try to learn or rediscover in recovery, to fill the gap that drinking or using once filled. Usually these things are specific activities or events, just like triggers are. Yet there is no general term for such restorative habits and activities.

“When I’m tense, I visit my grandchildren. That helps me stay sober, and not want to drink. That’s a real (blank) for me.” That’s a real anchor? Refuge? A lifeline? A solace? That’s a real safety?…the thing that stops the trigger?

The diversity of what “trigger” connotes would be mirrored by its positive counterpart, although a single widely accepted term doesn’t exist.

Trigger is a useful term mostly because it is a salient metaphor for the particular experience of being influenced to do something reflexively that you are trying to avoid.

So what are some possible examples of metaphors of a functional scenario that aids, or protects, or bolsters one’s recovery. Does it restrain you? Does it shield you? Does it protect you? Does it free you? Does it support you?

One possibility is the word, “tether.” It has a several shades of meaning, all related to connection, protective restraint and safety. For example, a boat tethered to the dock is safe because its mooring prevents it from being carried out into the open sea. A tether can be a lifeline followed to safety in a blinding blizzard. A tether is the air hose of a deep sea diver, that connects him to the surface, to air, to safety. A tether connects a novice to a more experienced mountain climber. A tether keeps a spacewalking astronaut from floating off into the unknown darkness of space. A tether keeps a dog close to its home, so it doesn’t run off and harm itself or others. A tether can be used by a person in addiction recovery to stay attached and close to sobriety, not venturing past unsafe boundaries. And with time, the tether can be lengthened more and more, until it is no longer necessary. Tether can be a metaphor for a connection to safety and sobriety. “After work, I always take a run to ease the stress of the day. That’s been a real tether for me.”

Having a generic term for these activities or states could facilitate discussion with a catch-all term people could refer to. It could also reinforce the primary importance of this concept in recovery to maintain sobriety.

Trigger and tether are words that describe the two most important emotional states in recovery — the urge to use and the motivation to abstain. Therefore, they would be useful labels in discussion, because they highlight both the negative and the positive aspects of recovery generically. What to pursue and what to avoid. Such discussions can support a healthier balance and move the focus toward the positive, not just the negative — from the prohibitive to the productive.

The world of recovery has plenty of negative terms for relapsing and its causes. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a reliable term for the positive stuff we do to keep it together?

Please post your suggestions or recommendations below for something to fill this void and enhance our discussions in recovery.

Source: SMART Recovery Northeast, used with permission

7 thoughts on “Holding it All Together

  1. anita

    what a great article. i love the idea of coming up with a concrete word that refers to the things we do that help keep us sober. tether is good . . . i also like “shield.” When i go for a walk or have a good conversation with a friend or take a nap or go to a meeting or attend a yoga class or go to bed on time, i am shielded from being as tempted to pick up alcohol or my other drug of choice, as i would be if i didn’t do those things. yay to focusing on the positive!

  2. Brandon L.

    TETHER is well thought out and relevant — even has an element of alliteration.

    I appreciate your article on many levels.

  3. Kelly F.

    Thank you Matt for this wonderful article I find very interesting and helpful! It is so true..I’ve been to soo many groups, meetings, etc that focus on triggers and negative feelings/things in recovery. I understand why this is necessary, but it would be so great to have a topic to focus more on the positive. I think tether works very well and I would love to try to spread the word in recovery!

  4. Penny

    How about “anchor”? I like tether for some things, at other times I need a visualization for a more deeply grounded attachment to a safe, healthy activity; one that gives me security when I am feeling buffeted and tossed about.

    Another one I use is, “Time Out Tools”, creating an actual physical “tool box” with cards on activities, or items related to an activity I can go to when I need to self-distract to calm the stress/distress chain reactions between my physical body (i.e. cortisol release…) and my brain (i.e. up regulation chemicals =anxiety, and down regulation chemicals =depression

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