John Kennedy Jr. was killed in July of 1999 when he was caught in a deadly graveyard spiral while flying his airplane at night over the Atlantic Ocean. The official report suggested that Kennedy fell victim to spatial disorientation while descending over the water at night.
For pilots, a graveyard spiral happens when you become disoriented, have no visual reference to the horizon, and happen at night when you cannot see. The pilot mistakenly believes his wings are level when they are banked left or right. When the pilot does not increase back pressure on the yoke, the plane starts to descend faster and faster in a banked descent. Pulling back on the yoke, without bringing the wings level, tightens the spiral and in most cases, increases the rate of descent. The harder you pull back, the tighter the spiral, dooming the plane to ground impact.
Physiologically, the pilot can’t see the horizon. Most pilots are unable to feel the turn at the beginning of a graveyard spiral. When the pilot does not trust his/her instrument readings for whatever reason he/she is vulnerable to a graveyard spiral that quickly becomes fatal without course correction. Pulling out of a graveyard spiral requires that a pilot trust their instruments.
Addictive relapse is a graveyard spiral. When an addict fails to trust the instruments of recovery, a crash-and-burn relapse is inevitable.
Here is a list of instruments to be aware of that can prevent a graveyard spiral in recovery.
- Accountability: Responsible recovery is built on accountability through cultivating purposed vulnerability. Addicts want to isolate themselves and live life in secret. Accountability intercepts dysfunction because it insists that you develop the commitment to tell on yourself. The strength of a sobriety contract is your willingness to be held accountable to people in your support network for what you put in your inner, middle, and outer circles. When this breaks down the graveyard spiral begins.
- Living in Consultation: The 12-step community is a space to cultivate connection. Addicts deepen sobriety and clarify values by living in consultation with a 12-step group. Addicts lose their way when they distance themselves from connection with others in recovery. Your best-isolated thinking puts you into a graveyard spiral that creates crash-and-burn through addictive behavior. Living in consultation is a proven lifestyle that helps you course correct and avoid graveyard spirals. Awareness remains keen to addicts who are open to the considerations and guidance of a sponsor and other 12-step support people. When addicts withdraw, become defensive or compromise consultation, the light of awareness dims. Addicts are not pathetic nor do they lack the capacity to make decisions. However, it is critical to recognize the need to live within limits and seek the guidance of a recovering community. Consistent consultation increases awareness and relapse is avoided. No one cultivates relational intimacy alone. Building a foundation of recovery requires consultation.
- Commit to telling on yourself. This tool is absolutely necessary to stay the course in recovery. Vagueness fuels the possibility of relapse. Checking the boxes in recovery is a setup for a graveyard spiral. Checking the box is doing recovery without connecting to heart. This happens when you engage the fringes of recovery community. It comes from a subtle shift in attitude. When there is an opportunity to be vulnerable and share discord and incongruence you gloss over the invite and remain at a surface level of communication. Recovery healing is only present when addicts tell on themselves. This vulnerability must be cultivated at every level of life. As an addict, when you are vague in your check-in, you are in danger of a graveyard spiral. Relapse doesn’t happen all of a sudden. However, when the conditions are right and mature, backsliding happens in an instant. Crash and burn happens quicker than any addict ever thought possible. It is critical to cultivate a resolve to tell on yourself about every aspect of living. Take time to reflect. Is there any level of life that you are vague or unwilling to discuss with your support community? You will know this by examining the stones in recovery that you have left unturned and not surrendered to discussion. Examine all the aspects of your life, your attitudes, your behaviors, and your decisions. If you are vague with yourself or others in your support community you may be in a graveyard spiral and not know it.
Awareness is the third critical tool to add to your toolbox of relapse prevention. It is a skill that requires rigorous honesty with self and a commitment to open-hearted sharing of every aspect of your life with your recovery support community. Examine the congruence of your shares. Are you accountable for your hypocrisies? Have you accepted your inconsistencies as casual without answering to your support community? These dynamics fuel a graveyard spiral that leads to relapse. Awareness is everything.