Triggers and Tethers

…by Matt Robert…

longdociThis will be our last post of the season. Not only is it smart and sensitive but it’s also warm hearted and optimistic. An ideal note to end on — until January. In the meantime, I wish you all an incredibly happy or at least reasonably happy holiday, however you define “holiday” and however you define “happy.”


dominoesMost people know the word “trigger” as a cue that can initiate a negative behavior. It can be a person, a place, a familiar situation—anything that may compel somebody to return to a behavior they are trying abstain from. Common triggers include 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 figuring out strategies to manage more effectively.

But what do we call the things that help re-engage a person in life—that give life meaning? Exercise, meditation, walking the dog, going to church—the things that help us hold on to sobriety, not threaten to questionmarkwrench it away like triggers do. We don’t have a word for things people try to learn or rediscover in recovery, to fill the gap once filled by using. These things are specific activities or events, just like triggers are, and they vary from person to person. Yet there is no general, generic term for these 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 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 metaphors for a 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 ground you? Does it support you?

One possibility is the word “tether.” It has several shades of meaning, all related to connection, protective roped to shorerestraint 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, connemountaineercting 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 darkness. A tether keeps a dog close to its home, so it doesn’t run off and harm itself or others.

spacewalkA tether can be used by an addict 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. A tether is a metaphor for a connection to safety and sobriety. “After work, I always dogonleashtake 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 productive, forward-looking dialogue. And it could reinforce the primary importance of this aspect of recovery.

“Trigger” and “tether” are words that describe the two most important states in recovery—the urge to use and the capacity to abstain. They can be natural partners in our discussions, because they highlight both the negative and the positive aspects of recovery. 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—and eventually the freeing.

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

Please contribute to the blog with any preferences, suggestions or recommendations for something to fill this void and enhance our discussions of recovery.



63 thoughts on “Triggers and Tethers

  1. Shaun Shelly December 18, 2015 at 4:36 am #

    Hey Matt (and Marc)

    This resonates. When I was running a programme (oh I wish I was back there!) we called them “mooring lines”. I think this is very useful when people are trying to resolve or develop through their “addictions”. What are the things that really matter to me? What could I be doing instead of……. It’s not about what you are not doing, but what you are doing. It’s about being linked to the places and faces where we find meaning. I also like the idea that a tether or mooring line allows for “drift”.

    Having said that, I think that for us humans our eventual goal would be to be “positioned” without tether. To be in that space, despite triggers. To be like the mountain, solid and present. A high ideal, and possibly unrealistic, but a place I would like to find myself.

    • matt December 27, 2015 at 6:08 am #

      Hey Shaun

      This really captures it, I think. Being “moored” to something stable, but allowed to “drift” to explore possibility. I think it’s analogous to the process in meditation. We are constantly “letting go” of old or unhelpful thoughts and feelings, then “coming back” to the breath, or the mantra…the focus. To be solid like a mountain, grounded…But also pliant and flexible, like a tree in the wind…

  2. Conor O'Dea December 18, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    A caveat: tethering a dog is an excellent means to increase trigger/stimulus response and aggression.

    • matt December 18, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

      Hi Conor

      If it’s already an aggressive dog it may need to be tethered. If that particular metaphor doesn’t work for you, you’re free to unleash it. 🙂

      • Conor O'Dea December 18, 2015 at 1:16 pm #

        Sorry to be pedantic, but this is an ethical issue as well as a behavioural one for me. I am speaking from a canine ethology perspective – tethering increases aggressivity in already aggressive dogs and is well recognized as a way to create a violent animal. It’s also illegal in many places for this reason.

        The metaphor is, for me, problematic in part because of the ‘neuroelasticity’ of binge behaviours and how they provoke ‘snapping’ responses in that behavioural circuitry. Now, if you are talking about a LEAD, you’ve got me sold. Gentle guidance by a compassionate agent that allows some freedom, but mitigates risk? I’m all for it. I also like the metaphor of the ship…our habits can leave us unmoored.

        • matt December 19, 2015 at 5:53 am #

          Thanks Conor

          I guess that’s a problem with metaphors. When I was in early recovery, I despised the word trigger. I thought it was totally inappropriate, and railed against it in programs, but I knew I wasn’t going to stop an established, idiomatic convention. This new term would be filling a gap in the “recovery” vocabulary.

          I’m a dog person, so I don’t mean to imply the torture of dogs or humans. The “lead” meaning of tether is what I’m talking about, to be able to venture out and explore options, yet remain anchored to the foundation of one’s sobriety. To keep one from snapping back into dependence.

          But you make a good point and important caveat. When words take on an extended meaning, they don’t necessarily take all their negative baggage, negative connotations with them. But there is a limit. Where do you draw the line? For example, SMART Recovery exclaims “We encouage “crosstalk”, to show they’re different from AA, instead of just saying we use “open discussion.” The word “crosstalk” has extended meaning into some very different domains, but ALL its connotations are negative, It’s easier to fill a lexical gap than force a positive connotation on an already negative word. Thanks for pointing this out.

          • Carlton December 19, 2015 at 8:14 am #

            You are right Matt, “Trigger” sounds like one is a victim of something.

            “Attractors” is awkward, but more accurate…
            perhaps “Pseudo Attractors”, for the addiction-related things?

            And “Authentic Attractors” are the things that a person is naturally attracted too, but was eclipsed during the addiction period.

            It does not have the catchy-ness of your T & T, though 🙂


            • matt December 19, 2015 at 9:11 am #

              …and it might get confused with the other AA. 🙂

              But I like Authentic Attractor idea. It captures what this term should mean– and also what often gets short shrift in many treatment settings. This is what I think Fred was talking about in the “middle layer”. It looks scary, but we have to face it and find a way through the moat, mountain range or the minefield of early recovery. It reminds me of a saying I heard in a meeting once, “Notice the bad to bypass it, the good to grow it, and the challenging to change it.”

              • Carlton December 19, 2015 at 10:31 am #

                How about:

                “Credible Attractors” or “CA’s”?

                Then it would be “PA’s and CA’s”….

                Things would not be construed in diametrically opposed way anymore.

                The disease models term; “triggers”, implies an endless battle between strength and weakness,

                “PA & CA” implies a change of preference, which is based on an individual , not on a disease.

                • matt December 19, 2015 at 11:02 am #

                  …and we often forget that we live in the grey area on a continuum…and thinking in extremes and opposites is where we often go when we’re using or in other analogous states…

                  • Suzy December 23, 2015 at 5:43 pm #

                    Yeah maybe the dog example can be left out. The difference for humans and recovering people is that we CHOOSE to use a tether. I totally get why a rope or chain on a dog is so harmful 🙁

                    I didn’t like “tether” at first because of the feeling of being tied to something usually not being pleasant for me in life. But a tether can be used to pull oneself to a freer lifestyle. Also to avoid harm. And one can take it off at any time if it isn’t working.

                    This blog is nice with the examples and the pictures. Semantics are always tricky.

                    We need to spend a lot more time describing the positive aspects of recovery. I don’t know why this is so hard but it is. I have read many memoirs of addiction which seem to end at stopping the use / behavior. But that is only the beginning of the recovery phase of life.
                    If we could spend some time describing that part of the journey it would help so many. Why is it harder to verbalize? Something to think about.

                    • matt December 24, 2015 at 10:07 am #

                      Yes, Suzy…
                      Semantics are tricky and get us derailed sometimes. We all have our own experience and the meaning-making that comes out of it.

                      We spend so much time on what to avoid instead of what we can do to reshape and renew our lives post-addiction.

                      Thanks for the wise reminder.

                    • Marc December 26, 2015 at 4:40 am #

                      Hey you guyz: Semantics IS tricky. So are syntax. And speling.

      • Marc December 21, 2015 at 9:24 pm #

        That’s right, Conor. We leave our dogma at the gate.

        • Billy Profili April 30, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

          What about the word “Ties” it is simple. And it contains within it control as they can be undone if need be, but are also reliable if we choose to reach for them.

          One could extrapolate and go to Positive ties and negative ties. This adds in the human experience of choice, once we reach the point where we become self aware enough to understand that we have choice. We can begin to use it. Essentially untying the bad and tying onto the good.

          It is interesting as even though some of our mainframe triggers are biologically hardwired, we seem to tie them to things in our world. Acknowledging them as chosen ties (either consciously or unconsciously) gives us our power back.. Is it as simple as choosing to tie our selves to the positive or desired as opposed to the toxic or negative. Far easier said than done.

          Pulling the unconscious ties into the light, to re allow choice is the path. Feeling the head string ties, or thought strings is the game to awaken the unconscious.

          I know this after 3 layers of addiction.. 😉

          Thank you for your work. It is empowering. Hope giving. And real.

  3. CDL1 December 18, 2015 at 7:56 am #

    Love that Metaphor!!

    Gentle, gradual and moving away from something that threatens or pulls us in a direction of travel that we no longer want to travel in despite a sometimes remarkable and often unwanted or unpredictable desire to do so, a tethering until more loving and congruent courses are entrenched, anchored and more easily attached to. Seems like re-attachment, re-attunement, and re-connection maybe even for the first time ever.

    Finally I love the stretching out of this tethering until no longer required denoting a possible state of having recovered as opposed to recovery. I say this because of a sense of the new way of experiencing life is, in that it is experienced now as I suppose natural ! A complete new sense of self, one we can bump against and one we can trust. How long the tethering is required is and will I suppose be different for all of us, sometimes we may need it forever, sometimes momentarily in times of particular crisis and sometimes we may be able to experience life un-tethered able to just bob along trusting and relying on ourselves, our lives, our loved ones, our meaning in life, in relationship.

    Knowing that we never can really predict what life will throw at us but that we can be our own tether if need be, or we can fall back on what we have built and invested in through relationship (both to others, ourselves, to inanimate objects, activities, pursuits, goals, dreams, ambitions, spirit), and that this will and can sustain.

    Wishing everyone a peaceful and fulfilling Christmas and New year.

    • Marc December 21, 2015 at 9:34 pm #

      I love the metaphor too. Love at first sight, actually. The fact that the metaphor stretches so nicely — as does the strand of rope or whatever that it’s based on — makes it incredibly useful…and useful includes fun. I mean the fun to play around with it like rolling something new and delicious around in your mouth.

      Yes, the stretching. Perfect fit to the phenomenon many of us experience. I can’t count the number of emails I get asking me if “it’s okay” to move to social drinking “some day”. I usually try to answer that with extreme caution, but there is a playful aspect I shouldn’t ignore. And there’s that vivacious little pup again, checking out his surroundings with three parts adventure and one part caution.

    • matt December 25, 2015 at 8:53 am #

      I love he way you’ve captured it, C. To know who we are and what we need so we know where we’re going and can negotiate change…

  4. Lynn December 18, 2015 at 9:23 am #

    I like the word “choices” in both cases. I feel like we place too much emphasis on things happening to us, rather than choices we make. As with many in these conversations, I don’t think addiction is a disease. I think it is a choice that is made in response to pain or circumstance. Nothing triggers us. We do it to ourselves, consciously and with volition.

    I also believe that we make a decision to begin, and then finalize the process of moving away from addiction.

    But I also believe there has to be a vision of what is possible outside of addiction. A place, a life, a reason to change. This is very personal. But once that vision is perceived and then slowly realized, there are no setbacks, no triggers. You have literally evolved into someone who can forgive, love, accept. It’s a big deal. It’s really hard. And when it happens, it’s because each of us made the decision to do it. And when it’s real, you can honestly look at the world and realize that, within reason, you can accomplish whatever you set out to do.

    • matt December 19, 2015 at 11:39 am #

      So eloquently put, Lynn. It’s amazing that we can go from the depths of despair to calm awareness and acceptance. I think is what they call “the moment of clarity”. And what is in that clarity? To see who we really are and that we belong in the world…

      thank you

    • Carlton December 19, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

      Lynn, You wrote:

      “But once that vision is perceived and then slowly realized, there are no setbacks, no triggers.”

      Yes, it is not unlike looking back at an important and life-changing relationship one may have had with a potential spouse of partner, that you freed yourself from.

      At the time, it was unimaginable that you would ever be living without the constant presence, daily engagement and deep feelings of identity you had with that person.

      Yet for many people that wanted to end a relationship, they slowly realize that the tug, or “triggers” have no more gravity to them.

      Even hearing their name does not cause trepidation or fear that you may “revert” and go back to the relationship…. because realizations have occurred.

      And in the same way, changes in relationship with the addiction occur.

      Yes… there is always the chance you may “revert” and go back to the addiction,
      but realizations have occurred, just as they have in the scenario above, that only the individual knows.

      It is not something you can Package or Prescribe, it is an individual experience, but universally recognized too.

  5. Denise December 18, 2015 at 10:10 am #

    “Tether” sounds a bit restrictive. How about “lifeline”?

    • matt December 18, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

      Hi Denise

      Whatever works for you…but I think we need something. I picked “tether” not only for its flexibility and diverse meanings, but also because trigger and tether sound alike and have the same syllable and stress pattern. So it makes it kind of “catchy”, and people are more likely to pay attention to and remember it. You know, humans. We need those shiny objects sometimes to turn our heads.

      I’m curious why you feel “lifeline” is less restrictive? Everybody has their own lexicon and connotations for words, but lifeline to me seems more necessary and restrictive or you’ll die. But maybe I’ve spent too much time in the hospital. 🙂

      • Denise December 18, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

        After reading your comment I looked up the definition of “tether” and all the ones given start with something like “a rope or chain with which an animal is tied to restrict its movement.” I guess that’s why I think of the word that way. I had thought of “lifeline” because of it’s implication of attachment to “life” or things that are “life-giving.”

        I do, however, get your thinking about something “catchy” or similar to “trigger” so I came up with “buffer”. It’s similar in structure (even with the double consonant!) and I think it’s meaning is applicable.

        Then, more related to “lifeline” is “lifeboat” which may have less of a medical implication…


        • matt December 18, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

          These are all great ideas…

          Just something I’ve noticed about people’s reaction to “tether.” Some don’t like the negative connotation of restraining an animal. But if you think about it, that’s what addiction does. Our world shrinks, gets smaller and smaller until we are “chained” to the addiction. Likewise, we may need to do something just as restraining to remain attached to our sobriety– our unconditional intention to abstain. Early recovery is fraught with physical discomfort and emotional turmoil. I needed myself or somebody else to jerk my chain every so often to keep me on the path.

          • Denise December 18, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

            Well, sounds like you really like “tether”, and with your explanation of why you want the idea of restriction to be part of it, then it makes total sense!

            • Marc December 21, 2015 at 9:50 pm #

              It’s great the way you two are hashing this out. That’s really what we do here, isn’t it: find words to stand for experiences that are insanely difficult to put into words, then sit back and see if the words have helped, or look at WHY they helped, or figure out why they might help some people more than others.

              When I say that’s what we do, I mean any kind of treatment/counselling/support/intervention (for addiction ETC.) that relies on words (i.e., 95% of them) tries out new phrasings as scouts or experiments, sends them forth to see how they fare. Do they come back alive? With better weapons? Or have they turned traitor, ready to do more harm than good? I sometimes think of the “disease'” terminology that way.

        • matt December 27, 2015 at 5:57 am #

          I really do like “lifeline.” It captures the return to life, to being “moored” to something and keeping your bearings, as Shaun and others have said. It can keep you on course while navigating change.

          • Denise December 27, 2015 at 9:47 am #

            Not that I’m trying to maintain the idea of “navigating change” but what about “anchors”? Actually, both “anchors” and “lifelines” are possibilities you mentioned early in the posting. Personally, I prefer them both to “tethers.” 🙂 You’d think there would be a word for something that’s a positive addiction.

            • matt December 27, 2015 at 10:38 am #

              I feel like “lifeline” and “tether” work because there is an implied “anchor” to the thing or things that are keeping us safe.

              There should be a word for a positive addiction. The ones that come to mind all have a more negative connotation, like “obsession”, “fixation” not associated with balance. Like someone’s “calling.”

              • Denise December 27, 2015 at 11:08 am #

                A final word from me here: mainstay… just a thought. I also re-read the original posting and now, after much thought, am leaning more toward “tether” as “lifeline” may be just a bit corny. “Tether” is tougher and may therefore appeal more to addicts.

                • matt December 27, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

                  Mainstay…has the perfect definition, isn’t overused in the common parlance so potentially could take on another extended meaning without too much confusion . Another naval term so could be associated with the journey, storms, safe harbor, anchoring, mooring, etc. often used as metaphors for addiction and recovery. I like it!

      • Carlton December 18, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

        Well said Matt, it does have a very nice ring to it, so perhaps it could be applied to the very crucial, yet early process of recovery, where one feels safely “tethered” to a recovery group or environment?

        In the later parts of the recovery process, the feelings of being “safely tethered” an morph into feelings of desire and embracing things again, without these feeling themseleves triggering addiction.

        Also, this could be a generational thing, but:

        “Trigger and Tether” and “Tar and Feather” have a rhyming thing of some sort.

        I remember the term “umbilical cord” was used in recovery groups too.

        In any event, your love and compassion for people experiencing addiction
        comes through in all your sentences..I am sure that play a part in peoples

      • Marc December 21, 2015 at 9:57 pm #

        Watch it folks. Matt came straight out of advertising. He once got me to buy a thing he called a broccolator. Sure, google it: it doesn’t exist… Its purpose was to ease my back pain. Now he says it’s actually called a hydrocollator, which does exist:

        This is all true, except that I don’t think Matt was ever accepted in the advertising community. He couldn’t find a tie that went with his sweatshirt. Sorry. It’s 3:55 AM and I’m in an apartment in France…mesmerized by the time, place, and strangeness of it all…nowhere near sleepy enough to sleep. Therefore rambling nonsensically. Hi Matt?

        • matt December 22, 2015 at 7:01 am #

          Advertising? As in “Don’t waste time worrying about the way you want it to be, when it’s right there in front of you being what it is”,,,a broccolating hotchocolator And if you’re finding broccoli hot chocolate appealing as an aperitif you might want to make some adjustments in your recovery regimen. Or sleep patterns?

          I’m in LA trying desperately not to become my parents…Is that one of those things I need to accept I cannot change, or should I ‘not go gentle into that good night’ about?

          • matt December 24, 2015 at 10:23 am #

            I think my sweatshirt tie is too tight.

  6. Anonymous December 18, 2015 at 11:09 am #

    Please go to Urban Dictionary to add definitions of the words tether, lifeline, mooring, if your definitions have not been included. I checked tether on 12/18/15, at urban dictionary under the term tether. It was not.

    If we pull together and try to use the urban dictionary to help us define terms, that our language so sadly does not accommodate could we have a chance for healing more completely?

    Are there any lists out there where organically grown terms for medical related words are parked? Is it possible I have missed a filtering feature in the Urban Dictionary that allows me to filter words? I would love to have a place to point my friends and family and care team, so they can understand how I use words, so I am not misdiagnosed with scary medical conditions while I try to work toward healing with individuals who care a great deal for my success, but do not have a lot of training in working with my complex medical history, genetics, and audience participation in my own care with their current level of patient population that their administration and our insurance providers support.

    Wonderful book and post.

    Marc, I’m getting a bounce back and cannot reach you directly at your marc dot com email address for memoirsofanaddictedbrain.
    Marc, I’m getting a bounce back and cannot reach you directly at your marc dot com email address for memoirsofanaddictedbrain.

    • matt December 18, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

      What a fabulous idea, Anonymouse… and very practical and proactive!

      If we’re gonna move the focus away from the medical model, then we need to change the medical terminology like “disease”, “relapse”, “recovery” etc. All the quibbling over things like” powerlessness” and “choice” I find more a distraction. If we’re still using the medical jargon, it’s almost like we’re tacitly accepting the disease model. We need some new language for all this stuff. We need new terms that express and embody a new direction that can weave into the common argot.

  7. Carlton December 18, 2015 at 11:09 am #

    The disconnection from triggers can also occur during a persons recovery process.

    The following account from an old Police Blotter illustrates one such realization

    The Police were notified that an irate and upset woman had barricaded herself in a telephone booth and was putting dimes in the slot from a bag, yet not making any calls.

    When asked, she said that her niece was a telephone operator, and was being seriously underpaid, so she was putting money in the telephone to help her out.

    The disconnect is quite evident, yet her feelings were real and justified. and she chose and attempted a justifiable , seemingly effective solution.

    Yet it is quite clear her attempted solution was disconnected with the situation.

    Situations can be ongoing, (stress, etc), yet the most important point here is the certainty of the dis-connect of the chosen solution.

    These types of realizations, or, “clarity of mind”, “discoveries”. “epiphanies” can occur during a persons individual recovery process.

    It it may be one reason people may find they no longer need to rely on fear, or remain vigilant about the addiction they were struggling with.

    Perhaps a new model of addiction could account for realizations of this sort.

  8. Fred December 18, 2015 at 6:17 pm #

    In some of the 12-step sex addiction programs, I’ve heard the terms “top line” and “outer circle” used. In Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), an individual’s sobriety is defined by abstinence from personally specified “inner circle” behaviors. SAA participants also typically identify their “middle-circle” behaviors – things that may not technically be relapses, but that are dangerous, or potential pre-cursors to relapse. Finally, SAA members define their “outer circle” behaviors. These are Matt’s “tethers” – the healthy things that promote recovery and lead toward a better life and distract from and substitute for the addiction. In Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), people define sobriety as refraining from certain individually specified “bottom-line” behaviors. Some in SLAA have co-opted the concept of “outer circles” from SAA, and refer to these healthy behaviors as “top lines” (in contrast to “bottom-lines”). The idea of a universally-agreed name for these healthy alternative behaviors is appealing. Thanks, Matt, for the attention to this important idea, and for proposing a possible term that could work across all approaches to recovery.

    • matt December 19, 2015 at 5:00 am #

      Thanks, Fred

      It may not sound that important, but a general term can bring all the different approaches closer together. Closer to having a common language and recognizing that we share the same goals– and out with the politics.

      That notion of these “middle circle” behaviors is so important. Kind of like the moat around the castle of our addiction that we must cross to get to the new land. And it’s fraught with crocodiles. It’s great that SAA specifically identifies these challenges that may seem unrelated to the addiction, but that set in motion a “behavior chain” of seemingly unrelated events that lead to the behavior. Awareness of them is key because our midbrain is messing with us, and doesn’t want us aware. We need a ladder, a boat or a rope to get us across– some tethers.

      • Fred December 19, 2015 at 8:46 am #

        Upon further reflection, there is an important distinction between “triggers” and “middle circles” which suggests that maybe two new terms are needed. “Triggers”, as I understand and use the term, are typically external cues/events (though the addict can intensify the cue with rumination/internal experiences/addictive ritual behaviors). Middle circles, on the other hand, are behaviors the addict engages in, possibly in response to being “triggered”. A true opposite of “trigger” would need to focus more on the environmental cue itself. There is such a term I’ve heard in recovery circles: “a God shot”. This is when some “coincidence” happens that bolsters our recovery – a friend calls us at just the right moment, or we find an old sobriety coin in a jacket pocket, just as we were putting on our coat to go out and do something destructive. So, in the sexual recovery world I’m familiar with, “God shots” are positive cues and “triggers” are negative cues. “Middle circles” are negative behaviors and “outer circles”/”top lines” are positive behaviors. In response to a “trigger”, we hopefully choose to do a “top line” behavior to counter “being triggered”, rather than numb-out with “middle circle” behaviors, or break a “bottom line”. When we get a “God shot”, we feel grateful and more connected to recovery. Lots of mixed metaphors in there, but everyone gets the meaning.

        “Tether” seems like it is more of an opposite to “middle circle”, than to “trigger”, in that it’s behaviorally focused, rather than environmental. It’s analogous to “outer circle/top line”. Maybe the opposite of an (environmental )”trigger” is simply “positive cue” or “recovery cue”?

        A more generic term for “tether” I’ve heard used a lot is “self-care.” But “self-care” seems TOO generic – it doesn’t feel as linked to directly countering addictive cues. “Tether” is a good proposal (though in my world, I’ll probably stick with the current vernacular!)

        • matt December 19, 2015 at 10:03 am #

          Yes Fred. And self-care is a lot of what the tether term might be about.

          It’s funny. I think I misinterpreted your notion of “middle circles.” as the place where the majority of work is done in early and middle recovery. It’s the middle 3 of the Stages of Change: Contemplation, Prep/Planning, and Action. It’s where the transition is, where we’re struggling with ambivalence, avoiding triggers, and finding tethers and then making the transition to the outer circles. The tethers AND the triggers would be around in the “middle circles,” where people have to practice making the right choices; recover from mistakes, get up and start again. I pictured the circles as a target with traffic signal colors, red in the bulls eye, the inner circle; yellow in the middle circles, and green the outer circles, when we move to the Maintenance phase of recovery, and have established a new habit.

          Isn’t it weird how this seems so hard to conceptualize for us all, people who have actually experienced addiction? Finding terms we can all agree on for these elemental components of recovery? If we do then maybe we could eventually find a new term for recovery itself….:)

          • matt December 19, 2015 at 10:47 am #

            I think I see your point about the differentiation between the behavioral and the environmental situation. There are causes and conditions. So somebody could live in a place…like an run-down apartment complex with a dealer on every floor…a trigger breeding ground, if you will– but not necessarily the trigger itself (my boss went off on me again). There are various conditions that can improve or exacerbate a situation, maybe add to “ego fatigue”, but they aren’t the actual trigger?

  9. Peter December 18, 2015 at 11:49 pm #

    Matt: Brilliant. Reminds me of Sylvester the Cat standing just outside of the reach of Spike the bulldog’s tether. Remember that WB cartoon? The trigger and the tether…well, maybe not that good of an analogy, but I sure did have some of those tethers in early recovery. And it is catchy.

    • matt December 21, 2015 at 7:47 am #

      Phthuffering phthuccotash, Peter! 🙂 I’m curious what some of your tethers might have been? I know I had very visceral, emotional ones, where I felt like I was getting yanked out of a dark, dangerous pit…but other very subtle, neutral, comfort zones like sitting quietly with my dog…

      • Peter December 29, 2015 at 11:36 pm #

        LOL, yes, that’s the one. Poor ol’ Spike.
        I guess I think of a tether as almost anything that would distract my “ruminations”, craving and the inevitable exhaustion and relapse.

        Meditation worked for me. Even just a deep breath and a moment to calm my mind. Sometimes I would think of a time in my past were I felt absolute serenity. When I was a kid, I spent summers at a cottage, and my buddies and I would, some evenings, lie in the long grass in a nearby apple orchard, and wait for nightfall and the stars to appear. We would find the constellations that we knew, and the north star, of course. Total bliss, and totally a tether.

        I don’t have a dog. I have a cat. LOL

  10. Carlton December 20, 2015 at 8:42 am #

    Perhaps “sling-line” ?

    Your Triggers and Tethers has a memorable rhyme and rhythm to it,

    puts focus on the positive things, which is admirable and important.

    Although hard to rhyme with, a Sling-line underscores the self-activating aspects too.

    Maybe “Set-ups & Sling-lines” or something?
    Maybe “Set-ups & Sling-lines” or something?

    • Carlton December 22, 2015 at 7:24 am #

      Matt, after re-reading your “Triggers and Tethers”, the comments and your replies, I now realize this term can apply to ALL the various Models out there for addiction.

      …There is the tethering you describe,( SMART?)
      …There is the Temporarily tethering to things so a person can re-arrange priorities.(SMART and others?)
      …There is the “Tether” to a larger convoy of people as they go through life as a group ( AA).
      …and probably other way other people would come up with.

      Perhaps a recovery approach would take “Triggers and Tethers” and your ideas up,
      or are you working on something of your own?

      • matt December 27, 2015 at 5:49 am #

        Yes Carlton! This is where the recovery–the coming back to our lives– resides. We need to look at both sides…holistically, “big picture”, individually and on a larger scale.

        I’m always working on something of my own. If we stay open to possibility, recovery is possible, in the moment and across the lifespan. Beginner’s mind. That’s my “obsession” now. We have to stay open, aware, and primed to act when a positive opportunity presents itself.

  11. Mark December 22, 2015 at 5:58 am #

    Interesting, readable cartoon rendering of dopamine’s role in addiction from Scientific Mind …

    • matt December 23, 2015 at 6:21 am #

      Cool, Mark!

      The first frame reminds me of how we can draw big business into treatment, if their EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) recognized realistic goals and treatment modalities for their employees. A lot of people who I see in meetings have a triggering relationship with their job in some way. It’d be nice to be able to flip it to a “tethering” one..

  12. Janice December 24, 2015 at 12:26 am #

    And the word is…. RESOURCE. It could be an Inner Resource; something within myself like my faith, or feeling the love I have for my children, or recalling a time when I felt peaceful and at ease, or doing a guided imagery. Or it could be an Outer Resource; such as my community, my sponsor, my dog, my meditation practice or exercise, or spending time with my grandkids. Both Inner and Outer Resources help me choose “this…… not that”. For myself and the Recovery & Resilience groups I facilitate, we explore, name and use Resources all the time as a positive counterpoint to triggers.

    • Carlton December 24, 2015 at 10:49 am #

      Suzy, In the post titled: ”Beginner’s Mind and Recovery” from October, Matt mentioned a “Clearing House” where people could post positive aspects, etc. was chatted about.

      And yes, it is hard to put into words the positive insights and wisdom that became contributive and enriched a person’s life due to the addiction and recovery experience.

      For example, being able to uncontrollably laugh, cry, or even be bored again without fear, is basically a regained freedom, not something “new”.

      Yet (dare I say) the personnel changes of consciousness, spiritual aspects and awareness that became apparent to do this again… is profound.

      I don’t know how to explain it or how to “do” it, because it was something that occurred.

      However, a collection of accounts may help motivate people to persevere in their own individual addiction and recovery experience.

      Maybe some gifted writers and poets could join forces with the professional Neurologists and specialists and a new understating of addiction will develop?

      • matt December 25, 2015 at 9:22 am #

        It’s experiential and ineffable. Just as it’s hard to know where we crossed over into addictive rather than adaptive behavior, it’s also hard to discern when we’ve returned to life and freedom from the hobbling habit. At some point, we realize we haven’t thought about it for days. As you say, it’s something that occurs.

  13. matt December 24, 2015 at 11:47 am #


    This interesting and varied discussion about the “tether” idea leads me to a bigger point. Notice how many ways people think about this potential vocabulary addition, what it means to them, how it might be interpreted, its functionality, etc.. We all have so many personal associations with the words we use. This is how language works. There is no way around it.

    For the same reasons, we can see how current medicalized terminology for addiction affects how we view ourselves and our re-engagement in life, free from our addictive behavior. How it colors our attitude toward this phenomenon of human life. Language is important. Words matter. There is no one word that will work for everyone, be it “tether”, “recovery”, “addiction”,”relapse”, etc. In the face of this fact about language and humans, what can we do to bring our terminology closer to what Marc’s model envisions? This is a long term puzzler…

    • matt December 24, 2015 at 11:49 am #

      (see Carlton’s post above)

  14. Brenda January 1, 2016 at 8:30 am #

    What a wonderful idea – love the positive and life-giving term “tether” – like a North Star…something to orient you and keep you on track. Thank you.

  15. Justin January 11, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    Triggers for me are of no consequence no more, I hope so far so good. That empty void that gives life meaning and direction. Purpose, this is the fuel that rockets you away from addiction. Once you find your true purpose, you have the seeds to help you stay clean. My views in anyway.

  16. Margot Tesch January 15, 2016 at 11:26 pm #

    I was working in a woolshed last year (classing merino wool) with a young man who gave me a great idea. We got on to the topic of addiction (one of my favourites of course). He told me how he had managed to take himself out of regular drug use. He had come to understand that one of the reasons why taking drugs was appealing was because they cause a surplus of dopamine to be produced in the brain. So, he identified things that he liked doing which also helped him to create dopamine when he was doing them. He focussed his attention and time on those activities.
    Simple, eloquent truth can help us to change bad habits. I guess its another way we can coach ourselves through change.

    • matt January 16, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

      A wise young man…in addiction, we get used to that blast of dopamine, and we have a brain out of balance (BOOB syndrome– a little known technical term). The thing your young friend discovered was that it’s not all about avoiding substances and behaviors– about NOT doing something. It’s also about finding behaviors that are naturally rewarding, engrossing, fulfilling and motivating– and bring the dopamine system back into balance. We need to fill the hole left by the habit change to live a “happy” life. Otherwise, that sense of loss remains, and our brain may get us to fill it in with the old standby…

      • Margot Tesch January 16, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

        Thanks Matt
        A powerful idea to focus on positive aspects rather than denial aspects. (LOL to “BOOB” syndrome. Have to remember that one!)

  17. Psych Nairo May 28, 2016 at 6:14 am #

    I totally agree with you. The negative labels only weigh one further down. Getting a tether that is truly rewarding/ enjoyable as it is effective is key in ensuring that the recovery process does not always feel like “work”. As always, love your articles!

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