The Butterfly Effect in Recovery

By Andrew Finley, LMFT

Newton’s Third Law of Physics states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Scientifically, this is true, but in the recovery profession we deal with far more than the physical plane. In our world, we have seen the possibility of our actions causing immense, even global reactions that can extend way beyond our immediate experiences and even far into the future. I would like to share a particularly shining example of this.

A little over two years ago, Dr. David L. Murphy was laid to rest in Santa Monica, California. Dr. Murphy was an alcoholic in recovery who decided to dedicate his life to the treatment of his fellow travelers. In 2003, I had the privilege of meeting him. Our time was bittersweet because although we became fast friends, our encounter was due to the fact that I had relapsed and checked into his detox. He was, in fact, my “Eskimo,” a term some of us use to describe the person most responsible for “bringing us in out of the cold” and loneliness of our addiction.

In the ensuing years, I went back to school, became a psychotherapist, and dedicated my own life to helping others to recover from this incredibly destructive and life-threatening disease. Dave Murphy was, in large part, my inspiration to become what I am today—and I am by far the not only one.

There must have been at least 500 people crammed into the tiny chapel at Santa Monica’s Woodlawn Cemetery that day in March, 2014. I looked around and saw so many familiar faces—people I had seen in AA meetings as well as professionals I knew from working in various treatment centers around Southern California. All had been touched by this man who was, variously, gentle, understanding, hardcore, passionate, and even unpredictable and volatile at times. Afterward, someone came up to me and asked, “How many people do you think are here today, Andy?” I looked around and said, “Oh, maybe 400–500.” I paused for a second and then added, “But there must be at least a half million souls milling around.” My friend just nodded and smiled. He knew exactly what I meant, and no one was more surprised by that statement than me.

Dave Murphy’s time on this earth directly affected hundreds—perhaps a few thousand—people. Of all of them, a really respectable number have managed to stay sober, myself among them. Whether we went into the profession or not, we would all continue to carry the message of recovery instilled in us by that remarkable man. For every one of us, there are hundreds of others whom we have touched and when I think about that it humbles me. We never know whether something we may say or do will resonate with another human being who has come to us for help. Perhaps I’ve uttered what I consider to be some innocuous throwaway line that the person I’m talking to takes to heart. And suppose because of that, he decides not to drink that day before heading home in his car and because of that, he avoids striking and killing a young student on her way home from school who is destined to go to medical school and eventually discover a cure for cancer? How many lives of people and their families would be affected by that?

The point is, we never know, do we? Everything I have just described to you perfectly illustrates a theory called “The Butterfly Effect.” Originally it was used in weather prediction, but it soon came to mean that the smallest of causes can have huge effects. Those of us in the recovery profession are most definitely in The Butterfly Effect business.

I find this particularly profound when I talk to my good friend Scott Sowle and experience what he has created here at Muir Wood. The young men with whom he works are at their most susceptible while standing at a precarious crossroad in their lives. The staff he has assembled is well aware of the immense responsibility they carry and their ability to ultimately affect hundreds of thousands of lives though their work with these youngsters. I am proud to say I will continue to be involved with and applaud the efforts of Scott, Jennifer and the rest of the staff. I pledge my continued support of Muir Wood in the years to come. Keep up the good work!