Recovery: A fly in a jar

Recently, my family and I took a vacation to Maui. Based on a recommendation from friends, we signed the kids up for a surf lesson with Bull, a local Surf coach who also gives lessons to visiting amateurs. 

We arrived at his house and within seconds I could tell he was a genuine person who was reflective and cared about the impact he was having as a coach.  After he introduced himself, I shared, “the kids have really been looking forward to surfing with you today, and holy cow, whatever you have been doing to stay in shape, keep doing it.”

He responded with a huge smile and then a look of slight frustration and said, you should have seen me before I hurt my back. I was ripped and at 56 years old I received a lot of attention. My friends named me “Bull” because I am hard charging and I love attention. 

As we walked to the beach, he shared that he was having a hard time coming back from his injury and working through the recovery. 

He likened his frustration to feeling like a fly in a jar. 

I mentioned that I could empathize with the difficulty of recovering from an injury and shared with him that one year out of college I suffered an Arterial-Venus Malformation (AVM) that overnight left me completely paralized on my left side. I had brain surgery the next day and had to go back to crawling to begin my recovery. 

We both took a moment to absorb the things we were hearing from each other.

I was internalizing his fly in a jar frustration to see if I could find anything relatable to help him and I could tell he was considering what that experience must have been like for me. 

Here we were two coaches searching for something to say to each that would be helpful. 

We reached the beach and he began preparing the kids for their lesson. He started coaching and clearly communicating technique and the best way to catch a wave. He was impressive and very thoughtful in the way he coached. He did not want anyone to get hurt and he wanted to make sure everyone had fun so they would want to do it again. 

As he was about to enter the water he said to me, I am really impressed that you worked your way through that, I don’t think I would have been able to do that.

Before I could say anything he turned and made his way to the water to begin the lesson. 

I believe we have all said something to that effect at some point when we hear a story of how someone has recovered from some type of setback or loss. It a natural reaction to how we process what we just heard and want to quickly work through a reaction. Recovery seems daunting for all of us. It comes with a lot of uncertainty and we can become unsure of what we can control.


When I reflect on what I learned about recovery and ways I could use that knowledge to be helpful to others’ I begin by suggesting that recovery for all of us happens more often than we think and it comes in many forms. It ranges from loss of a loved one, injury and health issues, addiction, depression, anxiety, different forms of failure, all the way to recovering from a bad decision, conversation or interaction. 

Everytime we recover we grow. We are forced to ask for something from ourselves that under normal circumstances we might not ask or think we would be capable of. 

Hence, the comment, I don’t think I would be able to do that

That becomes an ability that can strengthen our sense of self and allow us to move forward with a stronger belief in what we can accomplish. 

After the lesson, as we were spraying down the boards Bull graciously shared his perspective on the importance of preserving the reefs and protecting the ocean among other things. You could tell how much this mattered to him and his conversation was thoughtful and his words were meaningful.

When I found the right moment, I said, I hope you don’t mind but I have been trying to come up with a helpful way to share my thoughts on your comment of feeling like a fly in a jar. 

He smiled and said, I appreciate that, what did you come up with?

I said, I know it is not easy seeing your way through the setback you had with your back and as a result it is making you feel different about yourself. Recovery is different and difficult for everyone. 

For me, It wasn’t until I realized I had to stop looking backwards for answers and instead find a starting point, where I could reset and begin to press forward again. It helped to celebrate all forms of PROGRESS and with each step forward I could feel myself trusting the future a little bit easier.

I said, try giving yourself permission to define a new beginning and take any step forward that you are comfortable with until you see yourself making progress. Perhaps it’s the lack of momentum that is bringing out these feelings. When we have momentum the effort we put in has an immediate impact and in your case you were getting instant feedback in the form of positive attention. You miss that – and it drove you. 

He smiled and said, define a new beginning and press forward, I’ll take that. Thanks, Coach.

In the early stages of my recovery I was scared. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get my body back to full function and that brought about fears of what life would be like in my new reality. I couldn’t envision it and that made every attempt to discover what was wrong overwhelmingly frustrating and that delayed progress.  

I learned,  “Frustration is FEAR showing up in the wrong Emotion.” 


 Phase 1: Being in the midst of uncertainty: After you have grounded emotion and identified the extent of the setback you have had you can begin to put a plan in place and start to act on it. Roadmapping a process and measuring your progress is key and will allow you start to believe that you can regain some control over the situation.

Phase 2: Coming to terms with a new normal: for some of us there eventually comes a time  where you start to realize that although you have smartly broken down the machine of recovery and had successfully managed every controllable aspect of it – you are still not going to fully recover no matter how hard you try. I have been there, and I can tell you firsthand it is a tough place to be, it is both physically and emotionally overwhelming. 

We are all different in how we navigate this because we have different strengths, experiences, and sensibilities. I am by no means an expert, but what helped me through was surrounding myself with loving people that believed in me as I learned to adapt my mindset to accept my new reality and encouraged me to push through and eliminate thoughts of limitations to a place where I could trust the future.

We need to find a place that eventually lets us focus on the things we can do – instead of the things we can’t.

We all have a different path, but at times we share a common place.

Phil McCarthy 

197 thoughts on “Recovery: A fly in a jar”

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