Groundhog Day, the iconic comedy from 1993 starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, had some success at its release but has become a classic as fans watched it over and over. In fact, the term itself has become part of popular culture. In Cambridge Dictionary, the term “Groundhog Day” has come to mean “a situation in which events that have happened before happen again, in what seems to be exactly the same way.”
According to Wikipedia, the film has been analyzed by various religious groups who see it as an allegory. It’s reported that screenwriter Danny Rubin based how the main character, Phil Connors, changed as he tried to cope with re-living the same day again and again using the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
A Twelve-Step support group I'm a member of has made an annual event out of watching Groundhog Day together. When I first heard of this idea, I wondered why they chose this movie to be the center of one of their very few annual events. After I heard the explanation it was obvious… addiction is doing the same thing over and over. No matter what one does to try to change, it doesn’t just go away.
This year right before this annual event, I decided to really dig into the movie and parallel the stages of recovery with what Phil went through. I realized something very surprising at the end of my search.
(Warning: spoilers and mentions of suicide ahead.)
The first step in Phil’s journey clearly corresponds to Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Grief with his apparent denial that the day was starting over. Everything he did showed his disbelief. He finally checked for the truth by breaking his pencil before going to sleep, only to find it whole again in the morning.
Anger (and I’m adding fear) are next. He avoided interaction with others and made the same mistakes he made before, like stepping in a water puddle. He reached out for help by talking to his colleague Rita, who didn’t believe him, and a psychiatrist, who also didn’t believe him and asked if they could meet again the next day.
A form of bargaining began when Phil finally found some guys who would listen. Phil asked his new friends, "What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?" One answered, "That about sums it up for me."
He then tried to deal with it with risky behavior – knowing he wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of his actions. He had a car chase with the police on the railroad track. He ate all he wanted, drank coffee by the gallon, smoked, and “[didn’t] even have to floss.”
Phil remarked, “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore.”
Phil also started to use his knowledge of daily events to get his way. He obtained facts about women so that they would concede to his advances. He figured out how to steal money from an armored vehicle. He asked Rita questions and used the information so that she would fall for him.
This built up to one perfect day with Rita, where he almost got what he wanted. However, Rita soon recognized it was a sham. As Rita said, “I could never love someone like you, Phil, because you’ll never love anyone but yourself.”
Phil responded with, “That’s not true. I don’t even like myself.”
Phil tried to re-create that same perfect day with Rita, only ending with her slapping him each time. On his way back to the bed-and-breakfast after one such day, he started to show signs of depression. He started looking really rough, staying inside in the evenings with the senior citizens and answering every question correctly while watching Jeopardy. His news reports during the Groundhog Day event became extremely sarcastic. He broke his alarm clock every morning.
He finally completely lost it. He kidnapped Punxsutawney Phil and drove a truck he stole off a cliff, with them inside. He tried various ways of killing himself. This finally led to him desperately trying to convince Rita to stay with him for the day.
Phil had one more good day with her, ending it by them both tossing cards into a hat. Their conversation included Phil saying, “It's alright, I am a jerk.” Rita’s responded by saying he wasn’t.
Phil fully showed how depressed he was when he replied, “It doesn't make any difference. I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore.”
At this point, the movie leads you to think that now that she loved him, his endless day was about to end. She spent the night but when he woke up, he found her gone.
It was at this point that Phil began to reach the acceptance stage. He started to focus on making himself a better person and helping others. During one day portrayed, he gave all of his money to a homeless man he encountered. He began to learn to play the piano and create ice sculptures.
That same evening Phil showed compassion for the homeless man by bringing him out of the cold. However, the man died. Phil decided his next mission was to save him. He tried various methods to keep him alive, like buying him meals and performing CPR on him, to no avail. As one nurse said, “Sometimes, people just die.”
The final day started with Phil giving a very eloquent and moving news report. Rita wanted to hang out with him, but he put her off, saying he had errands to run. During that day, he caught a boy who fell out of a tree, fixed a flat tire, performed the Heimlich maneuver on a choking man, talked a scared bride into agreeing to the marriage, and later gave that couple a gift, and fixed an older man’s back.
Rita finally fell for him when she heard him expertly playing the piano with a jazz band and discovers some of how he spent his day. Rita bought him at a bachelor auction, and they spent the evening together during which he made a snow sculpture of her face. Phil remarked, “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now… because I love you.”
After Rita spent the night, Phil is disgusted when he woke up to the same song on the radio, thinking it was one more day in the endless loop, only to see Rita still in bed.
After this realization, Phil asked Rita, “Do you know what today is?”
Rita replied, “No, what?”
Phil responded with, “Today is tomorrow. It happened,” later saying, “It was the end of a very long day.”
So… yes, Groundhog Day at least loosely covers the Stages of Grief. But what does this have to do with addiction?
I went into this project thinking that it was similar to the stages of recovery. And one could make the argument that it does.
But what I realized is that even more parallels an addict’s entire journey – from addiction to sobriety.
Every addict knows that first stage well – denying the addiction, denying that “I” am an addict. Eventually you break a pencil and hope that you are wrong about not being able to get out of this cycle, only to wake up and know you are still in it.
Then comes a point of realizing this is bigger than you are. You find yourself stepping into the same puddle of water over and over. Sometimes when you first start to reach out for help, no-one believes you or puts unrealistic expectations on how to recover (like asking you to come back tomorrow when there is no tomorrow.)
If you don’t find help, you reach out to those who you know will understand – other addicts still using. You find yourself doing more and more risky behavior and you no longer concern yourself with following the rules of society… you drive on the railroad track.
You become more and more selfish. Everything you do is to get more, feel better, obtain a bigger high. This all-about-me attitude leads to great feelings of shame. Though it may look like you only love yourself when acting this way, as Phil said, “That’s not true. I don’t even like myself.”
Trying to again reach that perfect high that was so easy to get at first just ends up feeling like you’ve been slapped. Depression hits hard. No matter what you do you can’t stop… and you don’t even get the feeling you want from using. This is when sometimes suicidal thoughts enter the picture.
Even when it’s not a literal suicide attempt, I think every addict has felt like Phil… “It doesn't make any difference. I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore.” When Rita was gone after that second almost-perfect day, it was Phil’s “bottom.”
Finally, you give up. You realize you can’t change the loop, so you work on changing yourself. But even that doesn’t fix it. The homeless man still ends up dying, no matter what you do to change it. This is where recovery begins and the Serenity Prayer comes in: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This is where I had a lightbulb (more like a searchlight over my head) moment. It wasn’t loving Rita or Rita loving Phil that got him to tomorrow. It wasn’t even Phil making himself a better person.
True recovery doesn’t happen until you have worked the Twelve Steps and then commit to doing the Twelfth Step – service. It wasn’t until Phil got the focus completely off himself, what he wanted, even making himself a better man by learning the piano and ice sculpting, before he got out of the never-ending Groundhog Day.
As Phil told Rita when he woke up with her still there… “Is there anything I can do for you… Today?