Family Drug Support Australia
Support Line: 1300 368 186
(available 24 hours 7 days a week)

Explanation of the Tight Rope Walker and Balance Pole Metaphor

When someone is confronted in a major crisis in their life, such as a breakdown of marriage or relationship, diagnosis of a serious illness, business collapse or loss of a job, or in particular realising they have a drug problem in the family. It feels like they have been thrust out from the safety of a familiar platform onto a tight rope, which is a scary place to be.

Peoples’ initial reaction is to want to return to the familiar place they know well. Even if this is not a particularly good place to be, it is better than the scary tightrope. When we talk to families in this situation, they often yearn for a time when everything seems to be ok and functional. Despite their efforts to get back to that familiar place, the reality of drug use will often see them back on the tight rope. To escape this situation, their next move is often to look for safety nets – anything to get off this scary tight rope. With drug use these safety nets could include; a magic bullet or a miracle cure, getting them into treatment which is going to fix them, asking them to leave home – the idea of needing to hit ‘Rock bottom’. It is never likely that these safety nets will produce the outcome they desire which is, getting them off drugs. They will find themselves back on the tight rope, where progress is usually slow and precarious – 1 step forward and 2 steps back.

When we think of a tight rope walker in a circus, we notice that they have a device which helps them keep an equilibrium. This is the ‘Balance Pole’ which enables tight rope walkers to move more effectively across the tight rope. However, one of the truths about human beings is that we can be so focused on solving the problem, and have a tendency to discard our metaphorical balance pole when we are up on the tight rope.

One of the things we try to encourage families to do is to pick up their balance pole and use it to maintain their equilibrium in their journey. What is this metaphorical ‘Balance Pole’? Well, it is all the things we do to enjoy life and to cope with difficult experiences. Everyone’s balance pole will be different, but could include some or all of the following;

  • Hobbies and interests
  • Friends
  • Exercise
  • Relaxation
  • Gardening
  • Pets
  • Theatre and cinema
  • Faith
  • Work or study
  • Reading books

Part of our self-care message, is to encourage people to do the things they enjoy, and as they start to pick up again these important and pleasurable activities, they also gain confidence in dealing with whatever the crisis is.

Gradually progress across the tight rope becomes easier and they can move with more confidence. There is also another important point in the crossing of the tight rope, this is called ‘Letting Go’ this is a point where people stop trying to direct and control the substance user’s life or activities, without giving up hope or their support. From here on in, if they can give up ‘trying to fix it’ the journey does get easier. This does not mean the end of the journey but from this point families realise they have the skills and resilience to cope.

Tony Trimingham

FDS 2021 Remembrance Ceremony video


  • Remembering those who have lost their lives to a drug-related death.