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“When I move my arm a certain way, it hurts,” a patient once told his doctor, according to an old joke.
“Then don’t move it like that,” was the doctor’s recommendation.
Comical or not, there may be wisdom in this concept. When anger or negative effects are the result of a particular situation or interaction with a particular person, especially when they become repetitive and escalate, and there seems to be no solution to them, then relinquishing their cause can improve the situation. That concept can be called “detachment”.
Separation, in its physical and emotional forms, from such triggering engagements does not necessarily imply right or wrong, but it enables one person to surrender their compulsion to another, who may often resort to an inner emotional trap. It may also not mean that a relative likes or dislikes him – only his views or his behavior. As a result, it can be considered a relief valve, a breather, or even a vacation from stress and strife.
This certainly applies to those who are chronically exposed to alcoholism.
“Separating myself from someone with the flu protects me from getting the disease,” according to a member share in Al-Anon’s Hope for Today text, (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 68). “Emotional detachment from alcoholism increases the likelihood that I will not capture an abundance of anger and anxiety.”
Exposed to para-alcoholism myself growing up and targeted by my father, who blacked out and acted out his own abusive alcoholic childhood relationships, I was trapped by these destructive, traumatizing interactions, but powerless to escape or fight them. After several repetitions of them, I came across the phrase “Out of sight, out of mind”, and in a last ditch effort chose to try this strategy. It worked.
Abstaining from all physical and verbal interaction, I had unconsciously stumbled upon this method of detachment as I no longer acted as the trigger that ignited his childhood replays. Apart from living under the same roof, we hardly saw each other for years and I achieved a level of relief and stability that was no longer subject to attack. When the situation had become intolerable, I found a method of self-preservation. But there are many others where this strategy can be applied.
After frustratingly repeated attempts to influence, change, fix or cure an addicted person who is afflicted with an illness and remains in denial, detaching himself from the fixer, regardless of his good intentions, may be the only relief and release from his own pressure cooker imploding emotions. Knocking on someone’s door that never gets answered only results in flying knuckles.
Similarly, attempts to force solutions, especially when a codependent person is constantly exposed to alcoholism or other addictions and compulsions, without tools and understanding, will only snowball, leaving detachment as the only relief he can reasonably expect to find. 12-step program for serenity prayer where members learn to change what they can, accept what they can’t, and gain the wisdom to realize that the difference between the two applies in such situations.
Engaging in conflicts and arguments a person cannot win – and in the case of those with out of control others, can result in danger – will only boil the blood. Detachment, again, may be the only method of de-escalation and a return to sanity for one who tries to penetrate the familiar brick wall but never succeeds in doing so.
Realizing and practicing inappropriate roles, such as hero, scapegoat, and surrogate spouse, to maintain dysfunctional family systems is another situation where this method can be useful. Detaching from and refusing to be a part of them will allow the person to regain their true sense of self and place the scenario in a more accurate perspective.
Convincing others similarly affected by alcoholism and dysfunction to pursue a 12-step recovery course with one of the many groups such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon, and Emotions Anonymous may just as well show say to be a source of frustration if they remain in denial, have not reached their bottom of tolerance and are not ready to do so. Lack of understanding of another’s intentions and motivations can meet the suggestion with anger, resentment and defensiveness. The old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” may apply here.
Finally, detaching oneself from one’s own unresolved past, with its associated emotional responses and even trauma, may prove to be the only method of stepping off the treadmill. “The mind,” an advertisement used to say, “is a terrible thing to waste.” But it’s also a terrible thing to deal with when it becomes a whirlwind of reactions that the person can’t get out of. In fact, the more he tries to do it without the helping hand of a therapist or a higher power, the more automatic they become.
“When something disturbing happens, old memories of past hurts come back to haunt me,” according to another member’s share in Hope for Today (Ibid, p. 158). “This makes it difficult to stay in the present, and I begin to live simultaneously in the past and the future. The results of the past (then) are projected onto present and future situations.”
There’s an old saying that goes, “When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” But when it hits you to join them, it’s time to realize that you’re allowing others to pull your strings and over-influence you. Your only recourse in such times may be to go away for a while. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t care enough about another person, especially if they are infected with a disease like alcoholism, but it does mean that you care enough about yourself, your sanity, and your self-worth to take action to to improve your situation.
Hope for today. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002.
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