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“When I move my arm a certain way, it hurts,” once said a patient to his doctor, according to an old joke.
“Then don’t move it that way,” was the doctor’s recommendation.
Comical or not, there may be some wisdom to this concept. When anger or adverse effects result from a certain situation or an interaction with a particular person, especially when they become repetitive and escalate, and there seems to be no solution to them, then refraining from their cause can ameliorate the situation. That concept can be labeled “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 relinquish his obsessive tether on another that can often resort to an internal emotional trap. It may not also imply a relative like or dislike of 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.
It certainly applies to those chronically exposed to alcoholism.
“Detaching myself from a person with the flu protects me from catching the illness,” according to a member share in Al-Anon’s Hope for Today text, (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 68). “Emotionally detaching from alcoholism increases the likelihood I won’t catch an overabundance of anger and anxiety.”
Exposed, myself, to para-alcoholism during my upbringing and targeted by my father, who blacked out and acted out his own abusive alcoholic childhood circumstances, I was captive to these destructive, traumatizing interactions, but was powerless to escape or combat them. After numerous repeats of them, I came across the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind,” electing, in a last-ditch effort, to try this strategy. It worked.
Refraining from any physical and verbal interaction, I had unknowingly stumbled upon this detachment method, since I no longer served as the trigger that ignited his childhood replays. Other than living under the same roof, we hardly looked at each other for years and I attained a level of relief and stability, no longer subjected to attacks. When the situation had become intolerable, I found a method of self-preservation. But there are many others in which this strategy can be applied.
After frustratingly repeated attempts to influence, change, fix, or cure an addicted person, who is afflicted with a disease and remains in denial, for instance, detaching for 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 is never opened only results in soar knuckles.
Similarly, trying to force solutions, especially when a codependent person is continually exposed to alcoholism or other addictions and compulsions, without tools and understanding, will only snowball, leaving detachment as the only relief he can reasonably expected to find. Twelve-step program serenity prayers, in which members learn to change what they can, accept what they cannot, and gain the wisdom to realize the difference between the two certainly applies to such situations.
Engaging in conflicts and arguments a person cannot win-and, in the case of those with out-of-control others, may result in danger–will only boil the blood. Detachment, again, may be the only method of de-escalation and a return to sanity for the one who attempts to penetrate the proverbial 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 in which this method may be useful. Detaching from and refusing to be a part of them will allow the person to regain his true sense of self and place the scenario in a more accurate perspective.
Convincing others similarly affected by alcoholism and dysfunction to pursue a twelve-step course of recovery with one of the many groups, such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon, and Emotions Anonymous, while well-meaning, may equally prove a source of frustration if they remain in denial, have not reached their bottoms of tolerance, and are not ready to do so. Lacking understanding of another’s intentions and motivations, they may meet the suggestion with resentment, anger, and defense. The old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” may be applicable here.
Finally, detaching from a person’s own unresolved past, with its associated emotional responses and even traumas, may prove the only method of stepping off of the treadmill. “The mind,” a commercial used to say, “is a terrible thing to waste.” But it is also a terrible thing to occupy when it becomes a whirlwind of reactions from which the person cannot extricate himself. In fact, the more he tries to do so without a therapist’s or a Higher Power’s helping hand, the more automatic they will become.
“When something upsetting happens, old memories of previous hurts come back to haunt me,” according to another member share in Hope for Today (Ibid, p. 158). “This makes it difficult to stay in the present and I start living simultaneously in the past and the future. The outcomes of the past (then) get projected onto present and future situations.”
There is an old saying that advisees, “When you can’t beat them, join them.” But when joining them beats you, it comes time to realize that you are allowing others to pull your strings, and overinfluence you. Your only recourse during such times may be to walk away for a while. It does not necessarily imply that you do not care enough about another person, especially if he is infected with a disease like alcoholism, but it does imply that you care enough about yourself, your sanity, and your self-esteem to take the steps to improve your situation.
Hope for Today. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002.
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