The other day I was reading that geese will ignore their own eggs in favor of a volleyball that is painted in a certain way. The male stickleback will attack anything red. These fish even become agitated at the sight of a passing red vehicle visible from their aquarium.
These are examples of something one author termed “supernormal stimuli.” Primal urges that overrun their evolutionary purpose, wreaking havoc along the way.
It got my attention, because this is just how I see the effects of alcoholism on friends and family members of alcoholics. Alcoholism is a supernormal stimulus. It triggers self-defense mechanisms that overshoot the mark. These defenses serve a purpose and keep us safe, in one manner or another, but at some point get in our way of living fulfilling lives.
No matter what type of Al-Anon we become, our reactions follow a fairly consistent pattern. I was thinking about this as I watched a wonderful slide show Lou posted. They include:
Guilt. We wonder what we did to cause this. We think that if we had not said this thing or done that that thing, we would not have set off our alcoholic in search of a drink.
Fear. We fear the changing moods of the alcoholic, which can include physical or verbal abuse. We are afraid that one day, if we do nothing, we will find them dead.
Isolation. We become isolated from the alcoholic because we can’t talk about the problem without getting a defensive reaction. We may become afraid to have people over for fear of what our alcoholic might do. We may be afraid to go out because the alcoholic might drink. Out of shame and guilt, we may begin to keep secrets.
Disappointment. Promises broken for a nice dinner, a ballgame, to stay sober.
Suspicion. We believe the alcoholic can’t be trusted.
Resentment. We resent the disruption to our lives, the extra roles we take on because the alcoholic will not or can not. This often spills over into other relationships. We may leave this relationship, only to find ourselves in relationships that have the same dynamic. We do this because our minds think this is what love feels like.
Control. Control is what we try to do in response to all of these emotions. It is the hallmark of our disease, and what makes our life unmanageable. That's why step one is admitting we are powerless. Because control is an illusion.
Unfortunately these responses—while perfectly understandable, normal even, in that they are such consistent and predictable responses—make the situation worse. The good news is that we can retrain our minds to react differently. But first we must become aware of the behaviors that get in our way.
The other day, I was working step one with a sponsee. She hadn't yet made the connection between trying to control and her life being unmanageable. Her life was unmanageable, she said, because of all the people in it. She had trouble seeing her part.
She had been describing something she did when her mother was too sick with depression to get out of bed.
“We learn to manipulate to get our needs met,” I said.
She looked stricken. I recognized that look. It’s the look we get when we finally get it. When we understand that we are not victims. When we finally see our part.
Our unhappiness is an inside job. But so is our happiness.
It’s just the first step along the journey. But the journey won’t happen with out it.