When I desperately wanted to save my family from the ravages of the disease of alcoholism, I would have gone to any lengths to force solutions, would have said anything, done anything. And I tried in all the ways I knew how, to adjust, to shape shift, to mitigate what was happening in our lives. The utter destructive power of the disease gave us not a moment, not a generation of rest. It’s still shredding our serenity at times. It’s a powerful disease and it often wins. How do I know? Witnessing slow deaths. Funerals.
Whomever/Whatever we love; people, places, countries, we tend to acquire a proprietary attitude toward them/it. We own and then wrap our expectations around our ownership. I love them so much, I have a claim on them. I love them so much, they owe me. I love it so much, it must be mine. People. Countries. Mine. Then I tie my happiness, my peace of mind to them, it.
And if my happiness, my peace of mind, my productivity and sense of safety are tied to you, then I need you to act right so I can sleep at night. My inventory of my day consists of a check in on how and what you are doing, so I know whether or not I can rest. Whether or not I can breathe.
I loved my father for his humor, his hard work, his generosity toward every helpless, hapless, hopeless creature that crossed his path. And when he drank he was awful. Violent and abusive, unleashing all of his pain and misery, every ounce of revulsion on us. Often on me. I was a target. I felt responsible and that sense of responsibility gave me a mistaken sense of power. I thought it was best I was a target. I thought I was tough enough to take it. Better I fight him than my sisters and brothers. The thing about alcoholism is that it is an uncontrollable disease. It’s like a hurricane. You can track it. Monitor it. You can develop some survival practices but you can’t stop a hurricane. Certainly not by standing in its path.
First, I removed myself from danger. I took my body and mind a thousand miles from the disease landfall. I put some distance between myself and ground zero. I got a different perspective. I got help. I learned new definitions. Diseases. Storms. Beyond our control.
Forty years ago, I still thought I had a claim on these people I loved until I accepted that their lives belonged to them. Fully and completely. I did not have a claim on their lives. They could choose and would choose for themselves whether to run, to find shelter, to get help, to hunker down or battle it out.
I came home to find my father much as he’d been when I fled. Flushed. Sick. Slurring. Hurting. There were things I needed to say. For myself. I loved him. I wanted him to live. I needed him. Will you go get help and stop drinking? His answer was a very impolite “no”.
I did not “give up” but I did let go. I released him in that moment, not as a survival maneuver, not in a resigned and “how sad” martyr-ish way, I just released him with love because he was not mine. His life was not mine. His life belonged to him and while I could ask whatever I wanted, could say what I needed to say, I had no right to demand anything of him. By the time he got help and sobered up, I was glad. For him. I had learned “loving detachment.”
The Paradox Of Attached Detachment
Here’s the paradox: You must detach yourself from the situation while still being able to be attached to the situation.
How can this be? This paradox arises because the world very rarely deal in black and white circumstances. The world is gray — filled with paradox, ambiguity, and nuance.
When I say “detach yourself,” I mean that you must not take any event or situation personally where you react as oppose to respond.
When I say “while still being able to be attached,” I mean that you must still be engaged within the situation but from a place of observation rather than reaction.
The key in allowing this process to unfold is observation without judgement. You must observe the situation as if you were investigating and gathering clues and information AND you must do all of that observing without judging and criticizing.
This is extremely hard to do for most people but it is possible to do. It is a skill and just like any other skill such as basketball or chess, it must be given time, energy, practice, and commitment to become proficient and eventually masterful.
“Detachment doesn’t mean I’m trying less hard. It just means that fears and emotions that used to torment and paralyze me longer have the same power over me.” (Kelly Cultrone)
How can we begin to practice detachment?
- Meditation — Having a mindfulness meditation practice is, in my opinion, a must if you want to get better at the art of detachment.
- Journaling — Writing down whatever comes to you is a great way for the mind to come to a place of no-mind or flow. It helps you gain perspective on your emotions, thoughts, actions, and limiting beliefs.
- Practice planning for the worst case— In any situation, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and come to terms with that. Can you deal with it? How can you remedy the worst case scenario?