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Providing non-judgmental and non-criticizing support for family and friends of end-stage alcoholics through one-on-one coaching, support groups, blog posts, workshops and public speaking.

Monday, September 19, 2011

U.S.S. Riley...

Seems I’m always talking about detachment. Actually I hate that word. I don’t hate the meaning or action associated with the word. I just hate the word itself. De-Tach-Ment. It sounds harsh like something that would be cold and hard if I were to touch it.

I received a letter from a woman who seems to be having difficulty separating the alcoholic husband from the loving man she married. She talks of leaving him which is a form of detachment. It’s easier to separate mentally when the alcoholic is not physically present. However, most of us are not emotionally wired to abandon an ailing loved one when they need us so very much. That’s because we can’t see the big picture. We are too close.

There are four people inside the walls of this house. There is the alcoholic, the loving wife and two nearly adult boys. And as I’m trying to answer her e-mail, my mind keeps going to a movie I saw more than once. I’m not sure if it was Crimson Tide or Hunt for Red October, but it was a submarine movie.

There’s a scene in this movie that reminds me of what it is like to detach – well – sort of. There is a collision or something that damages the hull of the boat (subs are boats and not ships). A compartment is flooding and if it is not sealed off within a certain amount of time, the entire boat will go down and everyone on board will perish. There is a scramble of people trying to get out, but eventually the compartment is sealed with several crewmen still inside the flooding section. Because of their sacrifice, the rest of the crew lives. The surviving crewmen had to detach from the drowning crewmembers in order to survive. I always cry during that scene.

If you can grasp your mind around this – think of the house in which this family lives. It is similar to the sinking boat in the movie. The rooms of the house are the boats compartments. One room has the alcoholic and another room has the wife and two boys. If the alcoholic’s room were flooding and the only way to save the boys were to seal off the room, would you or could you do that?

Now try to take this one step further and imagine that the seal of the flooding room was activated only by flipping a switch in your mind. Mentally, you have sealed off the room and saved the boys. You have detached from the alcoholic by closing him off into a different compartment in your brain. He’s still there in your house, but your brain is telling you that he is separated from the rest of the family. Everything he does is within that little compartment and is not able to damage the rest of the brain/house/family. Because he is compartmentalized, you are now free to go about the rest of your life without having him muddle up your efforts. He ceases to be a factor in how you live your life.

I think this analogy may be far-reaching and difficult to understand. But it does seem to fit something for me. I keep Riley in a different compartment in my brain. When I want to ignore his antics, I mentally flip that switch that keeps him separate from me. I guess it’s a way for me to ignore and discount what he says and does. There are only two of us in my boat, but that doesn’t make my survival any less important. I save the save-able. Riley chooses to be beyond saving, but there’s still hope for me.

I try very hard not to mix that flooding compartment with the space that holds my good memories of him. That’s a whole other compartment that is not susceptible to flooding. It’s already sealed. But that seal is to keep the bad things out that would destroy what I have left of the memories of a marriage that was once happy and meaningful.

In Riley’s compartment there is an escape hatch called sobriety. There are life saving rings and a life boat just outside that hatch. All he has to do is reach up, turn that wheel to the left and the hatch will open. He knows it’s there. He knows how to access it. Only he can make that choice. I’m not in that compartment with him so I can’t turn the wheel for him. He must do it himself. And I will stay safe and dry as long as I don’t venture into his compartment.


ADDY said...

This is so true. Although Greg and I shared a house, we liiterally lived in different bits of it by day and night and I would shut him out of my mind too. It was my way of self-preservation and to safeguard my daughter too.

Syd said...

A very good analogy, Linda. The feeling part is the hard part--having to basically compartmentalize enough to know that the essence of the person is gone. There has to be a grieving process--almost like the person we knew is dead.

Ann said...

This is a great analogy, Linda. It gives the word detachment a much clearer meaning. One of the biggest lessons I learned from Al Anon is that detachment doesn't mean not caring, it means self preservation.

Colleen said...

My alky has been working away for the last 6 weeks. He is only here on weekends. It is sooo much easier to detach when he is not here. I don't have to answer the phone or even listen to his messages if I don't want to. It is so peaceful here during the week, and the house is getting/stays so much cleaner.
Then he comes in drunk, nasty, and looking for a fight on Friday night, and I cannot wait for him to pass out. It is like living in a war zone.

jo said...

what a good way to describe detachment. so many ask me about it and i find it hard to put into words. i know what i do...but cant describe it. i will use this from now on, also.

and somedays, it just seems it cant be done, when they drag us into their room...when our energy is down, or a crack is in our walls..and they jump on it. i have stopped blaming myself for allowing it, recognize it can happen and take time to recharge. when we get into that reality, it sucks everything right out of me. takes me days to recover.

good words, linda. thanks as always for the shares. one of the goals of addiction is take down as many with them as they can. and we have to learn the skills to not allow it to happen.

Beth said...

Another great blog Linda! You truly have a way of making concepts accessable. I work at doing just that every day. I am more successful some days than others, but I never quit trying to keep him in his own room (literally & figuratively). I imagine that it would be easier if he was somewhere else, but as the saying goes, It is what it is, and I know if I detach I will be a happier person.

Colleen said...

I am tired detaching. I am lonely. Very lonely. I've spent years alone in my room with the door shut at night to get away from his craziness, while he sleeps in the basement. I don't know how to get out., i just feel that i am living a lie.

circlecat said...

Thank you. Thank you so much. My dad is in that compartment. im in the process of sealing it, and keeping the good memories too. It hurts, but it is freeing. And I just want to say thank you...and please keep posting, it is so helpful.