The Circus Came to Town
I remember one day when I was a kid and the circus came to town. I was fascinated watching as they were unloading the performing animals. I was especially intrigued by the elephants. The 9,000 pound mammals would easily be able to destroy the entire circus but they were being used as laborers to move things around and assist in raising the Big Top. I followed one of the elephants and his handler at the end of the day wondering just how large the compound would have to be to house this magnificent animal. The trainer arrived at a three foot stake pounded in to the ground. Attached to the stake was a relatively small (compared to the size of the elephant) chain. The handler secured the chain around the leg of the elephant. While I was waiting to see what other security the handler was going to use, he walked away. I was just a kid but I knew the stake and chain could never stand up to the strength of the elephant. I watched for an hour. The elephant never tested his strength. He simply walked to the end of their chain and stopped. I was fascinated.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that elephant all night. Elephants are not stupid animals and yet this elephant did not take advantage of his strength to step beyond the confines of the chain. I had to go back the next day to find out “why”.
The animal trainer told me this story.
When the elephant is born, he is immediately chained to the stump in the same confine with his mother. Like his mother, one end of a heavy chain is wrapped around a stump and the other end around the calf’s leg. The length of the chain is only two feet. The elephant can’t go far preventing him from getting the traction necessary to pull the stump out of the ground. In the first couple of weeks, the trainer has to spend time making sure the elephant stays secured. After the risk of the elephant pulling the chain has passed, the length of chain gets longer allowing the elephant a little more mobility. No matter the length of the chain, once the elephant reaches the end of the chain, the tautness is the calf’s clue, “you cannot go further than this”. The elephant no longer tries to pull. He has been trained to understand that he cannot pull out the stake and he has stopped trying. When he gets to the end of the chain, he simply stops. As he grows and gains more strength, he still only goes to the end of the chain. The belief (not the evidence) that he cannot go further stops him. He does not even make an attempt. As a full grown elephant, it is obvious that the chain and stump are no longer strong enough to hold him and yet no one is concerned that the elephant may get loose. He will make no effort. His experience as a baby calf, unable to go further than the chain, is controlling him as a full grown 9,000 pound elephant. On the road, when there are no stumps available, a three foot stake pounded in to the ground serves the same purpose.
My friend refers to these “baby elephant” beliefs when talking about alcoholism. Prevalent among alcoholics are childhoods filled with a personal sense of inadequacy, low self worth and self esteems. Regardless of the circumstances of their childhoods, most alcoholics talk about childhood fears of not being good enough, smart enough, strong enough. If you knew me you wouldn’t like me, there’s a hole in the soul and the wind is blowing through. These men and women were raised in two parent homes where mother stayed home and they talk wishing their mother had worked and not been home all the time. They are raised in single parent homes and they talk wishing the other parent had been active in their lives. They are white and black and brown. They are rich and poor and just somewhere in the middle. Some went to church as kids and wish they hadn’t and some struggle because they never went to church as a kid. Some kids push through the baby elephant beliefs accepting that in some areas there may be limitations but not so for the alcoholic.
At age 12, 13, 21, 28, the age varies the story doesn’t, the alcoholic ingests alcohol and there’s an almost instant sense of relief, It’s been described as “I was finally able to exhale”. There’s a sense of ease and comfort. I am enough. I am the right kind. I can do this. If you’ve had that feeling, you know. If you haven’t, you cannot know.
In the initial stages of drinking, the drinker has no reason for wanting to quit. There are no problems, no negative consequences. Drinking is simply a good time with friends, a shared intimate moment with a husband or wife, a relaxation after a day at work. If the drinker is alcoholic, the disease begins to progress. Now the drinker may begin experiencing some problems. His behavior may cause some shame or guilt. Not wanting to linger on the negative he remembers the relaxation, the good times of those early years of drinking. The insanity of the disease of alcoholism says, “no matter how difficult the situations or how serious the consequences, you will always remember the times when alcohol was a social lubricant and it will always be your answer”
The problem drinker will continuously defend his right to drink. Always answering those who present evidence that his drinking is problematic, pointing to potential consequences with responses such as, “thank you for the information, now that I know better, I will do better” and, “thank you for the information but that will never happen to me”. Pointing out real consequences in the drinker’s life, he will always offer a “reasonable” explanation. He lost the job not because of his drinking but because the peers felt threatened by his performance and rallied to make him look bad. The marriage didn’t end because of drinking, it ended because her husband did not understand her need to have activities out of the home, social time with other people. The partying and drinking are not the cause of low college grades and on and on and on. And then the end comes. There is no longer a sense of ease and comfort. He can no longer predict his behavior when he drinks. Shame and guilt are his constant companions regardless of the amount he is drinking. He can come to in the morning and swear he’s not going to drink today and mean it from the core of his soul but by noon he has had a drink and he’s cursing himself and asking, “how did this happen?” And, if he can manage not to drink for a day or two or a week or a month, he will soon reward himself with a drink and it all begins again.
Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to detox from and each drinker should be assessed for the appropriate level of care before starting any treatment. Treatment is essential in dispelling the “baby elephant” beliefs you are operating your life with. No adult should live his life reacting to the fears of an eight year old.
Me? I heard the circus is in town. I am going to watch them unload and put up the Big Top.
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