Let me start by revealing two things about myself; first, that I began my present career working as a family therapist in an inpatient rehab for alcoholism, and second, that I, myself, have been recovering from alcoholism for some two or so decades now. Why tell you these two things? Because despite the many years in which I have witnessed drunkenness, both professionally and personally, I could not tell when Sue, the woman in this story, was drunk. I honestly couldn't tell. In fact, I doubt you could have either. Hard to believe?
My story begins with Sue's husband, Andy, who was already seeing me. Not surprising, much of our work focused on his reactions to his wife's drinking.
One thing that made this hard for Andy was the fact that Sue had relapsed after more than a decade of sobriety and was repeatedly slipping between periods of abstinence and drunkenness. Crushed hope can be hard to restore. What made it worse, though, was the fact that Andy kept telling me he couldn't confront his wife, because he couldn't be sure she had been drinking; that she often walked like she was drunk and had for as long as he had known her.
Now to anyone who has worked with or knows about how family members of an active alcoholic act, Andy's responses sound just like the "denial" typical of most alcoholics' family members. However, what made it so hard for me to judge was the fact that Sue had been born with both limited depth perception and limited visual depth of field, both problems medically documented.
Can you imagine what this would look like? Sue almost always walked like this, like a person who was very unsure of her footing and more specifically, like a "drunk" to be exact. And under stress, Sue's difficulty became even more apparent.
Here, then, are the two problems Sue and I addressed during this story. One, we addressed her relapse and her inability to remain sober. Two, and this happened totally by accident and in a way no one could have anticipated, we addressed the fact that without a blood test, no one could tell for sure whether Sue had drank of not. First, the relapse.
What Kept Sue From Liking AA?
One of the things I usually ask people who have relapsed is about their experiences with twelve step meetings. Did meetings help? Did they get anything from them? Were they uncomfortable?
When I asked Sue these questions, at first, she responded with the usual AA "party line" clichés; that you need to do it a "day at a time" and if you "work the program," it works. Truly good advice. Still, her flat delivery told me the real story; she couldn't have cared less about these ideas or about the meetings at which she heard them. She was literally being just a "head with feet" when telling me these things. The truth was, then, that although Sue had sat in AA rooms without drinking for more than a decade, that she had yet to experience the real love and substance those rooms contain. The question then became, what had prevented Sue from experiencing this love?
In cases like this wherein the person has already "heard it all," talking alone rarely helps. And despite the claims some people make that they can help a people to "heal" their alcoholism, I doubt this will even happen, this from a man who has often witnessed injuries heal which others believe can not be healed. My point? I was pretty lost here and for a while, wasn't even sure where to begin other than with more "damage control." As is often the case, though, a solution appeared when I least expected one.
This solution came one day when Sue came in complaining about having to be in a car, that she had never really liked being in cars, not even when someone else drove. Odd, I thought. Despite her obvious problems, Sue was an independent soul who probably would have hated being trapped at home. At the time, I was early in my discoveries about emergence and often tried, as my main technique, direct emergence. By this, I mean I would often try to setup a situation wherein the person re-experienced the moment of wounding and knew it.
In effect, I was experientially recreating the stages on which these people got wounded, just enough so that I could, in a controlled and artificial manner, cause them to relive the exact moment of their injuries AND a few moments beyond.
In essence, this is how all healing occurs; the person relives the moment of injury, not the whole event but just the moment of injury. Further, the person must do this not as an observer of his or her life, watching the event from the outside, but rather as the person getting injured, experiencing the event from the inside. Then, in order to heal, the person must consciously experience a different, more loving outcome, essentially one in which he or she consciously witnesses the event finish. Most important, the person must experience these two things in one continuous and conscious visual sequence.
Doing this with Sue meant first asking her if she and I could walk out to her car and if, while we walked out, she would monitor her internal reactions. I call this first part of the emergence process, doing an "allergy test." I call it this in that my goal here is to discover the ordinary thing or things to which the person is having an abnormal reaction to, some insignificant little detail or details to which a person would not normally respond.
I call these ordinary details, "keys," in that they literally unlock a person's suffering. Thus, whenever I suspect I'm witnessing one of these keys in a person, I try to setup a controlled situation in which we together begin to discover the key or keys and in doing so, start the healing process.
In Sue's case, the minute she told me about her reaction to being in cars, I knew that somewhere on the stage in which she experienced cars and or driving, she been injured.
I asked Sue if we could step onto this stage; her being in a car; so we could try to discover the key or keys. Sue agreed.
Doing the Allergy Test
As we left the office, then, I asked Sue how she was doing and she said, "fine." Then, as she and I continued to walk down the sidewalk and across the parking lot, I again asked and again, she told me she was fine. I then asked her if she would mind getting into her driver's seat while I sat in the passenger seat across from her. Here again, she said, "OK." Then, when she and I were finally in, I once more asked her how she was doing, and again, she replied, "fine."
Then it happened. I asked Sue if she would mind starting her car, and the minute she did, she went as blank as a deer in a car's headlights; completely zoned out, dazed, and in shock. Incredibly, at first, Sue didn't even notice this was happening. After having her go through this turning the car engine on and off sequence several more times, though, and after several more times of my pointing her reactions out, Sue gradually began to recognize how she had been reacting to the sound of her engine; she had been going into shock.
Now, if I think back to that time, I can, today, still recall what Sue looked like each time I told her. First, she had one of those "light bulb going on" surprised looks I know today to be the hallmark of an emergence. Then she would remark once more how she couldn't believe this was happening. Pleasant surprise and shock in a repetitive cycle, the experiential cycle of healing. Back then, I had no idea to even watch for the "pleasant surprise" part of an emergence. I would just watch for the shock part and try to get it to decrease each time. Despite my not knowing these things with Sue though, none the less, each time I had her cycle through the turning the car engine on and off sequence, and each time I pointed her reactions out to her, I knew Sue was healing a bit more of her BLocked ability to respond normally to the sound of car engines.
I also remember what we both were thinking back then. How odd, we both thought, she goes into shock the minute she hears the sound of the car engine, albeit less each time she consciously witnesses it happening. Still, we both knew that what was happening was a good thing. Even so, at this point, we were both still pretty clueless as to how deeply this BLock had affected Sue's life, especially as to how it had affected her ability to get and remain sober.
Can you guess at this point? I couldn't and didn't, and literally had no idea at the time how this situation was connected to Sue's relapses.
At this point, we began to do the actual "direct emergence," the controlled reliving of the painful event in the service of healing. Here, people directly and repeatedly re-experience the key until they can witness it without going into shock. By this time in our work, Sue and I had already done a few emergences and so, I preceded to take Sue through this series of re-exposures, each time, helping her to more and more notice her blank reaction and to more quickly come out of shock. Eventually, we I sensed we had gone as far as we could go that day and so, we stopped.
The next week, I asked her if she had noticed any change since our work, and she reported being more present during a ride in the car wherein she was a passenger and her husband Andy drove. More important, she told me this change had occurred with no effort on her part.
Please note the "no effort" part of what she had said as this effortless change in a person's internal reaction is the only thing I consider to be genuine proof of healing. Anything less I simply call "damage control," meaning, the change has occurred externally rather than internally and is the result of having used one's will to override one's internal reactions rather than from a genuine change in the person's nature.
Obviously, genuine healing is much preferred over damage control as with true healing, one need no longer be on guard in order to respond differently. In Sue's case, then, I knew from her report that she had improved with no effort and so, had already healed some of her injury in and around hearing car engine noises.
Encouraged by her progress, in this session, we did even more direct emergence, beginning with me once again observing Sue's reactions to the car engine noise. Quite clearly, she was much less affected by the noise of the car engine starting. As we then explored this BLock more deeply, a scene spontaneously began to emerge, this after Sue told me she hated the engine noise even more if she was seated in the back seat and especially if she was seated behind the driver.
Again, we did allergy testing, this time adding to the stage her being seated directly behind the driver, in this case, me, as the car engine was being started. Within minutes, Sue began to have scenes emerge, scenes in which she was about six and she and her brothers were in the back seat of the family station wagon. Exploring these scenes further lead us to a single scene in which her father was at first facing forward in the driver's seat and then looked back at them, yelling, all this while the car engine was running.
Together, then, we continued to allergy test and to refine the stage and script so as to provoke the greatest reaction in her. This involved exploring our positions in the car, the way I turned my head back toward her, my putting my right arm in the air, and the point at which I started the car engine, all the time having Sue monitor her reactions.
Very quickly, we found a script in which Sue experienced terror, and for awhile we worked with this. To be honest, this part of the work was pretty hard for me, as I kept picturing her as a little girl being frightened by me. None the less, we both pushed forward and within a short time, Sue's overreactions had diminished significantly. At this point, we returned to my office and began to process what had happened. Then Sue left.
How the "Engine Noise" BLock Connected to Sue and AA
During the following week, I kept being drawn back to the scene Sue and I had been reenacting, each time considering what effect this BLock had had on her life. Then it hit me. I realized that apart from the obvious effect on Sue's relationship with her father, that what was most important here was Sue's state of consciousness, the state she went into each and every time she rode in a car.
Sue had been going into shock. More important, how had Sue been getting to AA meetings? In a car. This meant that Sue, in all likelihood would have had to have been sitting in AA meetings for all those years in a detached and somewhat unconscious state. More over, even in those times wherein Sue might have tried to will herself to be more present, with few exceptions, she must have sat through these meetings for the most part faking it. Not her fault. Just the result of how she had been programmed to respond to car engines all those years before, this and the fact that she had been getting to AA in cars.
I wondered. Could this have actually been the case? Could Sue's ability to get and stay sober have been so negatively affected by her having ridden in cars to get to meetings? The idea seemed so far fetched to me. Still, given the details and what I knew of emergence, I knew it sounded possible. It also felt intuitively accurate.
How could I tell for sure? I knew there was only one true test. Would Sue experience an effortless improvement in her ability to see the beauty in AA meetings?
Would it happen? I couldn't wait to ask.
Actually, I didn't even have to ask as in the first minutes of next appointment, Sure excitedly reported a noticeable improvement in the way she felt about AA meetings; for the first time, she really liked them! More over, she told me this change had occurred with no effort on her part. She simply liked meetings more.
Still skeptical? I don't blame you. After all, who would ordinarily connect these two events? No one. For me, though, with the benefit of having witnessed many, many such connections in other people, in hindsight, the connection is obvious. And in end, the true worth is only in the permanence of such an effortless improvement. Did this happen? Absolutely. And years later, Sue still loves meetings. More important, no surprise, her love of meetings became the corner stone of her recovery. She has been sober ever since.