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Re-attachment via Detachment

It was good to hear that many of you enjoyed the article on time. (Campbell Law Observer, Vol.l9, No.7, September, 1998). Your comments suggested I should try to dig a little deeper into several questions. What is the psychological understanding of disjuncture felt by time experienced as going t0o fast? What similarities, if any, does a time driven alienation share with dysfunction from alcoholism?

And the question that most of you posed to me is, given disjuncture or dysfunction, how should it be addressed? Or, to put it another way, what is the nature of healing? How does one regain a sense of centeredness or wholeness living in a time fragmenting era? In the tradition of the Tao there is a saying: “The Way that can be spoken about is not the Way.” Or to put this aphorism another way, those who know the answers to these questions don’t speak them, and those that don’t know, talk on and on. This warning suggests that the answer is not intellectual, and if one thinks that obtaining wholeness and serenity in one’s life is something simply to be learned intellectually, one will inevitably be disappointed. This is particularly a good warning for us as lawyers. We want to understand intellectually because in intellectual understanding there is the illusion of control.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the door to healing opens not through the intellect but through experience and the emotional nature of experience. To only try the door of the intellect is to try to control experience, which inevitably erects a barrier between the direct knowledge of what the experience is about. Not that the intellect isn’t important in finding a door, it is. But the intellect is simply not the way one enters. Therefore I am presumptively off on the wrong foot to try to write about a process that must not be experienced by the intellectual process of reading about it rather than experiencing. But having recognized this difficulty, maybe it is still possible to talk in a way that will be helpful not necessarily to entering the door to recover centeredness but at least in finding the door.

Let me start with a metaphorical description of what must be overcome. Here I am not trying to describe the way a particular school of psychology sees things, but a way to generally understand several different psychological points of view. There is the process by which dysfunction occurs, whether it is because of growing up in an alcoholic home, or the fragmentation of time, or some capricious trauma that occurs in life. In response to trauma one’s centeredness breaks in some way. If we see the psyche as comprising our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects, when trauma occurs the mainline defense of the psyche is to split off, to disassociate so the impact of the trauma will be reduced, so the person is not overwhelmed. This split can happen with one single event or as a part of a gradual process over time.

When the psyche splits a person seeks ways to lessen the psychic tension of the split. It is not the event itself that our psyche tries to fix but the emotional consequences of the tearing event. There are several key dysfunctional choices. Usually people “choose” one or more of these dysfunctional paths in the portion of the psyche that is split off. If for example a female child is sexually abused she may disassociate from her physical body. If a male child is taught emotions are bad he may disassociate from his emotional aspect. If a child is religiously abused he/she may disassociate from his/her spiritual aspect.

There are several key ways that the disassociation is perpetuated, but addiction is a primary one. The use of alcohol or other drugs to mood alter creates the illusion of meeting the unmet need caused by the disassociation. For example, for the abused child the craving can be for alcohol to relieve the pain of the splitting psychic injury. When the repeated use of alcohol to relieve this pain sets up a physiological craving by which the person’s body will receive internal messages in the brain that he or she cannot do without the chemical then addiction has set in. All alcoholism may not result from a psychic injury, but often it does.

On a psychological level something similar happens with process addictions. A process addiction may be relationship addiction, sexual addiction, workaholism, gambling, or even shopping. In the case of a process addiction the chemical setting up the addictive chain reaction is not coming from outside the body but is being generated in the brain itself. Whether it is an outside chemical or internal chemical, the process in the addictive cycle is similar (though the physiology is very different); the person medicates to mood alter, has a momentary feeling of being better and then usually feels worse after drinking too much, or spending too much, etc. Feeling guilty leads to more use, which continues the addictive cycle.

Another way that one can try to deal with a psychic split is through control. Often this occurs in conjunction with a chemical addiction or a process addiction. If one can control events significantly then one feels that everything will be okay, that the pain of the psychic split will be ameliorated. Of course like addiction, control as a means to avoid the angst of psychic split is also fated not to work, because one can never really control life. Underneath the need to control is fear. Control often centers around issues of unconscious anxiety about not having enough. If there is enough money, enough security, enough power then the person believes he or she will be insulated from the fear and insecurity that goes with a split psyche. However for this person enough can never truly be enough. There is always the need for more to quiet the fear that what one has will not be enough.

The emergence of different schools of psychology over the past one hundred years is in part due to different practitioners focusing on different ways the psyche reacts to psychic splits. Freud and his followers exposed the empty cycle of the insatiable longing for oral and sexual gratification to feel okay. Humanistic psychology emphasized human potential. Ego psychology, behaviorism and cognitive therapy have focused on ways to strengthen the ego structure that has been injured by the psychic split. Each separate theory has sought to reclaim a missing piece of the human psyche.

Perhaps a broader perspective comes from Buddhist psychology which sees issues of addiction, power and control, and security as all part of our fear of experiencing ourselves directly. The core Buddhist question of, “Who am I?” only becomes illuminated by experiencing the various types of suffering that make up life. So in Buddhism while suffering is the problem it is also the solution. Or put in Western psychological terms, as long as we are driven by addiction or neurosis we will never get to know ourselves, but it is the nature of those very things that split us off from ourselves that also offer the opportunity to reveal who we are.

Western psychology has been very good at diagnosing, labeling and theorizing about psychological pathology, but not so good at understanding how to heal psychic injury. What the various schools of Western psychology are more and more realizing is that the causes of suffering are also the means of release, that is the person’s perspective determines whether he is enslaved by the trauma or it becomes a passage to greater maturation, to self knowledge, to being a fuller human being. One often hears the expression: your thinking controls your experience. Axiomatically if your experience is poor all you need to do is change your thinking. What is often left out of this formula is that you change your thinking not by thinking, but you change it by experiencing differently.

So if one can’t deal with the inevitable traumas of life and the fragmentation of the psyche from the pressure of time by just trying to think differently (which is sort of a sophisticated way of trying to control) or drinking or acquiring, (or if these inevitably short-lived solutions have led to even greater problems e.g. addiction) how does one deal with the pressure of psychic splits. My own experience is that one has to re-acquire the split off aspect through the process of experience. For most people the starting place is to re-acquire a relationship with one’s spirituality. Those who developed AA and the 12-step way of recovery understood that one cannot begin to recover a normal emotional life without first re-acquiring a spiritual connection. A spiritual connection provides a support outside of the psyche so that the things in chaos in the psyche can be repaired.

By spiritual I don’t mean religious, although this may well be. Twelve steppers often say that religion is for those afraid of hell and that spirituality is for those who have been there. This over-simplifies it, but you get the point. A spiritual connection is made by experience, not by the intellect. The ways to do this are so simple that we tend to overlook them in our time driven lives. Experiencing such connections takes time. Spiritual connection might come from communing with nature, or reading inspired literature, or it might come from the support of a group of like-minded people trying to overcome a fatal disease, but it is the experience that allows the psyche to have faith in something outside of itself that begins to set the stage for healing to begin. People have discovered in 12-step programs this connection is not something that one has to believe in for it to occur, but rather one has to be simply willing to believe that it is possible. In other words be open to the possibility of new experience. In fact the very nature of spirituality is to open and free the psyche from rigidities and inflexibilities that have arisen to try to stay the feelings of disease. Once there is spiritual connection then it is possible to experience the nature of the wounds in one’s psyche differently and for a shift in one’s view of experience to occur.

Often for men once the spirituality connection is made and fostered the work in later recovery becomes to regain the emotional aspect that has been cut off. To learn how to feel without either being numb or overwhelmed with feelings. For women once the spirituality connection is made and fostered the work in later recovery is often to regain the physical aspect that has been disassociated. To become centered in and grounded in one’s body without being numb to it. Not to do the work of re-incorporation of the split off part is to get stuck in one’s recovery process. This is often seen in people who have easy pat spiritual answers for everything or a sort of airy-fairy spirituality. In either case the spirituality has not been reincorporated back into their emotional and physical lives. For either gender the process of later recovery involves learning a certain amount of detachment.

I had a fear of the idea of detachment. It conjured up in my mind the idea of being removed from life. Actually as it is used in the Buddhist tradition and 12-step work it is a way to open, to take in the fullness of life. Lots of people who are alcoholics or addicts report that the volume on the world just seems to be turned up too high. They may feel they medicate as a way to turn down the excessive stimulation. For all of us in a time sped up world it can seem that the stimulation of the world is too great. We get caught in a cycle of being driven by the stimulation and then feeling empty if we are not being driven. Sound familiar. Detachment is a way to modulate the sensory input so it is not either under-whelming or overwhelming so it can actually be experienced in a full way. In this process decisions can be made without them being based either on no emotional input or being based totally on emotion. Learning detachment is an experiential process, not an intellectual one. But it comes after a re-connection is made to one’s spiritual life. If it is made before or without spiritual connection it is a dry ego centered process that may calm but does not heal. If made after or in conjunction with the re-emergence of spiritual connection the entire personality is vivified. Ultimately the process of opening through detachment leads to a shift from a spatially based experience of self to a temporal one. One experiences life not as something rushing by, but the self as a part of the ongoing flow of life itself.

– by Don Carroll

Campbell Law Observer, February 1999

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