Elephantology: How the past did not kidnap my future
Elephants are fascinating creatures. In cultures that span the globe, the elephant is symbolic of all kinds of meanings. For instance, in Asian countries the elephant symbolizes happiness, longevity and good fortune while in African countries the elephant represents power and strength.
For me, elephants mean something very specific to my life. My first encounter were gaily-colored drunken pink elephants that held my parents’ whiskey sour glasses until my father died when I was seven years old. The scientific reason he died was from suicide, which I discovered from a bratty schoolmate outside the playground because the adults in my life didn’t know how to tell me. These nebulous adults in my life also didn’t know how to tell me the root cause of my father’s death: depression and substance abuse.
Continue reading to explore more about “Elephantology” and how the elephant in the room can become a theme of your life. Then, join us for some Q&A at the end of the page. We appreciate your feedback and try to provide a personal and prompt response to all legitimate inquiries.
The two elephants of my life
1.The elephant in the room
At the time, I was oblivious to the vernacular of substance abuse, but I would quickly learn about the commonly used expression “the elephant in the room”, referring to the unspoken remnants of a loved one with a substance abuse problem living with you, and the other family members pretending it wasn’t true. So, this was my first recollection of the meaning of an elephant. And it wasn’t the only one.
2. The elephant in Margate, NJ
There was another elephant in my childhood – a strangely unique piece of historic architecture in Margate, New Jersey. Lucy, the name of the elephant building, was a six-story-high monument overlooking the sands of Jersey Shore. I remember how I’d climb to the top of Lucy and emerge to a spectacular panoramic view of the ocean and dream of tomorrow.
These are my two elephants. The two compete in my mind and memory for dominance.
Discovery through helping others
Although my first introduction to substance abuse began with my father at an early age, it wouldn’t be the last. Through the years, my mother, stepfather, grandparents, and other family members struggled with substance abuse and mental health disorders. I guess since the proverbial “elephant in the room” became a theme in my life, I pursued a career in social work as a way to understand what went through my dad’s head before he tied the rope around his neck. I wanted to help – teach, advise, nurture, cajole, comfort – as a way to guide vulnerable folks in the midst of a battle with substance abuse or mental health disorder back to a place of warmth and purpose, atop their own elephant building with a view of the ocean.
When I was a graduate student, I was introduced to the psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp who wrote the book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! Sheldon was dying of cancer while he was writing observing that as clinicians, we are helpers and healers who are but a spec of dirt along the road to recovery. If we do well with our clients, they will heal and move on, far surpassing us in their life journey.
Choose a different memory
Early on as an educator, I adopted this posture, turning toward the elephant in my life that gave me the hope to dream of the future. I’ve come to believe this is the greatest gift your students and clients may give you – transcending, exceeding you in their talents, in their healing. You rejoice in the knowledge that you were that tiny catalyst albeit an inspirational spec along the way. Such is the blessing I received from my students and clients through the years.
Life will continue to challenge you
Like any great life journey, my elephant of hope and renewal was interrupted when I gave birth to my third child, a son named Erik Alan and he was my sweet prince. The prince was lost when he died of SIDS at three months old. I went to family counseling, support groups, and journeyed to the mountains of Mexico where I cried and cried to the heavens. The experience brought me back to my dad, to the “elephant in the room”. Somehow it was my fault I couldn’t save my dad, and now I felt the same way with my boy.
Triumph through transformation
Today, I work as an interventionist, which is a big word for what I’ve always done: help others by inviting them to change.
I counsel families and their loved ones experiencing substance abuse and mental health disorders. I rejoice every time I see one of my clients surpass me in their recovery, indeed killing the Buddha on the road. When this happens, I climb Lucy the elephant in my mind, and look out over the ocean, to my bright future beyond the horizon.
Despite the failures and setbacks life puts in our hands, I am a woman who stands proudly and can see with my own eyes the bright spots of like. My bright spots are my four grandchildren, three daughters, husband, and all those wonderful friends and folks who have come and gone, adding a little splash of color to my life.
I am grateful.
With my gratitude, I see even with tragedy one can achieve the gift of renewal of triumph or transformation.– and so the two elephants remain, together in my heart as one guiding me to inspire others to grow, change and become.
Elephantology and substance abuse questions
Do you have any questions? We welcome you to post them in the comments section below. We try to respond personally and promptly to all legitimate inquiries, or refer you to professionals who can help.