In an ancient Greek painting adorning the interior of a wine goblet dating from about 535 B.C., Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, crosses a dolphin-strewn sea in a ship with a mast of grape leaves. Dionysus was a prisoner, and so was I.

I couldn’t stop drinking.

Like many alcoholics, I had been aware of my problem for years. More than once, I had tried to stop, but it was too difficult. I’d find myself scouring the garbage dumpster where just hours before, overcome with remorse, I had thrown away half-drained bottles with a firm resolution to never drink again. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the hopeful story of Dionysus.

After his capture by pirates as a boy, so goes the legend, Dionysus was to be sold at a slave market, his free will to be stripped of him forever. His saving grace? The power of transformation.

The ship’s mast became a tangle of fruit-bearing vines which rained wine down on the deck of the vessel. The sailors, perhaps in a wine-induced stupor, perhaps in sheer terror at the boy-god’s power, hurled themselves from the deck into the sea where they morphed into dolphins with the perpetual charge of aiding humankind down all the ages to come.

Dolphins, the god Dionysus knew, would forever understand and respond to the needs of humans because they had once been human themselves. The kidnapped god was transfigured as well. Having begun his ordeal a mere boy, he emerged as a lion prowling the decks, master of the vessel that had formerly enslaved him.

The legend of Dionysus, a cultural inheritance from poetry of the Homeric Age, is fraught with symbolism and contains many deep truths, not least among which is the notion that whatever our present distress, we each have the power to overcome calamity through a process of psychic change.

For me, dolphins played a vital role in that process. When I first started working with them, I never dreamed that dolphins would save me from a life of addiction, but in large part they did.

From early infancy, we humans are learning machines, masters of observation and mimicry. In fact, our learning lives typically begin through keen, albeit unconscious, observation of the behavioral models presenting themselves before us. Early in life, those models are usually parents or caregivers.

But they can also be members of another species entirely.

Skittish animals under human care are often paired with well-trained companion animals who demonstrate their willing partnership with humans. At the San Diego Zoo, dogs are often paired with big game cats to impart a sense of calm and provide confidence during new and potentially unsettling interactions with human handlers or members of the public.

Recent research suggests that human-canine pairings build levels of the trust-inducing hormone oxytocin in combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (see “Dogs of War” in the current issue of Smithsonian magazine), so it may well be that there is a biological underpinning for the character-changing transformation from the rouge pirate to the gentle dolphin of Dionysian myth. Emotional stout, it seems, can be passed from one species to another through the associations produced by behavioral modeling.

That certainly seemed to be the case in my own recovery from alcoholism.

Eventually, I had to face the possibility that my cycle of drinking and regret might never be broken, that I might lose the prized dolphin training job I had only recently landed—and that, quite possibly, I might lose a good deal more.

That realization wasn’t enough. I still couldn’t stop drinking. Not even when I surrounded myself with others who had successfully overcome their addictions. Out of frustration with my own failures, I sometimes told myself that I should just quit—not drinking. Trying.

I was even discouraged by the literature frequently quoted at group meetings which claimed that “half measures availed us nothing.” If recovery from alcoholism was really an all-or-nothing proposition, if I had to quit for good, and all at once with no room to fail, I was likely to remain trapped in my addiction forever.

And yet, people kept welcoming me back, encouraging me to keep striving. It didn’t make sense. I was getting nowhere. Why would these people even want me around?

And then it hit me. I was the dolphin.

How many times had I myself welcomed a frustrated, failing dolphin into a new working session with an encouraging whistle and a fish just for showing up and being willing to try again? Weren’t my fellow addicts doing the open-armed, bear-hugging equivalent with me each time I arrived at the doors of recovery meetings?

And wasn’t I showing up with dolphin-like eagerness to as many meetings as I could make? I had to admit, I was.

My fellow addicts would make great dolphin trainers, I thought.

Regardless of what the literature said about “half measures,” my addict-trainers seemed to know that even if I was doing nothing more than building up a history of just showing up, that history was likely to lead to a next logical stage of behavioral approximation—the incremental movement toward a desired goal.

Dolphin trainers don’t hold grudges based on a dolphin’s past performance. Minor failures during new training sessions are simply ignored in favor of calling attention, via training whistle and fish reward, to whatever minor successes the dolphin allows itself to experience by following its trainer’s lead.

In fact, one night at a meeting, someone said to me, “This is just a suggestion, but instead of beating yourself up for your failures, why don’t you focus on what you’re doing right?”

Well, if my fellow addicts could ignore the “half measures” clause, then so could I. In actuality, half measures are an animal trainer’s stock-in-trade.

As a dolphin trainer, it was my job to reward efforts and shape them—gradually, over time—into complete and reliable behaviors. In the early stages of learning, every effort is rewarded, no matter how slight. The merest roll of a dolphin’s eye in the right direction, or the tiniest shifting of its body toward a desired angle, is met with a whistle and a fish. Dolphins love the game. They keep coming back for more because one of the first tenets of dolphin training is to keep the game positive even if that means manufacturing ways for the dolphin to succeed.

Why not do the same for myself, I thought.

Since an active alcoholic’s best friend can only be found in a bottle, I gave myself permission to drink as much as I wanted as a reward—but only after experiencing some slight success in the way of behavioral change. At first, that meant arriving home after a day of work and forcing myself to watch a single two-minute commercial on TV before unplugging the jug. In the beginning, watching that one commercial felt like I had fallen into some parallel universe where the sands of time had slowed to a crawl. But it got easier.

I found it easy to slide into berating myself for indulging in the form of reward I had chosen, but nothing else had worked for me, so when guilt, shame, and self-loathing welled up within, I tried to recall my friend’s advice about focusing on success and remember that that was sound training advice. Hadn’t I just watched a commercial—in its entirety—before commencing to drink? Had I ever done that before? Okay, then, bottoms up.

Admittedly, it was a dangerous plan loaded with potential for self-delusion and failure. But I had to keep pushing that from mind as well if I was to genuinely treat myself with the compassion and understanding I so freely offered to dolphins in training, and which my fellow addicts so freely offered to me. It was an experiment and a gamble. But for me, it paid off.

Over time, one commercial morphed into two, and then into three. There were times when I failed to meet a new goal, or even to match a benchmark already previously achieved. I tried to the best of my ability to allow those failures to be okay, and I continued to treat myself like a dolphin making progress.

There were other aspects to my recovery, to be sure. I continued to attend meetings where I could surround myself with encouragement and hope as well as with the wisdom of those who had securely achieved their aims. Gradually, on the basis of small successes, I became more and more willing to incorporate the advice of others into my daily routine until I was eventually able to achieve and maintain my own sobriety.

That might not have been the case had I not witnessed firsthand—in both my human as well as my dolphin fellows—the transformations possible through a gradual, consistent application of behavioral conditioning.

Whether behavioral modeling and associative learning was what Dionysus had in mind when he commissioned the dolphin as a species to aid all humankind in times to come, I am not certain—but I am forever grateful to no longer be lost at sea.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012


Can dolphins help addicts achieve union with fractured selves?

Look for:

Embracing Eurydice: How Dolphins Can Help Us Build Trust

Second in a series about addiction and recovery: Self-identity

Slated for publication August 9.

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