Embracing Eurydice: How Dolphins Can Help Us Build Trust

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

Posted Aug 09, 2012

The ancient Greeks had a wonderful story about a demigod—half god, half human—named Orpheus, a musician of unparalleled skill, who so missed the embrace of his wife, Eurydice, that he traveled to the underworld to bargain for her return from the dead.

So moving was his love and the courage he had summoned to retrieve her that the gods granted Eurydice’s return—on the condition that Orpheus lead the way out and not glance back at her until she had completely reemerged into the sunlight of the living world. As Orpheus himself stepped into the light, he was filled with a dread that he had been deceived. Glancing back, he saw that he had indeed been accompanied by his wife—who had not quite fully emerged from the realm of the dead. On the brink of rescue, Eurydice faded back into the shadows of the underworld forever.

In his quest for the embrace of Eurydice, Orpheus was, to use a common matrimonial expression, seeking connection with his own better half. Or, in the lexicon of literary symbolism, lasting union with self.

In modern times, few personalities are in greater need of rescue than that of the addict and, like Eurydice, few are in greater danger of being subsumed by the shadows.

In the active phases of addiction, an addict’s personality can be fractured and divided, protectively compartmentalized, and sometimes nearly completely lost—all in an effort to mask deep-rooted feelings of misplaced shame.

Often, the addict’s subconscious intuits that attacking the addiction might also mean exposing the shame. Where to turn and whom to trust become among the most pressing of questions to an addict interested in effecting self-rescue.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice warns that prematurely reaching for the thing we most desperately want only places us in peril of permanent loss. And it reminds me of another poignant embrace— one I once witnessed between two dolphins.

Toad, a female dolphin of matronly proportions, was swimming idyllically in circles in the free-floating enclosures of San Diego Bay when she was first introduced to Luther, a younger male. From the beginning, Luther doted on her. But Toad, a veteran of the Vietnam War with a long history of partnership with humans, was more interested in her trainers than in the doe-eyed ingénue. She shunned him.

So it was no surprise that when scientists pursuing a sonar acoustic experiment put out the call for expert help weeks later, Toad literally jumped at the opportunity by vaulting from the water into the training boat standing by to transport her. Luther, however, had other ideas.

Within seconds of his noticing Toad’s proximity to the transport boat, Luther rushed to her side, belly toward her, and embraced her with his pectoral fins. Clearly, he had not yet begun to woo his would-be love.

Never one for long goodbyes, after several attempts to disentangle herself, Toad simply ignored Luther and leapt into the boat—only to be astonished seconds later when Luther landed on her considerable bulk in a desperate attempt to remain at her side.

To their credit, the trainers on hand refused to whisk Toad away to the scientists that day. Instead, they insisted on more time to prepare Luther for the loss of his companion. The behavioral approach they took to separation through trust-building is one of potentially great value to recovering addicts who are often plagued by insecurity and a deep mistrust of others rooted in their own subconscious feelings of unworthiness.

By the time an addict seeks help, the addiction—whatever it is—has generally served as a coping mechanism for so long that the addict experiences real fear at the mere contemplation of breaking the addictive cycle. In fact, the addict’s constructed sense of self has often become so tied to his addiction that it is difficult for him to see who he really is beneath it, and he doubts whether he can ever truly stand alone without it. What he needs, before an Orphic quest for unity with self can even hope to begin, is faith in a process.

When dolphins don’t know their trainers well, their social radars go on high alert for trickery in a manner that parallels the addict’s mistrust of others. In an effort to offset mistrust, good dolphin trainers make the most of whatever working relationship they have with the animals under their care. Moreover, they are willing to go to great lengths to nurture trust by being careful to always play fair. That means making requests rather than demands. The dolphin’s cooperation is required for the process to work—and that means going slowly and building trust gradually, generally through a series of behavioral approximations—small, incremental movements toward an ultimate goal.

In the days and weeks following Luther’s desperate embrace of Toad, trainers provided Luther with the reassurance he needed for an eventual voluntary separation by first positioning Toad comfortingly close by whenever they interacted with Luther. Initially, the dolphins remained only inches apart, and even then Luther’s eyes rolled frequently in Toad’s direction. The dolphins’ initial task was simple. They were asked merely to station themselves side-by-side and accept fish from the hands of their respective trainers.

When Luther’s jittery nerves began to settle, Toad was asked to follow her trainer a few inches farther away, just beyond the reach of Luther’s pectoral fins. At first, Luther would break away from his own trainer to follow Toad in a water-splashing, rolling-eyed frenzy. Clearly, he was expecting the worst.

While Toad complacently ignored his outbursts, Luther’s trainer encouragingly invited him back for more fish. Only after numerous repetitions would Luther allow the slightest of separations. But allow it he eventually did. Whenever this was the case, his trainer rewarded him generously with fish snacks and rub-downs. Gradually, Luther came to see that there were no disastrous results from failing to cooperate—just an interruption of reward as the trainers would simply walk away in tandem, only to come back later to offer more opportunities for reward.

The process was slow and sometimes frustrating for both trainers and dolphins—but never agonizingly so because only incremental requests for advancement were made, and the requests were offered with a reliable combination of patience and reward.

Less skilled trainers might have been tempted to take the short route to success as Luther made progress. In other hands, I have unfortunately witnessed successful and hard-won animal separations followed by measures which, from the dolphin perspective, must have been discouraging at best: enclosure gates slammed shut and dolphin companions being whisked immediately away to remote locations for long durations of time.

Such short-sighted approaches annihilate trust and break down relationships in a way that disturbingly parallels the premature pressures addicts in recovery are sometimes exposed to from well-meaning, but misguided attempts by others to “help” an addict reach a behavioral goal too quickly.

All too often, addicts seeking help are urged to comply with the standards of their new recovery community before they are ready.

“Get a sponsor,” voices sometimes clamor before the groundwork has been laid. “Trust your counselor. Open up. Let go. Speak from your heart.” The array of expectations can be overwhelming. They can also be confusing—especially when accompanied by recovery-speak messages like “Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood” or “Your best thinking got you here” that discourage critical thinking and self-discovery.

While such messages may provide stop-gap, and even life-saving, measures against the onslaught of addiction in the early phases of recovery, they risk being heard at the price of the long-term self-trust addicts require to move beyond fear-based stages of development characterized by compliance rather than growth.

Happily, such was not the case with Luther.

Little by little, Luther grew to trust his trainers with the care and removal of Toad from his presence, just as he grew to trust in her consistent return to him when their separation sessions drew to a close. Sometimes Toad was asked to leave Luther, sometimes the reverse. When Luther consented to Toad’s passage through a gate and into an accompanying enclosure, the gate separating them was initially left open. Then it was partially closed and, eventually, fully closed. The two were then brought together again to socialize.

At some stages of his training, Luther balked and back-stepped. But he kept putting forth effort, and he was consistently reunited with his companion. Other dolphins were brought into the mix so Luther could develop outside friendships. Eventually, Luther’s hard work paid dividends. He was happy and bright-eyed whether with Toad or without her. He came to enjoy playtime with other dolphins and yet readily separated from them to spend time alone as well.

When the day came for Toad to finally answer the call of the scientists who had requested her assistance months before, Luther was beside her in the same enclosure to see her safely off in the transport boat. He had emerged from months of work with faith in a process and confidence in himself. There were no lingering goodbyes and no desperate embraces. Luther simply allowed her to go—his Eurydice, after all, would be only a boat ride away.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012


Which voices should recovering addicts heed—their own or others’?

Look for:

Cursing Echo: Can Dolphins Help Us Speak Our Mind?

Last in a series about addiction and recovery: Beyond plateaus

Slated for publication August 23.