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Psychotherapy and Addictions: The enchant of the mermaids.

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

In order to think about the aspects that we must consider to address addictions, I have found it useful that we reflect on a passage that symbolically illustrates the transit that a person makes to get out of addiction. It is a fragment of the Iliad, a classic Greek novel.

Homer was in the realms of Hades, when on his way back to the light and to get out of the realm of the dead, it was necessary to cross through a stretch where mermaids were found, and a Goddess, Circe, advises Homer thus:

“You will first reach the mermaids, who enchant how many men come to meet them. He who recklessly approaches them and hears their voice no longer sees his wife or his little children surrounding him, full of joy, when he returns to their homes; but he is bewitched by the sirens with the sonorous song, sitting on a meadow and having around him huge pile of bones of rotting men whose skin is consumed. Pass by and cover the ears of your companions with soft wax, previously thinned, so that no one hears them; but if you wish to hear them, make them tie you in the sailboat of feet and hands, straight and close to the bottom of the mast, and that the ropes are tied to it; and so you can delight in listening to the sirens. And in case you beg or send the companions to let go, to bind you with even more ties.”

Later, when he set sail on his ship, Homer tells his crew:

“Oh friends! It is not convenient that only one or two know the predictions that Circe, the divine among the goddesses, revealed to me; and I am going to refer them to you so that, knowing of them, we may either die or be saved, freeing ourselves from death and the Moira. She commands us first to shun the voice of the divine mermaids and the flowery meadow in which they dwell. She has told me that only I should hear them; but bind me with strong ties, standing and close to the bottom of the mast - so that I may be there without moving - and the ropes tied to it. And if I beg you or command me to let go, bind me with even more ties.”

This is how Homer survived the deadly charm of the mermaids. If you reflect on it, what situations, memories and/or ideas does this story evoke? How does this passage relate to addictions?

Based on the fragment of the story shared, we can think of some elements of it that are fundamental to be able to understand what we must consider when addressing an addiction.

First, the character of Homer. He who is determined to return with his children and wife, to return to the light from the realm of the dead. This character, apart from his voluntary decision to leave the kingdom of Hades, listens carefully and follows the recommendation of the goddess Circe. The most important aspect to address in an addiction process is the person who consumes. In this the first thing, your decision regarding addictive behavior. Do I want or don't want to leave it? And if so, am I willing to follow Circe's recommendations, from figures who know about the path I'm going to travel, its risks and ways to protect myself? The answers to these questions can already set the tone for a shorter or longer journey to the path of life.

Then, there is the boat in which Homer crosses the valley of the mermaids. What is the therapeutic device, "the boat" that can best sustain me in this transit? There are many options, as in ships, from the smallest to the largest and most armored. From an individual follow-up of an outpatient type, through therapeutic groups, day centers and therapeutic communities. Clinical judgment based on the unique characteristics of each one's consumption can give a good idea of which would be the ideal boat for this path.

The crew. Who is with me on this journey? In the story, the crew is oriented about ways to protect the protagonist. In a treatment process it is essential to approach the family and help them understand their role in the dynamics of the person with addiction problems, contain and work their pain and be able to guide them, like Homer's crew, when and how to pull the ties and protect their loved ones and themselves (sometimes, it’s time to put wax in the ears in front of certain songs).

Another interesting aspect is to ask ourselves, who are my crew? Will those who accompany me tie me to the mast or throw me into the sirens? An addiction treatment involves addressing and rethinking my social life, my bonds, and the way I relate to others.

The ropes and moorings. Those things that prevent us from succumbing to the siren songs. A fundamental issue to be addressed in a process, the limits and the tools of protection. There are many forms that these strings can take, at the moment I think of a fundamental one: The one that ties the illusion of control. How many times do you succumb to mermaids saying to themselves, "I control this." To tie oneself up is to accept limitations, to decipher self-deception, to build a protective shield.

The transit, the valley of the sirens. We cannot lose sight of what is the vital moment and the context that surrounds the person. Its valley, its geographical, social, economic and family situation. What changes or modifications can, and should we make? How do we adapt in case there are things we can't change?

Finally, the mermaids. Who, with their beauty and song, bewitch and devour their victims. Homer was seduced, desperately shouting at his companions to let go... How is the singing of the addictive object in each one? What does each person who suffers from an addiction to their mermaids, who give them the illusion of beauty and pleasure, offer you and ask you? For many years it was thought that the problem of addiction was drugs, it was sirens. I think it is interesting to be able to reflect and understand that it is a much more complex problem where it is the person, who must know and understand what role the addictive object plays in his life and what significance it has for him. Only then will you be able to see past the mermaids and see that they are surrounded by corpses and rotting bones.

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