…can we just be Broken Together?

Monster on a Leash (Elephants–Pt. 1)

Monster on a Leash (Elephants–Pt. 1)

Grandma Palmer LOVED the circus. So every fall, when Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to Salt Lake, Grandpa would buy tickets and take our whole family. As advertised, it was the Greatest (and, in retrospect…perhaps the strangest) Show on Earth! Our annual pilgrimage to the circus was one of my favorite and most anticipated yearly outings.

As we drove home, we would always talk about what our favorite thing was about the circus, and without fail, somebody would say: “How the heck did they get those elephants to do that??”

I’m glad I didn’t know the answer to this question back then… it certainly takes the fun out of going to the circus.

Let’s talk about training elephants, the parallels with how we become addicts,
and how we (like all those Ringling Brothers elephants in 2016) can be


More times than I can count, I opened up a bottle of rum, took a few swigs, and then endured the exhilaration and terror of not being fully in control of my actions. But, I can wholeheartedly tell you… Riding a wild elephant is not all it is cracked up to be!

And yet, I continued to do it. Over…and over… and over… and over again.

Why didn't I just stop??

Let’s find out.

In my post “Broken Hearts and Broken Horses,” we discussed the humane training of horses… and humans.

Today we’ll discuss the inhumane training of elephants… and humans.
But don’t call the Humane Society or PETA quite yet:
just trust me and read on!

I promise… there IS a happy ending… for the elephants and the addicts!

About Elephants

  • The elephant is the largest land animal on earth.
  • The elephant has over 40,000 separate muscles in its trunk alone (the entire human body only has 639 separate muscles!).
  • An elephant’s brain is more than four times larger (and far more complex) than a human brain.

According to Scientific American:

“…elephants form lifelong kinships, talk to one another with a large vocabulary of rumbles and trumpets, and make group decisions; elephants play, mimic their parents, and cooperate to solve problems; they use tools, console one another when distressed, and probably have a sense of self.

“To look an elephant in the face is to gaze upon genius. Here is a creature who experiences emotional intimacy with friends and family, who seems to understand death and treats its dead in a way that borders on ceremonial. Here is an animal who can recognize itself in the mirror, fashion twigs into tools, formulate and implement plans, and remember someone’s face for decades. An animal with exquisite ways of sensing the world we can never experience firsthand and a complex language we will probably never decipher. An animal whose cleverness parallels our own yet is in many ways unique…

“…When we look into the eyes of the elephant, we should recognize nothing less than an intellectual equal.”

–AmericanScientific.com, “Searching For The Elephant’s Genius Inside the Largest Brain on Land”

All of which makes what we’ll talk about next all the more distressing.

The Training of Circus Elephants

So, how DO they get the elephants to do those crazy tricks?

First, circus trainers break the elephant’s spirit. Elephants are very social animals who form deep emotional bonds with their family. The first step to breaking an elephant is to separate it from its mother and siblings at a very young age. This makes the elephant feel lonely and vulnerable.

Second, the trainers make the elephant physically weak, giving it a bare minimum of food and water. Again, the aim is to make the animal as vulnerable as possible without killing it.

“Habituating” a baby elephant.

Finally comes the true “secret of the circus”: In 19th-century terminology, it was called “habituating” the animal. Trainers tie a strong rope around the neck and place a restraining harness on the animal’s forehead. They also attach shackles with heavy ropes or chains (staked to the ground) to the elephant’s legs. The elephant lives for weeks or months with these restraints attached. Every time the elephant tries to move, their bonds hold them fast. As a result, these majestic creatures, one of the largest and strongest mammals on the planet, are humbled into submission. They believe they are weaker than whatever is holding their head, neck, and ankles. Once they stop entirely struggling against the restraints, they have been habituated and are ready to learn tricks.

But here’s the truly insidious part of habituating:

Once the elephant has been conditioned not to struggle against an attached apparatus, it will not fight against any perceived restraint. You can put a soft, flimsy piece of twine around the neck or a cloth ankle band on their foot, and they will cooperatively follow your every direction… because they have been convinced that they are too weak to overcome the perceived resistance.

When I was a little boy visiting the circus, I thought the elephants wore fantastic “costumes” while performing. Now I know better. The elephants do not wear ornaments; they have cleverly disguised “devices of control.” With these items attached, the ringmaster is in complete control. Without them, the elephant does not feel compelled to follow his master… and the elephant is free to choose to refuse the trainer’s commands.

…and that’s how they get the elephants to do all those crazy tricks.

Satan’s “Devices of Control”

OK, my fellow addicts–it’s time to talk about the inhumane training of HUMANS…
…what are YOUR devices of control?

Satan's devices of control

“…and he [the Devil] leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever.

2 Nephi 26:22 (The Book of Mormon, emphasis added)

Like an elephant trainer, Satan has methods both subtle and insidious…. first, he works on breaking our spirit by separating us from those most likely to help and strengthen us.

Here’s what it looked like in my life:

When I first started drinking, I didn’t start by downing a pint of Bacardi 151 every night of the week. No…it was just an occasional drink, usually a sweet, smooth, and not-too-strong cocktail of some sort…something with pretty colors and fruity flavors. Satan’s control over me was soft, pleasant, and non-threatening.

“Now you’ve screwed up…” Satan whispered to me. “You’ve broken God’s commandments and violated His word of wisdom. As a result, your Father in Heaven does not love you anymore.” Then Satan continued, “…and your earthly family…? Oh yes…they are embarrassed by you–they don’t love you anymore either.” And just like that, I was alienated from my best and most effective support systems.

Then, like an elephant trainer, Satan convinced me I was too weak to overcome my restraints.

Every time I struggled against my “devices of control,” Satan turned up the heat. He whispered to me: “It’s too bad God has forsaken you. It’s wrong for you to feel so lonely. Here…have another (stronger) drink…that’ll numb the pain of your loneliness.” And for a while, it worked. But far too soon, a pint of Bacardi every night was my “normal” way of life, and without even realizing it, life was spiraling out of control…

…and just like that, the ride on the wild elephant had begun.
My habituation was complete.

I promised you a happy ending for the elephants AND the addicts… here it comes. 🙂

Compelled to Change

“Because ye are compelled to be humble, blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.”

Alma 32:13 (The Book of Mormon)

Of creatures great…

In 2015, shifting public opinion and pressure from various animal rights organizations compelled the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to do something unprecedented. Ending a 145-year tradition, they decided to retire the performing elephants permanently. The elephants’ last performance was early in May of 2016.

Backstage with the elephants, Lindsey Merryfield wore a red nose, a painted-on smile, a short retro-style dress, and a platinum-blonde wig. Over the years, as part of Ringling’s Clown Alley, Lindsey had become very fond of the elephants. She was backstage, waiting to go into the ring for the last time with these beautiful animals she had come to love so much. With her red-circled cheeks wet with tears, Lindsey looked up at her favorite elephant, “Asia.” She was happy for Asia, the quieter life that awaited her, and sad for herself. This was the last day that she would look up at Asia and be reminded of her place in the world: “You are so beautiful,” Lindsey thought, “and I am so small.” (Thanks to Washington Post reporter Kristin Henderson for sharing Lindsey’s story in her 2016 article “The Big Exit”)

…and creatures small.

“If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself.”

–Joseph Smith (Teachings of the Prophets of the Church: Joseph Smith)

I can relate. I still struggle to get my brain around how I could have possibly acted the way I did. It’s true… If I hadn’t experienced it, I would not believe it. I was an active daily drinker for over 15 years. Then I underwent a rocky recovery journey as I “white-knuckled” my way in and out of sobriety for another decade. Throughout this time, I completely abandoned the hope of ever recovering as I clung to my wild elephant for dear life. Not only could I NOT stop my elephant, but I had forfeited the will even to attempt to control it.

I made a multitude of foolish choices in support of my habit. I acted irresponsibly and showed poor judgment; I left a career that I loved immensely, abandoned a beautiful home to foreclosure, had cars repossessed, and suffered many other financial and emotional hardships.

But none of this compelled me to change.
I was still firmly in denial, and all of my problems were easy to blame on others.

Although I continued attending church “for the sake of my kids,” my relationship with God was on the rocks. The sense of my hypocrisy was overwhelming. But as I look back, I realize that God still cared for me and was helping me along the path despite my willful disregard for his commandments.

“Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass…”

Alma 37:6 (The Book of Mormon)

One morning, my first nudge toward recovery arrived in, of all places, my mailbox.

For most of my adult life, I had donated blood regularly. So imagine my surprise when I opened an unsolicited letter from Bonfils Blood Donation Center, informing me that I had been “black-listed” and would no longer be allowed to donate blood. They told me that my liver enzymes and other blood chemistry were so abnormal that my blood was unsuitable for a life-saving blood transfusion.

Talk about a small and simple thing…a single sheet of paper that weighs 0.16 ounces. Yet, this small and simple thing triggered my journey to recovery when decades of emotional pain hadn’t. When losing a career couldn’t. When financial consequences totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars didn’t! Yes, the letter reinforced my concerns about what I was doing to my health, but for some strange reason, I was far more upset at being deprived of one of the few selfless things I was doing at that time. It was devastating.

The term hitting rock bottom comes to mind.

Picture releasing your grip and falling from a running elephant…you tumble 10 feet to the ground and land in the rocks and brush while moving 15 miles per hour. Now, you’re under the feet of a raging 13,000-pound monster. As they say: “That’ll leave a mark!” It’s a terrifying prospect.

Letting go of your devices of control and awkwardly dismounting your elephant is problematic, to say the least. But, for me, the only thing more frightening than the realization that I could die if I kept drinking was the feeling of impending doom if I did quit. It was paralyzing.

Luckily, in direct opposition to what Satan told me, my Father in Heaven still loves me. He was waiting to come running to my aid. Looking back, I see He gave me small acts of Grace almost constantly. Although I had no power in myself, God was ready and willing to provide me with the power to deliver myself from the bondage of addiction:

“…behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen… to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.”

1st Nephi 1:20 (The Book of Mormon), emphasis added

An insignificant 0.16 oz. piece of paper…
In an unexpected and undeserved act of grace, God planted a tiny seed… a suggestion of recovery in my alcohol-soaked brain, which grew into a life-long quest for deliverance.
Suffice to say: I love God’s tender mercies!

Delivered from bondage…

In May of 2016, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey elephants took their last bow and exited the big top for the last time. This touring troupe of pachyderms retired to a 200-acre nature preserve in Florida. The story should have ended “…and they all lived happily ever after”. But there were some unexpected twists in this happily-ever-after story. These impressive animals have even more lessons to teach us about addiction recovery… apparently, far more lessons than I can comfortably fit into just one Change of Heart article.

For now, we’ll leave the elephants with a reminder to “tune in next time…” to discover what additional lessons these gentle giants have to teach us about living in recovery.

Delivered from the “very jaws of hell”

My fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will recognize this following quotation, but I’d like to put a little different spin on it than you and I learned in Sunday School. Like the dungeon in Liberty Jail, living with addiction is a very dark place indeed. I’ve highlighted all the phrases in this beloved scripture that describe how I felt during my years of active drinking:

“…if thou shouldst be cast into the pit… and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if THE HEAVENS GATHER BLACKNESS… and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son… the Son of Man hath descended below them all…

–excerpts from Doctrine and Covenants 122:7-8 (emphasis added)

Those familiar with this scripture will realize that I’ve omitted a couple of essential phrases…and that I stopped before reaching the climax of this powerful message. But I’ve done this on purpose. Until a year and a half ago, I could see and feel this edited version of this scripture. If the scripture actually read as I’ve presented here, it would deliver a dark and dreary message. And it would accurately represent the despair those of us who suffer from addiction experience daily.

So, what changed a year and a half ago?

Through God’s Grace, I finally caught the true spirit and meaning of that last phrase: “…the Son of Man [Jesus Christ] hath descended below them all…” In a way incomprehensible to us, Jesus Christ suffered our pains, afflictions, and weaknesses so that we might be healed of them. I testify to you that this is true. Now allow me to piece together the fantastic promises that I omitted above:

“…know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good… therefore, hold on thy way, for God shall be with you forever and ever.

–excerpts from Doctrine and Covenants 122:7,9 (emphasis added)

I would have never imagined that any good could come from my alcoholism. I willfully chose to stray from His path, but God has turned these experiences for my good. He promised us, “…I will make weak things become strong…” (Ether 12:27, The Book of Mormon). Once I turned my life and will over to God and Jesus Christ, the power of Christ’s Atonement made all the difference.

Don’t get me wrong…God did not lead me to alcoholism. He did not force me to take my first drink (nor did he force me to take my last). But he is a master at making the best of a bad situation.

Since gaining complete sobriety and experiencing the “mighty change of heart” spoken of in the scriptures, my life is more impressive than I could have imagined. I have a new, rewarding career helping others recover from addiction, and I am enjoying personal revelation and the influence of the Holy Ghost in abundance. Despite all the turmoil around us with Covid-19, riots, natural disasters, and all the rest, life is good, and for the first time in my 56 years on Earth, I genuinely feel PEACE. Why? Because I finally realized this:

“The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than He?”

(Doctrine and Covenants 122:8)

Am I greater than Christ? No, of course not. I am so thankful that Christ is greater than me…and that he is my loving brother. He feels mercy toward me because He has experienced my pains and afflictions. He knows the distress I felt when I detoxed from alcohol. He understands my trepidation at the prospect of living without addictive substances. And yes, he knows the terror of riding addiction’s wild elephant and the pain and fear of letting go of the darkness my soul has become so entangled in.

Because “..he hath descended below [us] all…” none of us are beyond his reach.

I close today by sharing the testimony of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“However late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled
beyond the reach of divine love.
It is not possible for you to sink lower than
the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.”

― Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ

I want to share an extra unique finish to today’s post. I just completed the production of this video clip, highlighting how the power of the Savior’s atonement can protect and strengthen us in our troubled times. I hope you enjoy it and find the PEACE we desperately need.

Thanks again for joining me again here on ChangeOfHeart.LIFE! Your stories of struggles with addiction and your testimonies of recovery and redemption inspire me. Feel free to leave me a comment below, or drop me a private message at Kyle@ChangeOfHeart.LIFE.

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Husband. Father. Grandfather. Uncle. Son. Pro Musician. Blogger. Inspirational Speaker. Mormon. And...recovering alcoholic. As a Certified Recovery Support Specialist, I share my story at ChangeOfHeart.LIFE, facilitate 12-step meetings for the LDS Addiction Recovery Program, lead Recovery Support Groups, and work for Davis Behavioral Health as part of the Recovery Support Services team.

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