How important is support? I believe nature reveals to us that we are meant to support one another along the journey of life. Dolphins for instance are known to work together to catch fish, save sick friends and play. Recently researchers have recorded the clever cetaceans ‘talking’ to each other in order to solve a complex puzzle. The discovery suggests dolphins use a language dedicated to problem solving. I read an observation report about one dolphin becoming paralyzed, when others saw that it was unable to swim, they gathered to form a bridge of support under it, carefully raising their injured friend to the surface for air.
Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at Mahidol University in Thailand, and primatologist Frans de Waal, director of Emory University’s Living Links Center, have shown through a controlled study what those who work with elephants have always believed: the animals offer something akin to human sympathetic concern when observing distress in another, including their relatives and friends. Elephants in another herd were once found solemnly gathered in a circle, weeping together over the body of a one of their herd who had died.
Along with dolphins and elephants, gorillas, dogs, cats, certain corvids (the bird group that includes ravens) and squirrels among others in nature, have been shown to recognize when a herd mate is upset, weakened or injured and to offer gentle caresses and chirps of sympathy, according to a study (published February 18, 2017 in the online journal PeerJ).
In nature, lending comfort and support seems to come, well…natural.
Some years back I personally observed comfort and support from nonhumans when my beloved Cairn Terrier injured her spine, became paralyzed and went through major corrective surgery. She recovered, yet never regained full strength. For the next 4 years of her life I tended to her every need as my other dog and our cat watched over her closely. They stuck by her, ever present at her side, especially when she grew weaker or sick. I often found them sleeping one on each side of her, laying close against her. When she later died, for months those two began to sit with me in every room I was in, something they hadn’t done together before. They would lay at my feet, one on either side as I worked my way through the sadness and misery of losing my closest companion. That little dog had been like a baby to me; because of her many health issues I had taken care of her like a child. In some ways, caring for her had become a distracting comfort when my son moved across the country. Losing her was a traumatic shock. I was touched by how aware of my grief my remaining two seemed to be. Our animals somehow sense when we are in need of extra comfort. Their faithful presence helped tremendously.
Not long ago I read that Redwood trees have surprisingly shallow roots compared to other trees. Redwood trees are some of the tallest, strongest trees, yet they have short roots that grow more wide than deep. However, these roots have an amazing ability to latch onto one another, growing tightly together as a strong force underground. The linking of roots allows for added strength, causing several trees to unite as a whole, standing together as one when storms come.
I. Love. That.
If support and comfort is vital in nature… what message does that send to us?
What a beautiful thing it would be if that kind of support came naturally in every family and group setting. How much different would our lives be if we instinctively came together to raise each other up, without considering fault, blame or shame, without thinking of our personal issues or awkward feelings. How wonderful would it be if we didn’t hold back, but instead showed up, with opinions and differences aside and offered comfort and encouragement, rallying around someone in need. How much stronger would we be when the storms come. I’ve most often found that kind of unconditional support in rooms of recovery. Managing the adversities of life can feel crushing, especially when you feel like you have to do it by yourself. Having reliable group support can provide great comfort alongside challenging times.
For most of my life I’d taught myself to have a stiff upper lip and push through trials. Therefore, support was most often reserved for a small handful of friends, Google or the self-help section of the Library. It was by chance that I started attending family recovery meetings. We had already come through so much of the storm by the time I started going. But once I went, I never left. Group meetings are the final puzzle piece in my walk forward, a perfect fit.
After experiencing the profoundly healing effects of attending a good, solid support group, I now admit I regret the nights I walked the floors alone, agonizing about our circumstances (as detailed in my book “Unhooked”). I regret not having found a safe place to vent my frustration or hear how others coped when dealing with their own. How I wish I had had a room to go to from the beginning of the journey, to gather with others who were going through what I was going through. Others who could say “Yep, I’ve been there. That happened to me too. You’re not the only one. I get it.”
I did have very good friends to call and I was lucky enough to personally know a few professionals who I could contact in a pinch. Yet had I also been rooted around those going through the same dark waters I was drowning in, I believe it would have made navigating my way through them a lot easier. There is just something about someone who has walked the same road telling you it will be okay. That is worth its weight in gold.
We are some years past the havoc of addiction first raging through our home. But I still regularly meet with a support group. Now that life is more calm and stable, I believe listening as well as giving comfort, encouragement and hope back is a great way to keep a stream of kindness flowing. No one should have to go through the harsh times of life alone. That’s when we need others to build a bridge under us and raise us up, especially when we’re feeling paralyzed. There are also times we’re called to be part of that bridge and help lift someone else up.
I believe the epidemic of addiction that our nation is experiencing is awakening us to our need to support one another, and thankfully support groups are becoming more available. I strongly encourage everyone to research and find one that is a fit for you, online or in person. We need all of it! Life can be brutal, and it helps when you’re not alone. Support can make all the difference.
We need people to understand and care. That is where healing happens and strength develops. It’s as simple as that.
“Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’” ~ C.S. Lewis
Rooting for you,
Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.