In the Navajo worldview, sickness arises out of activities that distort social relationships like the breaking of a taboo or self-indulgence. It comes from contact with a storm, lightning, a corpse, or a substance outside the natural order of harmony and beauty. Or it comes from losing sight of the Holy Way, contact with ghosts, sorcery, or the intrusion of an evil force.
In Coyote many aspects of evil power are embodied- he is active, with unlimited ability to interfere with people's affairs... [His potential] for turning up unexpectedly is enormous. He has a life principle that may be laid aside, so that any injury done to his body affects his life only temporarily... he may... recover from apparent death... [and] he possesses an incredible fund of evil knowledge... (Reichard,1977)
"Coyote sickness" is known by a number of signs including: nervous malfunctions; a shaking of the head, hands, or entire body; a twisted mouth; poor vision; loss of memory; fainting; sore throat; stomach trouble; and occasionally; loss of mind. Coyote sickness is associated gambling, prostitution, and not unsurprisingly, alcoholism. And while those under the influence of Coyote are considered neither inherently evil nor morally lacking, like alcoholics and addicts, they suffer from a disease that infects the soul as well as the body (Luckert,1979).
When asked to intervene on behalf of those afflicted, a "medicine man" from the northern Navajo reservation will lead his patient on a symbolic journey to the center of the world. The journey takes place in progressive steps. It begins with a ceremonial purification and unraveling. Repeated prayers and reparations are made to both gods and humans offended by the patient's behavior. A request is made for deliverance, a search is made for the patient's lost mind, and in the presence of the divine, the patient is cleansed of shame.
The same can be said of recovery from alcohol and drug dependence.
The archetypal trickster is as provocative as he is potent. Embodied in Coyote, he's sly, sneaky, manipulative, and causes all sorts of trouble. He stole Water Monster's baby, brought on the great flood, and is known for being a glutton, a liar, a lech, and a cheat. On the other hand he hurled the stars into the night sky, recognized the value of Death as a necessary evil, and stole fire from Black God to relieve the suffering of First Man and First Woman (Sandner, 1979)(Henderson, 1959).
"(Coyote is a)... renegade...(an) outlaw symbolizing all that is untamable...
(he) is sometimes a man, sometimes a god, sometimes an animal; a restless trickster, inquisitive, obscene, adventurous and diabolically challenging- a desert Mephistopheles." (Henderson, 1956)
Just for the fun of it and because it's his nature, Coyote will hide outside your house at night and wait until you're asleep. Dressed in a bearskin, he'll sneak in through the screen-door, steal your TV and turn over all your furniture just to laugh at your expense and blame it on Bear. Similarly, a psychotherapist treating those still using, newly sober, or years into recovery may notice characteristics of this trickster in alcoholics and addicts: slipping into your office under the cover of darkness (his denial, your ignorance, or lack in experience), wearing the skin of another animal (the presenting problem may be depression, anxiety, marital, work, or health problems), stealing something (your good will, your good judgment, your compassion, your patience), and like many people in crisis, creating havoc in your professional life (by not following through with agreements, canceling appointments, or failing to maintain sobriety), and blaming it on someone else (work, stress, or a lack of understanding in others).
Coyote has another problem similar to that of many practicing alcoholics and addicts. He is virtually incapable of reflecting on the pain he causes himself and others because he has a difficult time admitting his own flaws and failings. The alcoholic's difficulty may be due to inebriation, the discomfort and confusion from a hangover, memory loss due to blackouts, or, in chronic late-stage patients, permanent brain damage. Or it may be related to the tendency to hide one's use and it's associated problems for fear of being arrested for using an illegal substance or the cultural stigma associated with their habit.
In order to maintain his distorted sense of reality, Coyote blames others for his problems and holds tight to his blindness. For the alcoholic and addict, this means defending against the growing tide of substance-related problems by embracing denial.
Coyote and His Reflection
One day, when Coyote was out wandering in search of food he came to the top of a high hill. As he looked down toward the valley below he saw a lake. He saw the sun shining in the water. He saw a cloud of bugs. And he saw fish jumping high in the air to catch the bugs.
And this is how alcoholics and addicts live from day to day, eyes closed, drinking, using, and blind to a disease that can destroy their lives and the lives of those close to them. Working with alcoholics and addicts is about pointing to the water, looking in together, and not drinking or using. It is about facing the pain of life stone-cold sober. It is about helping alcoholics and addicts find another way to confront the monster without telling them to close their eyes.
Coyote's stomach grumbled and reminded him of how hungry he was.
"I don't want to eat just bugs." Coyote thought. "I want to eat fish."
And so Coyote made his way down the hill toward the lake. As he walked through the tall, tall grass it made a swishing sound as he brushed against it. As he walked across the wet sand it made a scratching sound when he stepped. Stopping at the edge of the lake Coyote looked out across the water at the swarm of bugs and the jumping fish.
His stomach grumbled again and he licked his lips. Then he looked down at the water and saw his reflection.
"Yelp!" he shouted. "There's a monster in the lake."
Coyote was so frightened he jumped straight up in the air and when he landed he ran back across the wet sand, through the tall grass and he hid behind a big black rock. Even though Coyote was out of breath because he ran so fast, he wondered whether the monster was after him and so he peered out from behind the big black rock.
"Hmmm!" Coyote thought. "No monster?"
All of a sudden, out of the corner of his eye Coyote saw Antelope wander across the wet sand. She paused at the edge of the lake. She looked around carefully, leaned her long graceful neck down and took a drink of water.
"I wonder if the monster will frighten Antelope." Coyote thought. But nothing happened. Antelope took another drink, looked around carefully, and casually walked off.
"Maybe the monster ran away," Coyote thought, and remembering his hunger, he walked through the tall grass, across the wet sand and down to where Antelope had been. He saw the fish jumping to catch the bugs and as he looked down, once again, he saw his reflection.
"The monster is back!" Coyote yelped and just as he was about to run away he heard a frightening sound.
"Who is making all that noise," croaked a voice.
"It's the monster!" Cried Coyote. But before he could flee the voice spoke again.
"I'm no monster," the voice croaked. "I'm just a frog." And Frog leaped from the bushes where he had been sitting and landed on the sand near Coyote's feet.
"Well," Coyote replied indignantly. "You have an ugly, ugly voice and you're ugly too."
"If you don't like what you see," croaked Frog. "Why don't you just close your eyes."
"Hmmm." Coyote thought. "What a good idea."
And so Coyote closed his eyes, bent his head down and took a lonnnng drink. With eyes closed he saw nothing and so nothing frightened him. Nothing tried to catch him. And nothing scared him.
"Hah!" Coyote laughed out loud. "I bet I scared that monster away."
Coyote and Addiction
As Coyote's way is bound to his nature, the alcoholic and addict's predisposition is strongly linked to biology. A growing body of current research lends strong weight to the genetic theory of addiction through identical twin studies, genetic marker studies, and physiological comparisons between sons of alcoholics and control groups. Goodwin (1984), comparing twins separated at birth and raised either by their biological parents or by their non-biological adoptive parents, found that sons of alcoholics had a four-fold increase in their risk of alcoholism. In one of the early genetic marker studies Blum (1990, 1991) found a high correlation between alcoholism and the D2 dopamine receptor gene. Schuckit (1985, 1986,1994) described a variety of genetically linked effects including the different ways in which sons of alcoholics metabolize ethanol, have a decreased sensitivity to the acute effects of ethanol, and have a different level of muscle tension while intoxicated. And while the technology to treat alcoholism and drug dependence on a genetic level may eventually be discovered, at this time in history, the problem of treating a disease that seems to have a mind of its own demands our attention.
Just like Coyote, alcoholism and drug dependence has been described as "cunning, baffling, and powerful." One patient, a woman in her early twenties, described her addiction as if it were "lying and waiting" for a moment of her unconsciousness. Another, a man in his forties, told me with complete sincerity how his addiction spoke to him. He said it tried to convince him that he had the strength to take one drink and stop there. Another patient, who looked far older than the sixtieth birthday he celebrated the night before his appointment, described with absolute certainty that he was unable to control his drinking. He said he knew he would die if he continued. Yet he wondered, mischievously, if maybe there wasn't some magic I might give him so he could keep drinking, just a little.
An alcoholic said to man sitting at the bar...
Recognizing Coyote inside the disease of alcohol and drug dependence isn't enough. To work with, and ultimately be of help to alcoholics and addicts, we must know Coyote's tricks, his ways, his tracks, and his guile. Once we learn them we must be able to master them, not only so we can spot the disease with a minimum of information and develop a second sense for the onset of a relapse, but to use his ways skillfully and with compassion when we are asked to lend a hand in the alcoholic's and addict's quest for wholeness.
"How do you do it? Every couple of days you come in here and just have one drink."
"I don't know." The man said. "If I feel like it, I stop in here after work. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. If I do, sometimes I have a beer or a glass of wine and other times I'll just have a soda. Then I go home to my wife and kids."
"Amazing," replied the alcoholic. "If I could drink like that, I would do it all the time."
While our knowledge and experience can be used to help, there is always the risk that it may unconsciously wound a patient as well. We may think we know it all and move too quickly to confront the alcohol or drug use without establishing a safe therapeutic relationship. Or we may move so slowly we collude with the patient's denial.
Because Coyote can be very charming and the next moment so infuriating, we can forget that his cleverness almost always leads to his downfall. Through his defensiveness and his rationalizing his behavior, Coyote avoids his suffering and, though he claims to know everything, he deprives himself of knowledge. For the therapist under the influence of Coyote, the unconscious assumption of one's omniscience may be a clever way of avoiding a discomforting silence, the unknown, or a patient's deepening confusion and pain. We may sense something in the tone of our patients, feel moved, upset, and in trying to understand, we may rush to judgment. We may assume we know what our patients are feeling, approaching, and react too quickly.
Coyote and the Therapist's Shadow
A therapist's delusion of omniscience, manifesting in a tendency toward an interpretive reductionism, has both a light and a dark side. The light side is revealed in the realm of the symbolic, the dream, and the metaphor, whether it arises in the mind of the patient or in the mind of the therapist. Listening closely to a patient describe a dream, a painful experience, or a fear that rises up suddenly, we may see an image. The image may be a personal association, it may link our capacity to feel, be touched, or moved in much the same way that a tuning fork placed close to a voiced guitar will ring.
The dark side, however, can manifest in the attempt to defend against the enormity of a patient's pain by reducing it to a concept or a clever interpretation. In the midst of sitting with a patient, images often flash before my mind and, on occasion, I feel inclined to describe what I see. Superficially, it feels like all I want to do is tell my patient, in not so many words, "I understand." But if I am completely honest with myself and look closely beneath my motivation to let my patient know I understand, sometimes I find a secret enjoyment in my being clever. At times my comment may help identify a similar experience, a shared moment, or a personal or professional reference. But I may also, unknowingly, draw unnecessary attention to myself. In my cleverness I may seem like a veritable shaman, but I may also have usurped an opportunity for self-discovery that often emerges out of the pain.
In the midst of my cleverness I may also cater to a narcissistic need to appear wise and magical. The very act of writing a book about the trickster archetype in alcohol and drug dependence has many limitations. While evocative, Coyote is not scientific. While powerful, he does not lend himself to either statistical analysis or healthcare budget proposals. He cannot be measured, tested, or evaluated. He cannot be bought, bound, or dissected. A Coyote antidote will never be found, because Coyote cannot be killed.
As a therapist I struggle with the knowledge that if I enjoy being clever, omniscient, or heroic a bit too much, my unconscious need to appear magical may take precedence over my patient's need to struggle with the unknown and the pain that arises. Excited by the thoughts, images, and feelings that well up inside me, I may speak too quickly in order to be seen by my patient rather than sit quietly and listen. I may want to talk and explain what I see in the hope that my knowledge alone will heal and I will be relieved of the need to hear another personal horror.
"In the history of the collective, as in the history of the individual, everything depends on the development of consciousness. This gradually brings liberation from imprisonment... and is therefore a bringer of light as well as of healing." (Henderson, 1956)
This heroic urge to be an omniscient savior is both an asset and a liability in the healing arts. Insight can lead either to illumination or it can create a feeling of distance and aloofness. If I open my mouth too soon in order to share a clever interpretation I may communicate that I am listening with the depth of my soul, but I may also unconsciously embarrass a patient into feeling psychologically exposed and emotionally naked. The clarity of insight can create a sense of equanimity by giving form and feeling to a patient's narrative or it can lead to a therapist's false sense of pride and a loss of curiosity. If I hesitate to ask another question because I think I know it all, I may rob my patient of an opportunity to share more.
"Coyote is a partner in that liberation: he forces the hero to be conscious. One would not exist without the other. They are the great symbolic antagonists of world mythology, each opposing and undoing the other. Yet in their reconciliation lies the hope of mankind for vitality and wholeness." (Henderson, 1959)
Ironically, because Coyote is so vigilant he often has an uncanny insight into other people's flaws. While his clarity is admirable, his arrogance clouds his empathy with those around him. Consequently, even though he may have something of value to offer, Coyote is often shunned. In this way, Coyote has taught me that being right and being helpful are not necessarily the same thing.
Coyote Becomes the Moon
As a therapist, I try to remember that, regardless of whether I have read a library of books or seen hundreds of patients with similar problems over the years, the patient in front of me deserves my complete attention. I caution myself against answering automatically when asked, "So what should I do?" I try to be careful, thoughtful and not unconsciously fulfill my need to appear omniscient. I try to weigh my immediate response against encouraging my patient to search for a deeper personal answer to the question asked. And ironically, I even weigh my tendency to over-think everything at the risk of stifling any human genuiness and spontaneity that remains.
For as long as there was time, someone was the moon. But in this telling the moon was stolen. How it got stolen is another story. Anyway, because no one was the moon, it was dark at night. After a while the animals got tired of walking around in the darkness and so they all got together to discuss the situation.
"Who will we get to be the moon?" The animals said.
"What about Yellowfox?" One of them said.
"Yes," they all agreed. "Let's ask Yellowfox."
Yellowfox agreed and became the moon. But he shone so brightly that it was just as hot as daytime. So the animals asked Yellowfox to come down.
"Who will we get to be the moon now?" The animals asked. As soon as he heard this Coyote thought how wonderful it would be to be the moon so he could look down on the earth and see what everyone was doing.
"What about Coyote?" Someone asked.
"Yes," Coyote said. "Of course I will go up and be the moon."
So Coyote went up and became the moon. He was neither too hot nor too dark. He looked down at the earth below and saw everything. And he couldn't keep it to himself.
"Who is that cheating at the moccasin game." Coyote shouted. "And who is that stealing meat from the drying racks?" He shouted.
No one likes being found out so easily. After a while the animals got together and asked someone else to be the moon.
"The moon is supposed to be silent," they said.
But of course, this hasn't stopped Coyote from snooping into other people's business ever since. (Caduto & Bruchac, 1988)
Forced to cultivate an awareness of the Coyote in myself as well as my patients, I have come to recognize that Coyote's greatest delusion, that he knows everything, is frequently my own delusion as well. I try to remember that the images, associations, and thoughts that arise in my mind may be a link to another's experience. Or they may not. And though I know with great certainty that Coyote will never be destroyed, I can, at least, recognize his familiar shape, smell, and howl when he comes into my office, sniffs the furniture, and plops down beside me, smiling.
Blum, K., Noble, E., Sheridan, P., Sheridan, P., Montgomery, A., Ritchie, T., Jagadeeswaran, P., Nogami, H., Briggs, A., Cohn, J. (1990) Allelic Association of Human dopamine D2 receptor gene in alcoholism. JAMA Vol 263:2055-2060.
Blum, K., Noble, E.P., Sheridan, P.J., Finley, O., Montgomery, A., Ritchie, T., Ozkaragoz, T. Fitch, R., Sadlack, F., Sheffield, D., Dahlmann, T., Halbardier, S., Nogami, H. (1991) Association of the A1 Allele of the D2 Dopamine receptor gene with severe alcoholism. Alcohol Vol 8:409-416.
Caduto, M.J., and Bruchac (1988 ) How Coyote Was the Moon, in: Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activties for Children. Golden, Colorado: J. Fulcrum, Inc. pp 111.
Campbell, J. (1959) The Masks of God; Primitive Mythology. Viking Press: New York.
Goodwin, D.W. (1984) "Studies of Familial Alcoholism: A Review" The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 45: Vol. 12, sec.2 pp.14-17.
Henderson, J. (1956) from "A Psychological Commentary," in The Pollen Path by Margaret Schevill Link, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
Luckert, K.W. (1979) The Coyoteway: A Navajo Holyway Healing Ceremony. Johnny C. Cooke, Interpreter. University of Arizona Press: Tuscon and the Musuem of Northern Arizona Press: Flagstaff.
Reichard, G.A., (1977) Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism. Princeton University Press/ Bollingen Series XVIII. Princeton: New Jersey.
Sandner, D. (1979) Navaho Symbols of Healing. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, Vermont. pp 156.
Schuckit, M.A., (1985) "Genetics of Alcoholism" U.C. Davis Conference Symposium. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Vol. 9, No.6, Nov.
Schuckit, M.A. (1985) "Genetics of Alcoholism" in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Vol. 9 no.6/ Dec. pp. 475-491.
Schuckit, M.A. (1994) "Low Level of Response to Alcohol as a Predictor of Future Alcoholism," Am J Psychiatry Vol. 151. pp. 184-189.
Schuckit, M.A. (1985) "Genetics and the Risk for Alcoholism", JAMA, Nov. 8, Vol. 254, No. 18. pp. 2614.
Schuckit, M.S. (1986) "Genetic and Clinical Implications of Alcoholism and Affective Disorders," Am J Psychiatry Feb. Vol. 143 pp2.
Schuckit, M.S. (1985) in "Genetics of Alcoholism," a University of California, Davis- Conference presentation of research findings in Alcoholism: Clinical and Environmental Research Vol. 9, No.6. November/December.
Will-Mayo, G. (1993) That Tricky Coyote! From the story "Boo! Coyote," as told by John Duncan, A Ute from White Rock, Utah recorded in 1909. Walker and Company: New York.
JACQUES RUTZKY, M.A., MFCC
is in private practice in Woodside, California where his work focuses primarily on long-term in-depth analytical psychotherapy. He specializes in treating adults and couples recovering from early childhood traumas, incest, addiction, and physical and emotional abuse. He conducts alcohol and drug evaluations and is a consultant to attorneys for the assessment and treatment of chemical dependence.
He is the author of the forthcoming book, Coyote Speaks: Psychotherapy with Alcoholics and Addicts (Jason Aronson, Inc.)(1-800-782-0015).
PO Box 620923
Woodside, California 94062
Tel. (415) 851-8759
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