Lessons from Chickens: Emotional Sobriety

Thoughtlessness, Jealousy, Resentment

About three years ago, we acquired chickens.  It’s a growing trend in our PC neighborhood, but I doubt I’d have taken the plunge if the mom of my son’s playmate hadn’t offered me two of her hens, saying six was just too many.  After I’d spent my weekend building a coop, she reneged without the least regret.  “Actually, one of them died, and I’m keeping the rest,” she told me over the phone.  When I noted that it might have been nice to learn this sooner, she offered only a brisk apology:  “I just decided this morning.  Sorry!  You can get yours someplace else.”

Ironically enough, this normie mom’s attitude captures perfectly the mindset of chickens I envy most.  Maybe I’m just too much of a people-pleaser, but never in this world could I could retract an offer that way.  I’d probably give you the promised hens on principle, stuffing how much I wanted not to, or at least apologize to a slobbering degree if I kept them – “I’m so sorry!  God, I’m so terrible, but I just can’t!”

The thing about chickens is, like feathered Cartmans, they do what they want.  Roaming about our yard, if they think of something, they do it.  The minute a gate’s left open, they’re through it and psyched.  If I take too long to feed them, they jump the back porch barrier and peck at the glass door:  “Ape!  Where’s our goddamn oatmeal?!”

My chickens never doubt their own self-worth.  God made them to be chickens, and, damn right, they’re gonna do it!  They know how to scratch and forage for bugs, how to preen and sunbathe and find shelter during rain.  They know where to lay their eggs and when to retreat to the coop toward dusk.  These are the bulleted items of their Chicken Job Requirements, and they carry them out with flawless, almost scornful confidence. Chickens have no morals, no conscience.  They don’t Facebook.  Chickens do, however, have plenty of drama.

Two of the three hens we ended up getting “someplace else” turned out to be peri-menopausal.  That is, the farm woman offloading them on us felt so guilty that at the last minute she literally chased after us with an Ameraucana pullet. “Wait!” she puffed. “Chickens are happier in threes!”  We thought she was just being nice, but after one season, the first two quit laying.

So on my son’s 12th birthday I brought home, peeping and scrabbling inside a paper lunch sack, a day old chick – helpless, scared, and weighing slightly more than a walnut.  Because she was slate black, like our dog and hamster, coincidentally, my son named her Pepper.

Now, whether chickens are happier in threes I don’t know, but a baby chick is definitely miserable alone.  Pepper’s needy cheeping filled our living room any time we tried to leave her in her cage.  I happened to be going through radiation for breast cancer at the time, and found my constant anxiety soothed by little Pepper’s gentle rustlings, soft peeps, and toying with my earrings or hair as she nestled on my shoulder – enough that I could meditate. ( I wrote this blog about it.) An adolescent Pepper once perched on my shoulder through the entire six block walk to my son’s school, with passersby asking, “Um… is that a… chicken?”  I’d nod, eyeing their chickenless shoulders with slight condescension.2013-04-14 18.48.47

Pepper grew up to be an absolutely tremendous Barred Rock hen who lays eggs daily and loves me fiercely.  Yes, chickens can love!  How else would you explain the fact that any time I sit down in the back yard, she jumps into my lap, makes happy chicken noises galore and, after holding my gaze steadily with her bright eye, settles down for a nice meditation nap?

Tragically for Pepper, however, after the two menopausal hens expired, my son and I brought home another lunch sack, this time holding two new chicks – Claire and Henrietta.  Having a pair, we found, made a world of difference: they were content to snuggle with each other but still bonded with us.

2014-03-24 13.46.43

Even before we transferred Claire and Henrietta outside, we knew Pepper was going to be jealous, but we had no idea how jealous.  She hates those little fuckers!  It’s not just a matter of pecking order.  The Ameraucana, though still at the top of the chain, shows no interest in these two outside the occasional feigned peck over food.  But for Pepper, it’s deeply personal.  It’s about rights to Mom’s attention, to being loved as cute and little.

When I come outside, she tries to drive those brats away from me by chasing them all over the yard, or jumps on me as if to claim me if she can.  I have to put down food in multiple places because Pepper hustles frantically from one pile to the next, pecking at the chicks and trying to gobble down everything before they get any.  Of course we can’t enclose them all in the same pen or she corners them and pecks them bloody.

In short, Pepper is the embodiment of jealous, possessive self-centeredness, played out in chicken caricature.  She does what she wants, yes.  And she wants those damn chicks gone! While Pepper sleeps in my lap, I often admire the perfection of her feathers, each one barred with a band of black, white, and rainbow iridescence.  I notice the perfect way they’re arranged to merge toward her tail, or the parallel precision of her white wing quills.  There is such great artistry in a single chicken!  But I also contemplate the design of Pepper’s feelings and instincts, her ruthless jealousy.  That demand for emotional security is built into both of us almost as powerfully as the needs of basic survival.

What does any of this have to do with alcoholism?  I guess that depends on how long you’ve been sober, and whether you work a program.  But the next time I hear a 4th Step, or find in my own 10th step the hostility of claiming what’s “mine” – that person, recognition, attention, security, or love I can’t let anyone else “steal” from me – I’ll think of Pepper as I recognize that these natural, god-given instincts are forgivable.

But I’ll also realize that, with a greater brain comes greater responsibility.   We need to check ourselves – particularly if we’re alcoholic.  Sure, that playdate mom can indulge now and then in “I do what I want!” mentality without consequences.  For her, the line between self-care and self-centeredness is not a crucial distinction.  But for me, giving free rein to even the simplest, chicken-brained instincts – selfish jealousy, resentment, and aggression – can sabotage my entire recovery.  “For when harboring such feeling we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.”

It may sound dramatic, but in my AA community, we hear of another alcoholic/addict’s death every month or two – the culmination of a landslide that began with a few petty grains of sand.

Pepper parrot         

Pepper where she still loves to be.

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Filed under Alcoholism, living sober, Recovery, Sobriety, Urban chickens

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