Ed. note: This is the third in the series of Joel Taylor's story of addiction and recovery.
Through the majority of human history, there have been uncountable numbers of men and women who've wanted to stop drinking so badly but couldn't because they didn't know how. I always imagine how perfectly impossible it would be for someone to stop drinking or abusing drugs if they didn't want to.
Alcoholism has now been identified as an illness, not a lack of willpower or excessive weakness. The illness consists of a physical dependence on alcohol and a mental obsession to drink that overpowers the human mind. The illness of alcoholism directly translates to that of addiction. When I was abusing drugs or drinking, the most painful thing anyone ever said to me was, “Why don't you just stop?” My response would typically be something like, “I've been asking myself that same question.”
Alcoholism and addiction aren't caused by drugs and alcohol. The disease manifests itself inside of a person long before drugs and alcohol enter the equation. Generally, I was a morally and spiritually bankrupt individual before I ever started doing drugs and drinking. At some point there was a moment of clarity in which my idea of myself and my actual self became congruent. Change is impossible before that happens.
There is also a part of my physiological and psychological infrastructure that has a sort of allergic reaction to alcohol. When I have a drink, my mind and body become totally overwhelmed by a desire to continue drinking. Between drinks, there is obsession of the mind, and I was convinced I needed a drink and that I could have just one. The cycle continued. The obsession to avoid my natural state of consciousness became so large that every other thought became insignificant.
Thoughts about my health, my responsibilities, my relationships with other people, and even about food and shelter took a back seat to the thought of a drink. I lived this way all day long, every day, for a few years. Whether the “drink” came in a bottle, a small bag, or a pill is irrelevant.
There was an important spiritual experience I had that changed my perception of the universe. Instead of having a disdain for its limitless power over me like I used to, I now have an appreciation for it. It was as if the weight of the entire universe had been lifted from my shoulders when I realized I wasn't the most important thing in it.
This was a vital spiritual experience that was necessary for me to grasp a solution; one that I speak of as being caught in a river and deciding to float downstream. I remember visiting a rehab center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania a while ago, where I was invited to speak about sobriety and the spiritual experience on a regular basis. On one particular occasion, a patient expressed to me how afraid he was of the future. He had some seemingly monumental decisions to make after he left rehab, but his gut knew which choices were the right ones. However, if he were to make the right decisions, he would likely lose his apartment and he'd be away from his girlfriend. In my mind, these were insignificant sacrifices to make for a potential life of sobriety and happiness. In his mind, they were the end of the world.
I said to him what I've said to myself so many times. I told him to float downstream; he could fight the current as much as possible, but it's only going to make things more difficult. On the other hand, he could trust the power of the stream and float with it. He knew exactly what I meant when I said everything was going to be okay despite his best efforts to the contrary.
For myself, I've always made things much worse when I've struggled and fought in defiance of everything. “That feeling you have in your gut that tells you what the right decisions are, and the people around you who are trying to help you make them, are your first and most important conceptions of God,” I said to the patient. With a fragile smile, he said, “You're absolutely right.” I can barely remember his face, but I can still feel the connection we had at that moment.
One of the most important things I've learned in the past few years, one that I can clearly convey now, is the difference between suffering and struggle. According to eastern philosophy, suffering is a human condition that is unavoidable.
Struggle, however, is completely independent from suffering. Struggling is a choice. Struggle is sometimes necessary for accomplishment. In my case, I had to turn common logic on its head in order to achieve enlightenment and serenity. I had to make the decision to stop struggling and float downstream. Otherwise, I'd be under a bridge somewhere in Philadelphia with a needle in my arm or a bottle in my hand.
The stream I'm floating down has brought me to Block Island. I floated here because it seemed like the right thing for me. It's turned out pretty well so far. Moving to Block Island last year seems like the most natural thing I've ever done. The island fits me like a glove. I enjoy the quiet and the solitude in the winter, and I enjoy the atmosphere in the summer.
The most important thing, for me, is to latch on to is the enjoyment of life and the two most necessary things for the enjoyment of life, according to Buddhist writings, are a positive attitude and a developed skill.
This is why I have a special appreciation for Block Island. I look around and I see people working on their skills and patiently enjoying themselves while doing so. Time seems to slow down. Days of the week seem to become less important. The screaming machine that is American capitalism seems distant. There's a mystical hum that fills the air.
It may not seem as though Block Island would be the best place for me. The Block Island lifestyle seems like it's centered around alcohol. But after getting to know the place, it becomes clear that the people here aren't that shallow. Just because alcohol is a large part of the lifestyle doesn't mean it defines the island.
There is also the notion of respect. Very rarely has anyone tried to persuade me to drink, and never has anyone tried more than once. With the right response, people generally understand that my livelihood is on the line if I were to have a drink. If I were ashamed of my alcoholism I would be drinking right now and I wouldn't be writing for The Block Island Times. So it was essential for me to be forward about my situation. It's also important for me to leave a situation that makes me uncomfortable. Thankfully, I can count on one hand the number of times I've felt uncomfortable on Block Island over the last year.
I've been around alcohol nearly every day for the past two years and haven't had a drink. Being a musician, my work environment is one filled with alcohol, and one side of my family drinks pretty heavily. I also know people who have over 40 years of sobriety who've worked in a bar the whole time. When it comes down to it, the most vital things to sobriety are abstinence, spirituality and self-awareness. Those things come with work, patience and help from other people.
The point is, someone's behavior only changes as a result of their own thoughts and actions. The people around you can only create an environment that provides potential for change. A friend of mine, who got sober after using for 25 years, said to me once, “I couldn't get sober until my mother died.” What he meant was, he had no motivation to change until his mother was no longer there to enable him. I think people understand what it means to enable someone, but they don't realize how easy it is to do so.
It's been a great pleasure living on Block Island again, and I have many people to thank for the opportunities I've been given here. I'm grateful for the people who have offered me a place to live and a place to work without ever having met me. I'm also grateful that I have the ability to see opportunities when they present themselves, and for the willingness to take them. There are some excellent opportunities out here that really don't exist anywhere else.
I've been told it takes a lot of courage to write the things I've been writing lately, but I haven't really noticed any courage on my part. Really, I'm just doing is what feels natural to me.
And who knows, maybe a few people who read this will decide to float downstream with me.
Ed. note: This is the third in a series about the addiction and recovery of island resident Joel Taylor.