Ed. note: This is the final in a four-part series about Joel Taylor's journey through addiction and recovery.
There is still some confusion about the word “disease." As defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a disease is “a condition that prevents the body or mind from working normally.” The dictionary also defines it as “a problem that a person, group, organization, or society has and cannot stop.” I, and many who've shared my experience with drugs and alcohol, consider alcoholism to be a disease that is both mental and spiritual; one that's self-medicated by the afflicted. It fits the definition of disease perfectly. It's never cured, only arrested.
I've met alcoholics who've strung together over 15 years of sobriety, only to wind up in a hospital with kidney failure months later because they'd convinced themselves it was safe again to have a drink.
It's often been said that becoming an addict or an alcoholic is like walking through a doorway, only to have the door slam shut, never again to be opened. After stepping over the threshold into addiction, there is no going back to whatever it is that was once perceived as “normal” life; that's a very difficult proposition to accept. Failure to accept that is one thing that keeps alcoholics going back to the liquor store again and again, hoping with all of their hearts that they could have one glass of gin and tonic after dinner and be done with it. “Just one more,” is something I said to myself at least a thousand times.
I absolutely love the taste of good liquor. I've had dreams about having a glass of fine rum with my grandfather from time to time, enjoying it deliberately with a good friend. The thought of having a drink doesn't linger for long these days, though. After all, the only sensations I get after having a drink are brief feelings of warmth and relaxation, followed immediately by an immense dissatisfaction and an overpowering craving for another drink.
Having one drink is frustrating to me, more than anything. Having five drinks is also frustrating, and six, and so on. While drinking, the only time I can stop craving more is when I'm non-responsive. It's like having to eat chocolate cake until vomiting in order to reach satisfaction, except I never vomited while drinking. I always took a false sense of pride in that, thinking I could handle my liquor better than everyone else.
To this day, I sometimes become a little aggravated when I see someone take 20 minutes to finish a drink. I want to look at them and ask them, “Aren't you going to drink that?” Some of my friends will tell you I often do ask them that. My mind didn't always work that way. There was a time in my life when I'd be all right with just having one or two drinks, while having a good time with friends or family. Alcoholism hit me like a silent train in the dark. I didn't see or hear it barreling down the tracks, but suddenly I was smashed into a million pieces by it.
Alcoholism and addiction are among those things that parents hope their children never have to deal with, but they're sometimes about as avoidable as death and taxes. I once had invited my mother to a church to see a friend of mine give a speech about his recovery from alcoholism. Among the attendees were a dozen addicts and alcoholics with less than 30 days of sobriety. They had all come to visit from a nearby rehabilitation hospital. Having seen what I had gone through, my mother looked around and said to me, “I just want to give all of them a hug!”
Occasionally, I wish I didn't have to deal with my own alcoholism, let alone others', but wishing for impossibilities is never productive. A friend of mine told me, after I told her that I was about to write for The Block Island Times, “I've done lots of incredible things and helped a lot of people out over the years, but still, sometimes I'd just rather not deal with it.” Coming from a woman who has been sober since the late 60s, that was a very revealing testimony. The reality is, as I'm sure she knows, it's never going to go away.
A counselor that I was seeing for short while in college, who was a very good friend to me, describes alcoholism as a beast. He is a recovering alcoholic himself. “The beast,” he says, “lives in a cave somewhere in the back of my mind. Today, it's really small, but it's still there.” I envisioned some vague, ghastly looking creature that used to hide under my bed when I was a little boy. I could feel what he was talking about.
At the time, the beast in my mind had totally taken control of my thoughts. Its sole purpose was to make me believe I needed to drink. It caused me to lie, steal and manipulate in order to continue to feed my alcoholism, thus continuing to feed the beast. Most of the time, its control over me was so absolute that I wasn't aware of it. The counselor told me, “Every time you say 'no' to the beast, it grows smaller and smaller.” Although I didn't know how to say no at the time, I've never forgotten those words.
When I run into somebody who wants to stop drinking and can't, I'll always have my old friend's simple advice about the beast to pass along to them.
A major problem I had in trying to put the drink down was a misunderstanding of the obsession to drink. I was under the impression that once the craving for a drink or drug entered my mind and body, it would stay there forever until I died, unless I satisfied the craving. As soon as I figured out that wasn't true, quitting became much easier. “This, too, shall pass,” as they say.
Of course, quitting drinking or drugging can be extremely difficult, but it can also be made simple. Other distorted perceptions of reality in my active alcoholic mind were these: everybody around me drinks, life without drinking is painfully boring, there's no way I can quit for the rest of my life, and the shame in admitting defeat is unbearable.
Regarding the first distortion of reality, that was the way I thought because I surrounded myself with people who drank, or only noticed the ones who did. In reality, not everybody drinks. I surrounded myself with people who drank as heavily as I did, which incidentally became fewer and fewer. Many others would exit my life or I would kick them out.
This translates directly to Block Island. A common sentiment on the island is that everybody drinks, and that alcoholism is pervasive in every part of the culture. That's only true for those who choose to see it that way and for those who choose to live that way. Even for the alcoholic, there is still a choice, even if they don't see it. As I've said before, alcohol doesn't bother me. I understand that drinking is fun and that it's a universal pastime, although it was no longer fun for me at a certain point.
The second distortion of reality I had was simply wrong. I used to come across people who didn't drink like I did, or didn't do any drugs, and think, “How on Earth do these people keep themselves from committing suicide?” There was an underlying jealousy in that thought. Learning how to live in contentment is like finding heaven on Earth.
I know I can't quit for the rest of my life. Not all at once, anyway. I can only quit for today, not for yesterday or tomorrow. Anytime someone has asked me if I planned on quitting for the rest of my life, I'd tell them I didn't know. It's infinitely easier that way.
The most devastating distortion of realty, placing more shame on oneself than anyone else possibly could, is the most difficult to overcome. It was difficult to wrap my brain around the idea that I was causing myself more shame by refusing to admit defeat. As soon as I did admit drugs and alcohol had defeated my ability to live, I was liberated from shame. There were still plenty of things to feel guilty about, but shame is to guilt as hatred is to dislike.
All that said, there comes a time when things just need to be simplified. It took me a long time to figure some of those things out. Simplification was the first step in getting to a place where I could find some things out about myself. After tearing through life like a hurricane for a while, everything became a singular blur of debris and wreckage, at which point it became all too easy to hide from it inside of a bottle.
Things became simple when I decided I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Things became even more simple when I realized I couldn't figure out how to get well on my own. I actually got to a place where I was willing to ask somebody to tell me what to do, which was absolutely unheard of for me.
There are drinkers and junkies who decide to change and do so, whether it's because they grow up, have kids, decide they want more out of life, or just have a desire for simplicity. Then there are people like me, who can't seem to put down the drug or the drink for anyone or anything. In those cases, things usually have to get pretty ugly in order for them to change. In my case, change wasn't attractive unless the consequences of staying the same became too great.
The greatest consequence for me was internal. I've done many things I've promised myself I'd never do, but I never have lived under a bridge, I've never slept on any park benches, and I've never begged for any quarters. I have, for a time, lost all sense of joy. No matter where I slept, that was the ultimate bottom. That was when suicide became a small consideration.
The turning point came when I decided I either needed to end my life, or change and be happy. The way I was living was too excruciating. Obviously, I chose the latter. It seemed much less permanent. That may seem extreme, but I believe that is the end of the road of addiction for all those who travel it far enough. Luckily, I'd had the knowledge by then that change was possible.
I've heard people say, “It's not how much you drink, but what it does to you.” In that regard, alcoholism is a self-diagnosed disease. Only the alcoholic himself can determine when enough is enough, as it was in my case. I was first told that I was an alcoholic when I was nineteen years old, but no matter how many times somebody told me I was an alcoholic, I didn't believe it until I made up my own mind about it. Addiction is much more black and white to the addict and to everyone around them. I knew very well, very early on, when my habit became an addiction.
There is no world-wide, nation-wide, or even community-wide solution to a problem that exists only inside of an individual. If there is a problem, it can't possibly be resolved until it's identified and defined. This is largely the motivating factor behind this series. In my experience, too many people still have a painfully inadequate perception of alcoholics and drug addicts.
If there is a sweeping problem on Block Island or in society as a whole, the solution begins at this moment, with each person who reading this article. It's not something for someone else to deal with. The solution may simply be knowledge. Many people understand what addiction is, but there is a lack of knowledge about the deeper aspects of it.
My mother gained some of that knowledge from a close friend who had dealt with addiction in her family. My mother has done some very difficult things during my addiction in order to help me get to a place where I could consider changing. She has been probably the most influential person in my life in that way. She always found the courage to tell me what she thought I needed to hear, and to do the things she needed to do in order to help me get to where I am today.
My mother told me recently that it was important for her not to try to save me, and to have faith that I was going to be okay. At a certain point, people may have little to no control over what happens to their loved ones, but a their influence should never be under-estimated. I can say for certain that my mother would not have been able to help me at all, and in fact she may have done the opposite, if it weren't for her initiative to learn about my addiction.
If I were asked how to deal with someone who may be suffering from the disease of addiction, I would tell them to ask themselves, “Am I minimizing or maximizing the consequences for their destructive behavior?” As I've said, change doesn't occur until the consequences of staying the same become too painful.
As painful as it was for Block Island to lose a good friend last year to the battle of addiction, I remember seeing the words, “Don't talk to the cops,” etched on a stop sign on the island afterward. I remember feeling a cocktail of anger, disappointment, and sadness. For those who believe the police are out to get them, they're occasionally right. That's because, in addition to harming themselves and their families, they are actively helping others commit unintentional suicide by selling deadly drugs in order to feed their own addictions.
There is a legitimate national and international disagreement about how drug trafficking and drug addiction should be handled. Regardless, I've recently heard from a few parents on Block Island, without a trace of doubt in their voices, that prison saved their children from addiction. I don't believe that prison is a solution, but it's one more consequence of addiction that can make it too painful to stay the same.
Maybe society will develop a more effective way of dealing with its drug problem in the future, but I'm not naive enough to think I will witness that development in my lifetime. Until then, we can continue to change our perceptions of the nature of addiction and develop a more open dialogue about it.
This will be the last installment of my series on addiction, and I'd like to deeply thank all of those who've expressed their appreciation. It's reminded me why I followed through on the idea to write about these things, and it's given me the reassurance I needed to continue. Some have told me they learned a great deal in reading the series, and some have told me how closely they can relate to it. Both have brought me a joy I can't explain. I'll also be eternally grateful to those at The Block Island Times who gave me this opportunity. Their support and willingness have both been tremendous.
I hope, more than anything else, that this series has given hope to any who need it.