The Tide That's Always Coming In

Sun, 02/09/2014 - 3:00pm

Ed. note: This is the first in a series of essays that will be looking at the struggles of alcohol and drug addiction on Block Island from a very personal point of view.

While skipping rocks on a calm Charleston Beach the day before this year’s census, I noticed I was agitating the seals. One by one, they lurched off of their rocks into the frigid water. They were going to have to jump in the water eventually, anyway. The tide was slowly swallowing the rocks the seals were sleeping on, and soon they would be totally underwater.

I imagined the tide perpetually rising, never receding, and it reminded me of that ache I used to get in my gut. Whenever I wanted to change something, to make life easier to handle, and realized I couldn’t, I’d get a heart full of lead.

When I was younger, I’d come to live on Block Island to avoid having to grow up. I thought living here would help lighten the load. As it turns out, nothing can lighten the load for someone dealing with drug addiction and alcoholism; not even Block Island. I’ve also come to find that life is very much like a tide that’s always coming in. Running away only delays the inevitable, and there is no relief that comes in a bag or a bottle.

I finally got wet and grew up all at once about two years ago. Before then, I used to ask myself what the point of life was. Since I couldn’t find any sufficient answers, I figured there was no point. I couldn’t handle that level of emptiness in my gut, so wherever there were drugs or booze, I went.

I ran from responsibility, from friendship, and from love. I ran from society and I ran from whatever that thing was that everyone called God. I ran right into the outstretched arms of synthetic heroin, and there was nothing I or anyone else could do to stop me. It was a really nice place to be for about two months. I spent the next three years hanging on a coat rack in the foyer of hell.

There’s a stigma attached to drug addiction and alcoholism that keeps people sick for a very long time. America’s problem with drugs and alcohol will never shrink as long as that stigma exists. The words “addict” and “drunk” still conjure a sense of weakness that devalues a human life; a feeling of pity without empathy. Once I had become both of those things, I decided I had no worth as a human being.

Where there is no self-love, there develops a vacuum which is promptly filled with self-loathing, and human beings have a propensity to destroy that which they hate. Addiction’s stigma is gasoline on the fire that is self-loathing. This, along with my addiction’s perverse contortion of reality, is the reason I kept myself sick for as long as I did.

At some point in early 2012, I was able to feel myself lying in the hands of the Spirit of the Universe. I couldn’t perceive it mentally, but I could feel it spiritually. I opened my eyes and ears to what was going on around me. I decided I should try to live, and I decided I needed someone to teach me how to live. Until then I hadn’t felt I was worth it. Some source of compassion for myself came from God-knows-where to change my mind one day.

This disease that I perceived as a curse for so long turned into a blessing. I then began to do all the growing up I bypassed with drugs and alcohol; a mind-blowing experience, indeed, and one that’s given me a spiritual peace and a quality of life I never could have possibly imagined. I didn’t know life could be fulfilling, and I thought for a long time that every smile I ever saw was faked. Today, I’m about as far away from that level of disdain for life as I can get.

On the day before I moved back to Block Island last year, a lifetime island resident and old friend of mine lost his life to the same thing that almost took mine so many times. I was looking forward to seeing him again, and I wish he could have had the same opportunity to live that I’ve been given. I went to his funeral last April where his family graciously publicized the cause of his death, wishing for others in the same fight what I had wished for their loved one: a chance for enlightenment and life.

All of my being wanted to approach the podium at Harbor Church to shed light on the situation and to eliminate the idea that there was any person or thing to blame for the tragedy. For whatever reason, I couldn’t gather the courage to do it. The column I’ll be writing for The Block Island Times is, in large part, a reaction to that event and what followed. I’m eternally grateful to be given the opportunity.

Block Island has its beauty and its ugliness, like any other place in the universe. It’s also extremely unique, and there is an incredible capacity here for community strength. Addiction does indeed cross the Block Island Sound, and alcoholism likes to cozy up here and mask itself as a lifestyle. However, the Town of New Shoreham has an ability to fight those things that no other town in America can match. I plan on elaborating on that ability in the future.

It’s unfortunate that Block Island’s reaction to last April’s tragedy was so short-lived. The brevity of the backlash was due in large part to the fact that, when concrete solutions to the problem of drug addiction are sought, seekers almost always seem to come up empty-handed due to misconceptions and misguided blame. Frankly, there is no concrete solution, and there certainly are no solutions that don’t require extreme patience.

On a more positive note, I must say that I’ve been pleased to witness a general respect and appreciation on Block Island for addiction and alcoholism, as well as for those who are in recovery. Almost every time I’ve had to disclose this sort of information since I moved here, whether at Club Soda or in my home, I’ve received a certain level of love and respect for which I am very grateful. I’m fairly certain that at this point not a single bartender on Block Island would serve me a beer without first, at the very least, furrowing their eyebrows.

I hope someday alcoholics and drug addicts will no longer feel the need to be anonymous. Having done the things I’ve done and having been the places I’ve been, placing that kind of label on myself is of little concern to me. No one in human history has ever changed anything without stepping out on that limb that everyone else can see from the comfort of the ground.

This column will continue for the next couple of months so I can explain why addiction doesn’t discriminate, describe what happened to me, and what it’s like for someone in recovery living on Block Island. After that, I’m going to begin a discussion about where to go from here and what a reasonable approach to dealing with drug addiction and alcoholism should look like.

I came back to Block Island last year nearly one year sober, despite contrary advice from important people in my life. As it turns out, if the desire to change is greater than the desire to stay the same, then the environment in which the change occurs doesn’t matter. But what sort of pride can a community have in itself if people in recovery from the disease of addiction are advised against living there? This is a discussion that can’t just take place after something happens.

The problem of addiction is a tide that’s always coming in. To deal with it is to jump in and get wet.

The water is fine, really.

Joel Taylor is a 24-year old musician from Lancaster, Penn., living on Block Island.

Read Part II: Coming about, here.