Isolation Island

For my Neuroscience of Joyful Recovery course (the first course in my recovery coach training!) I had to create a story that explains the brain, joy, and addiction in a way that is easy for others to understand. “Isolation Island” is what I came up with. Trigger warning: a lot of addiction and wine talk in here. Please do not read if you think you will be negatively triggered.

I want to be able to use this story in my coaching to help clients gain a clear and basic understanding of how addiction impacts our brains, attitudes, and behavior. I use wine as the addictive substance because it is most familiar to me, but any addictive substance can be substituted. If you care to read, please drop me a comment or send me an email to let me know what you think! I would love feedback as I am still at the beginning of my training and this piece is a work in progress.

ISOLATION ISLAND

This probably started out as a vacation. A trip you were looking forward to, once upon a time. Honestly, it’s been so long since you’ve seen family or friends you can’t remember exactly how or when you got here.

This is Isolation Island.

You are far from the comforts (surely there were comforts?) of home. This island seemed nice at first. A welcome change of scenery. The solitude felt quiet and peaceful. But now time has passed. And maybe it’s just you (after all, you’re the only one here), but the island feels less hospitable. You haven’t seen the sun in months. It was shining when you arrived but now the sky is a uniform, infinite gray. The days are hot and humid, and the nights are dark, cold, and damp. You have no shelter, because there is nothing you can use to build. You scavenge what you can to eat, but you haven’t had a proper meal in what feels like months. Or maybe forever. You collect rain water to drink, but it’s never enough to satisfy your endless thirst.

Contentment, peace, love, joy: you have only fleeting memories of these emotions. Now, there is just a uniform, infinite gray in your head and your heart, mirroring the sky.

You are weak. You are exhausted. You are lonely. You don’t know exactly how you got here – physically or emotionally – or how you will get home. You don’t even know where home is anymore. Tucked inside the rotted-out stump of a long-dead tree is a forgotten pile of postcards from family and friends. The cards are smeared and faded beyond legibility. You stopped returning their correspondence long ago. Eventually they stopped writing to you, or maybe you told them not to write to you anymore – you can’t remember.

Despite clues that others have been here before you – a piece of rubber whose shape is reminiscent of a shoe sole, letters scrawled on the trunk of a tree that could have been someone’s initials – you’ve been here long enough that you’re convinced you’re the only one who has ever set foot on this island. You are utterly alone.

The island is home to a mountain. A mountain, and you. You have always felt ill at ease, living in the shadow of this gigantic, inhospitable mound of earth. But one day, out of desperation or boredom or probably both, you begin to climb. And just a short hike from the mountain’s base, you find it:

An outcropping of rock forming a small, dry, perfect, private cave. And inside, seemingly waiting just for you, is a comfortable cot of woven reeds, fresh food and water, and one chilled glass of wine. The food and water satiate you – but it’s the wine that makes you feel good for the first time in ages. Good, or buzzed, or probably both. You forget how miserable and lonely you feel on this island and drift off to sleep.

The next day, having exhausted your supplies, you climb further up the mountain. You have to go farther and higher this time, and the terrain is steeper and more treacherous. But sure enough, you eventually spot another campsite of sorts: no protective cave or woven sleep pad, but some leafy branches, plus more food and water… and more wine. This time it’s a whole bottle, and you drink it first before consuming the food and water. Again, you forget your woes. You don’t feel as easy breezy as yesterday but you feel even more numb to your surroundings – and your painful feelings and memories. You throw together a brush shelter using the branches, and beneath it you fall asleep fast and spend the night tossing and turning.

Another day dawns. You wake with a pounding head and start climbing again. You must find more wine. Food, water, and shelter are afterthoughts. The mountain terrain has grown steeper still. You lose your footing several times. Handholds crumble in your grip. With arms and legs covered in cuts and bruises, you finally stumble upon your next camp. There is nowhere to rest and nothing you can use to build a shelter, only sharp rocks poking into your feet. The food has already been eaten and the water drained – or maybe it was never there to begin with. But you hardly notice, because nestled among the rocks you spot two bottles of wine. The wine is warm, and tastes more disgusting than refreshing, but you hardly notice, gulping it down in search of the release it brings. You don’t want to feel like you are clinging to the side of a mountain. You don’t want to remember you’re alone on an island. You don’t want to go home – you no longer have a home – you just want to escape from it all. Your past and your present fade quickly to black.

You don’t remember when you passed out, but you wake the next morning (or is it afternoon?) feeling more horribly depleted than ever before. Still, you climb, because all you can think about is the next sip of wine. You ignore the throbbing in your arms and legs from the cuts that are starting to fester. There must be more wine at the top of this mountain. Just keep climbing. Don’t look down – if you do, if you realize how high up you are, how far away you are from the safety and relative comfort of solid ground, with no clear path back down, it may be too much to bear.

So you climb. Wine has eclipsed all your other thoughts now. Your senses are offline. You reach, you stumble, rocks tumble around you, yet you climb. Somewhere, deep inside, a voice speaks out: “This is dangerous. Is this really worth risking your life?” But you ignore it. You are almost at the top of the mountain – but there is no wine in sight. It must be there. You MUST find it.

You reach up, one last time, and hoist yourself onto the top of the mountain. You made it! You look around – not at the view, but at the thorny brush and jagged rocks around you, desperately searching. But there is no wine. No camp site. Nothing. Where is it?! It MUST be here! There is nowhere else to go!

You take a deep breath. Sulphur fills your nostrils. The top of this mountain smells like rotten eggs. You look down in the direction of the sour, steamy smell and then you realize –

You are not on top of a mountain. You have ascended a volcano, and you are precariously perched at the edge of its crater.

And there, midway down the crater, you spot what you are seeking: three bottles of wine. You will have to descend into the crater of an active volcano to get your next fix.

Then you spot something else. A faded rope anchored into the rocks a few feet away. It has frayed with time, but seems to have retained its integrity. The rope looks long enough to help you reach the wine in the crater… and also long enough to help you repel off this highest, sheerest part of the mountain and reach easier terrain.

How is there a rope here, you wonder? You are the only one who has ever made this climb. You are alone in your struggle, and you always have been. No one helped you up here, and no one is here to help you now.

What do you do?

The choice is clear, of course.

The only way to go is down.

Take the Compliment and Run

I made this post a podcast! Woohoo!

May 2021. A quick update:

1,034 days alcohol-free. 14 months into the pandemic. 7 days since my second vaccine (and still feeling fatigued, but grateful! Yay science!). 8 weeks to go in my kids’ school year. 2 giant jars of Nutella sitting in my pantry. 1 new office space in a niche off my bedroom that has me feeling super inspired and recommitted to this blog, to writing with a lower case “w” (#recoveringperfectionist), to putting myself out there more often in the hope that someone finds solace in my vulnerability and feels a little more inspired to just keep going.

Just keep going. Just do the next thing. That is enough.

Sometimes the next thing is a small task: brushing your teeth, packing a school lunch, walking the dog. And sometimes the next thing is a big ol’ leap. I did one of these big next things a few weeks ago when I finally decided to enroll in a program I’ve been pondering for the last couple of years, the IAPRC Certified Professional Recovery Coach dual certification program. By November(ish), I will be a Certified Professional Coach and a Certified Professional Recovery Coach. And I swear I didn’t just do it so I can add a lot of acronyms after my name:

Jennifer B. Butler, AB, MBA, CPC, CPRC

Although that looks pretty awesome.

My gut made me do it. This pesky gut of mine keeps clinging to wanting to write a book (yes, that is still on my bucket list and yes, it still terrifies and intimidates me on a daily basis); and, since becoming alcohol-free myself, wanting to help others ditch booze in a professional, entrepreneurial, mom boss kind of way.

I am absolutely loving the program so far. It has been like yoga for my brain. I feel more limber and stronger for having applied myself to the modules, worksheets, and practice exercises. I feel the invigoration of a long-overdue, much-needed mental stretch. My inner critic is having a field day trying to come up with ways to sabotage me (most involve scrolling Instagram – so unoriginal) but I have kept her at bay so far.

Just do the next thing.

When I was a wine mom, my inner critic was living large, spitting a constant barrage of abuse that sent me to my wine fridge on a daily basis. Wine crippled my ability to stand up for myself. Wine made me feel incapable of weathering discomfort. Again and again, I chose to numb. I didn’t believe I was strong enough to stand up against that voice that told me I wasn’t good enough, thin enough, smart enough.

Yesterday, in the midst of lingering fatigue from receiving my second Covid vaccine, my inner critic once again tried to get the best of me. “You will never be able to start your own coaching business. So many smart, pretty, successful women are already doing it. You’ll never actually be able to find any clients. You’ll wimp out on this, just like you’re doing with your book.” (That last one is a particularly low blow.)

I heard her. I felt hurt by her. But I did not open a bottle of wine. I did not even open one of the giant jars of Nutella. Instead of slinking away and numbing myself to those words that slashed me from within, I talked back. “Oh hi, inner critic. My, how vocal you are today! You make me feel pretty awful. But you are just a voice. You have no power. And using alcohol or sugar will only give you the power you crave. So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to acknowledge that you’re there and try my best to do nice things for myself until you fade into the background where you belong.”

I took a nap. I took a shower. I walked my dog. I read a magazine. I meditated. I jotted in my gratitude journal.

I took my power back.

And today, I took more of my power back my taking some compliments.

I have an email account tied to this blog, but I rarely check it. Over the last few years I have received some really wonderful, heartfelt notes from people who have read this blog, or found me on Connect or Instagram, or read my posts on Motherly or This Naked Mind.

I never wrote anybody back.

This is VERY unlike me. I am a good correspondent. I keep in touch with people. I like writing emails. But for some reason, I just could not bring myself to respond to these very kind emails – some of which have been sitting in my inbox since 2018.

This morning, I sat at my new desk in my new office space – a bright, happy, vibrant office space fit for a life coach – took a deep breath, inhaling who I want to be and exhaling my inner critic’s b.s., and I wrote everybody back.

In her book Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes has a brilliant and hilarious chapter on taking compliments (and how many women suck at it). She reminds us:

“No one is obligated to compliment you.

“They do it out of kindness.

“They do it because they want to.

“They do it because they believe the compliment they are offering.”

Today, finally, I chose to receive these compliments. And I wrote everybody back to acknowledge them (well, and to grovel a bit for my tardy replies). I created a folder in my email called “Gold Star File” and I moved all of the wonderful emails there. Then I printed some of them out, to keep these compliments at hand for the next time my inner critic dares to pipe up.

But I think, if I keep on this path of believing in myself and my ability to be a great coach and a great writer, my inner critic’s pipes will fade to peeps. And I’ll be able to focus on my life’s work instead of drowning in self-doubt.