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.
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.