Illustration from ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘On the Island of Erraid’ by N C Wyeth

some of the following is condensed by me from both ‘Kidnapped’ and from David Whyte’s book, ‘The Three Marriages’…

in ‘Kidnapped’, Stevenson’s hero, David Balfour, is shipwrecked off the west coast of Scotland. he barely escapes with his life, as he can hardly swim, and struggles ashore on a small uninhabited island, Erraid. he can see the main island of Mull, with its houses and turf smoke, across the strait of water, but has no way of reaching it through the depth of the sea and the fearsome currents.

David spends four days on the desolate island, looking over at the inaccessible shore, eating only limpets from the rocks and becoming weaker and more feeble every day. fishermen pass by him in their little boats, ignoring his cries. he cannot understand their laughter and incomprehensible shouts to him in Gaelic. his clothes and socks wear through with the constant abrasion from the rocks and the salt water, and the shellfish which are his only source of energy sicken him even as he eats them.

on the fourth day he hails yet another local fishing boat, and in their cries he finally makes out one word in Gaelic that he recognises: Tragh, tide. as Whyte says:

‘They are pointing towards the other end of the island, and he realises at once what a fool he has been. He is on a tidal islet, and they are telling him he could have walked off at low tide any time over the last four days. He charges across to the other side of the island to find that the stretch of water is now a small trickle though which he can wade.’

“A sea-bred boy would not have stayed a day on Earraid; which is only what they call a tidal islet, and except in the bottom of the neaps, can be entered and left twice in every twenty-four hours, either dry-shod, or at the most by wading. Even I, who had the tide going out and in before me in the bay, and even watched for the ebbs, the better to get my shellfish—even I (I say) if I had sat down to think, instead of raging at my fate, must have soon guessed the secret, and got free. It was no wonder the fishers had not understood me. The wonder was rather that they had ever guessed my pitiful illusion, and taken the trouble to come back. I had starved with cold and hunger on that island for close upon one hundred hours. But for the fishers, I might have left my bones there, in pure folly. And even as it was, I had paid for it pretty dear, not only in past sufferings, but in my present case; being clothed like a beggar-man, scarce able to walk, and in great pain of my sore throat.”

in Whyte’s words:

‘Stevenson asks us not to rage against our fate but to look at the tidal flow of events surrounding us with a keen eye. Only those who put more energy into self pity than into paying attention are truly marooned.’

that last sentence is more than somewhat subjective and judgemental. having been trapped myself on Alcohol Island for far too long I would argue that all our previous efforts to escape were not perhaps solely lacking in directed energy, but lacking in information. 

the information, in particular, that living sober is better than living a life of dependence on alcohol. as Lotta Dan put it so brilliantly:

‘you work on proper techniques to deal with big painful things – and they work. so. much. better. than. boozing. ever. did.’  

I feel completely evangelical about this so excuse my shouting, but:

THEY WORK BETTER THAN ALCOHOL, FOLKS! can you hear me at the back?!

and I know that feeling of losing something forever when we renounce alcohol. just typing that word, renounce, gave me a pang… but what if we are replacing something that doesn’t work with something that works better? like finally replacing a worn out sports bra that has let us down, literally, once too often?

secondly, that abstinence is easier than moderation, certainly after the first few months of adjustment. so if you have been trying moderation, and not ‘succeeding’ – why not try something that’s easier?! and I will not pretend to you that the early months aren’t tough. they are. but they are possible to get through, sometimes a second at a time. and gradually the effort taken to not drink reduces, until it is only a mere occasional irritating but pathetic bleep, like the battery running down on your child’s most annoying toy. and after that the layers of possibility just keep peeling off, and you won’t believe your life can keep just getting better, but it does.

and finally, that we are not, as we think, alone. there are so many, so many of us, all on our own little islands. all thinking we are the only ones. and another name for that particular archipelago is Shame. to quote Brené Brown:

‘Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it – it can’t survive being shared.’ 

and if you are reading this, and wondering if you can find a way to escape captivity, then I am here to tell you that YES you can and YES it is possible.

because you are already free. 

however sore and damaged and helpless you think you are, however deep and dangerous the waters around you seem. there is a way out which you haven’t even imagined yet. and I don’t know what that way is for you. because it will be different for each of us. all I know is that it will involve another person, or quite likely many other people. whether it is another person running a 100 day sober challenge whom you can email every day, or the person who has written a life-changing online sobriety course, or a book or a blog or a support forum or a podcast, or a sober pen-pal, or a therapist, or another person in real life at a meeting.

we need each other. we need a shout across the water to tell us the things that we don’t know, yet. 

and then we can take advantage of the tides in our lives, like the great communal surge of self-improvement at New Year, use that new information, and walk free.

I am walking free myself into 2015 with 423 days sober and my hands uplifted in gratitude.

by the way, that inhospitable island is a real place. Stevenson’s father was a pioneering Scottish lighthouse designer, who designed a lighthouse nearby whose stones were quarried on Erraid, and Stevenson visited the island at that time.

the photograph above is of a beach on the island itself, taken from the website of a foundation which now runs a community on Erraid, where they conduct retreats and eco-holidays – limpets optional 😉

Happy New Year! Prim xx

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