Recovery Notes #3

I write, therefore I am

Even though I didn’t quit drinking until 1983, I’ve always believed that I took the first step toward recovery in early April, 1978, while I was a student at the University of Guelph. Guelph was in the grip of first days of spring and the air was soft while the sun sparkled on the melting snow, but I had no eyes to appreciate any of it.  Two years earlier, the loneliness brought on by the end of a long-term relationship had hurtled me deeper into the drinking life. I had become a crazy barroom lady, mouthy and laughing on the outside, while dying on the inside. I embarked on a series of unrequited love affairs and the continual rejection battered any remaining self-esteem to a pulp. Finally, there was one rejection too many and I became paralyzed. I stopped attending classes, skipped my final exams and spent my days sitting on the floor in front of the couch drinking, listening to sad music and crying.

Somewhere in midst of my misery, I decided to write a letter to my absconded lover. For three days, I struggled to put my feelings into words, and as I did, something deep inside of me changed. A quiet voice in my head said “writing will get you out of the hell your life has become.” It stopped me cold and, at first, I didn’t know what to do. But I, who had elevated self-doubt and cynicism to the level of an art form, believed the voice without question. I put away the booze (temporarily), showered, changed my clothes, left the house and was able, for the first time in weeks, to look people in the eye.

My lover thought the letter was “too weird” but by the time he read it I no longer cared. I turned my back on Ontario and embarked on the hitchhiking journey that would eventually take me to northern Canada. The trip quickly degenerated into a tour of bars and parties across the country but, throughout it all, I remained convinced that somehow, somewhere, I was going to be a writer.

Eight months later I found myself on a bus heading south from the Northwest Territories. I had been to visit Bart*, an old friend with whom I had hooked up on the road, and who had then gotten work in Hay River. Now I was on my way home for Christmas, but I planned to return in January to set up housekeeping with Bart. When the bus stopped in Peace River, Alberta, a young woman, Violet*, hurried on and plopped herself down in the seat beside me. She had overslept in Hay River so a friend had driven her 600 km south to catch the bus in time to make it to Saskatchewan for Christmas. She told me that she worked at a Tapwe, a small weekly newspaper run by a publisher who would hire anybody who could type.

As soon as I returned to Hay River in the New Year, I made an appointment with Don Taylor, the publisher at Tapwe, and haltingly told him that I wanted to write. It was the first time I had ever admitted my aspirations to anybody and I was terrified he would laugh me out of the office. Instead, he asked me if I could type. When I responded in the affirmative, he hired me on the spot as a reporter/photographer trainee.

Don was an eccentric newshound who had earned his reporting chops at the Regina Leader Post and Canadian Press before venturing north in the mid-1960s to start his own newspaper. I soon became his protégé and I was so smitten with everything that I was learning at my new job — reporting, writing, northern stories — that for a time I was able to restrict my drinking.

But the darkest days of my alcoholism were still ahead of me. The difference was that now I had something to hang on to. Writing gave me a way to fit into the mosaic of the world. It gave me an identity and a purpose. I finally felt that my life could have value. When drinking eventually overtook me and I faced the choice between life and death, I believe it was this sense of identity and value that helped me to choose life.

*not the real names

This blog has been inspired by reactions from readers of “Free Love,” my novel about recovery from alcoholism.  I have often been asked why I chose to write about that particular subject. While there are several answers to that question, the most honest one is that I’m a recovering person myself. That opened the door to more questions. So I have started this blog to share some of my thoughts about alcoholism and addiction, based on my experience and observation. 

If you’d like to read or gift Free Love, check out my SALE PRICES!

Recovery Notes #2

To drink is to die

I’ve heard it said that there are three eventual outcomes for a person who continues to drink alcoholically: institutionalization, jail or death. Even though I’d had a number of drunken brushes with death (a car accident, a house fire), the fact that I was courting death didn’t register on me until my last day of drinking.

When I awoke on August 22, 1983,  I was on the seventh day of a binge which I spent at my typewriter drinking and eating hash brownies while attempting to write the great Canadian novel that would stun the world and propel me to sanity and fame (I wrote one short paragraph).

A year earlier, I had picked a fight with my boss, suddenly quit my job as a newspaper reporter in Hay River (a small community south of Great Slave Lake) and stormed off to Yellowknife with a carload of worthless stuff, little money and no place stay (in recovery lingo this is called a “geographical cure). Alcoholics thrive on being victims so if you had asked me why I quit my job, I would have said I was disrespected, overworked and underpaid but said nothing about my unreliability and irresponsibility. The truth was that my job was interfering with my drinking.

I survived that first year in Yellowknife by leaning on others for money, drinks and places to stay, eventually managing to dig myself out of the financial hole through a series of freelance assignments which I was able to complete while in a semi-sober state. But emotionally I was a wreck. I was overcome by haunting loneliness and unnamed terrors that would not let me go, no matter how much I drank. The days when drinking was a magical cure for my feelings of inadequacy were far in the past and now alcohol only magnified my misery. Yet I still I persisted in my belief that it was the solution, not the problem. The more I drank, the worse I felt. The worse I felt, the more I drank. Suicide became a viable option.

That August morning, a friend came over to visit. Mike (not his real name) and I had gone on many binges together and I knew him well. But I hadn’t seen much of him since he quit drinking four months earlier. Now I was astonished at how much he had changed. Instead of whining about how badly the world had treated him, as he would have in the past, he admitted to his drunken wrongdoings. Listening to his honesty, I had an epiphany (I am rather given to epiphanies as you will see in future posts). I saw how drinking controlled my life. For the first time, I realized that it could only end in death, whether by drunken incident, suicide or bodily breakdown.

I burst into tears.

“Mike, tell me the truth,” I said, when I had regained control over myself. “Do you think that I’m an alcoholic?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

It was the perfect answer. If he’d said ‘yes,’ I would have gotten angry and consoled myself by getting drunk. If he’d said ‘no,’ I would have celebrated by getting drunk.

After Mike left, I drank all the booze that was left in the house. The next morning I decided I wanted to live more than I wanted to die. 

Unless I have an unexpected burst of time and energy (highly unlikely), I plan to take a break from this blog over the holiday season. I will post again early in 2018. Meanwhile, happy holidays, everybody! May you all find peace and happiness.

This blog has been inspired by reactions from readers of “Free Love,” my novel about recovery from alcoholism.  I have often been asked why I chose to write about that particular subject. While there are several answers to that question, the most honest one is that I’m a recovering person myself. That opened the door to more questions. So I have started this blog to share some of my thoughts about alcoholism and addiction, based on my experience and observation. 

If you’d like to read or gift Free Love, check out my HOLIDAY SALE! 

Recovery Notes #1

So how did I become an alcoholic, anyway?

The truth is that I don’t know. I have spent many years in recovery examining my life and have at various times come up with different explanations. I have blamed it on the fact that I was (and continue to be) over-sensitive, a child full of feelings that were not easily understood by the people around her. I have blamed it on unacknowledged childhood pain, stemming from difficulties in my relationships with my parents. I have blamed it on growing up in a socially isolated immigrant family, on being remorselessly bullied at school, on coming of age during the sixties when young people across North America rebelled against the establishment and getting high became a rite of passage. On genes passed down from an alcoholic grandfather whom I didn’t know. It could have been any of those things. Or all of them. Or none of them. After 35 years of self-examination in sobriety, I still don’t have the definitive answer.

All I know is that as a teenager I felt like a misfit, that I was ugly, stupid and lacking in a way that would preclude me from leading any kind of meaningful life. I was not exposed to drinking as a child, but when I had my first drink at the age of the 16 I took to it like a fish to water. My uncomfortable feelings vanished and I felt the way other people looked: attractive, intelligent and articulate. I could dance. I could flirt. I could carry on a conversation without awkward pauses. I spent the next 14 years trying to recapture that feeling and, as time went by, it took more and more alcohol to do so.

Whatever the reason that I started drinking in the first place, in time alcohol became its own thing, an illness in itself. I never drank socially. From the beginning, I always drank to get drunk. At first it was only an occasional event.  In time, I started to drink every weekend. Then all weekend. Then on week days as well. Then in the mornings. Drinking took over my life so slowly that I didn’t notice it. Instead of drinking to feel good or to have fun, I began to drink in order to drink. Along with drinking, I abused every street drug I could find, particularly pot. The life I led as an alcoholic and addict piled pain onto pain. It reopened wounds I already had and cut deeper. I behaved in ways that were against my own moral code and put myself into situations where I was both abusive and abused. Mornings, I woke up sick and cringing with shame, sometimes unable to remember what I had done the night before. I descended into a black pit of loneliness and despair and didn’t know how to get out. The only solution I could see was to drink myself to death.

So why did I sober up? That’s another question that I can’t answer. The best answer I have is that I wanted to live more than I wanted to die. More about that in my next post.

This blog has been inspired by reactions from readers of “Free Love,” my novel about recovery from alcoholism.  I have often been asked why I chose to write about that particular subject. While there are several answers to that question, the most honest one is that I’m a recovering person myself. That opened the door to more questions. So I have started this blog to share some of my thoughts about alcoholism and addiction, based on my experience and observation. 

If you’d like to read or gift Free Love, check out my HOLIDAY SALE!