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.
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