Recovery Notes #9

Stumbling onto a spiritual quest

I was introduced to the 12 Steps at my first meeting and the only reason I didn’t run screaming in the opposite direction at the references to “God” and a “higher power” is that I was so defeated by alcohol I had a tiny willingness to see things differently. Even so, in the first months of my sobriety, I took comfort in what Jen (and others) said: everything was a suggestion, not a rule, and I was free to “take what I could use and leave the rest.” I ignored anything that smacked of spirituality and that included most of the steps.

I have always had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of God. Even though I grew up in a time when it was assumed that everybody went to church, I was brought up in a secular household by parents who had no use for religion. That meant that I was the only person I knew who couldn’t fill in the box for “religious affiliation” on school forms. It was another way that I didn’t belong. For a time, I went to church with my girlfriends but, other than making me feel less alone, religion didn’t take. When I was 15, a friend told me that “God did not create man. Man created God.” It was a powerful idea. I wrote it on the cover of my school composition notebook and adopted it as my motto.

Depending on how militant I was feeling at any particular time, I defined myself as either an atheist or agnostic.  I agreed with Karl Marx that religion was “the opiate of the masses” and felt that I belonged to a special cadre of people who were open-minded enough to challenge traditional beliefs (but not open-minded enough to truly examine those beliefs). Yet, as my drinking career proceeded, an unfathomable yearning for … something … grew in me. One miserable drunken night near the end, I shocked myself by falling on my knees in inarticulate prayer, to what or whom I didn’t know. I tried to ignore it by calling temporary insanity, but the memory of it never left me.

Now in recovery I was part of a group where people talked about God as though he was their best friend. I found this so simple-minded that I was more afraid of people finding out that I was part of a God-focused group, than I was of them finding out that I was an alcoholic. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only alcoholic for whom religion was a loaded subject. While there were those with strong church connections, many more were skeptical of organized religion. Some had turned their backs on the churches of their youth because they had been hurt by them, either through the imposition of unforgiving dogma, outright abuse or both. Others had merely strayed.

What made the program possible for me was its flexibility. The basic idea was that alcohol had defeated us so we were powerless over it and our lives. We, therefore, had to find a “power greater than ourselves” to “restore us to sanity.” This could be “God as you understand God” or merely a “higher power.” The emphasis was not on what you believed but that you believed in something that was greater than you. The alcoholics liked to point out that it was a “spiritual” but not a “religious” program and for me, and many others, the higher power became collective wisdom of the group of alcoholics who had succeeded in recovery.

My vague spiritual hunger continued to grow. I eventually realized that I had never really been an atheist, and that the spiritual journey was a process of discovery, not an intellectual decision. I began to see alcoholism as a low-grade spiritual quest in which I was eternally chasing the moment when I’d had exactly enough to drink to feel fully alive, present and connected in the world, a moment that never lasted and became increasingly elusive. The effort to recapture and prolong that moment fueled my drinking for years.

Now I stumbled onto another kind of spiritual quest, this time in companionship with people to whom I was connected through wounds and imperfections. Many had beliefs that I found bizarre and some undoubtedly found my beliefs equally bizarre. None of that mattered. We held on to each other and we walked together. And in so doing, we learned that even though our theology may be different, the spiritual experience is the same.

Recovery Notes #8

Maybe God does take care of fools and drunks

I always think of the little white house on Yellowknife’s 54th Street as my place of healing. It was my home for the first three years of my sobriety and I was the last person to live there. By the time I left, it had a buckling foundation so it was donated to the fire department and burnt down to serve as training exercise for firefighters. Today it is the site of the Lynn Brooks Transitional Home for women and I like to imagine that the healing energy I found there has made its way to the women who pass through the home.

The house came to me against all odds in the first autumn of my sobriety.

Back in the 1982 when I moved to Yellowknife, the city was growing rapidly and the vacancy rate had been zero for more than a decade. I spent the first month sleeping in somebody’s walk-in closet. Then a single ad for a four-bedroom rental house appeared in the local newspaper the same week I met a miner during a hungover morning-after while drinking the dregs of booze abandoned the night before (don’t ask). After a ridiculous conversation (considering what we were doing) during which we both assured each other that we were practically teetotalers, we decided to share the house and rent out the other two rooms. Bret* also agreed to lend me money for my share of the rent.

We lived there for most of a year during which Bret and I consumed numerous bottles of beer and wine, he reconciled with his estranged wife and daughter and moved them into the house, quit drinking in favour of smoking dope (and left recovery pamphlets around the house which made me cry but not quit) and then started up again, then quit again (both booze and dope this time). I sobered up in August while Bret and his family were on vacation and, in September, we received an eviction notice because the house had been sold.

Bret bought a trailer for his family, leaving me with no place to go. I didn’t know any sober people with a room for rent and renting a room in a drinking house was dangerous for me. The only suitable accommodation I could find were bachelor units rented by the YWCA for $800 a month but, even though I’d gotten a research job at CBC, that was beyond my means. Then, not long before I had to move, the woman who was buying our place called on the off-chance that somebody might want to take over the little house on 54thStreet that she had been renting. The tiny one-bedroom house with a small patio in front was perfect for me and the rent was only $400 which I could afford. Maybe God does take care of fools and drunks.

On moving day my sponsor, Jen, showed up on my doorstep with a crew of inmates from the local jail. (Jen ran a non-profit organization and the guys at the jail were assigned to her for a half-day a week as part of their work program.) Dressed in regulation green work pants and shirts, the guys marched into my house and then marched out carrying all my worldly goods:  the components of my bed and a motley collection of boxes. The whole move was done in less than an hour — the easiest move I’ve ever had.

Then Jen got busy helping me furnish the place, schlepping me over to the house of friends who were leaving town and wanted to get rid of their living room furniture. They were going to give it away for free but Jen had a different idea. She thought it was time I started to pay my own way so she made me wash walls in exchange for the chairs. At the time, I was not impressed. Looking back today, I am grateful.

My first night in the house, I went over to a colleague’s place to do my laundry. Everybody there was going to a Hallowe’en party, dressing up, laughing, drinking beer and I overflowed with the longing to be a part of it, to be a normal person, not somebody who had to spend her evenings attending meetings in dusty old church basements. But I knew I couldn’t do it. I packed my clothes into their green garbage bag and set off to walk the six or so blocks to 54th Street. It had been raining all day and I could feel the pinpricks against my cheeks as the rain turned into sleet. After a while I realized that the sleet was mixed with tears.

My tenancy wouldn’t be official until the next day so there was no electricity in the house when I came in.  I made my way through the chaos of furniture and boxes by the dim streetlight that shone in the window. I lit a candle that I found in one of the boxes, hung a blanket over the window and wrestled my mattress onto the floor. I made the bed and crawled in and as I looked at the play of shadows on the ceiling, I felt peace settle into my bones. My quiet inner voice told me that this was the place where I would heal and that all would be well.

That night I slept deeply for the first time in sobriety.


*Not the real name

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 #7

“The mind is a dangerous place, don’t go in alone”

Even though the alcoholics kept telling me to “hang in there” and that “things would get better,” nothing seemed to improve in the first months of my sobriety. Without alcohol and drugs to dim the mental noise, I now had a ringside seat to my own insanity. My mind continued to spin out of control with its obsessions and fantasies. I became acquainted with “the committee,” what alcoholics called the imaginary voices that found fault with everything I tried to do. On top of it all, feelings I didn’t know I had began to come to the surface and I often found myself weeping for no reason.

“The mind is a dangerous place, don’t go in alone,” one of the sober drunks liked to say. They told me that if I continued to keep everything to myself, I was likely to start drinking again. I had to open up, to talk about what plagued me. In other words, I had to connect

The alcoholics were far from perfect. They often said upsetting things that made me cringe (and I suppose some of what I said had the same effect on them). Yet, when the chips were down, these drunks spoke from their hearts in a way that I had never heard before. They would admit to being confused, frightened, rejected or foolish – all familiar feelings that I kept buried. They would unflinchingly divulge horrifying truths about themselves and even manage to laugh at them. And in sharing these hidden truths they built community and stopped being alone. They learned to be “one among others,” not better than, not worse than.

I had been lonely ever since I could remember. Alcoholism is a disease of disconnection and the more I drank, the deeper I locked myself into my own world, and the lonelier I got, the more I drank… It was this haunting loneliness that had driven me to thoughts of suicide. I longed for deep connection but I had always been too frightened to let anybody close to me, had never been able to risk making myself vulnerable. Now, the prospect of no longer being alone with the burden of myself seemed like the most wonderful thing in the world.

At the same time, the temptation to run back to the bar was nearly overwhelming. I had never spoken honestly about myself in my entire life. I grew up in a European family at a time when child-raising was considered to consist of providing food, clothing, shelter and education, not responding to the feelings of an oversensitive kid. My childhood had taught me to repress feelings, not to acknowledge or share them.

Pain is a great motivator for change and it was only the feeling that my back was to the wall (if I didn’t open up, I would drink again) that made me push through the fear. Like so many aspects of recovery, this was simple (but not easy). I tried, to the best of my ability, to drop my defenses and be more honest with people about who I was. It was difficult at first because I had no understanding of honesty. But I got better at it in time and it eventually became a way of life. As it did, my sense of connection grew and my loneliness diminished.


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 #4

Delusions and denial

When I was drinking I thought I had special powers.

I didn’t have any tolerance for the crazy people (aka social drinkers) who only ever had one or two and who (God forbid!) would sometimes abandon their drinks entirely. Instead, I spent my time with the kind of drinkers who would open a fresh bottle of whiskey and throw the cap in the garbage, the kind of drinkers who habitually got so drunk, they stumbled over their own feet, slurred their words and repeated themselves ad nauseam, all the while thinking themselves brilliant. They’d hang their heads and pass out at the kitchen table, or on the floor, or in the bathroom with their heads in a pool of puke, have beer for breakfast and slobber over their clothes. Afterwards, they’d deny what happened and pretend they’d only ever had a few social drinks. Those were my kind of drinkers.

I would match them drink for drink, but I was different (or so I thought). I drank because I was a writer and heavy drinking had a long and illustrious history among the creative class. As a writer, I was called to experience life deeply, to throw myself into the thick of things, to live fully and creatively and this involved lots of alcohol. Creative people like me had special powers so that alcohol didn’t affect us in the same way as it did ordinary people. I never stumbled or slurred my words (although sometimes people couldn’t hear me for reasons I didn’t understand). I did not pass out, (although I sometimes got tired and went to sleep in unusual places). If I drank in the mornings, it was so that somebody who really needed it would not have to feel bad about their morning drinks.

I thought that my biggest problem was that I was unfortunate enough to be attracted to rock-bottom drunks. Out of concern for my alcoholic friends, and also the alcoholics I saw staggering around Hay River, I became interested in the larger problem of alcoholism in the North and set out to sober everybody up.

I began to research alcoholism in my capacity as a reporter, and attended an Alcoholics Anonymous roundup, interviewing members and sitting in on AA meetings. (I also attended their banquet and dance, after a few surreptitious drinks in the bar.) One of the AA members I interviewed explained the role of denial in alcoholism: how alcoholics lie to themselves, and everybody else, about their drinking and how this denial serves to keep them drinking. “Hey, that describes everybody I know,” I thought. I published a detailed story about AA in Tapwe, hoping that some of my poor benighted friends might see themselves in it and get the help that they so badly needed. I may even have urged one or two of them, over drinks in the bar, to join AA.

Sometime later, I left Tapwe for a better-paying job at Hay River’s other newspaper The Hub and launched a weekly column about my personal life. I wrote a piece entitled, My Sweet Seducer, in which I described waking up on a hungover Sunday morning to find a half bottle of Scotch and an overflowing ashtray on my kitchen table, lighting a smoke and then having a conversation (in lurid prose that embarrasses me to this day) with the bottle as though I was trying to resist a lover who had betrayed me and now tempted me again. At the end of the piece I capitulated and reached for a drink.

There is a part of ourselves, often so deeply buried we don’t know it’s there, that nudges us toward healing and we start calling for help, sometimes long before we are ready to receive it. Looking back now, I understand that writing that column was one of my calls for help. But at the time I fooled myself. I explained to anybody who would listen that the column was not about me, that I had turned myself into a character in order to render an artistic commentary on alcoholism. (As far as I know, a lot of people believed me. At least they pretended to.)

It wasn’t until three years later when I had moved to Yellowknife and decided to quit drinking that I saw how deeply I was steeped in denial. It shocked me to realize that while I could see how others denied their alcoholism, I was unable to see it in myself even though I was drinking just as much and behaving in exactly the same way. This, more than anything, made me realize the power that alcohol had over me. And it convinced me that I would not be able to quit alone.


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!