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 #5

The thousand pound phone

After finishing a fridge-full of booze the night before, I awoke on the first day of my sobriety shaky but still resolved to quit drinking, a resolve bolstered by the fact that there was no alcohol left in the house. I knew I couldn’t quit alone but the thought of asking for help sent sharp spears of terror through my soul. I’d gotten by for years (with the help of alcohol, of course) by hiding my vulnerability behind a tough persona. Now I faced exposing myself for the uniquely worthless worm that I was secretly convinced I was. (I didn’t understand until years later that thinking myself uniquely worthless was as grandiose as thinking myself uniquely worthy).

I found the number for the self-help recovery group* in the phone book but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone. Later I would learn that nearly all alcoholics wrestle the fear of phoning for help and I would laugh at my fight with the “thousand-pound phone.” But that day all I could do was pace the floor, smoking and imagining ridiculous scenarios in which I would get rejected: ‘Yes, we help alcoholics but not you (laughs),’ ‘Stop wasting my time! (slams down the phone),’ ‘What’s the matter with you? Don’t you have any friends?’ Finally sometime in mid-afternoon, I exhausted myself and made the call.

The number rang through to the Detox Centre which acted as an answering service for the self-help group. (The centre was part of Northern Addictions Services programming during 1980s and 90s. Today there is no Detox in Yellowknife.) I launched into my tale of woe only to be given a list of three names and numbers. It took nearly everything I had to make that first call and now I had to do it again. I worked up the courage with several more rounds of pacing. I got one busy signal, one answering machine (I was too frightened to leave a message) until, finally, I spoke to a woman who agreed to take me to a meeting the following night. Whew!

I have heard many alcoholics say they felt a sense of belonging and security from the moment they attended their first meeting. That didn’t happen to me. My first meeting was packed with what I thought of as crazy people who engaged in uproarious laughter in between bouts of serious discussion about how they were going to “clean up the wreckage of their past” by “making amends” for the way they had behaved while they drunk. The laughter seemed fake (probably because mine was) and while I could understand that they might need to make amends to people, I did not feel that I would ever have to. I had a long list of people who needed to make amends to me.

I went home that night feeling more isolated than ever. I still wanted to quit drinking but now felt that I had nowhere to go. In tears of desperation the next afternoon, I sought refuge in the office of my friend Mike, the man who had inspired me to quit drinking by telling me his story. “I know somebody you can talk to. She’s been around and is kind of tough like you,” he said.

Mike got Jen** on the phone for me and she to agreed to meet me for coffee in the Miner’s Mess (Yellowknife’s iconic coffee shop). “Look for a tall ugly blonde,” she said. I must have looked like a typical lost alcoholic because she stood up and waved me over as soon as I walked in. After getting us coffee, she sat down and scrutinized me. Then she told me exactly how I felt. Over the years, I have tried to remember what she said but I have never been able to. All I can remember is that for the first time in my life, I felt that somebody saw who I was and understood.

So it began.


*I have chosen not to publicly name the self-help group I joined out of respect for the traditions of that organization.

**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!