I didn't want to start there, not with that first sentence, because it feels shameful to say something out loud that I have already known for more than ten years. I wanted to lead you through a bit of a story, ease into it, make us all feel a little more comfortable. In the end, though, that felt deceptive, especially when I feel like the emperor who didn't know he was naked for the whole town to see the entire time. Surely, my alcoholism can't be news to everyone.
So, this is about honesty and truth. This is about coming clean.
Being of Mennonite ancestry, I come from a long history of conservative drinkers. Technically, Mennonites are supposed to be teetotallers, but, if the story I am remembering is true, this level of alcoholic conservatism was new to my mother's side of the family when they arrived in Canada from the rather grim shores of the then Russian portion of the Dnieper River. Nowadays, you can take pleasure cruises along the Dnieper out of Kiev, but back in the 1920s it was a little too full of gunfire, thievery, murder, and rape for my family's tastes.
Again, I might have the story wrong, but I think it was my great grandfather, an ordained minister, who brewed the beer for the community's dances back in the old country. Mennonites are also supposed to be against dancing, but the town got around dancing's sexual implications by enforcing same-sex partnerships, which, as a queer kid who wouldn't have minded a little more leniency when it came to alcohol consumption, kind of made me long for the good old days when the straight kids were the ones who had to sneak out behind the barn to shake it down with their partners.
When my maternal ancestors moved to Canada, though, they found a more conservative Mennonite culture. There was no more beer-brewing and no more dancing, and so I ended up being raised in a climate in which my mother was moved by guilt to cry when she allowed me to go to my first school dance and my grandfather tactfully referred to the finger of rye whiskey he drank with my father as "medicine". We didn't cut out the drinking and the dancing altogether, but both were tinged with the element of sin.
At fifteen, I decided that I needed to break the mould one weekend when my parents were out of town. I had always been seen as the fresh-faced kid, the smart kid, the good kid, and I wanted to stake a claim to an identity without good, without God, and without a tie to pleasing anyone other than myself. I wanted to do what any fifteen-year-old wants to do: I yearned to declare my autonomy from the moorings of childhood.
A friend and I employed this skater dude with fake ID to score some alcohol for us and a few of our friends. None of us were drinkers, so we pressed forty dollars into his hands and told him to get us stuff that tasted good. We waited on the curb until we heard the crunch of his skateboard wheels against the asphalt, and then we rushed him into the house surrounded by a flurry of our arms and hands in an attempt to obscure him from the neighbours. Apparently, he took "tasty" to mean "grape-flavoured wine coolers", because he unpacked a couple dozen bottles filled with fizzy, lavender liquid. We had been thinking of something with a little more grit to usher in our first drunk, but alcohol was alcohol, especially since we weren't the ones with the fake ID.
My social group was generally into clean living. They mocked the stoners who hung out behind the cafeteria smoking cigarettes during lunch and the kids who bragged about falling down on front lawns over the weekend. I harboured a secret jealousy of those who didn't care what people like my friends thought, though, and I nodded along while saying nothing. Clean living was boring the hell out of me. I wanted to shake shit up, and, if you can call throwing a handful of fifteen-year-olds into a suburban basement with grape-flavoured wine coolers "shaking shit up", that's exactly what I was attempting to do.
It didn't take much when my entire life had been centered around being safe and good and responsible and smart. I had already looked ahead at the long suburban road of more safe and good and responsible and smart that was being charted for me, and I was horrified by it. I wanted to hang a sharp left and outrun that life like a hunted rabbit dodging the jaws of some terrible, beige wolf. It was not a place I could go and still maintain my heart.
Our friends started to arrive, and we handed out the bottles of what amounted to alcoholic pop. It was terrible, but our curiosity about its effects inspired us to down most of the small supply. While everyone else lay about in sickly stupors, though, complaining of headaches and queasy stomachs, I felt a fire within, a burning in my belly that arose from more than just the cheap drink. This was new, and I knew that I was going to do this again as soon as I could, because nothing like that sweeping heat and power had ever come over me in quite that way before. I lay on the floor of that bungalow's basement and felt good, really good, for the first time in years.
With those first two drinks, I had christened myself into the slow swell that would become the ocean upon which I built my life. I had found my mojo.
Twenty-two years later and ten days ago, a switch went off inside my head while I dove into my fourth pint of draft beer for another night in a row of several. The switch felt identical to the switch that went off inside my head nearly a year ago when I faced my nicotine addiction of the same duration and quit smoking, the switch that made me feel settled and terrified and right and so terribly fucked up. The switch that changed my life and turned me inside out and set me right again after living in fear for my health and the despair over my own seeming inability to make life changes for the better.
A deepened understanding sank into my brain without warning, the depth of which understanding I have been avoiding for over a decade:
I am an alcoholic.
It was a command for action, a life or death demand, be the death physical, spiritual, or psychological. Change or die, it said, change or die.
That was ten days ago, and now I have just completed the longest stretch of sobriety I have experienced in probably well over ten years. I feel settled and terrified and right and so terribly fucked up again, and it feels so good to feel this fucked up, because it's me I'm fighting for, the me I fought for when I quit smoking, the me that can think clearly when I am not obsessing over the next inhale or drink, the one whose days are not governed by a constant revolution of chemical intake, managing my addictions for the sake of little else but appearances and the bare ability to make rent.
Cancer was hard. The Palinode's broken back was hard. My nervous breakdown was hard. Quitting smoking after twenty-one years was hard, (and it still is at times). Admitting to my alcoholism and maintaining the act of will to not drink is also hard, but after going through all of the above and having found only more love and more kindness both within myself and out in the greater world on the other side of terrible things, I know that, barring a graceful pirouette, I can at least stumble toward sobriety.
I don't know how to live sober yet, and almost none of my habits lead down the road to sober living, but I am going to learn. I can't not learn how if I am going to live any kind of life I can love. The mojo I found both through smoking and alcohol was little more than bravado born from physical and chemical remove. They are straw men that have left me hollow.
I am an alcoholic. The mojo I have been working since 1988 isn't working for me anymore, and I must live a life I can love if I am going to survive.
* The title is a quote by Bertrand Russell from The Conquest of Happiness.