"My name is Rachel and I'm an alcoholic."
I have used that line in many a jest, to break the ice during
presentations. It always gets a laugh, as well as a few Hello Rachels.
There was a time, though, when it was no laughing matter.
My battle with alcohol is not unlike that of many in my generation, with
roots in residential schools, the uprooting of Inuit culture, a
dysfunctional family and a low sense of overall worth. From the inside
looking out, I somehow felt alone and different in my problems. I was
leaden with Monday mornings of sleep deprivation and hangoverness, hidden
under cosmetics, streamlined by cigarettes and caffeine.
People in recovery often talk about "hitting the bottom," or words to that
effect. It just never happened to me. Mine was a no man's land of lukewarm
life. Nothing great ever happened, nor were there any disasters. Just
day-in, day-out of the same old gray: work, pick up kid, pay bill, get
food, go drink with friend from work. A nice little self-perpetuating
cycle. In between bouts of depression, throw in a few pills to go up, down,
whatever; the exact direction didn't matter.
There were a few rage moments in there, taxi drivers, waitresses and
telephone operators getting the brunt of it. And it all eventually spiraled
up into one exceptionally bad night, which finally led me to someone who
pointed out the path I was treading.
I was visited by a pastor (Lutheran, I think; but it was the man who
mattered, not the religion). He kindly visited my apartment, holding up a
mirror, showing me a not-so-flattering image of myself. I tried to be as
offensive and harsh as possible, throwing in a few "F" words,
chain-smoking, lying on the floor. I think I was even still a little drunk
from the night before. I tried to impress him with how unfair life had been
But inside, I was glad he had come over ... that someone was listening.
I had a disease, he claimed, no less a disease than diabetes or cancer.
"But the curse is the gift, and the gift is the curse," he said. "Someday,
you'll understand that."
What a flake, I thought. What a waste of time.
The encounter nevertheless drove me to seek help. Now, there were two
things I was aware of about myself. Firstly, I knew that a "typical"
approach to healing would not work, since I did not trust non-Native
institutions. Secondly, I instinctively knew that a non-spiritual path
would fail -- the problem was so deeply rooted that only a true healer
could touch it.
To make a long (and, I hope, not predictable) story short, I ended up going
for alcohol treatment at Poundmaker's Lodge, a Native treatment center in
St. Albert, Alberta. And, next to having my children -- next to my current
marriage of 13 years (which came afterward) -- it was the best thing I've
ever done in my life.
The spiritual aspect of it was mind-boggling -- the ultimate
self-confrontation, sitting on the grass, literally relearning how to pray.
One of the treatment steps went, "Come to believe in a Power greater than
yourself." At the time, I had no higher power. My power was false success,
false egotism, false self. There, I became resigned to letting the Creator
be the maker, my self be the made. There, I learned of the cunning,
baffling, powerful nature of addiction. I unwove the web of crap I had spun
around my being, examining the things that I felt were ugly about my life
-- and beautiful.
I wish I could say that light illuminated me from within, that I was cured!
But that wasn't the case. Instead, it began the long, rewarding, painful
repatching of my life. My new path.
One day, I opened my eyes, looked around and saw some tiny brown birds
flying about me. It seemed that I had dreamt of those birds upon that hill,
overlooking the fields of Poundmaker.
Now, after many years, I've begun to understand the gift side of the curse.
I try not to judge those I see staggering about. I even buy drinks for
those not afflicted by the disease. I have no problem with those who like a
bit of alcohol. Yet I can never again mistake its nature -- cunning,
Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)
Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit
lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25
years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern
world. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.