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Twelve steps to sobriety

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 15/04) - According to the latest government research, more than 23,700 -- almost 80 per cent of the NWT population -- are currently self-described drinkers.

For many, the social habit has grown into a life-destroying addiction capable of washing away health, wealth, family and hope with each swig from the bottle.

There is help available to anyone willing to accept it, but that is often the biggest barrier to getting sober. Most problem drinkers can't see their destructive behaviour for the illness that it is.

Sarah moved to the North in her early 20s and was every bit the party girl. She would dance on the tables, black-out in bars, paw other girls' boyfriends, but that didn't seem strange to her or anyone else.

"I was a cute little blonde chick, so I got away with everything," said Sarah. "It never became an issue because everyone was like that."

As the years went by, however, Sarah found fewer people would meet up for drinks on a Friday night. Many of her friends were moving on with their lives: getting jobs, getting married and having kids.

By age 33, she was in a long-term relationship and had been trying to slow her drinking for a number of years with varying success. Still, too often she would drink and not remember what she did the night before, or how she wound up in some stranger's home.

Her next solution was to keep her drinking to herself. She would still go to bars, but wouldn't drink in them. Sarah rewarded herself with booze for good behaviour, but only when she was at home or with a select group of people.

Although her new regimen worked well, she couldn't fix her problem completely and eventually her boyfriend left her.

Heart-broken, she soon picked up an Alcoholics Anonymous booklet and was surprised to discover that what she read seemed to describe her life.

"That's when I thought: 'I am an alcoholic,'" said Sarah. "I can control it sometimes, but I can't control it consistently."

At 35, Sarah attended her first AA meeting. And although she's fallen off the wagon a couple of times in the past 15 years, she's proud to have been sober since 1998.

Alcoholism and lies

Admitting there's a problem and meeting it head-on like Sarah is a difficult step.

Especially when you grow up in a home where abuse and alcoholism are rampant, it's easy to fall into the same trap as Grace.

Grace remembers learning to lie at an early age because she was too ashamed to tell her teacher she was going hungry, while her parents spent all their money on booze.

"I'd go home for lunch and there would be nothing to eat," says the 49-year-old former resident of Fort Smith. "As soon as I knew I was being judged by other people, I started to lie."

As a child, she was repeatedly assaulted sexually by a family friend. After her dad beat her mother, Grace's mom would beat Grace and her siblings. She contracted hepatitis as a child from drinking bad water, but from aged 14-20, she enjoyed what proved to be relative sanctuary for her while attending residential school.

"I won the academic achievement award three years in a row," said Grace. "I graduated, but then I was full-blown introduced to booze because I was old enough."

But at age 27 -- after she was married and had her first child -- alcoholism did take hold and her downward spiral accelerated.

"I drank like a pig," says Grace.

By age 29, she was drinking almost every night. Often she would black-out and not remember where she was. One morning, she came to her senses while in her car with her daughter at her side.

"I didn't know where I was or who I saw, didn't know what I did, but I had my daughter with me," said Grace.

"That scared me."

She made the decision to attend an AA meeting, but success was not immediate -- it never is. But Grace stuck it out despite the fact she ended up leaving her husband and found herself in an abusive relationship.

One day, however, she met a woman at AA who seemed so full of unending goodwill that Grace found herself gravitating towards her. She helped point out that not everyone deserves to be pushed away -- it can be rewarding to open up to others.

Through the help of her new friend, Grace said she finally felt at peace with her past demons.

Knows no age-limit

Not everyone who is lured to the bottle is of legal drinking age. Bobby first took a drink as an awkward 12-year-old, unsure of himself and desperately hoping to fit in. The sensation of drinking alcohol immediately appealed to him.

"I was finally their friend," says Bobby.

His parents, however, were not amused.

Bobby managed to stay out of trouble for the most part during the next two years, but at 14 -- like a lot of teens his age -- the thrill of doing something his parents wouldn't necessarily approve of pulled greatly on him.

His friends would scrounge a six-pack for Friday or Saturday night. They would have a few beers and he would go home. If his parents found out he was drinking, they would chide him a bit, but there were no major consequences.

At age 17, however, he was off to university and on his own. There seemed to be some kind of party going on almost every night. "I drank just about every bit of money (received) from my folks," Bobby recalled. "I got kicked out of residence and my marks went downhill. That younger two or three beer type thing went to eight, 10 or 14 beers."

In 1994, he flunked out of school and soon after was hit with his first impaired driving charge. From there, a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse ensued that continued unchecked until the spring of 1998, when he received his second impaired charge.

He attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting shortly afterwards, but less than a month later he was drinking again. By then, his parents rarely wanted to have anything to do with him. They were tired of bailing him out of bad debts and sending him to school only to see him flunk out.

The final straw

After Bobby suffered a bad acid trip during a drinking binge in St. John's, Nfld., his parents made a last ditch effort to help their troubled son by checking him into a hospital psychological ward.

"I was there for a while and that's when I said, 'Yeah, there's a problem here,'" said Bobby. "That's when I started seeking treatment."

It took him a few years of denial, but Bobby finally made a commitment to stop drinking. He has since taken a job in Yellowknife, a city with many migrant workers and plenty of bars.

He's fallen off the wagon a couple of times without any serious consequences -- he knows he was fortunate.

Bobby has been sober now for a little more than six months.

"I see guys in the bar. I won't be drinking, but I'll look at one guy and say, 'he's one.' I'll see a guy in the corner and I'll know he's one, too. There's lots a guys out there that are just like I was," Bobby says.

Daily struggle

It's been 20 years since Grace has had a drink, but she says she will always need to remind herself of how bad things can get. To this day, she still attends AA meetings.

"I still take it one day at a time," says Grace.

Like Grace and Bobby, Sarah still takes life one day at a time.

"Sometimes I see booze and just want to get it away from me," she said. "I have a healthy fear of it now."

-- The names given in this article have been changed to protect the identities of those involved and to preserve the sanctity of Alcoholics Anonymous.

the 12 steps:

At the heart of the Alcoholics Anonymous credo are Twelve Steps describing the experience of the earliest members of the Fellowship.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.