Tansi, nitisiyihkâson Mel. Windsor, Ontario, nikî-nihtâwîkin kî-pipon. Epekwitk’ êkwa Tiohtià:ke nikî-pê-ohpikin. Tiohtià:ke mêkwâc niwîkin. Niya âpihtawikosisân, ekwa nehiyaw, ekwa Nakoda, ekwa Saulteaux, ekwa moniyâw. Niya oma tastawâyihk iyiniw.
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Hello, my name is Mel. I was born in Windsor, Ontario, in the winter time. I grew up on Prince Edward Island and in Montreal. I live in Montreal now. I am Métis, Nehiyaw, Nakoda, Saulteaux, French, and Irish. I am a Two Spirit person.
I am also a mother, a community worker, an artist, a traditional tattooer, and a writer. People see me as white because of my skin colour even though I don’t identify as white. I recognize my privilege and responsibility to others in this regard. My paternal grandmother’s family came from Manitoba, in the early twentieth century, and settled in Quebec. My Indigenous ancestors are from North Dakota, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. My mother is Irish. Her great-grandparents came from Limerick, Ireland, and settled on Epekwitk, Mi’kmaw territory (also known as Prince Edward Island; its name means, roughly, lying in the water).
When I tell people that I’m Native, French, and Irish, they often say things like, “Wow, you must really be able to drink!”
For most of my life, that was true. My first drunk was on gin at eleven years old. I remember being in a friend’s basement with a bunch of others. It was fun. Lots of laughing and lots of booze. I threw up, of course. We also used to steal candy and smoke packs of Belvedere Extra Milds behind a store I remember being called Books ’N’ Things. I’m not sure when I first started inhaling, but the first time I puffed on a cigarette was at the age of seven, with a babysitter, on the front stoop of our house in PEI. The basement of that house flooded and we were forced to move. It was too bad: my dad had done a stellar job on the stucco ceilings, even mixing in a hint of gold sparkle to the ceiling of my parents’ bedroom. Wicked cool.
I often saw my dad drink. He also liked to fish and do crosswords to the point of obsession. My memory of my father is that he was usually angry, or that’s how I interpreted his moods. (I didn’t tell him about this story; I’m not sure he’ll even see it. Although our relationship is a lot better than it was, I don’t like to make him relive things unnecessarily.) For a long time, those things pretty much summed him up for me. There are a few precious memories of him seeming happy. They usually involved the beach and eating lobsters or digging clams. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t smell like drywall, which is what he’s always done for work. His boots were crusted with dried-up white globs, his jeans and jackets stiff with them, and every day, when he came home, his face was as if sprinkled heavily with powdered sugar, although he wasn’t very sweet.
My dad drank stubby bottles of beer—Schooner, Ten Penny, Alpine—with his breakfast, which made him something of a legend to my guy friends. My dad always had a cigarette between his fingers. He went to the local bar, The Tack Room, after work. My sister and I would be forced to wait in the car while my mom went inside to give him The Look with her watery blue eyes and drag him out. In the car, waiting for what seemed an eternity, my sister and I would flick lit matches at each other, smoke dad’s cigarette butts, and perform the Time Life Classics infomercial melodies as a duet.
Work dried up, and by the time my parents moved us to Montreal and I was in high school, I was drinking, smoking cigarettes regularly, and soon afterward, smoking hash and pot. As time went on, I used magic mushrooms, cocaine, speed, ecstasy, and acid. I once smoked heroin, although I’m not sure I actually inhaled, which sounds pretty funny. I have been involved in some very dodgy circumstances, and many a time I have thought to myself, I can’t believe I’m still alive. I am not proud of this fact, but I am at peace with it.
By comparison, my mom didn’t drink much. She smoked cigarettes here and there but never used anything stronger than that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her fly into a rage. Once, she hit me with a fly swatter. She cleaned and cooked and took care of my sister and me, making sure we had as much as we could on the money we had, which wasn’t much; we supplemented it with welfare. At the beginning of every school year, we would be lucky to get a few new bits at Kmart—cable-knit sweaters, high tops, and jeans. My mom created a cozy home amid the wood-panelled walls of the apartments we lived in. She made frugal recipes that she’d learned from her own mom on their PEI farm. To this day, I love the sound of a dryer churning, the smell of fresh sheets, the taste of biscuits and rice pudding.
As unapproachable as my dad was, I knew that he loved us. I couldn’t articulate or even grasp his damaged personhood, but I could, at least on some level, feel his struggle. He never wanted us to be “like him.” He always told us what not to do—don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs—as well as what to do—watch out, follow the rules, stand up for yourself, don’t take shit, kick them in the cunt, tell them what’s what. This was love, coming from my dad.
Once, when I was maybe fourteen, I found a pair of hot knives up high on a shelf: two butter knives, burned black on their tips from being heated up on the stove and then touched to balls of hash to produce a sweet smoke. Needless to say, my sister and I ended up using them ourselves. More than once.
As much as my mom tried to compensate for the model my dad set, the damage was done. By the time I was fifteen, I was drinking regularly, doing drugs, skipping school, sneaking out, and drifting into and out of relationships. I was unable to moderate anything: it was full throttle or nothing. In my experience, that’s a hallmark of addiction. And it doesn’t only apply to “bad” behaviour. For me and for others I’ve known, addiction can look like overachieving, “fixing” people, problem solving, organizing—all seemingly positive or altruistic acts that can take on a manic shape: anything that needs doing will be done now, as fast as possible.
At age thirty-nine, I had a baby. She became my world, but I suffered from postpartum depression and was still drinking. Parental drinking habits became a consistent joke between me and other parents whose children were at the same daycare: the parents who drank just to deal with their kids. They were all doing what I was, drinking every day and trying desperately to get into a routine of drinking only on weekends. It never worked. For years, my partner and I partied with other parents, at one another’s houses, while our kids played together in the background.
Soon, I was waking up with hangovers every day. I had blackouts and was throwing up in the mornings more often than I’m comfortable admitting. I was bloated and angry. I was irritable all the time. I didn’t want to play with my kids and my partner annoyed me. I couldn’t be social without alcohol. I planned everything around alcohol: Where are we going? Will there be alcohol there? How much? Do we need to buy more? How many days until the next drunk? Do I have appointments I need to be sober for this week? Will my partner be mad at me? Can I disappear into a glass of booze forever? For much of the past twenty years, I’ve been a freelance writer, so I haven’t had to get up and go to an office. Pretty convenient when you’re an alcoholic.
Essentially, I had turned into my father.
The day I decided to quit drinking, in October 2017, coincided with my first day of volunteering at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. And that was no coincidence: I believe it is the path that was set out for me by the Creator. The shelter is a caring place that provides temporary housing. Most of the clients come from Northern communities, for medical services, to visit family, or simply for a break. Some bring their children. There is some sadness there but also joy. I’ve learned much from the folks residing there, and being of service keeps me grounded and grateful. Among other things related to education, community building, and advocacy, I cooked for the clients on Saturday evenings and tried to provide some warmth and love through food.
I started Alcoholics Anonymous’s twelve-step program on my first day of sobriety, and it seemed to coincide with my work at the shelter. My first AA meeting was at a Montreal spot I used to frequent, in the ’90s, to hear poetry readings and spoken word. A rather dark basement, yet cozy, with Christmas lights sparkling across the ceiling, smells of coffee and old books, and smiles of welcome as soon as I entered. Immediately, I felt relief.
Of course, to protect the anonymity of my fellow participants—one of the program’s strongest tenets—I will not name anyone, but everyone in that room created a space where I could cry, laugh, and simply be. They understood me, and I them. I nodded a lot as they spoke, using words like compulsive, obsessive, angry, and resentful, but also grateful, peace of mind, prayer, and forgiveness. I could tell my truth and not be judged. Crosstalk is not allowed, so my thoughts never turned into a “conversation” about right or wrong. They simply were, left hanging in the air to dissipate naturally.
I went to meetings at a variety of venues. Some were in bright, sunlit rooms where I felt exposed, others in echoing church halls or basements, and still others in cramped spaces where we had to squish extra chairs in between people. I got a sponsor a few weeks in and managed to complete five of the twelve steps, which required a lot of self-reflection, analysis, acceptance, and forgiveness of myself and others. I turned myself inside out during this process.
Embarking on the path of sobriety is like shedding skin. Eventually, it’s not altogether unpleasant, but at first, it was as if someone had sheared my skin right off and left me raw, my underlayer of bloody muscle and tendons bare and sensitive, vulnerable. And it was not only that others could see the truth but that I could see the truth and wasn’t able to escape from it into a bottle.
Within days, I began to go through withdrawal, physical and mental: my skin crawled and my body raged, going through a continuous cycle of desperation and collapse. It wanted drinks, and if it couldn’t get alcohol, it would look for other things to get high on, and any kind of risky behaviour would do: fast driving, heated arguments, bingeing on food or TV. I still wonder if these compulsions will ever fully leave me.
I was able to speak about these things in AA meetings very freely. It wasn’t easy, and I often broke down, but everyone in those rooms understood exactly where I was coming from and knew the hell I described. That kind of fellowship is difficult to find in the outside world. One that has no agenda other than to listen. Or so I thought.
It’s no secret that Europeans brought alcohol to what they subsequently named North America and used it as a tool to take advantage of Native peoples and their resources. Accounts from as early as the 1600s describe how, once exposed to alcohol, the Indigenous population refused to trade unless alcohol was part of the exchange. In Europe and New France, ale and wine were used as medicine for everyday ailments, in childbirth, and for nutritional value. Settlers introduced this way of life on our land—a long history of alcohol as a cure-all and as a weapon.
Today, mainstream settler society in North America revolves around alcohol, using it to celebrate every aspect of life: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Canada Day, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, births, baptisms, weddings, divorces, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, funerals, brunch, afternoon cocktails, happy hour, night-caps, and hairs of the dog. Meanwhile, many settlers still view Natives as drunks whether we are drinking or not.
I can hear the naysayers yelling that we need to take care of our own problems.
This prejudice translates into stories of neglect for Indigenous people by the medical system. A 2019 report by former Quebec Superior Court justice Jacques Viens found it “impossible to deny” that Inuit and First Nations people in the province are victims of “systemic discrimination” in accessing public services, including health care. There are myriad examples of how this prejudice is exposed in a broader context in relation to alcohol. Between 2017 and 2018, Delilah Saunders, an Inuk Indigenous-rights advocate who won Amnesty International’s International Ambassador of Conscience Award for her work in advancing the rights of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, came dangerously close to liver failure after she was denied an emergency transplant because she failed to meet a mandatory six-month sobriety requirement. (Saunders said that she had a brief relapse after testifying about the murder of her sister to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.) In 2016, Kimberly Gloade, a Mi’kmaw woman from Burnt Church First Nation, was brought by ambulance to the McGill University Health Centre seeking treatment for severe stomach pain, but her medical insurance card had been stolen, and she was told it would cost approximately $1,000 to see the doctor. She died at home, six weeks later, of cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure. Time and again, Canadians have proven that, to them, Indigenous lives simply do not matter. The lack of access to health care caused by systemic racism within the health care system and within Canadian society as a whole has had detrimental effects on the health and well-being of Indigenous people: we have higher levels of stress, internalization of discrimination, unemployment and poverty, mental illness and suicide.
There’s something especially poignant about being an Indigenous person seeking treatment for addiction in Canada. Canadians drink more alcohol per capita than the worldwide average, according to the World Health Organization. Those age fifteen and older drank ten litres of pure alcohol per capita in 2016—3.6 more than the world average. But who is doing the drinking? One study in the US found that 60 percent of Native Americans hadn’t had a drink during the previous month compared with 43 percent of others studied. According to Statistics Canada, 31 percent of off-reserve First Nations people and 38 percent of Inuit were non-drinkers (meaning they consumed no alcohol in the twelve months preceding the 2011 and 2012 surveys) compared with 24 percent of the non-Indigenous population. The rate for Métis was 25 percent. “At ages twelve to twenty-four, 43 percent of First Nations people and 50 percent of Inuit were non-drinkers. The corresponding proportion of abstainers for their non-Aboriginal peers was 36 percent, the same percentage reported by Métis in this age group.”
So, if Natives are drinking equal or lesser amounts of alcohol than non-Natives, why are the risks and outcomes for us so much worse? Simple: systemic racism. And I can hear the naysayers in the back (and in the front) yelling that we need to take care of our own problems. And I will reply: we are and we do, but with far less access to health care, less access to safe housing, and in many cases, no clean water to drink or bathe in. Indigenous people are disproportionately subjected to police violence; our Two Spirit, LGBTQ, intersex, and asexual community, women, and girls are disproportionately likely to be murdered or go missing; our families are disrupted as our children are stolen. How do we focus on thriving when we are always fighting?
During my time in AA, I learned so much. I overcame the incredibly vulnerable stage at the start of my sobriety and met many supportive people, for which I am grateful to this day. Through the program, many of the issues I now recognize that surround my family history and cultural experience became clear, and I developed a deeper understanding of service and giving back to community. My sponsor also taught me a lot, most importantly that recovery is about recovering parts of yourself that have been damaged and unable to fully develop, parts that once seemed protected by addiction as if by gauze.
As the protective layers are removed, these wounds have the opportunity to feel the light, to breathe. They are able to start developing again; they can receive the attention they deserve.
However, the more I read Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism—a.k.a. the Big Book, the handbook given to new members—the more pissed off I became. The first edition was written in 1939, by a white man, with the help of others. Not only are women an afterthought in the text but it purports to not be religious while using the word God throughout, in relation to a higher power.
The matriarchy of my people and that of our more-than-human kin, specifically bison, has been incredibly healing and life giving for me. To know that I possess strength from the land and from my past and future ancestors is a relief. I can breathe just a bit easier when I understand this in any given moment, faced with any challenge. I reach into myself and find so many. We are always: we are now, yesterday, and tomorrow.
When I heard the Lord’s Prayer at AA meetings, I felt insulted and excluded. The organization’s tenet of secularism is clear, but some meeting goers, mostly men in my experience, would choose to forgo the usual Serenity Prayer and end the meeting with Our Father, who art in heaven . . .
Christianity was forced on Indigenous peoples by both church and state, through residential and day schools. In his 2013 book, The Inconvenient Indian (the basis for a documentary of the same name released in 2020), Thomas King writes, “Christianity, in all its varieties, has always been a stakeholder in the business of assimilation, and, in the sixteenth century, it was the initial wound in the side of Native culture.”
That kind of Christianity, the kind that blatantly lacks humanity and seeks to oppress, hurt my family, and by extension, it hurt me. I don’t trust it. In my sobriety, I have come to trust myself and the teachings of my community. The queerness that we embody, which is the land, breaks through this capitalist patriarchy, provides my body and soul with a sense that I am, that we are, accepted. Disconnected from those teachings because of colonialism, each day is an exercise in reconnection through service, ceremony, language, kinship, and study. I honour my ancestors piece by recovered piece, as a hybrid of old and new, past and future.
AA helped me. I commend its members for creating a community, a place where I shared some of my darkest moments and did not feel judged. What I do criticize is the exclusion that stems from the Big Book.
At every AA meeting, announcements are made by the secretary. I remember when a new AA meeting sprang up in downtown Montreal; someone had named it The Tribe, and its ad mentioned that “First Nations people are welcome.” As a Native person, I found the name offensive and felt similarly about the statement that Native people were “welcome.” No one in the meeting said anything. When I was asked to be secretary, I read the meeting list and announced that The Tribe is a new meeting and that “Native people are welcome, everywhere, all the time, forever.” People nodded. They seemed surprised that I had spoken out in this way. They shouldn’t have been.
AA was based on the patriarchy of the 1930s, and although its fellowship means well, it expresses colonialism’s language and approach. When a program advertises that “Native people are welcome,” it means they would not otherwise be unless the dominant group invited them, and that means I’m not welcome. Not really.
When I became sober, my life changed quite a bit. Encounters with friends or strangers were often uncomfortable while I learned how to be social without the cozy fog of alcohol. I had to develop ways to cope with the witching hour: evenings. I was cooking less as that’s when the daily boozing would usually begin. I saw my dry drunkenness more clearly: sober behaviour those with addictions develop over time that mimics drunkenness. In my case, it’s moodiness, irritability, control issues, lashing out, obnoxiousness.
At a party that I felt I needed to attend, people around me were drinking full tilt. People I knew very well were there, as well as acquaintances. I knew some were also using cocaine. Aside from one other person, I was the only one I knew of who was sober. I mingled for about ten minutes before finding the safety of my table. I stranded myself there for the rest of the night, eager to avoid everyone and all signs of alcohol as much as I could. The people at my table were drinking heavily. I longed for their dirty martinis, their pints of beer, their wine when it was ordered, inevitably, to wash down the mediocre food. My skin crawled, the music was annoying, and everyone was too loud. I ordered an expensive virgin mojito, which only made things worse. I switched to bubbly water and tried to make the best of it. It wasn’t working. My friends were off somewhere mingling, their boisterous laughs bouncing off the walls. And, just before I called it quits, someone poured herself into a chair across from me and proceeded to tell me a story. Her elbows on the table steadied her body as it swayed from side to side ever so slightly. One of her eyes looked right at me, expressive and focused, while the other melted slowly toward the inner corner of its socket in a drunken, awkward sunset.
That was my cue: I got up, said quick goodbyes, then, as the default designated driver for forever, I told my friends that, if they wanted a lift, they had to follow me, now. They agreed in a happy haze. I saw one of my passengers at the bar, ordering another drink. I was pissed off, desperate for booze and feeling at risk. Thinking of how much she must have had already, I marched to the bar and informed her we were leaving. For a split second, she was furious that she wouldn’t have time to down one more. My face must have told her that my mood was volcanic and my insides were churning, because she shoved the money back into her pocket and headed for her coat.
Finally, in the safety of the car, my passengers decided they weren’t done: I would be dropping them off at a local haunt for more drinks. As we drove across the city, they babbled and laughed, and I love them, so I started to calm somewhat, knowing we were heading back toward home. I laughed with them a bit, then dropped them off with messages of sincere love. They scampered and stumbled across the street. As soon as the bar door closed behind them and I turned the car toward home, I started to sob: the entire evening had been torture, like a dream you can’t escape because your feet are mired in mud and no one hears you screaming. My body was so tired—it had been in a state of fight-or-flight the whole evening.
In my experience, addiction is this: the perpetual throwing of oneself over a cliff. It can take many forms—alcohol, drugs, sex, even front line activism—but the goal is always to put oneself at risk, to run from being still. Stillness means that, eventually, you must turn to the truth.
Eventually, I stopped going to AA. For me, it became more frustrating than anything else. It sounds reckless and like an excuse, and maybe it was, but a daily meeting at the time meant at least two hours out of my day, which included travelling there and back and the meeting itself. It also meant putting time into “working” the steps, meeting with your sponsor, and service: taking on a role in your home group for one month. This can vary from preparing the coffee to performing secretarial duties to speaking at other events. When you have kids, a job, friends, school, and pastimes, this can be overwhelming. I often wondered: Where do people find this much time for so long? Some have been dedicated to recovery for decades. I suppose, if you’re truly committed, you do it; the participants of one meeting I frequented used to chime, in unison, before we dispersed: It works if you work it.
I wonder why other services are not promoted as much as the face-to-face meetings, which are great if you can get to them, but some people can’t, and the reasons are many: accessibility issues, social anxiety, depression, job schedule, child care, chronic illness, remote location, etc. Online options exist: live-streaming meetings, AA forums, previously recorded meetings, podcasts, meetings over the phone—and I think these are just as valuable.
While I do think supporting home groups and other members is a necessary element of what makes AA work, there are also whole communities of people outside these rooms who need service. And, from my perspective, it seems as though the anonymity of the AA membership is a downside. Members could be encouraged to give back to their communities in a broader sense: connecting with people who have other kinds of challenges encourages empathy and creates a wider social network of support, as I found working with Indigenous communities. When I think about drinking and sobriety, I also think about those who don’t have access to the support that I do, and I go out and do something of service for them: source traditional meats, gather donations of clothing and supplies, organize book drives, or build relationships with other organizations that can volunteer essential services. Helping to build a stronger community allows me to see a future where Native people can thrive, no matter where we are or what we’re going through.
I had made it through a year and a half of sobriety when I started drinking again. In 2019, I wasn’t going to meetings, I had stopped my antidepressants in an effort to understand my baseline personality, my marriage was strained, my relationship with my kids revolved around my levels of irritation, I was doing a master’s degree, I was working a couple of jobs, and my parents were visiting. I hit rock bottom and was sober as fuck. On the verge of my partner and I breaking up, we went for a walk in the park. I asked him if he thought I should go back on my medication. He calmly stated that it would be a good idea. He was relieved. I was relieved, letting go, giving in, facing the fact that some aspect of my brain is unbalanced and needs support. I decided to take the meds. But also, I wanted some wine. So we went and got a bottle of red and shared it with my parents on the night of the season-eight premiere of Game of Thrones. That was one year and eight months ago. Somewhere in that time, I also started smoking cigarettes again, after fifteen years of giving up the habit.
The day I am writing this, I have joined a Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) meeting online. Everything is online now, in the midst of the pandemic. SMART is free and “open to anyone seeking science-based, self-empowered addiction recovery.” We are Zooming, and some of us have been CERBing; some of us are physical distancing, wearing masks, gloves, and face shields, while others are breaking rules; we are paying for our products through walls of Plexiglass and wondering what the death toll will be tomorrow. We are collectively grieving and transforming in a world none of us have experienced before. I’ve started my PhD, my partner and I are separating, and I’m moving out in the spring. I’m working three jobs. It has all changed. What hasn’t changed is my struggle with addiction. Every day is a rebirth and each is filled with choices. I try to make the best ones possible within the capacity I have in each moment, accepting myself and trying to live by the motto inscribed on the AA chip I received on my first day of sobriety: Easy Does It.
What I have learned is that I am closer to myself and better able to understand and live Nehiyaw teachings when I’m sober. Being social without drinking is difficult, but it can be done. Being in touch with like-minded people who understand the struggle of addiction can get you through the worst moments or offer you the words of kindness and welcoming you need when you claw yourself from the depths and back onto the wagon.
I’m looking into hypnotherapy and acupuncture to treat addiction. One therapist said that my addiction is the result of an unresolved issue in a past life. I’m willing to go there.