Alcohol and the Addictions of Defiance
This page is part of the addiction series, which provides recovery resources for specific addictions (hallucinogens, opioids, stimulants, alcohol, and cannabis) as well as material on trauma, personal healing, and the journey of recovery. View all of the pages by clicking on the Addictions link in the Categories menu or by scrolling to the bottom of this page.
Each page in this series is structured as a series of stories derived from my professional work. That’s what addiction is, ultimately: a complex, layered, interwoven story of human frailty and resilience.
The afternoon light is fading. Across the strait, a green landscape is awash with a shimmer of twilight and distance. Behind me, the sun descends toward the mountains. Beyond them is the wide sea. The light is soft, and warm for spring at this latitude – high on the shoulder of the world, where even in deep summer the days could not be called hot. The skeleton of a wrecked fishing boat lies on the beach, its ribs reaching from the sand and its battered wheelhouse slanting off the deck. A mass of rusted iron – the engine, perhaps, or a tangle of old anchor chain – stains the pale sand at the boat’s stern. Most of the lapstrake hull is gone, save for a few bow planks half hidden in the muck. Rust streaks from rotting deck hardware run through what remains of the once white wood. And yet, at one time this would have been a nimble craft, capable of chopping through breakers and cresting the larger swells of this northern sea. Probably the boat was used by several generations of halibut fishermen before finally breaking up here on this irascible shore. The wreck possesses an eerie beauty, a defiance almost, in the face of this windswept and lovely and lonely place.
The path follows the shore, mirroring the curve of the beach, carrying me toward a small sand spit pocked with oyster beds, wending back toward a forest stunted by constant wind and cold. In the lee of a stand of Douglas fir trees I glimpse an old house almost hidden by low-hanging boughs. The place looks abandoned. The glass is gone from the window frames and the sagging roof is missing most of its shingles. But someone is using the front room as a storage shed: a dozen or more fishing floats, painted red and orange, hang from the ceiling. Behind the house the trees grow dense, and the light deepens, and I cannot see far into that knotted green tangle.
It’s less than five miles from the reserve to the town. There are no other pedestrians on the path, though a pickup rumbles by as I gaze at the derelict house. Soon it will be dark. I look back the way I’ve come, to see the reserve now in the distance, its collection of pale totem poles on the promontory above the bay, its houses hugging the shore. I turn and continue on, not yet able to see around the corner to the tiny town of loggers and fishermen and the lone diner where I hope to find supper.
I think about how the day has gone, about the coziness of the longhouse in which I’ve been teaching. It is the most sacred building on the reserve, a place of rough cedar beams and mythological carvings and a strong fire in the hearth. Beyond the longhouse a narrow road arrows northward and across an exposed peninsula that lies almost in the shadow of the vast white peaks of Alaska.
The theme of the workshop is trauma, particularly the trauma of addictions. We’ve been talking about the social and historical factors that contribute to substance use in indigenous and northern communities. All across the North, indigenous cultures were almost wiped out in the last century and are now striving to claim their place in a world racing away from their ancestral values. We’ve talked about the precolonial populations along this coast – communities of tens of thousands – reduced by disease, after the arrival of European settlers, to scattered groups of a few hundred. We’ve discussed the residential schools that operated for most of the twentieth century, seizing children from families that had survived the pandemics. Taken far from home, the kids were forced to abandon their language, their customs, their dignity. Then they were sent back, to abandoned villages and poverty and racism.
I have not been here long, I do not know these people well, but I have worked in many situations like this, in many places. I know what happens when communities and cultures are almost destroyed by childhood trauma, disease, and spiritual devastation: people drink. Alcohol is almost always the substance of choice for trauma survivors. Alcohol promises power, and pride, and redemption delivered by way of anger. I have seen this pattern too often to be surprised by it in this landscape of clear northern light – not a cold light but an aura of openness, as though the land has been swept with a wide and fine watercolor brush. This is a place of great harshness and great clarity.
More than a few of the workshop participants are survivors of the residential schools. Some are social workers, some are addictions counselors or community elders. I’ve been cautious in my speech with them, anxious not to offend or impose. The subject is delicate, and political, and fraught with danger. Sometimes in trauma workshops people want to talk about their histories, their traumas, and this is universally unwise in a group setting. One participant’s story upsets another. People start remembering, talking, stoking the fires of trauma until everyone becomes overwhelmed with the weight of suffering. This is a common, avoidable disaster in many situations of group trauma healing. And yet, in this culture into which I’ve been invited, the sharing circle is a central aspect of community healing. I do not wish to disparage that custom. I have talked about this with them, I have offered my views on the value of community sharing only after personal traumas have been addressed in a safer and more private context. I have tried not to come across as just another expert outsider come to tell them how to do things properly. I want to get beyond the politics and racial issues, to talk plainly about how they are walking back from the Land of Shadows. So far, we seem to be doing well.
The sun slides beneath the lowest layer of pale cloud on the horizon. A narrow ribbon of blue sky lies between the clouds and the rolling ridges above the sea. The sunlight slants across and brightens the land. In perhaps fifteen minutes the day will be gone, but for now I can feel a distant solar warmth. The air seems to thicken, as if becoming more present and dense.
I follow the rough path for a straight stretch between hillocks, traveling almost due east. The sun shines over and behind my right shoulder. In front and to my left, my shadow stretches before me, long and well-defined. It moves across the ground as I walk, shimmering above low-lying scrub, flattening out as it passes over the level sands. I am alone on this path, walking on the rim of the world. The day is quiet, the sea is calm, there is no one else for miles.
I gaze to my left, watching my shadow and the trees beyond. That’s when I see it, but it doesn’t register at first. I’m too relaxed, my normal hypervigilance is dialed down, there are no imaginable risks here. But eventually my subliminal perception gets through to me and I snap into alertness. A second shadow hovers about six feet behind my own, moving at the same pace. Normally, I am aware enough of my surroundings to notice when someone is walking behind me. Besides, I turned around just a few minutes ago, looking back the way I had come. No one was on the path. This must be a traveler who has come out of the woods, walks very quietly, and wishes to catch me unawares.
As I turn, I start to respond to this situation as I would in the city – an assailant, a practical joker, a risk of unknown but immediate severity. But before I have wheeled even halfway around it becomes clear to me that no one is there. The path is vacant. I look to the woods, a hundred feet or more away. Nobody. The beach is clear also.
But the shadow is still there. It’s fading, merging with the undergrowth, dwindling slowly. After a few moments it is gone. My own shadow remains, hunched over, puzzled into a question mark as I lean forward and peer at the ground.
I gaze across the landscape, wondering about tricks of the light and the psychology of unconscious expectations. I think about the death that has come to this place. I ruminate on a discussion from earlier in the day, when I had asked a question of simple mathematics: when, at the beginning of the last century, more than ninety percent of the population died as a result of smallpox and tuberculosis, who conducted the spiritual rites of the dying? Did any shamans survive, or did the pandemic steal the afterlife of the people in addition to their land and their culture? No one seemed to have a complete answer. The histories are fragmentary, the trauma is pervasive, many old tales and memories have been lost.
The mystery of this place has not been lost. I am coming to understand that one does not simply pass through but is touched by this land, by its beauty and strangeness, its persistent dreams, weathered people, ghosts.
I turn and resume walking. I do not look back or speed up. The bottom half of the sun’s orb now lies behind the mountains. I turn down the volume of my thoughts, try to recapture the previous serenity of my mood. I think of the small graveyard on the hill above the reserve, and I wonder where the rest of the dead were buried – thousands more than the graveyard could have accommodated – during what must have been a time of quarantine and secrecy and horror. A flock of low-flying birds skims the water and rounds the point. A shaggy spruce hangs over a small rocky bluff at the forest edge. The path is well swept by wind and rain and the passing of whoever walks this way. I keep going.
Perhaps five minutes later, the shadow returns. I see it coalesce from the ground, faint at first and then stronger, as strong as my own. This time I do not turn around. I listen for footsteps but know that I will not hear any. The shadow follows me, matches my pace, travels in the wake of my own shadow. I do not feel threatened, or attacked, or at risk. Electrical poles at the edge of the town come into view, and I realize that within a few minutes, two things will happen: the sun will go down, and I will arrive at the town.
As if on cue, as though the electrical poles are gates or markers, the trailing shadow begins to fade. I keep going, slightly disappointed at this development but also aware that I do not want this strange shadow to accompany me indefinitely. The path leads up a slight incline that curves away from the beach. The first houses of the town stand at the crest of the hill. By the time I reach them and see into the town with its scattered buildings and warehouses on the shore, the shadow is gone.
I eat a small meal in the diner. I am the only customer. The wind picks up, the windowpanes begin to rattle in the gusts, I watch cedar boughs sway at the side of the road. By now it is dark, and I welcome my solitude. I’m tired, after a day of facilitation and expression and constant evaluation of how far I can go, what I can say, where I might find the flash points that define the divisions in any community. So many challenges here, such a weight of trauma. Yet the people are moving forward, defiant. They have not surrendered.
This has been a long war for them. First they were attacked by colonizers, then by disease, then by a hostile government and settlers intent on erasing them from the land. Their children were stolen, their land was taken, their sacred objects were removed to museums far away. For ten generations or more they have been fighting to remain alive as a people. In situations like these – in Israel and Palestine, in many parts of Africa, in New Zealand, Australia, the Balkans, Ireland, China – where cultural groups have been at risk for extended periods, the rates of addiction are often extraordinarily high. Those who cannot face the tragedy – and who can blame them? – escape into opioids or hallucinogens. Stimulants are not much used among trauma survivors; the nervous system is already frozen or in full flight after trauma, and stimulants simply increase the discomfort. Many choose alcohol: those whose temperament encourages them to fight back, to resist the alienation and the disintegration, those for whom escape is equivalent to defeat. The self-reliant cultures of the North, proud and resilient, are often haunted by alcoholism (as are so many places where traditional cultures have encountered the agronomic and economic worlds). They grapple with pervasive racism, economic inequality, corrosive politics, poverty. And they possess many resources: defiance of erasure, cultural pride, traditions of wisdom and honor – and most of all, confidence in the power of their people.
offers the drinker a reverie, a nostalgia for the way things once were, or are imagined to have been. Alcohol halts the inner life, or guides it to splendors of the past, or comforts the lost self in the present. Whereas the stimulant user always gazes forward, hungry, the alcoholic looks back. The here and now is unacceptable, it rankles, and the alcoholic possesses no solution for the future. Save one: to continue the fight, to reclaim lost dignity or power or pride, to sweep the old wounds away with a single, defiant gesture of omnipotence. For this is the underlying promise of alcohol, its unspoken secret: that we can reshape the past.
More than other substances, alcohol tends to pass between generations. It promotes the continuance of unfinished stories, incomplete dreams, unresolved impulses. Here in the North – suffused with ancient mythologies, cradled by nature, constantly reminded of the paucity of human endeavor – the stories swirl, returning to be reimagined and retold, continuing onward toward a future not yet clearly envisioned, not yet manifest from the simmering shades of the past.
The tincture of the tendency for alcoholism, the manner in which it captures people, is only somewhat variable across individuals and cultures. Most of the elements remain consistent. The first is a difficult or traumatic past, which, typically, cannot be openly discussed except while drinking. Second is a belief, learned in childhood from about age two to four, that emotional vulnerability is shameful. Third is a pervasive feeling of disempowerment, engendered by social hurdles or family secrets or a troubled personal history. Among men of my father’s generation, who were inculcated with the catechism of the tough, invulnerable male, alcoholism was once rampant. It is less so now, with the popularity of Alcoholics Anonymous, but the emotional patterning of that generation remains: above all, do not show your weakness. It is not a coincidence that these men are the sons of men who passed through the most violent period of human history – the two world wars – and returned home traumatized, unable to speak about the experience, silent, stoic. When a story cannot be told, cannot be exorcised and transformed by telling, it turns into a secret history, a cold war passed down and unfinished.
Only in my generation have the war stories of my grandfather begun to be told. Often it plays out this way. The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors return to the monuments of the camps to complete the stories their grandparents refused to tell, or veiled with carefully snipped fragments. Here in the North, the grandchildren of residential school survivors are now working toward open disclosure and reconciliation. All over the world, the grandchildren of destroyed tribal cultures are finding ways to recover the overgrown paths of their lost ancestors. In the second generation after a trauma, healing gains momentum. The first generation is often too burdened by what has happened, too much in the fugue of their parents’ trauma, adamant to close the wound before it spreads further. Much later, when the wound has been patched over and the first steps of healing have begun, when the family or culture is just beginning to believe that the trauma will finally be laid to rest – though it has not been healed – the grandchildren begin with their awkward questions.
After my meal I retire to the guesthouse. A small gathering is under way in the common room. The rotund proprietor is there, looking satisfied and hospitable. He reminds me of Falstaff. The neighbors, a bright-eyed woman and her two teen boys, have come for a visit. They’re talking about traditional indigenous wood carving, a practice the boys have recently taken up. I join their discussion tentatively, as an outsider, not wishing to intrude. Among most indigenous peoples, craft is devotional. To discuss the process is to undertake a sacred conversation. I proceed with caution, asking about the types of projects they work on, which woods they use. I ask about their tools and methods, their working space, their moods and proclivities. They are open with me, friendly, indulgent.
The older boy, who is perhaps seventeen, tells us the story of a cedar mask he recently made: a mythological spirit, an ancestor, a ritual object. He carved in his own style, departing from the traditional forms, coaxing the wood into a distinctive shape. With pride he showed the completed mask to his father, a survivor of the residential schools. Together they looked it over, his father approved of the work, and the boy excused himself to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen. In his absence, the father drew out a carving knife and began to reshape the face: in the old way, using the traditional forms. The son returned to find his father attempting to destroy the fresh personality of the work.
This does not surprise me. Traumatized societies exert great effort to recover and preserve symbols of the past. Typically these are ritual and religious symbols dealing with power: supernatural beings, deities, images of energy and wisdom. Such symbols evoke the past culture that was lost, or almost lost. The first generation of post-trauma artists in such cultures almost always work within the old tradition. Their effort is to recover the culture, to revitalize its symbols and rituals, to reclaim the empowerment that was taken away. They utilize the creative as an instrument of cultural pride.
Yet the role of the artist is not only to reproduce images from the past. Indeed, the central function of the arts is to articulate challenges faced in the present. The root of the word art is the same as the root of the word articulate – to speak, and to speak up. This common root refers to joining together, integration, unity. The social function of the artist is to speak the unspoken, to join history with actuality, to infuse the old forms with new meanings. In the vernacular of mythology, this role is undertaken by the trickster.
In traumatized cultures, much remains unspoken: the extent to which trauma persists, the pervasiveness of coping by way of addictions, the intergenerational poverty, poisonous anger, ongoing abuse. In such situations, the first-generation artists wish to teach their pupils the pure forms, the traditional methods, the way things were done before the earth was destroyed by fire. But for the younger generation, that fire is still burning. They see the struggle and the turmoil, they are immersed within it, and they can no longer believe in the redemptive capacity of the pure forms. The new artists attempt to conjoin the glories of the past with the challenges of the present. In every culture, young artists discern that their role is to rouse truthfulness, clarity, healing. They do this by creating provocative art, by embodying the trickster motif, by mixing things up. The older generation seeks to prevent this, a rift is made between them, and the unfinished struggle is passed on.
I ask the young carver if he will persist in breaking from tradition. He’s not sure. Though he does not explicitly say so, it is clear that the approval of his father is a matter of considerable importance. I understand this, and remember it from my own early life. He wants to keep that approval, at least for now. He may find that such approval is impossible to preserve when one chooses to confront the shadow of a family or a culture. This is the dilemma of the artist and the storyteller: to remain true to one’s own spirit, and perhaps be called to leave the circle, or to remain, and surrender the call. It’s a difficult choice. The consequences sweep through the course of one’s life.
We discuss the possibility of making mythological masks of poverty or alcoholism: a starving killer whale, a polar bear drunk and drifting on the ice. I suggest that Sedna, goddess of the sea, would make a good subject for dealing with the trauma of the residential schools: a woman drowned and spectral, and calling like Ophelia from the cold depths.
I think of the eldritch shadow from earlier in the day, but I do not mention it.
The window of my room looks over the harbor. Fishing boats rock on the dark water in the wan early morning light. The wind is calm. The rubbing together of halyards and stays, which I heard last night, which accompanies any kind of wind and weather in a harbor like this, is now gone. The tide is low, an expanse of damp beach stretches beneath the wharf, a rusting cargo ship steams by offshore. Probably the ship will make dozens of stops along this remote coast.
The proprietor of the guesthouse prepares me an excellent breakfast of sausage, toast, and tomatoes. We talk about the previous night, about our shared interest in the ongoing controversy of who first populated these lands thousands of years ago. He tells me of an archaeological project to discover evidence of ancient Asian seafarers, known as the Jomon, who came in boats by way of Japan and the eastern coast of Siberia. I tell him of my interest in a ship called the Casco, once the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, later wrecked on a shoal in the lee of an island off the Alaskan coast.
I gather my gear and take the path toward the reserve. I am more alert than I was yesterday to small changes in the light and in my surroundings. I see bleached deer bones on the beach, and I am reminded of the whale ribs I saw the other day. Five or six feet long, curved and graceful, harvested from a carcass washed up on shore. I wonder about purchasing a slab of whale bone for carving or turning. I ruminate on the symbols and images that such work might encourage.
The shadow returns. First a small, following grayness on the ground, then more distinct, then the dark shape of yesterday. It does not seem surprising that the sun, coming now from the east, still below the tree line, does not cast my own shadow. Or that the following shadow is on my right, and in an impossible location to have been cast by the sun.
The shadow accompanies me for much of my walk. I try to get used to it.
I pass the house with the fishing floats hanging in the window. Later, someone will tell me of a suicide in that house, and also of a man who was killed by a drunk driver along this roadside path.
As I approach the reserve, the path curves around a small but steep hill set back from the shore. The hill is smooth, and free of rocks and other irregularities. It is perhaps thirty feet high and covered with yellow grass, the type of vegetation I associate with prairies. The houses of the reserve begin a short way past the hill. It is an odd land formation, something that seems out of place in this landscape of rough crags and eskers. As I make my way past the base of the hill, the shadow vanishes suddenly. No fading, no eerie shimmering, just gone.
I think again about smallpox, and multiple epidemics wiping out entire populations, and the difficult question of where to bury the countless contagious dead. Not inside the village, surely, but close by. And in this culture with its profound belief in the afterlife, in the ancestral spirits, in the great cycle of being and becoming, what happens to the dying and the dead when those who facilitate their passage are themselves dead and dying? Did the spirits have the means to depart? Or did they linger, unguided, and do they now wait for their people to heal, so that together they might be carried into the great and unbounded circle?
In the longhouse, with wind gusting outside and fire flickering in the hearth, we continue our conversations about trauma and addiction. We talk about the experience of disconnection: from oneself, from safety and belonging, from the threads of connection to family, home, community, identity, cultural history. As the substance that most readily facilitates connection – it greases the wheels, as some people say – alcohol is the natural choice for those who feel a rift and adrift inside themselves. It is also cheap, legal, socially acceptable, and pervasive. We discuss the troubling rise in alcoholism among people in Russia and Britain, where rapid social and economic changes have created a dearth of prospects and a deluge of challenges for many citizens, especially the poor. I mention the high incidence of alcoholism among young people, unmentored and adrift, and among the rich, who are often isolated and sealed off from their own fragility.
Rifts, gaps, cracks, lesions in the self and within the social fabric. The addicted are hobbled by these, fall into them, are swirled into their own underworld. In the field of trauma psychology people talk about the black-hole gravity of a wound that keeps pulling, never letting out the light, constantly dragging, clawing at the shreds of the self. The trauma is a core of bewilderment and is the ultimate source of many addictions. Behind the drinking, the voraciousness of the trauma vortex – its ruthless intensity – is as seductive and invigorating as any drug. This is one of the odd paradoxes of healing: we are drawn to that which we seek to escape.
And yet, traversing the trauma vortex is the route to healing. Most people understand this instinctively. They recognize that the accumulated weight of their turmoil began long ago, with a small number of traumatic events, or perhaps a single event, lying unresolved and malignant within them. And in their attempts to heal, to turn and confront the wound, they are drawn into the whirlpool and lost again. Many substance users retraumatize themselves by confronting traumas, especially those of early childhood, before they are prepared to do so. If the task is too great – and usually it is, early in the healing process – the emotional energy of the trauma, the shame and guilt and fear, emerge once again to take control. This is the cause of the cycle of recovery and relapse experienced by so many users.
I offer the group my perspective on the dangers of addiction treatment approaches that focus on the sharing of trauma stories and personal confrontation with emotional wounds. These sabotage rather than assist healing, in my view. As an alternative, I outline my basic plan for the first year of recovery: belonging, trust, interpersonal skills, emotional stability and support, health and safety, relapse prevention. Perhaps some personal counseling for current issues, but an agreement to put the trauma aside for the moment. It’s too big, too powerful to tackle. Only a strong, safe, healthy environment and inner life are capable of facing the black hole. It takes time to build these things from the wreckage of addiction. A year or more, perhaps two. Substance users seldom wish to hear this. They want the single, decisive act that will transform the whole thing. They seek the linchpin, the hard core of suffering buried in the wound, and they want to slice it open. Some do, and invariably head back out to the street, to their old, painful, familiar haunts.
I talk about the value of emotional containment, grounding, and safe space, and of finding a center of focus and direction. I listen to a woman describe her experience working as the counselor for a theater troupe performing a play about residential school abuse. She traveled with them across the North, trying to keep them together, knowing that each performance eroded their emotional health. Several of the actors were survivors of the schools, as was the counselor. They played out the tale again and again, revisiting their old wounds. By the time the tour was done, the counselor was fragile and overwhelmed and incapable of doing her job. She had been drawn back into the trauma vortex.
For some people in the North, safety is scarce. The trauma vortex has swallowed the entire community. When the society is itself traumatized, where poverty and addiction and abuse swirl ceaselessly, healing and solace are difficult to find. It’s this way in many places where trauma is a way of life. And in some families, too, in every community: sometimes the secrecy prevents anyone from reaching out for help.
Yet there are those who swim out of the darkness, who overcome the relentless gravity of the trauma vortex. They undertake this heroic journey without fanfare, often bereft of assistance or support. They leave the circle of trauma, forsake the catastrophe, and make their way toward a far and invisible shore. Their passage carries them toward allies and guardians and mentors.
Someone asks about the likelihood of making such a healing journey without leaving a traumatized community. I hesitate before answering. I do not wish to suggest that the community cannot be a place of solace. But few people are able heal from the wounds of a traumatized society without leaving it for a while. In my experience, healing requires departure – at least temporarily – from the circle of wounding. If one stays, the gravity is simply too overpowering.
But of those who leave, and who find resolution of their affliction, most return from that long journey with gifts of wisdom for the community. This is the original function of the shaman’s visionary quest to the underworld, of the spirit journey, of the trials and pilgrimages spoken of in every tradition. In many ways, the addicted and the traumatized who depart, are healed, and return are contemporary versions of the wounded healers of mythology: tempered by suffering, made strong by courage, guides out of the darkness.
In the North, the greatest symbol of strength, wisdom, and power is the polar bear, Ursus maritimus. Magnificent and mysterious animals, polar bears are ghosts in the pervasive darkness of the Arctic winter. Among the peoples of the North, they are known variously as the ever-wandering ones and the masters of helping spirits. A polar bear is capable of swimming one hundred miles in the frigid northern seas, between ice floes and cold coastlines, across stretches of rough Arctic water, beneath its namesake constellation in the dark. (The word Arctic means “home of the great bear.” The region is named for the constellation of the bear, Arktos or Ursa Major). The bear perseveres, finds its own paths and currents, trusts in companions and clues found in the wilderness of its journeying. The helping spirit moves beyond the great darkness.
In a polar bear’s coat, the filaments of fur are transparent. Viewed from the side, and stacked together, they appear white. The skin of the bear is black. Shadow and illumination move together across the wilderness.
With an hour of daylight left, we finish for the day. Again, I am tired. So much work must be done here. I worry about the kids with fetal alcohol problems, the trackless teens, the adult survivors of the schools. I understand why burnout is an overwhelming problem among counselors here.
I follow the path north from the low-slung longhouse. It wends through the forest with its sarsen trees, onto the peninsula, and toward the coast. After half an hour of walking in dense, stunted greenery, I hear the wind from the ocean. It whistles, cold and sharp, through the trees. I emerge to a view of distant glacial peaks, whitecaps tumbling on endless waves, and a pair of birds circling above unseen prey near shore. I follow the coastline, meandering with the edges of small bays and rocky points, walking to get my head clear. I find deer bones, and many large, fractured shells I cannot identify, and small stones polished by the surf. The air is moist, and cold enough to penetrate the several layers of my clothing. I keep moving, trying to stay warm, exhilarated by the wildness of this place yet aware that if I were to fall and be injured, if I were to become stranded here, I might be dead by morning.
Eventually the shore curves westward and around the tip of the peninsula. The lee side is more sheltered. The wind softens, I continue along the beach above the high tide mark, and eventually I come around to the graveyard. I clamber over the low wall and wander among the stones. Some are old and illegible, others are hand painted, a few are cut marble. I am surprised to find that the most common family name is that of my own Scottish clan. Later, when I ask about this, I am told that many indigenous people adopted – or were forced to adopt – anglicized names during the colonial period. Typically, such names were those of Scottish or English sailors. I wonder which of my ancestors was here, hundreds of years ago, during the protracted negotiation between the two worlds.
The sun begins to set. Near the front of the cemetery, facing the sea, among the oldest graves, I come across a statue of an angel, perhaps six feet high. She is crafted from white marble, aged and pocked with lichens, now gray with salt and age. She stands with her back to the ocean. She overlooks the graveyard and is silhouetted against the expanse of sea behind her. A strong and graceful wing extends from her right side, as though offering protection and guidance to those who come here. But on the left, where a second wing should be, the marble is sheared off. Only a ragged stump remains. I search in the grass, and in the sand outside the wall, but I cannot find the broken wing.
Out here, on this windswept shore at the edge of the world, the angel cracked and disintegrating before me, I think of Walter Benjamin, the Jewish philosopher who committed suicide, by means of a morphine overdose, while fleeing the Nazis. Benjamin wrote of an angel of history who stands at the crossroads of the present. Benjamin’s angel faces the past, wings spread. The momentum of history, what Benjamin calls “one single catastrophe,” moves with inexorable velocity and collides into wreckage at the angel’s feet. “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But a great storm is raging, says Benjamin, a storm that prevents the wings of the angel from closing. As the crossroads of time moves forward, the voiceless and chaotic wind carries the angel into the future, helpless. The debris of history accumulates – the mess of unfinished dreams, unabated calamities, unfulfilled impulses. The storm blasts onward. “This storm,” says Benjamin, “is what we call progress.”
The alcoholic is an angel of history: imprisoned within a single moment of rage or helplessness or despair, captured by the storm, haunted by a twisted pile of wreckage that begins as a smattering and ends in catastrophe. It starts modestly, of course, often in early adolescence: as a feeling of deliverance, or relaxation, or of simple normalcy. I remember, from my own adolescence, the widened perception, the social ease, the remarkable lifting of my burdens of stress and anxiety. And the joy, the uncomplicated experiences of friends drinking together, the letting go of anything beyond my immediate horizon. The simplicity, the surrender, the pleasure.
For much of my adolescence, my friends and I drank to unconsciousness almost every weekend. We stole booze from our parents, or we asked our older brothers or friends to purchase supplies for us. As we got older, we began using forged identification at liquor stores. We drank beer and cheap tequila and shit mix, the miserable brew that is the result of pouring an inch from every bottle in the family liquor cabinet into a single receptacle. My mother did not like me stealing her booze. Sometimes she would indicate, with a black line inked on the glass, the level of the contents of various bottles. But I was careful to steal only from her regular supplies, and these were diminished by her at a rapid pace.
My friends and I drank in parks and in the basements of houses. We drove drunk, running over street signs and smashing cars and racing along the causeway near the university. Sometimes we drove around the local running track at fifty miles an hour with one of us on the roof, hanging onto the rack. During summer we drank on boats, water-skied drunk, jumped off shore cliffs into the sea while drunk, lay on beaches gazing at the stars and puking on the sand.
Many of our parents were alcoholics, people who worked too hard or felt trapped by their circumstances or were trying to get away from the ghosts of their own pasts. Their reasons were different, as were the reasons among my friends and me. One of us was bullied and beaten by his father. Another lived in a home suffused with depression and anger. A third was watching his mother die of cancer. But it wasn’t only these things. There was the competition at our school, and our own anxieties about the future, and the common tendency of boys to mistake risk taking for empowerment and maturity. These various motivations combined together, volatile and mercurial.
We were regular boys, more or less, blustering and awkward and innocent in our recklessness, trying to live up to the stories of our fathers, terrified of the future, impatient of our youth, headstrong, visceral.
As for me: I was an adopted kid, insecure and failing in school, emotionally sensitive, anxious, depressed. My mother lived under the shadow of intergenerational alcoholism and abuse. My own temperament, my interest in books and ideas, my tendency to always want to know the reasons for things: these came increasingly to be sources of division and distance. I drifted from my parents and siblings. My mother and I fought most evenings, after I had returned from school and she had begun to drink. Now, in the half-light of memory, I cannot recall what we fought about, what the daily fuel of our altercations might have been. Chores, I suppose, or my performance at school, or my plans with friends. Yet, at heart, our war was about one thing only: alcohol. With a desperation born from clinging to the shreds of my love for her, in the light of that love mixed with fear and a budding hatred, I needed her to stop drinking. And she, weighed down by a depression of which she never spoke, driven by a nameless anger, trapped, blighted by unhappiness – she refused. Drinking was her refuge, her solace, her safety.
When not drunk, my mother was generous, charming, and exquisitely sensitive and adept in social settings. She was held in high regard by almost everyone who knew her. And because of her sensitivity, she recognized, I think, that the accumulated stress of her struggle with me had caused me to crack open, to drink, to contemplate suicide as a reasonable alternative to home life. She railed against my high-risk behaviors, in part because she glimpsed their true function as experiments with death. She complained consistently about my lack of direction, my selfishness, my laziness. She tried to help me with these faults, in the preferred manner of alcoholics: by way of bludgeoning. And she realized, in the midst of our pitched battles, that in my own way I was trying to help her. She both loved and hated me for this; alcohol facilitates such contradictions. Eventually she died that way, both loving and hating.
To inhabit an alcoholic home is to live in a city under siege. Frequent bombardments disturb the night, and stones are fired from trebuchets far out on the plain. Enemy battalions strike vulnerable fronts, which are soon shored up, defended, packed with the rubble and dreck of previous explosions, ash still smouldering. Walls crumble. Acrid dust pervades the streets. Salvos sometimes penetrate the inner city, fires break out, there is frantic scrambling to contain and hide the disfigurement. Feral dogs wander the streets. Smoke rises from fires that cannot be extinguished. Voices are heard in alleys, furtive, quiet. Occasionally, shouts emanate from within the citadel. But over all this an atmosphere of oppressive silence settles, as though the air has become thickened and sickly. Sounds are swallowed, heavy and echoless.
The citizens of the city speak to one another rarely. They go about their business, interacting minimally, restricting their conversations to safe and practical subjects. They do not speak of the war, nor of the casualties among them, nor of the impoverishment brought by the siege. Were a citizen to speak of the war, even to affirm its existence, to name what must not be named, such a transgression would require that the gates of the city be opened. This is the covenant the citizens share. Residency in the city is contingent upon assent to its fundamental charter. The war, which governs the life of every citizen, must not be articulated. By such denial the war will be made to not exist.
The risk of the gates opening is extraordinarily remote. The great wooden hinges have not turned in the living memory of any citizen. Sometimes they hear stories of other cities in which the gates were opened. But no one has visited those cities, and tales of them are discounted.
The siege has endured for generations. The citizens have not seen the face of their enemy. In the highest tower of the citadel there is a lone window, and behind this a cell, and within the cell a prisoner. The door of the cell remains open always. No guards are necessary.
I hear a pair of ravens chattering among the trees as I walk the shore path on the morning of the last day of the workshop. Here in the North, the trickster of mythology is not a coyote but a raven. I listen to the discourse of clicks and tremulous warbles and strange percussive sounds, and I wonder how the birds make such varied cadences. I do not glimpse a following shadow today, but I am haunted by a pervasive sense of gloom. Alcoholism is a great scourge here. While the legacies of colonial diseases and residential schools and government indifference have been addressed openly, and healing has begun in those areas, alcoholism continues to visit its dark plague upon these people.
I think about the many family and community members from my own past who ignored or discounted or denied the pain that was visited upon my family by alcoholism. Those who live in a city under siege learn to minimize their own trauma, to pretend that their lives are natural and normal, to imagine that the stones whistling overhead are inevitable and acceptable. They hunker down and starve slowly. Especially among the young, who experiment with various substances in what is sometimes a healthy and at other times an addictive manner, alcoholism is often accepted as appropriate behavior. Binge drinking on weekends – widely accepted as the beginning stage of alcoholism – is sanctioned by many parents, who view such conduct as simply hijinks or the typical escapades of the young. And perhaps binge drinking is fine for some kids. They will flirt with it and move on. Most do. But in a society that sanctions drinking to excess, in which inebriation is viewed as an adolescent rite of passage, the risk of addiction for the most vulnerable kids is high. Almost always, the path of adult alcoholism begins during adolescence.
Alcohol is legal, facilitates stress management, offers various emotional benefits, and can be an epicurean delicacy. Yet it also possesses a peculiar momentum, a way of sneaking up on people. Healthy enjoyment gradually evolves into secret dependence, and this in turn twists into absolute necessity. And the inner life is slowly squeezed off, emotional exigencies are ignored or deferred, relationships drift toward siege and silence, daily life becomes a disconsolate blur punctuated by moments of respite delivered by way of the bottle. The debris piles up at the feet of the angel.
But the unresolved junk of the inner life has to go somewhere: the abuse of others, fury and violence, isolation. The ghosts of the inner life roam and wreak havoc until they are found, and known, and befriended. Those ghosts are wild and cannot be tamed. But they can be brought from the wilderness into communities of solace and support. They can be recognized as spirits and not only ghosts.
I pass a group of tattered houses, roofs torn, paint faded and scaly, yards unkempt. Broken and abandoned toys lie on the rumpled lawns. Rusting husks of old cars skulk along the fence lines. I assume that these houses are owned by one extended family in which alcoholism has ravaged almost every member. The houses have a particular look, a mood of anger and tumbledown despair. I think of the children in these homes, and of their future as either captives or exiles. The path of exile is probably their only route to healing. I imagine a child in the guise of a polar bear, swimming far from shore, indefatigable, holding fast to the single elemental truth of continuance, searching the horizon for shore, and sustenance, and watch fires set by those who have come before.
This child will awaken early, on a Tuesday morning. She will be fifteen years old. The house will be quiet, though as she dresses in the dark she will hear the sounds of someone rolling over in bed, down the hall and out of sight. The wind will come from the northwest, and will bring the scent of fir trees and salt water and mossy ground after the recent rains. She will gather her things in a small backpack – slim wallet, blue sweater, book with a tattered spine, four slices of beef jerky, can of root beer, journal with spiral designs on the cover, bag of toiletries, white envelope with photographs inside – and she will leave the house. She will not lock the back door. She will take the path that leads behind the house, she will cross the damp fields, and she will find the ribbon of highway that meanders beneath mountains in the east. She will not know her destination, nor what her next steps should be. She will walk at the roadside, listen for the sounds of cars approaching, gaze into the sky with its clouds scuttling across her vision. She will be entirely alone.
A car will stop. Or she will flag down a bus, or a truck. And though many people from her community travel this road, none will do so this morning, and so no one will confront her, cajole her to return, report her escape to anyone who might come after her. It will be as though her world stands aside and with closed eyes grants her passage. And in the space of that opening, in the crispness of the wind and by virtue of her own resolve, she moves forward unchallenged. No force delays or thwarts her. But she is afraid, and tentative, and she imagines the many ways in which her boldness might bring her harm. A light rain begins to fall. The roadside dust settles. She gazes down the highway, following with her eye the wide turn of the road and its disappearance over a shallow, saddled hill in the distance. She wonders where she will spend the night.
The healing of every community depends upon this child.
During the final day of the workshop we talk about healing strategies for alcoholism: community education, cultural traditions, parenting skills, communication and conflict resolution strategies, mentoring for adolescents, and the unlocking of behavioral patterns fixed on the singular response of anger. We discuss the mysterious process that causes a substance user to be ready, finally, for change. We talk about the immensity of the challenges, and of rates of burnout among addictions counselors and families in perpetual crisis. One of the participants – a slight woman, perhaps in her sixties, her long brown hair gathered up – begins to speak about feeling overwhelmed. She has lost her husband, and her brother, and her son, to addiction. They are all dead. She begins to cry, her speech accelerates, she opens and closes her fists spasmodically. I listen, and respond to her gently. Various participants are uncomfortable. They’re not sure what to do, how to respond, how to help. The woman’s voice rises, and cracks, and she talks about the unfairness of what has happened to her, the ways in which her heart has been shattered, the anger she feels and for which she has found no specific direction or outlet. This fury swirls inside her, swallowing her whole, fueling itself with hidden currents of despair. She wonders why she has not killed herself. She recognizes that she has lost the motivation even for suicide. Nothing matters any more, not even her own life. She is almost screaming now, fully possessed by what matters, finally: her rage, and dread, and sorrow. Several other participants shift in their seats, look painfully toward her and toward me. The atmosphere in the room is electric, and heavy, and explosive.
During the brief pause in which she draws a deep breath, shudders, and prepares to continue – in this moment, just before I request that the group take a break so that she and I may speak privately, I silently give thanks to my abusive, alcoholic mother. For in the cauldron of my mother’s pugnacious and combustible temperament I learned to be at ease with intensity. Nothing in my professional life has matched the stress, or virulence, or fierceness of what I encountered as a child, in my home. Those experiences tempered me, provided me with what I consider to be my finest interpersonal skill. I owe the quality of my professional life to my mother’s truculence.
During the break, while the group shares snacks in the small kitchen at the back, the side door opened to the brightening day, I suggest to the woman who has lost both her compass and her ballast that we take a short walk outside. A light breeze blows from the south. A cross swell sweeps around the rocky point and pitches the sea into tangled trajectories. We follow the road above the beach. Walking is possibly the best activity for promoting emotional containment, and she begins to gather herself as we amble along. I don’t say much. She speaks of her remaining family, of a past in which the future seemed possible, of her life built upon stolen dreams. I try not to offer platitudes, or comforting words, or to give meaning to her catastrophe. The meaning will come to her with time, or perhaps it will not. I do not know what the meaning will be, nor where it will lead her in the years to come, nor how she might go on. But she will go on: this at least seems plain to me. She has not caved in upon herself. I do not know if I would do as well in similar circumstances. I mention this to her.
Later, after we’ve returned to the longhouse, after I’ve begun to wrap up the workshop and the participants are readying themselves to return to their various rural communities, the sense of gloom and heaviness that I had felt earlier in the day begins to lift. Perhaps it was the fresh air, or the kindness with which the group greeted the distraught woman upon her return, or the affirmed commitment to healing that so many of the participants spoke of during our closure. Or perhaps all of these things, their combined alchemy, have led me again to recognize an essential truth of healing: it goes on, despite the swirling currents of trauma, undaunted by despair and collapse and fragmentation. Healing cannot be stopped. Delayed, yes – thwarted, buried, denied, discounted, passed from one generation to the next, as so often happens – but not, finally, stopped.
I wait for the small plane that will return me to the city. The airstrip lies along the sea, and a breakwater of black volcanic rocks has been built to protect the tarmac from winter storms. I scramble among these stones, eventually finding one that extends into the sea slightly farther than the rest. I sit here, watching the slow swells and the circling of birds whose names I do not know. I think of the workshop, and of the immensity of the addictions problem, and of the shadow on the path, and of my vision of the departing child, and of the black skin of polar bears, and of the similarity in fierceness between the polar bear and alcoholism.
The polar bear is reputed to be the most dangerous of all land mammals. An adult male polar bear is a thousand pounds or more of claws, sharp teeth, colossal strength and frightening speed (a polar bear can run a mile in two minutes). Each paw is a foot wide, with claws as long as my fingers. And yet, while polar bears have been known to attack and kill people (about a dozen in the past thirty years), in most such cases the bear was either provoked or starving. Many bears have been shooed away, without incident, from homes and grocery stores and legion halls in the Far North. A woman once chased a bear from her front porch by striking it with a broom.
But the tale that stays with me, the one that I ruminate upon and wonder about and from which I derive symbolic meaning, involves the man who was alone, on foot, and was chased by a polar bear across the ice. The bear came after him slowly, taking its time. I do not know how long the man fled, how long he was capable of sprinting, terrified. To exhaustion, no doubt, and eventual collapse on the frozen and unforgiving terrain. And to a final, hopeless turning toward this beast who had pursued him.
The man crouched on the ice, hands white and scrabbling in the blown snow. The bear approached, head down. I imagine, but do not know, that there was a moment of stillness, of expectation, a gap through which the whiteness and blackness of the moment flowed. Then the bear came forward, head extended, mouth open, rows of scissored teeth exposed. The man, I suppose, closed his eyes, or curled into a ball, or held his hands before his face. Again, I don’t know. It’s an old story, the details are remote. But of this I am certain: the bear licked one of the man’s hands, and did no more, and wandered off again into the North, where the sky and land join together as one.
So gentle, that white bear, and so fierce. Black skin beneath shimmering and translucent fur. A fusion of shadow and light, an archetype of wounding and healing.