A city councillor walks into a bar
Drinking was not the problem. It was the solution.
Alcohol, for me, was a liberator from all manner of psychological constraints: Shyness, social awkwardness, poor self image, fear of failure. I drank to feel connected to others. I drank to feel a sense of belonging. One recovering alcoholic described it this way: I grew up feeling lonely. It was like everyone else was on the other side of a river, enjoying themselves. I was completely alone and could only watch. But when I drank, I crossed the river and joined them.
I’ve spent years thinking about my reasons for using alcohol. I’ve come to believe alcohol, mostly, provided a chance to feel something good, call it happiness, joy, bliss or excitement. Depression stole that from me, for much of my life. I talked often last term about my mental health struggles in earlier years with anxiety and depression. But my drinking history felt too perilous to discuss in public. It felt just too personal. But as I’ve become an advocate for some of Edmonton’s most vulnerable people — mentally ill, addicted and homeless — it felt hypocritical to hide my drinking career. Hiding in shame rubbed against my belief that addiction is a form of illness, not a moral failing. Our public policies and practices, though, treat addiction largely as a lifestyle decision; or worse, a crime. I’ve not had a drink in 10 years. I mark that milestone this month with no celebration or party. Just this … a public acknowledgement of something my friends, family and close colleagues already know: I don’t drink.
Thus and therefore I must be considered … what? The most common term is ‘alcoholic’. Some people in recovery use that self descriptor comfortably, though mental health professionals are developing new, more technical language.
The term never sat well with me. The word ‘alcoholic’ — stained with tears and misery and stigma — evokes scenes of puking, shouting and fighting, not to mention, peed pants.
Not all drinkers are like that. Many drink quietly alone at home. Mostly, that’s what I did. I’d drink wine while cooking or listening to music.
I used to apologize at 12-step meetings that I had no great stories from my drinking days. Even there I felt like an outsider, until I didn’t anymore.
At any rate, perhaps my reticence over terminology is just an example of false pride. Maybe the word alcoholic is humbling and people like me need humbling.
One of the most thoughtful lines I’ve ever heard about people like me came at a 12-step meeting: An egomaniac with low self esteem.
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. People with low self esteem are tragically self absorbed, lost in their own worries and woes, constantly comparing themselves to others, usually unfavourably. Their fragile ego dominates every move and thought.
I drank to forget myself and my pernicious self-criticism. I drank to feel like successful people feel. I drank to feel like people who reach the top of the heap, in whatever field, must feel.
But Anthony Bourdain is only the latest of a long list of people who put the lie to my old beliefs. Success does not equate to happiness. Often, success is driven by a dysfunctional need to prove worth to self or others. In the past 10 years, I’ve met leaders in all sorts of fields who are flawed and unhappy, prickly and neurotic. At the same time, I know people in recovery who are content and a joy to be around. There are a lot of doctors, lawyers, captains of industry, first responders, teachers, nurses, politicians, artists and academics among the unemployed or ‘just-out-of-rehab’ folks at 12-step meetings.
Yes. They walk among you.
I haven’t been going to meetings. Not since I was elected in 2013. I’m not proud of that. But I tend to suffer tunnel vision. My worried need to be the best councillor I can be for Ward 6 constituents made me obsessive with the work, especially the first term.
My 12-step friends bugged me at first. They were worried for me.
But I’m good and getting better. And I didn’t drink. Ask any other council member. They’d know. We’re together far too much for something as obvious as a drinking problem to be hidden.
They also know I don’t go to some events because they’re a bit too boozy for my tastes. It’s not that I’d be tempted. It’s just that I don’t want to feel like an outsider, again.
So here I am. Ten years into my sober life. I’ll likely write about it again in this blog, along with the things I learned about life during the years, inside and outside 12-step meetings.
I found my way in those meetings. I found my voice in those rooms. I found friendship. I found my secret to happiness: Committing myself to a practice of patience, kindness and humility that I must recommit myself to each day because I often forget or fail.
For me, the moral of the story on this 10-year anniversary is that I want to return to those meetings. I’ve missed them.
Because my name is Scott. And I’m an alcoholic.
By Scott McKeen, City Councillor Ward 6