Alcohol, Me & Our Relationship
Alcohol and I have always had a complicated relationship. My complicated relationship to alcohol is exacerbated by the fact that I am an Indigenous person. As Indigenous people, I think we collectively have a complicated relationship to alcohol. The way that I have been socialized is to understand alcohol as operating on two opposite ends of a spectrum: addiction and sobriety.
Understanding my relationship to alcohol as only existing in two polarized ways has been incredibly confusing, and actually pretty harmful to my sense of self. You see, I do not struggle with addiction, however, through socialization and family trauma, I developed a toxic relationship with alcohol.
Growing up, my family never had alcohol in our house. In fact, alcohol was kind of taboo in my family. My father had been, very proudly, sober since 1969 – so he would say, and projected his shame for alcohol onto those who drank (and onto his kids as adolescents). My grandparents on my mother’s side struggled with alcoholism, and so my mother did not like keeping alcohol in the house. She did, though, still have her own complicated relationship with alcohol, that I later began to understand once I began to make sense of where my own toxic relationship with alcohol came from.
I started drinking when I was 13 years old. I grew up in the North, and drinking from a young age was a part of the (not traditional) culture. From ages 13 to 22, my drinking took on many forms. I binge drank, I built social friendships around alcohol, I drank to numb boredom and other unpleasant feeling and experiences, and I drank to seek validation. And for fear of being shamed, I hid my drinking from my parents, which led me to drink irresponsibly and put myself in some pretty dangerous situations. I was never taught what a healthy relationship with alcohol looked like.
This decade with alcohol led to so many devasting experiences, from scary blackouts, to putting myself and my body in danger, to utter embarrassments, to ruptured friendships and relationships, and hurting people I loved and cared about. To this day, I don’t know of certain traumas I experienced, due to not remembering anything that happened while intoxicated. Over time, I began to realize that I was not myself when I drank – I was a warped version of myself, like a torturous trickster entered my body when I had too many drinks. The worst part, I did things that reminded me of the things my mother did to hurt and embarrassed me, whenever she drank.
Drinking started to get exhausting, because rarely any good came out of it for me. The only problem, was that since the age of 13 I only knew how to drink in a particular way, and I did not know to create boundaries with alcohol. I thought the only way to manage my relationship with alcohol was to not drink, at all. So then began the journey of internalized guilt and shame. I would go through periods of not drinking alcohol, and then would go back to it for a night or a short period, and then feel utterly crappy about not abstaining.
This was also around the same time I began to connect most deeply with spirituality and ceremony. I thought that by having a couple glasses of wine one night, I was ruining my connection to spirit and the sacred. I felt like a bad native person. The common rhetoric within the Indigenous community is if you drink, you are unhealthy, troubled, and perpetuating the already so visible and devastating image of the “drunk Indian”; or, you are sober, walking the sacred Red Road, and committing yourself to spirit and ceremony.
It took years of me abstaining for a period, and then trying casual drinking, and then eliminating certain types of alcohol, feeling fine about having a glass of something over a meetup with friends and then guilting and shaming myself for not being on the sacred path, for me to really begin to understand the complexity of alcohol, trauma, and being Indigenous.
I now understand that my relationship with alcohol can be equated to romantic relationships: there are healthy relationships, and there are abusive and toxic relationships. And just like I’ve been able to grow, learn from, and develop boundaries from my experiences with abusive and toxic romantic relationships, I should be able to do the same with alcohol. It takes time, it takes mistakes, and it takes healing. But as with anything, cycles and patterns can be disrupted and changed.
In sitting with a beautiful elder a couple of years ago, she shared a teaching that she had received about alcohol. It was this: alcohol has a spirit, just as everything in creation does, and by honouring the power of that spirit, we can learn to understand our relationship to it. Alcohol does not abuse us, we abuse it.
I had never heard an elder share a teaching about alcohol in such a sacred and caring way, and it put things in perspective for me. I was abusing alcohol, and in return it was trying to take back control, of me. I realize that addiction is a whole other beast, and not everyone is able to manage their relationship with alcohol in a healthy way, and that is okay. However, my journey in understanding my own relationship has shown me that as humans, our relationships with alcohol are more complicated than just “addiction” versus “sobriety”. As Indigenous people, just as many of us have had to learn from scratch how to have and exist in healthy people-to-people relationships – due to complex and trauma-based histories, we also need to, and can, learn from scratch how to have and exist in healthy people-to-alcohol relationships.
For me, this has looked like setting boundaries; developing my own sense of worth and wholeness; knowing what and what does not work for me; and LOTS of unlearning. I have been trying hard to remove myself from the guilt and shame of alcohol that has been placed upon me while acknowledging the very real and harmful effects it has had on my own family, friends and communities. I have so much respect for sobriety in the form of abstinence, but I am learning to claim my own relationship to alcohol – one that makes sense for me.
For me, that means not drinking hard liquor, knowing my boundary of 2-3 glasses maximum, not using my sacred medicines or bundle when I have had a drink, and choosing to not reach for a drink when I’m already feeling low, ungrounded or unsettled. It also means a love for vineyards, deep and velvety Malbec reds, and having a couple glasses of wine with dinner or a movie. The best part, I am still connected to spirit, culture and engage in ceremony.
It has been a long journey to get to where I am now in my relationship with alcohol, and I am still navigating what it looks like, and probably forever will be – just as I am continuing navigate any other relationship in my life.