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‘Thanks!” I shouted, slamming the door of Dad’s 1967 Volkswagen. He had dropped me and my best friend, Ann, at Glenmore Dam to float down the Elbow River.
The water was a glacier’s kiss on our dusty skin as we flopped onto our inner tubes, rolling onto our backs to be swallowed up in the wide-open, Alberta-blue sky.
The river in Calgary was my playground, an outdoor school and fun in every season.
“Float with your feet downstream; that way your head won’t hit the rocks first,” Dad used to say. “If you’re going too fast, let the current push you upright. Never fight the current.”
Thirty-five years later, I was living more than 3,000 kilometres east of the Elbow River and I was drowning.
“Did’ja get some more of your mom’s cigarettes?” Ann asked as we floated.
“Yah. Did you get some more for our concoction?” I said.
We collected stolen booze in a jar that we hid in a cache on the riverbank. We also stole stale Rothmans from Mom’s emergency supplies left over from the Cuban missile crisis.
“Let’s save it for the Sadie Hawkins dance,” I said.
Hiding booze graduated from a game to a necessity as I left my teens, the river valley and Alberta for the University of Waterloo in Ontario. My parents’ acrimonious divorce and its destructive aftermath, Dad’s recent marriage to a 24-year-old, Mom’s new Australian husband and the bittersweet dissolution of my own high school relationship created a toxic mix that I didn’t want to think about. Booze helped the forgetting, and I thought changing provinces would remove the need to forget.
“I can’t wake her up!”
The flight attendant’s voice penetrated my stupor but I couldn’t swim up to consciousness. I came to later, alone, in an empty plane in the hangar.
At 19, I had come back to Calgary for Christmas, and had flown to Vancouver to visit Ann for New Year’s Eve. Ann had begged me to leave the party. “Later!” I said. She left without me.
Now, shards of memory pierced my hangover: a Mexican restaurant, sangria, tequila shots sparkling in my fingers, the strains of a flamenco guitar, and a stranger putting me in a taxi to catch my flight. I didn’t stop by Ann’s to say goodbye or pick up my winter coat.
Calgary’s breath-sucking cold matched the dawning realization that my drinking was not normal.
I graduated with honours from university. “How could I be alcoholic and so smart?” I said to myself, coming to yet again. “Monsoon Maggie,” my friends called me. “Ha! Ha! Monsoon, you pulled the fire alarm at the Earth Sciences Christmas party! We were evacuated!” But had anyone watched me peeing in the stairwell?
In 1987, at the age of 29, I married David, a gentle man with a steadfast soul. We had two daughters and moved to a leafy Toronto suburb.
“Geez, Maggie,” one of my book club friends said: “Book club is always wild when you host. I got home at 4 a.m.!” But did they see me drinking after they left, to keep the party going? Blackouts were becoming regular.
“Yah, it was fun, wasn’t it?” I said, lying, lying, always lying.
“Shhh – Elissa,” I said on the phone to my sister one hot July morning in 2006: “Don’t tell anyone, but if I don’t have a drink today I’m going to die.”
I was at our cottage, and had tried to stop drinking for the thousandth time, alone, and couldn’t, for the thousandth time. I was about to crash into myself.
Elissa called David, who flew back from New York and drove three hours north, to be welcomed by me, incoherent with rum, overflowing the screened-in porch with hatred and rage. Our terrified teenaged daughters had fled to the woods.
David shut me down the only way he knew how – with two blue pills. Once I’d passed out, he made a call.
“Can I trust you?” he asked at 7 the next morning, before we began the longest drive of our marriage.
“Of course,” I said. The moment he headed down the hill for his swim, I un-hid a hidden bottle of red that I couldn’t stop from starting.
“Jesus, Maggie!” said David, furious – and for once showing it. “Get in the car!”
Thus began the journey that changed my world. The jig was up. I was Alice vanishing down the hole, and David had grabbed me by the foot just before I disappeared forever. He hung on, and helped me save my own life. I trusted him, and that where he was taking me would stop the obsession that was killing me.
“The river froze solid last night and it didn’t snow: perfect for skating,” Dad used to say.
If the Elbow River froze clean through, it turned us to ice, too. Teeth chattering, we sat on the hard riverbank while Dad laced up our skates. My blades sang as I flew down the icy spine of the Elbow, astringent air on my cheeks.
Today, as I glide toward my winter years, I am alive and happy. The love of a man, the forgiveness of two girls, and a 12-step program of recovery are bringing me back to myself. I am a miracle – a sober woman with nothing to hide.
Maggie Jansen lives in Mississauga.