Marsha McLeod is an investigative reporter who has written about inequality, health care, and criminal justice issues. She is based in Toronto.
I was lying in the bathtub of my Toronto apartment, drinking a glass of wine, when I began sensing a new and uncomfortable thought. It rolled in like a coastal fog, shapeless and undefined, before forming into words: I’m going to have a drinking problem – just like my dad. It came as if from nowhere; I hadn’t thought all that much about my drinking habits before. Then, as quickly as the first thought came, another followed: My children are going to grow up watching me drink – just like I did. That thought was particularly strange because I don’t have any kids, and, at that moment, at 27, was convinced that I never wanted any.
I am not a particularly spiritual or religious person. I think too much and I rarely experience anything close to certainty. Yet those thoughts came to me not just with certainty, but prophecy. And whether delivered by divine intervention or the machinations of my unconscious mind, they made me decide – with an instantaneousness I’d not experienced before or since – that I would stop drinking. And I wouldn’t start later, but right then. I hadn’t yet gotten out of the bath.
A towel wrapped around me, I poured the rest of my glass of wine down the kitchen sink, before similarly disposing of the contents of several stoppered bottles I had on hand. I taped a piece of paper to my fridge where I would check off each day that I went without drinking. And I took to Instagram, posting on the app’s “close friends” setting: “I use drinking to cope with challenging life events and complicated feelings, and life is certainly challenging and complicated right now.” It was November, 2020 – eight months into a pandemic that had, at the time, caused 1.4 million deaths.
For the first half of my life, my dad was sober; for the other, he drank. He never spoke to me about the awkward matter. As a kid, I didn’t have any words for it, just the ominous feeling that arose at the sight of a stein. I knew alcohol as an unwelcome and uncomfortable party guest: my dad sitting on the sofa with a beer in his hand or with his voice creeping upwards at a family gathering. So I learned the art of pretending not to see.
I started drinking when I was around 14. In the world of the sport I grew up competing in, so long as you followed the accepted schedule, underage drinking wasn’t chastised, beyond the occasional stern look. And while I didn’t drink with frequency as a teen, when I did, it was with intensity, getting blackout drunk a number of times before I turned 19. When I became of legal age – and was awash in booze while at university – I increased the frequency, too.
At this point, I’d planned to relay some of my best drinking stories to you. I’d written out a highlight reel of my drunken skulduggery, carefully selecting my most outrageous anecdotes. But as I reread the paragraph I’d written – the part of this story meant to raise your alarm to my drinking habits – I was caught between concern and sadness on one hand and on the other, the vestiges of a mentality that couldn’t help but think, Man, that was funny, wasn’t it?
The problem is, the stories that I’d picked to illustrate my problematic drinking are the same ones that I’ve often pulled out for laughs. Finding the humour isn’t terribly complicated: you introduce a risk, ratchet up the stakes, and bring about a resolution. As someone who loves having a funny story to tell, I’ve contorted all kinds of scary nights into punchlines. The night I decided to stop drinking, I wrote: “I’ve had issues with binge drinking that were easily disguised through a culture that finds extreme inebriation both comedic and laudable.” If blacking out is funny, throwing up is a war story and hurting yourself adds to your belligerent credibility.
In the WASP-y culture in which I grew up, there’s an extremely high, if not nearly limitless, tolerance for risk related to drinking. When something goes wrong during a bender, it’s generally seen as a freak accident, not a symptom of the “full send” culture that’s actually inherent to drinking. (A full send, as Urban Dictionary defines it, is: “The act of irreversibly going all out in some act regardless of consequences.”) In 2017, alcohol use contributed to more than 18,300 deaths in Canada. That’s profoundly unfunny. Try bringing it up sometime, though. Questioning the culture through which binge drinking is transmogrified into comedy makes you sound like a prude giving a D.A.R.E. presentation in a middle school gymnasium.
A lot of young people are taught that it’s through the needle of drinking that we pass into adulthood. And the two things aren’t just intertwined or bound up in the same story, but causal – like taking a magic potion. As a teenager, drinking in someone’s basement made me feel like an adult – calm, cool, sexy. Meanwhile, at home, I was watching my father dying of lung cancer in my family’s living room. There, I felt like a little kid – scared, vulnerable, full of painful questions. When my dad eventually died – about a month after my 16th birthday – those questions got even louder.
Drinking became my version of drag, but instead of performing gender, I was performing adulthood – taking on the affect of the mature, secure and independent woman I fantasized about becoming. She needed nothing from anyone. For me, drinking was a rebellion against being infantilized, pitied or owned. I drank to feel empowered. To feel like I knew what was coming next. To forget all my questions.
After I graduated from university, I continued to use alcohol to put on my costume of adulthood. I did, however, switch my substance of choice from cheap vodka to pinot noir – unconsciously following a line of social acceptability. Then, a few years into my career in journalism, as I felt the pressures on me starting to rise, I also started using alcohol in order to write. I’d wait until at least 5 p.m., or whenever I knew I wouldn’t hear from another editor or source, and I’d spend my evenings writing and rewriting drafts without the self-criticism of sobriety. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic took root, I was already drinking far beyond the limits of Canada’s alcohol consumption guidelines – and it gave me no reason to slow down. (About a quarter of Canadian drinkers say they’ve consumed more during the pandemic, while almost as many reported a drop.)
Despite my drinking problem being pretty obvious, I hadn’t allowed myself to consider that I had one – because I didn’t have my dad’s drinking problem. I didn’t get drunk and make mean jokes. I didn’t get drunk and drive. I didn’t even get drunk-drunk anymore. How could I have healthy relationships and be doing well in my career – and still have a drinking problem? Here’s another problem: I lived alone. If you drink every night, but nobody knows, is it really an issue? If you aren’t hurting anyone, does it matter? It’s taken me a long time to realize that hurting myself is problem enough.
Last September, while drinking a non-alcoholic Caesar in a Kingston pub, I wrote about the decision to quit my full-time job in journalism. I came to the conclusion that if I had still been drinking, I might not have done it. With alcohol, “I’d likely be ‘able’ to artificially power through this painful situation,” I wrote, referencing the stress and loneliness of moving alone to a new city in the middle of the pandemic. “Instead, [without] alcohol, I could come to my ‘real,’ sober breaking point … it’s paying for the pain in the present instead of on credit. Which is what drinking allows me to do. But I’m always in debt.”
More than a year sober, I can’t report a mental health miracle. I gave up the method that I’d long used to quiet my mind – and things still feel unnecessarily loud. But for the first time, I’m not accumulating debt. When I drank, I would crystalize hard feelings into amber: to be explored in some indeterminate future, by some other version of me. But with this model, similar to paying on credit, there’s interest. The feelings grow. And they get harder.
It feels simplistic to say that my dad drank because he had a tough childhood or because he grew up to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s like saying that I drank just because it was hard to grow up with a father who did, and then who up and died when I was just a kid. That’s not all. I drank because it took away the weight of the questions that I couldn’t answer. I imagine my dad just wanted that too: the freedom not to think so much all the time. To turn down the volume. So I get it. God, do I get it.
In case you wanted to know, I still have a lot of days where I feel like drinking. I start to feel this huge weight on my chest and suddenly, I need to escape from my body. I need to run around to shake the feeling of being buried alive. I need to sit in my car and play my dad’s old CDs: Buddy Holly, CCR, Nat King Cole. “Unforgettable, that’s what you are.”
When someone you love dies, I think that first, you grieve the relationship that you actually had. Then, as time goes on – as you grow up, change, and are changed by the loss itself – you grieve the relationship that you could have had. And when you lose someone who was struggling, you also lose the future in which they found healing. The future where you could’ve sat together and said, “My God, that was bad, wasn’t it?” Because it doesn’t hurt like it once did.
In my mind, there exists a healed version of my dad. He is sober and reflective – with the wisdom of a man who did some stupid things and hurt people whom he loved. But he still has his quick, wry sense of humour. Sobriety didn’t turn him into a self-help hippie corndog. He’ll still correct my improper use of “who” and “whom.” In these conversations, I mostly ask him questions, and he answers. Some, he asks me back.
At times, I get to thinking that maybe I could start drinking again. I could avoid it at home and be careful around open bars and punch bowls. But even if I could, my sobriety is not just mine. It’s in honour of my dad and the healing he didn’t get the chance to do – but with a few more years, I believe that he would have. Because he wanted to. So I’m finishing that journey for him.
My sobriety is also for the children who appeared to me that night in the bathtub. Whether they were a vision of the future or an image of my past, I want to show them that I don’t need to mediate my reality in order to love them, or to hear about their struggles, or to share mine, and that even adults have questions we’ll never answer. But we can always ask.
The Decibel: André Picard on sobriety and the pandemic
Dry January is a month-long challenge to avoid or cut back on drinking. Health columnist André Picard, who doesn’t drink at all, spoke with The Decibel about what people might learn about their drinking habits from the exercise, especially in the uniquely stressful situation that COVID-19 has put us in. Subscribe for more episodes.