As an advocate of wellness, I often hear stories of tragedy. In a majority of these stories alcohol is a major culprit. This has certainly been the case in my own life, as I have been through my own bouts with alcohol. They started when I was sixteen years old. My upbringing had been turbulent; I was exposed to heavy alcohol use, so much that I once thought it was a part of my culture to drink. While I am not trying to make an excuse for my earlier choices, it became clear to me as an adult how our childhood experiences significantly influence our actions. As a child repeatedly exposed to alcohol abuse and the negative situations it fosters, I grew into adulthood making some of the same mistakes I hoped to avoid.
My early use of alcohol reflected attempts to escape two dynamics. The first was the discomfort, sadness, and confusion associated with painful experiences from my childhood. As a teenager I convinced myself those memories didn't bother me anymore. In actuality, the lingering aftermath of those painful experiences fueled much reckless behavior and an unspoken "nothing matters" attitude. The second, which is a bit more complex, was the fear of success and taking responsibility for my life. It can become dangerously addicting to numb our pain and avoid responsibility.
Once I was able to identify and acknowledge that I had a problem with alcohol, it took me about five years to slowly shift away from risky behaviors. I did not commit to complete sobriety because I was able to develop a safe relationship with alcohol use. I even took breaks of up to two years at a time from having a single drink. But I still felt an unhealthy pull towards alcohol to numb my feelings of stress and discomfort.
During this time, I also felt judgment from people who would see me, a Native person, as an alcoholic for even having just one drink. While I don't believe that perspective to be true, it is a major stereotype placed on Native people, sometimes even by each other. The Native community is also small, and while I no longer had a problem with drinking, I regularly crossed paths with many people I cared deeply about who were still struggling with alcohol. I witnessed the associated suffering in families, and I felt a great responsibility to offer support through modeling a life clear of alcohol.
About this same time, I began the journey of opening up and sharing what I had been through as a child. I allowed myself to feel the pain for the first time and shed many tears. Each year that passed and the more I uncovered about why my life happened the way it did, the pull of alcohol became lighter on me. Then one day, as I sat over a lunchtime meal and ordered an alcoholic drink, I felt for the first time the actual effect of alcohol as a depressant. It did not relieve any stress or make me feel better in any way; instead, it brought me down and made me feel imbalanced. I have not had a drink since that day. I no longer have a desire to escape any part of my life's experience; I enjoy being present to every feeling and moment, even the tough times.
I do not judge people who drink; in fact I think that there are many people who can sustain a safe relationship with alcohol use. But there are many people who have problems with drinking, and it is undeniably one of the most significant factors leading to magnified suffering among our peoples, and it significantly contributes to accidental and self-inflicted loss of life.
It is often very hard for us to recognize if we have a problem with alcohol. Here are a few statements to consider in self-reflection. This is not an exhaustive list, but if any of these points ring true for you, then I would encourage you to seek support and guidance, for yourself and for the wellbeing of your family and community.
I share these experiences with the utmost respect for everyone, and I do not wish anyone to feel poorly in any way. Yet I believe we need to address the problems with alcohol in our lives and communities. For those of you already on a path of recovery, thank you for your work, stay strong. Your choice matters more than you may realize. Dinjii naii mahsi' cho.
Evon Peter is Chief Executive at Gwanzhii, founder of the Indigenous Leadership Institute, and Director of the Maniilaq Wellness program, a part of the Northern Alaska Wellness Initiative.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.