“Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime”

“Be my little sugar and love me all the time”

Sugartime” – song written by Charlie Phillips & Odis Echols in 1957, and popularized by The McGuire Sisters in 1958, Kitty Wells in 1959, and yes, even Johnny Cash in 1961

When we gain sobriety, one of our primary tasks is to try and understand where our excessive habits came from. “How did I get here?” sang David Byrne of the Talking Heads…the trail of self-discovery was, in my case at least, not sprinkled with breadcrumbs, but sugarcubes and candycanes, leading all the way back to my early childhood…

Is this the face of an addict?…apparently yes 🙂

It was the mid to late 1950’s, I wasn’t yet toilet trained and already I lived for sugar. The world, and everything that found it’s way into my tiny mouth seemed sprinkled, dusted, coated, dipped, rolled in, spread with or completely fabricated of sugar. It was everywhere…it sweetened every social event, it was baked into the major holidays, it kidnapped Halloween…the birthday parties with their inch-thick icing cakes, the visits to family with their gauntlet of well-meaning candy-proffering Aunties & Grannies, and the ubiquitous bowls of assorted bonbons & mints presented as offerings of supplication to we God-children by fawning neighbors.

There was always a rush to be the first to give a child candy. The giver knew intuitively that it bestowed an immediate bond…sugar was love.

Sugar in the morning. By the time I started eating solid foods a typical day would start with a good sugar-saturated breakfast cereal…Sugar Pops, Cap’n Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios…and for those “healthier” cereals (Special K, Rice Crispies, Cheerios) there was always the

ever-present bowl of sugar in the middle of the kitchen table, to help oneself – unsupervised – to as much sugar as one could tolerate…and yes my friends, young Georgie had a very high tolerance. And who am I trying to kid?…I put sugar on all of my cereals…whether they came pre-sugared or not. “It’s Sugartime Folks!”.

The alternative to cereal was toast slathered in jam, honey & peanut butter, with weekend treats of pancakes & waffles swimming in syrup, or batches of my Swedish Grandma’s Plett (small thin pancakes) sprinkled with spoonfuls of sugar butter and cinnamon.

I had a particular love affair with the sugar bowl and would often find myself  – at age 3 or 4 – kneeling on a chair at the kitchen table, leaning over and methodically channeling spoonful after spoonful of sugar into my mouth while my mother was downstairs doing laundry…bliss.

By the age of 5 or 6 my teeth started to resemble those of Shane MacGowan from the Pogues.

Sugar in the Evening.  If we were sick, sugar was there to “help the medicine go down”. I remember my mother crushing whatever pill may

have been prescribed or bought over-the-counter and mixing it with jam or honey to make it more palatable for my little pill-averse taste buds. If ever we had a cold, flu or fever, Dad was there with a Hot Toddy (Hot Whiskey, Honey or Sugar and maybe a little lemon…a Scottish thing) before we went to bed… hovering somewhere between a sugar coma and boozy delirium.

One “cute story” that my mother (bless her) used to tell from my early childhood, was of little Georgie – perhaps age two – going into the bathroom, climbing on top of the toilet to reach the medicine cabinet above the sink to retrieve the Benylin cough syrup (a rather

potent medicine laced with Codeine – an opioid linked to addiction –  and sugary syrup)…and downing the entire bottle. Mom found the empty bottle and me – staggering around the house. She gave me small amounts of coffee and forced me to keep walking so I wouldn’t pass out.

Sugar at suppertime. I received a weekly allowance of 10 cents, and permission to walk the two or three blocks to my favorite store in our neighborhood (and likely the only one I frequented at the age of 5) called “Kiddie Korner”, a candy store where I would load up on penny candy.

C’mon kids…first one’s free!

Ten cents  – at two or three pieces per penny – could fill a small brown paper bag and provide an afternoon of addictive* cavity expanding distraction. Green Sugar-Coated Jelly Mint Leaves, Pinkish Sugar

Strawberries, Yellow Bananas, Little Black Licorice Babies, Candy Necklaces, Red Shoestring Licorice, Bazooka & Double Bubble Bubblegum (no suckers or Jellybeans thanks, they’re a little too pedestrian), Lik-M-Aid, Candy Lipstick, Candy Bacon…and on and on. If you build it they will come. Kiddie Kokaine as my friend JB calls it, and as it turns out…he’s right.

When I quit drinking in 2012 (thank you AA) my desire to eat sweet things (ice cream, chocolates and sugary baked goods) spiked, as if I was replacing my adult drinking obsession with my more primary childhood sugar craving. I wasn’t eliminating addiction, I was only transferring it…reverting to the mean, as it were. Shortly after receiving my 1 year “Sobriety Cake” in 2013 (also slathered with sugary irony), I came across across this article in the NatGeo titled “Sugar Love” which said:

*“When we eat sugar the brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two mood-boosting hormones that stimulate the area of the brain associated with reward. In a process similar to drug addiction, we get sugar cravings. However, our sugar rush releases insulin that creates a sugar crash, triggering more cravings and a vicious sugar cycle”

Bingo. If not a smoking gun then at least a prime suspect.

Although I still indulge in the sweet stuff, and may indeed be powerless** over a well-crafted cookie or piece of chocolate, my life is not unmanageable…unless you take away my coffee…don’t even think about it.

** Step 1 from AA, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable”

Embracing Sobriety

I attempted to quit drinking in the old-fashioned way – set an arbitrary date, in this case, wait until after Christmas and New Years (classic!) and then quit on January 1st, 2012 –  but I failed once again because my resolve wasn’t there and I had not yet – genuinely – embraced “the program”. I had started attending a few AA meetings, but was allowing myself to drink when out of town. This – as I’m sure you can appreciate – resulted in more road  trips, holidays and vacations to justify my ongoing habit.

The initial AA meetings were good but I was still only making a halfhearted effort. It’s as if I had observer status but was not yet a member. I watched and listened and even got up and shared, but in fact was continuing to allow myself these out-of-town excursions for the purpose of having benders on the road. A holiday to Mexico with my partner C. did not turn out to be one of my finest performances, multi-day long beer and pot benders with my buddy Dave resulted in the most depressing hangovers I’d ever experienced, and I even found myself “cheating” on occasion by surreptitiously drinking at events in Vancouver that I’d foresworn. It wasn’t until my fateful road trip to the Sunshine Coast in late April that somehow my “Higher Power” stepped in to provide me with the epiphany I need to see the light.

I love road trips. After I’d walked away from the purchase of a property in Halfmoon Bay 6 months prior I decided that Pender Harbour was more to my liking and that I’d focus my property search there. A little 3 or 4 day trip up the Sunshine Coast gave me a chance to have a little adventure and to hit all of my favourite pubs enroute. On April 24, 2012 the last evening of my trip I’d closed down the Grasshopper Pub and had returned to my camperized van to polish off a bottle of wine that I had stashed there. Perhaps I smoked a little weed too, but it really doesn’t matter, I was wasted either way and in no condition to drive. But that didn’t stop me. At some point I felt like I needed to access the internet and I remembered that Wheatberries Bakery in Sechelt had accessible WiFi that I could use, so, I decided to drive the 40 kilometers  down the coast to do so. It was late, it was dark, it was a little cold and the road from Pender Harbour to Sechelt is a windy undulating snake that is somewhat dangerous to navigate at the best of times. With the tunes cranked up and a wine bottle in one hand I ventured forth. Now…nothing catastrophic happened dear reader, I made it to my destination in the wee hours, parked the van, and basically passed out safe & sound until sunrise the next morning,  where coffee and muffins awaited me just feet away from the van at Wheatberries.

But this time was different. This time, on April 25, 2012, I received my wake-up call, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. The thought that I might actually injure someone else with my drinking and driving was enough of an epiphany to encourage me to quit for good. I called my sister-in-law.

I have known T. for 30 years and, in all that time, she and her husband – my brother in law – have been sober. I knew that I needed sound advice as to what I had to do next. What did I need to do to gain my sobriety? I was, at that point, convinced that I was facing a life or death situation and was willing to do whatever was necessary,  and that T’s learned words would put me on the right path. “Well, George, you’ve got to do 90 in 90”, she informed me in her occasionally stern manner. “What’s that? “, I cringed. “You have to do 90 meetings in 90 days…it’s the best way to overcome your addiction” she said, authoritatively. (She truly knows her stuff). “How is that even possible?” I whined. “Well,” she said, “How often do you drink?”…”Daily” I admitted…”And how many hours a day do you dedicate to your “hobby”? she inquired….”Well…anywhere between 4 and 8 hours, I guess, unless cocaine is involved, then of course all bets are off” ….I got her point. This time, I could no longer put it off. There were no more excuses, no more rationalizations or failure to be tolerated. I would enter the program and embrace it in its entirety. Whatever was asked of me I would do. I knew that AA had saved millions of people from the scourge of alcoholism – I wanted to be one of them. I had arrived.

There are over 100 AA meetings a day in Vancouver. I was fortunate that there were at least a dozen I could attend within walking or cycling distance of my home in Kitsilano. This made it relatively easy to fulfil my commitment to do the 90 in 90 program. During this time, I did not miss a meeting. There is a meme floating around out there that claims it takes 21 days to break a habit. When you are dealing with something as grave as drug or alcohol  addiction it makes complete sense to go the extra mile and really purge the urge, with a 90 in 90 program. I now know people who have even doubled up and done two or three meetings a day, and others who, even after years of sobriety continue to attend meetings almost daily. Its a good program, a great program and – as a mechanism that saved my life – I have nothing but the highest regard for it and can give it nothing but the highest praise.

There are many varieties of meetings with a broad array of members. I have found that there is something valuable to be learned & witnessed in any meeting I have attended. If you leave your mind open, an opportunity for growth and learning will enter. I was fortunate when I entered the program that I wasn’t haunted by the desire to drink – it felt like the obsession had been lifted. Despite this, I moved through the days and weeks and months quite cautiously. I didn’t want to take anything for granted and I cherished every milestone & chip along the way to my one year of sobriety. I had a home group and a sponsor (the amazing and wonderful Phil) and I did a modicum of service work where I could. I’ve made some very good friends in the program and have met some incredibly strong & fabulous people whom I admire.

Within a month of quitting drinking and entering the program I started having unusual episodes of disorientation upon waking. These events happened monthly – almost like clockwork every four weeks – and left me briefly confused about the recent past and the near future…I was convinced that it was just my brain acclimatizing to not being hungover every morning and that these episodes would diminish. After 6 months of this, including  two collapses and a broken foot I was tentatively diagnosed with a very rare condition called Transient Epileptic Amnesia which kept me fairly close to the medical system in Vancouver while I was also working on my completion of one year of sobriety.  Fun times. It was also during this year that my ex-wife – Elaine- was essentially dying of early-onset Alzheimers in an institution that my son and I had her admitted to in 2011.

(The reason I am telling you all of this dear reader is because this blog, Embracing Sobrietycomprises my year of necessary personal transformation & healing following the abysmal previous seven years ( Death Mask Chronicle Parts 1 & Part 2 and just prior to the glorious rebirth and ecstasy I would encounter on the next path moving forward, Searching for Shavasana (Part 1) and (Part 2)…Embracing Sobriety is a bridge between the darkness and the light…a critical requirement before salvation and forgiveness could enter.)

If you are familiar with the AA program you will know about Step 9. Step 9 is one of the pillars of the program and involves making amends or restitution to those we may have harmed during our years of active alcoholism. My ex wife was definitely someone to whom I needed to make amends, and I arranged to do so. Unfortunately, by the time I entered the program, Elaine was in her 11th year of fighting a losing battle with the early-onset Alzheimers that she had been diagnosed with at the young age of 48, and that would soon take her life. But I would try. Although she was confined to a wheelchair in a dementia ward in an institution, and could no longer talk, we truly had no way of knowing what she might be receiving from us through our talks with her. With this thought in mind I went to see her and wheeled her out into the courtyard and sunshine where we could be alone. I must have spoken to her for 20 minutes, basically taking ownership for whatever bad behaviour I had engaged in that may have contributed to the end of our 11 year marriage. She made small noises which I took as some form of acknowledgement, and, I like to think that it gave her some comfort to know that I had quit drinking and that our son would benefit from my reformation in her absence. She died several months later, one week before my first year of sobriety.

Mostly, the experience of gaining sobriety is a positive one. Beyond the fundamental fact that you are likely saving your life and improving the lives of all around you there are very tangible benefits: you gain clear-headedness;  more energy;  more self-love & self-respect; you are likely saving many hundreds (thousands) of dollars  per month, and , if lucky, gain a rosy outlook on the future and life in general. Christmas 2012 though, my first Christmas in sobriety, was absolutely depressing!  …the holidays…Christmas dinner…social events…without booze – who dreams this stuff up? I knew that I’d picked up a little S.A.D. (Seasonally Affective Disorder) along the way but this was painful. The skies were relentlessly grey and the thought of having company for dinner was anathema to me. Some things are just meant to be endured. On the road to sobriety there are many such things. One day at a time Georgie, one day at a time.

Three days later, after this most bleak of festive times,  I would have a seizure – my last – within minutes of getting up in the morning . As I walked towards the bathroom I collapsed – briefly – onto the floor which resulted in another broken foot – this time my left. I had cracked three metatarsals, a non-weight-bearing injury which would put me in a boot and crutches for the next six weeks. This was the third and, hopefully, final time that I would be hauled out of our home via ambulance.

Most alcoholics bottom out prior to entering the program. I had a moment in January 2013 – a few weeks after this episode and a full 9 months after gaining sobriety  – that I consider to be my tragicomic low point. It was nighttime. I had recently come down with a nasty cold and was lying in bed trying to sleep, wearing my protective boot and trying to suppress a cough so as not to wake my partner C. The cough was winning so I decided to go and sleep on the couch in the office…gingerly making my way down the hall on my non-weight-bearing injury…perhaps I crawled. While lying on the couch feeling miserable I could hear – a few feet away from me in the dark – my cat Jet, puking up her dinner and a hairball. “Perfect”, I thought…there was nothing to do but try and clean this up so I hobbled/crawled into the kitchen to get a rag and came back to deal with her mess. While there, in the dark, wearing my boot and leaning over her vomit while on my knees, my nose started to run profusely into her upchuck…I began to giggle…then I laughed until tears came to my eyes. The ridiculousness of my situation and the full realization of the journey that had brought me to this point seemed like the best of tragicomic farce. Hilarious, pathetic, poignant and cathartic…damn, it was just plain funny! And the beauty was that the moment was priceless and necessary…much like my epiphany on the Sunshine Coast, this moment served as a corner that needed to be turned…my foot might be broken but my sense of humour was intact….God I was…lucky! 🙂