Going Sober Reopened Alcoholic's Eyes To Life

Alcoholism in the Northwest Territories

Andrew Livingstone

March 30, 2009

INUVIK - Here's to hating you at the end of the night.

"We went out and got a 60 of whisky, Crown Royal or Wiser's, I can't remember. I just knew it was going to happen.

Jason Franzen of Inuvik is attempting to make changes to the way he lives life. By giving up alcohol after years of abuse, blackouts and mistakes, the former Saskatchewan resident is facing life head-on.

"She punched me in the face that night.

"I really thought it would be hard to quit, but I think it's harder dealing with what I've done. It is just time to stop. It's been hard for the last seven years."

The blackouts were normal. They came around the sixth or seventh drink usually, when things would become foggy and Jason Franzen did things he said he can't begin to understand why: two drinking and driving charges, numerous mischief charges, and physical and mental assault on the people he holds close to him.

Since the age of 14 Franzen has lived a double life. One life as a grounded, happy-go-lucky man with a desire to explore the creative energy he found in writing, art and music. The other spent blacking out and taking costly risks to escape the difficulties life threw his way - comfort found in a glass of beer or a rye and Coke.

"It's easier to deal with blacking out and not remembering anything than remembering everything all the time," he said.

Franzen has been a heavy drinker since the age of 14. He began drinking at the age of 13, but it became excessive after being diagnosed with cancer. He had part of his right calf removed because of the disease and treatment, making it difficult for the Grade 9 student to participate in gym class.

"My principal gave me credit for gym class in Grade 9 and 10," he said. "I got a fake ID and we'd sit in the bar during third period and drink beer, all through lunch until we had to go back for the afternoon. It really all started then."

For Franzen, now in his mid-thirties and living in Inuvik, the life-changing experience with cancer is when he believes drinking began to grip him. It was early when the blackouts began to occur.

"I'd have a couple beers and I know I shouldn't be drinking," he said. "I would just keep going and by the time I realized it would be the next day. It's always been a problem for me and I look back now and wonder why I continued to drink."

It was an experience earlier this month that made Franzen realize it was time to change his ways. Out drinking and in a blackout he grabbed a woman - who he was emotionally close to - at the bar and started to yell at her.

"I was just shouting and screaming at her. It was at the bar, in the streets, at my house. I would be good to her and then just start yelling."

Eventually Franzen was outside his house without shoes and a jacket, jumping into a snow bank.

"I don't remember any of it. I could've died. I could've froze. It really opened by eyes."

Franzen decided it was time to get sober. It wouldn't be the first time he tried Alcoholics Anonymous. He had tried when he lived in Banff, Alta, staying sober for three months after hitting a woman in a drunken rage that landed him in jail.

"I woke up in the drunk tank and one officer said to me he saw me around town lots and said I was the nicest guy," he said. "But when I drank I was somebody else."

Rosa Wah-Shee, mental health specialist on addictions for the Department of Health and Social Services in Yellowknife, said the road to recovery is not easy for some.

"It can take a number of years and several treatments before someone will make a full recovery from abuse," said Wah-Shee. "When they find themselves at the lowest point in their lives they want to seek help; at this point in time it's when they go out and make every effort to make changes and understand their past."

Understanding his past is something Franzen said is the hardest thing to do.

"I was running away from life in general since I had cancer," he said. "I told people I would have rather died than move on. I don't feel that way anymore. I enjoy my life now and I like where I'm at.

"I'm still trying to figure out why I did what I did and drank the way I did.

"I wonder why I drank for the last little while. It was never fun for me, I'd just get into fights and that's not me."

Wah-Shee said an eye-opening, life-changing experience sometimes makes people want to take a different direction.

"The change is possible," she said. "It might take a lot of determination and taking the responsibility and saying this is it, I want to change my life. I want to be responsible and contribute more to society."

Franzen has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous since the beginning of March. He said hearing the stories from others made him realize they aren't all that different from one another. Keeping a journal, something his counsellor asked him to do, he is able to better understand and confront his past.

"I hit three women in life and I'm against that," he said. "I wrote it down in my journal and I'd never written it down before. It was really hard because those three women are the closest to me in my life. I would never have done that if I wasn't drunk. It's tough facing up to the choices I've made in the past."

Two weeks into Alcoholics Anonymous, Franzen tried to drink again.

"I wanted to see if I could do it, you know? Like I was putting myself into a science experiment," he said. He had five drinks, leaving the sixth drink half-full. "I just didn't feel right about it. My mind was telling me it was wrong."

In his journal he wrote "For the better part of my life I looked back and kept looking back and back and it's time to look forward.

"I'm looking forward to my next AA meeting."

A prison of alcoholism

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - For John, becoming sober was the beginning of a transformation.

"It's almost like I was a beautiful statue stuck inside a rock, waiting for the master sculptor to form me by taking away little bits of rock from here and there and making me what I am today."

Building on fellowship and strength through experience, Alcoholics Anonymous is one way for a person to escape the grasp of alcohol addiction, something Jason Franson is using to take back control of his life, and something John has looked to for 18 years. - Andrew Livingstone/NNSL photo

Turning into that statue within the rock of alcoholism is a difficult process to make. Taking the steps to bring change to a life plagued by alcohol can be terrifying.

Change in general can be hard to handle, not knowing what will come next. There is a sense of loneliness when the idea of giving up alcohol is pondered, a horrific feeling of failure can deter someone from even making the first step of accepting the idea of change.

It's making the choice to change that will start a person on the path to a healthier life. For John (anonymity is a pillar in the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, so to honour its ideals, News/North will refrain for revealing John's last name) it took 10 long, agonizing years of struggling with who he was to finally take that leap of faith to rediscover who he really was.

"The first 15 years of my drinking were quite enjoyable," John said. He drank for 25 years before finally getting sober in 1991. "I didn't get into serious grapes, but the last 10 years were the complete opposite. They were a living nightmare."

In November 1991, John received news that his 18-year-old son had frozen to death in Yellowknife.

"I can't really say it was his death that made me want to quit drinking. I saw the world in a different way and realized I could die like my son."

Born on the land just shortly after The Second World War, before Inuvik was a town, John said all he ever knew was his traditional way of life. His mother died giving birth to his younger brother when he was five and a half.

He spent almost five years drifting between aunts and uncles before he was taken away to residential school in Aklavik.

"We were picked up by the Beacon and the Messenger, boats used by the missionaries to bring a lot of our young people throughout the region back to Aklavik. That's when I was separated from my existence as I knew it then. I learned to speak English and lost my own language."

He moved to Inuvik in 1959 where he was adopted by the school administrator and took their name in 1960. He completed his schooling there and he said it was then that everything changed.

"I turned my back on everything," he said. "Since the death of my mom, I went through a lot of trauma. The loss of language, traditions and culture - I felt displaced.

For the past 10 years before his sobriety in 1991, John watched his life crumble, as he battled with his alcoholism.

"I tried to raise a family, have a relationship, work," he said. "In the end, alcohol took that all away from me. I was caught between wanting and needing a drink to feel good and wanting not to drink anymore and change."

The whole transformation from the day John took his last drink 18 years ago to today was a long process. In and out of AA for years, trying to find salvation and a guiding light to support him in his change, John finally embraced the fellowship of the organization.

"I became part of it instead of being on the outside looking in," he said. "I started to look from the inside out. I look at the fellowship as the perfect parent. It allows me to be who I am, the way I want to, and yet, being open enough to let the program change me."

In the beginning, John hated being at meetings, exposed for everyone to see, to be vulnerable and open for others to see.

"Being as sick as I was, I didn't want anyone to know that, to invade my privacy of who I really was on the inside. I became aware of all the negative emotions, to accept I was full of rage and fear, and slowly those meetings started to make sense to me, and I figured out what I needed to do to get better."

Being aware of the fact he was not alone, that there were others just like him, struggling with demons, was part of his ability to accept who he was and move forward.

"Through listening to other peoples' stories and then relating their experiences to who I was, I started to accept that I was an imperfect person and that I needed to be put back together."

Looking at his life through sober eyes for the first time in 25 years, John began to face his past and the experiences he had suppressed for so long. For the first time he was able to face the loss of his mother.

"Through AA I stopped blaming my mother for dying and leaving me an orphan. I dealt with the pain of having been left alone at a young age. Having listened to people and how they dealt with pain and loss, I came to terms

"It's a beautiful thing to be able to release those tears that had been pushed down because I didn't want to feel it.

It was a new sense of peace and accomplishment for John, a strong step forward in dealing with who he was, letting the five-and-a-half-year-old imprisoned inside of him all those years out to express itself.

"I had attained a sense of acceptance, a sense of joy and release," he said. "It was like a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The fellowship was the backbone of my transformation. It became the vehicle, the means, to allow myself to change."

It will work for you if you work with it, he said. The want to get sober has to go hand-in-hand with the support you seek and being able to accept a higher power, not necessarily one of the Christian perspective.

"It's got nothing to do with being religious. It has everything to do with being spiritual," he said. "Religion is man-made. Spirit comes from a concept of a persons own creation of what they of a god or a creator or the great I am.

"AA is made up of every type of person you can think of. A higher power crosses all cultures and languages, rich, old, young, poor. They all find a better life through AA no matter who might be."

Jason Franson has been attending meetings now for about a month now, and said the support available through the people and experiences he encounters has been a guiding hand in understanding his alcoholism.

"We talk about whatever we want there," he said. "It's really helpful to know people are on the same page you are in some ways. You chat with like-minded individuals and share your experiences and you're more likely to find that your experiences, are similar in some ways.

Franson said the opportunity to meet others who aren't interested in drinking helped him understand there are other things in life besides alcohol.

"That's the choice, to choose not to drink," he said. "I know when I drink I have a tendency to overdo it and it just came to that point where it was the end of it. AA has been really helpful in opening me up to support.

"You need to make that change to make things change. The problem will continue to happen if you don't do anything about it."

Today John is a relatively sane, happy individual, he said, someone who has found a way of life without drinking. He said his sobriety has to stay intact for him to keep progressing.

"It's the foundation of my journey," he said. "I cannot go in and out of the bars, in and out of AA, in and out of the church to find answers. I can only do that if I have found sobriety one day at a time.

"The master sculptor has almost completed his job, by bringing me out of a rock into a person that is today, and that's me."

Alcohol breaks spirits and homes

TUKTOYAKTUK - In the streets of Tuktoyaktuk at 4:30 in the afternoon, I observed a man walking awkwardly, the wind to his back. Tripping and stumbling toward me, his grumbling was slurred and incomprehensible. The smell of booze billows from his mouth as he stares my way, jumbled syllables spilling from his mouth.

"I've been drinking all day," he said. His eyes are streaked with the red of blood-shot lines, like rivers of despair, drying up with each slag from the bottle of vodka sticking out of his pocket.

There are six or seven bootleggers in town. With no liquor store in the community, they are the only source of liquid escapism.

"You can get a 40 oz. of vodka, or whiskey, but most of the time it's vodka only," said a girl who can't be older than 17. "They cost $140 bucks to buy."

Partying that night will be expensive. The bootleggers, she said, "make more money than people who actually work."

"People know what's going on but no one says anything. The elders don't like alcohol in the community, but they don't do anything about it."

This is typical for the community of Tuktoyaktuk. The Beaufort Delta community struggles to find solutions to alcohol abuse - a syndrome that has a tight grip on the community. Alcoholism is widespread here - and so is denial, according to Sarah Krengnektak, manager of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

"They don't want to believe alcohol is affecting everyone in the community," she said. "People aren't willing to come forward and try to make a difference."

Krengnektak said community outreach is nowhere to be seen and if no one is willing to take action on the issue, the problem will continue to persist.

"They know who the people are who need help but they aren't willing to reach out and help them," she said, adding the lack of willingness by community leaders to make an effort to tackle the issue head on is a huge problem.

"We have unhealthy leadership," she said. "If we have workshops surrounding community healing, our leadership is not there. We need our leadership to take the reins and make true effort to make things better."

Bhreagh Ingarfield from Nahanni Butte believes lack of coherence in her community perpetuates alcoholism there, even though sales are not permitted.

"They are so fragmented in the community," the 17-year-old Grade 12 student said. "People need to come together as a community to try and deal with the problems."

Ingarfield is completing a documentary project on the youth perception of alcohol and sudden formation of youth gangs in the small Deh Cho community. She said she's found youth succumb to alcohol abuse because of troubled family life at home.

"The kids would come into school talking about how mom hit me with a pan the other day," she said. "The people there are such great people, but as soon as they get the alcohol it just changes into a nightmare."

The high school student said gang activity is being fueled by a lack of family support and connectivity and youth are seeking other ways of finding acceptance.

"These kids are looking for family and they don't have it at home so they're turning to gangs as a way to find that," said Ingarfield. "They do this so they don't have to go home to the drinking problems there."

According to the NWT Addictions Report released in July 2008, approximately 37 per cent of current drinkers aged 15 or older scored eight or higher on a test identifying harmful or hazardous drinking patterns. This means more than a third of the NWT population engage in hazardous drinking practices.

A public meeting was held in the Tuktoyaktuk in late February to discuss drinking in the community. It was decided among community members and leaders that alcohol restrictions would benefit the community.

"They talked about getting a restriction but I don't think it's going to go very far because there hasn't been any follow-up or action taken.

"If they were serious about it they'd continue and push and get things done. It's all talk and no action."

Residents of Behchoko will decide on whether to prohibit alcohol in their community on Wednesday, when they will vote on the matter. Addictions counsellor Joe Beaverho said the community is in desperate times. He fondly recalled an earlier time in the 1960s when people were in high spirits. Traditional games and activities helped keep alcoholism out of their lives.

"People got together and told stories about hunting and trapping," he said. "They would joke and you could hear laughter.

"Today you look at our community, our spirit is broken. Some still have high hopes to get it back. We need to do it without alcohol."

In two years, three people lost their lives to exposure when drunk.

"We have a lot of people going to territorial court because of drinking," Beaverho said. "We have younger kids, 10 and 11 years old getting into problems with alcohol. When you come from a family where alcohol is a problem, youth are affected by it. They see their parents, their brothers, a relative drinking and they think it's OK.

"We need to make people think about the issues of alcohol and look to heal the spirit of our community."

More resources are needed to counter the problem in Tuktoyaktuk. Krengnektak said it's not her job to help people struggling with alcoholism but she finds herself offering support because of the lack of systems in place to deal with the problem.

"There is next to nothing here," she said. "Since there is no one here I try help the people who are battling with it. It's tough because there are so many people."

She said the lack of support and her limited capabilities to help people cope is like a cork in a bursting dam.

"People just fall right back into the same thing because there is no help. We don't have any professionals to deal with that addiction so people tend to relapse and can't escape it."

To Ingarfield in Nahanni Butte, it's clear that youth need help the most.

"I grew up there and I helped out a lot with the kids and you see them, they want to do so many things in their life and then they change," she said. "They lose interest in life and they just want to sit and drink and abuse substances.

"But when you grow up with that it's hard to know anything else. It's hard to know how to be responsible when all you've ever seen is this type of life. It's heartbreaking

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