My personal struggle with alcohol and the stereotype of the drunken Indian

To keep the main article on “The Stereotype of the Drunken Indian” shorter and more on focus, I’ve published this personal story separately and linked it into the main article.

When I was growing up, I hated alcohol.  I hated the way it smelled on the breath of adults, I hated the tell-tale glassy eyes, hated the fear I’d feel seeing adults drunk.  I was afraid, because in normal situations, the adults are who you run to when something is wrong.  When they were drinking though, suddenly you were the responsible one.

Kids tend to shoulder some pretty heavy responsibilities without adults even being aware of it, and I doubt anyone even knew I was thinking that way.  Still, I remember. My peers were experimenting with alcohol at a pretty early age, but I swore I wouldn’t ever drink.  That doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying other things but to me, drinking alcohol was the worst thing you could do.  It made people violent, maudlin, and unpredictable.  It made them scary.

You have to understand the context then when I say that I started drinking ‘late’, at 16.  How in my mind, even though I started smoking marijuana much earlier on, I considered myself on the fairly straight and narrow until then.  Where I grew up, everyone abuses alcohol, natives and settlers alike.  I resisted for a long time, and then the dam burst.  I drank like a fish for about three and a half years.  I drank so much and abused so many substances in such a short time, that years later I ran into an acquaintance from high school who told me she was surprised to find me alive.  At the time, I thought she was being melodramatic, but looking back on those years, I’m a little surprised too.  And very, very grateful she’d been wrong about my seemingly inevitable fate.

I can’t exactly remember when I decided that I was an alcoholic.  I was making some bad life decisions and despite the fact that I’d maintained and excellent grade average and was now in University, I could see things spiralling out of control.  I literally did not know how to have fun anymore without getting drunk.  I was hanging out in the city with the people I’d grown up with, doing the same thing we’d been doing for years, and I realised that if I kept it up, I was going to end up in jail, or worse.  I was on the edge of something horrible.  I think that if I hadn’t met my ex just a month before I turned 19, things would have turned out poorly for me.

So a time followed where I was terrified of alcohol again.  I was convinced that I was an alcoholic.  That I was destined to be an alcoholic.  That because there was alcoholism in my family, there was no escaping it.  That because of my Indian blood, I was genetically predisposed towards alcoholism.  The people around me confirmed these beliefs, citing the common knowledge that natives can’t metabolise alcohol properly.  Even with ‘thinned’ blood, it was just something I’d have to be on the look out for.  I was supremely self-conscious about being seen drinking, because I felt that when I had a beer in my hand, I was confirming the stereotype of the “drunken Métis”.  Once in a great while I’d ‘slip’ and get drunk.  Never as drunk as I got before, but the shame that followed was so intense, I could hardly stand it.

Terrified, I stopped drinking entirely for a while and then because I still hadn’t found a way to be social without being in places where people were drinking, I got into the habit of nursing a single beer through the entire night so people wouldn’t buy me drinks or tease me about not drinking.  I became a bit of a hermit for a while, trying to avoid those places where people were drinking.  There are people who know me from that time who have never seen me drink more than a beer at a time.  Those people would describe a very different person than would the people I grew up with.

I stopped drinking completely for seven years during which time both of my daughters were born. During that entire time, I still believed I was an alcoholic. The Alcoholics Anonymous folksy wisdom I heard second hand told me I was…that once you abuse alcohol, even if you never drink again, you are always an alcoholic. I read academic articles about the various genetic factors involved in alcoholism. I felt that it was out of my hands really, and the only safe thing to do was avoid alcohol forever.

Again, I can’t say exactly when I realised this was bullshit, but it started with being in Chile and seeing people drinking socially for the first time in my life. People drinking without getting drunk and scary. Drinking with older people and children around, without there being fights or foolish displays. Enjoying a few drinks and stopping. Drinking without abusing alcohol.

I grew up in a rural area where abusing alcohol is nearly ubiquitous. Where people don’t know how to drink socially.  Where drinking means getting so drunk you get into huge fights, break things, throw up and pass out.  Where sexual assault wasn’t seen for what it was until years later because the perpetrators and targets were drunk at the time. Where drinking meant oblivion. Like college frat boys, only it’s kids and adults and older people too.  This is a very large factor in why I decided not to raise my children out there.

And before you make assumptions, the people I’m talking about were most often settlers.  As I discuss in the main article, there are more teetotallers among the native population than there are among the non-native population.  I can only think of a few settlers I grew up with who didn’t drink, but I can think of plenty of natives who wouldn’t touch the stuff.

Yet the attitudes among many of the people who didn’t drink a drop weren’t particularly helpful either.   Their approach, like the one I took for years, was that any amount of drinking was dangerous.  That even one drink meant you wouldn’t stop.

Restraint and moderation was never really modelled for me.  I didn’t see it until I was out on my own.  It was when I realised that these social factors had shaped my approach to alcohol much more than any supposed ‘genetic destiny’ that I feel I finally developed a healthy approach to alcohol. It took me a long time to get to this point.  There was a lot of fear to overcome.

I haven’t been on an alcohol binge since before I was pregnant with my first child in 2001.  Twelve years.  Oh, I’ve drank enough to get drunk a few times, but it always feels a bit silly, like reliving your teen years as a sort of joke, and I’ve never gotten as drunk again as I did during those bad years.  I don’t like the time lost to the fuzzy thinking of hangovers, and my idea of a good time involves conversations that aren’t slurred and ridiculous.  I have too many responsibilities to indulge in something I don’t actually enjoy.

None of what I’m sharing here is meant to minimise the very real danger of alcoholism.  My intention is to share how the stereotype of the “drunken Indian” shaped my attitude towards alcohol over the years.  From being a child who swore never to touch a drop, to angrily deciding to embrace the stereotype (and then some), back to terror over something I felt I couldn’t control, to realising that it was indeed up to me to make a choice.

This is a picture from my Graduation Banquet, after I’d earned my LLB. I was hamming it up for the camera a bit, as there wasn’t actually much wine left in those bottles. I have mixed feelings about this photo, because for some it represents an ugly stereotype. However, I have not sworn off alcohol and I don’t want to be ashamed either.

Although I feel I do have a more healthy attitude towards drinking alcohol, I still find myself worrying about the stereotype.  I worry that when people see me drinking, they make assumptions about what that means, and in some cases I’m sure that happens.  I decided that I needed to model responsible drinking for my children, so that they would not view it in such an extreme way as I did.  I want them to understand that having a drink does not mean getting drunk.  I talk to them about what alcohol does to the body, about why people like it, about why some people drink too much.  They will have to make their own decisions, and all I can do is provide them with a more balanced view than I had.

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6 Responses to My personal struggle with alcohol and the stereotype of the drunken Indian

  1. Siusaidh says:

    Well, sister, none of those substances did your brain-power any apparent harm.

    I drank somewhat through my 20s to age 40. The example of a friend (Native) who really was addicted put me right off alcohol, and that was over 20 years ago. Sure, fine if one can be a social drinker. So far I’ve no wish to. Guess it’s a kind of solidarity with ex-drinkers.

    Thanks for this very interesting account. BTW, I’m from the settler population, with a Brit grandfather who was surely a high-functioning alcohol addict – but of course we never mentioned it. Or much else!

  2. Sharon Jackson says:

    This is very courageously written. I think you are an amazing woman and that you are doing a great job role-modelling not just for your children but for a lot of people. Thanks!

  3. John blades says:

    I have some friends who got a job teaching at a fly-in Dene community. Thinking to get to know the students better they invited them 4 at a time to come over for supper. When the first group of elementary aged children arrived they were served kool-aid. Soon they were giggling and falling off their chairs. When asked what they were doing, they replied that this is what you do at parties, get drunk and fall off your chair! Indeed, one’s use or abuse of alcohol is to a large extent a learned behavior. By the way, this was a “dry” community.

  4. Mag says:

    I started drinking at age 3 with my first sips from my dad’s beer, which quickly turned to swigs, which led to half a can and a very drunk toddler before he noticed. I remember becaused I LOVED the feeling of being drunk, and I chased liquor until I quit 9 years ago, always convincing myself I would never be a drunk like my dad, who was a functional drunk, but mean and abusive toward his children. I became a highly functional drunk, always able to quit when it counted (pregnancy), and I only drank at the appropriate hours (not in the morning, not at work, not while driving, etc.). But I drank to get drunk and I could quit for good.

    I’ve been in AA since i wuit which was helpful, but i needed more. Dealing with the deep seeded core issues of codependency and abuse that have gone on for generations over the last few months has opened up a reality I never knew. Seeing how I can heal myself and get out of the cycle of pain and sorrow has been what has saved me from myself and the patterns of destruction within the system of our family.

    Your story is powerful. But I am reminded that I am responsible for my actions, for side of the street alone. It is none of my business what other people think of me.

  5. I really, really relate to this post.

  6. Jules says:

    Thanks for such an honest and (as always) deeply insightful post. I’m a settler, coming to terms with what that means. And like most people I have addicted people in my family. And of course, we White folks NEVER talk about that little elephant in the room. For me it’s always been a horrible irony that when Indigenous people talk honestly about the curse of addictions, it’s used against them in some settings by settlers who, were we courageous enough to be honest, could instead learn from the Indigenous journey away from those addictions. We seem to prefer to remain addicted to silence, stereotyping, and finger pointing (and overconsumption, and oil, and capitalism…).

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