I have met and spoken to many people who work on Parliament Hill who are in recovery. They don’t talk about their recovery in public. Public figures often don’t want to disclose a deeply personal ordeal; they fear people will only look at the weakness and not the recovery. We have to see beyond that.
I`ll never forget one evening at work in Terrace, B.C. in 1982: I was an RCMP officer on duty when I pulled over a driver who blew .43 blood alcohol level on the Breathalyzer, five times the legal limit. He should have been dead; the average human body cannot absorb that much liquor. I took him to the hospital and he was still walking. This was a high-level, functioning alcoholic. So was I, but hadn’t yet admitted it.
I drank 24 bottles of beer a day, every day. I never drank on duty, not once; after my shift it didn’t take long to consume a significant amount of alcohol. Some high-functioning alcoholics are able to keep their jobs, maintain their faculties and carry on a reasonable conversation. As a high-functioning alcoholic I could behave very normally, but emotionally I was struggling to keep it together.
I tried to find ways to quit on my own and was completely unsuccessful. I’d vow not to drink Friday, Saturday or Sunday. That would work for a week or two, then I’d tell myself, “No drinking on Saturday or Sunday.” Then it was just Sunday. Then it was no day. It is very difficult to manage addiction without help.
Then I hit bottom. On January 18, 1989 I had my last drink at the Mad Trappers Pub in Golden, B.C. I was enjoying an evening with my wife and friends, and noticed nobody was drinking as much as I was. To this day I cannot understand people who just sip on their drinks. Drinking was not a social outing for me. If you are going to drink, let’s drink; otherwise you are wasting my time.
That evening I left our table to sit with another person I had dealt with professionally. We did not have a lot in common, but our drinking habits were the same. We sat and drank till closing time. That night, before dawn, I had a spiritual awakening. At home, in bed, I saw a bright, white light. I believe it was a message from God. I cannot explain what happened, but it was profound and real. I am not one that goes to church, but I believe in a god, and know that I tried to quit on my own many times with no success.
Some call it a higher power; I choose to call him God, and he saved my life. Everything changed that day. I attended treatment for five weeks, and then started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. There is nothing like one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic.
I was 29 then. Today I’m 55, and still attend AA meetings.
There are cocktail parties and social events every night of the week in Ottawa, and the liquor is free. Drinking is prevalent. I deliberately avoid these events; no good can come of it for me. It is not the 24th beer that gets me, it’s the first one. For those who go to these events and can socially drink, that is great, but there are people who overindulge, say or do things they normally wouldn’t and in this job that can be a very dangerous thing.
Instead of cocktail parties, I go to the gym. I spend evenings at home watching the Canucks lose another game. I give thanks every night for another day of sobriety. I am thankful for the friendships I have and do not take them for granted. Of most importance, I have an amazing wife who has stood by me through some very dark days; the last 26 years have been amazing.
I’ve spoken to several recovering alcoholics on Parliament Hill; they prefer to keep it private. That’s their choice, and believe me, I know how they feel. But we have to remove the stigma of addiction.
I am proud of my recovery. If I can change one person’s life by sharing my experience openly, giving them strength and hope that they too can have a better life, then all the better.
(Editor’s note: the author is mayor of Sparwood, B.C. and former Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia. Mr. Wilks’ commentary was originally published May 24, 2015)