Award-winning journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston’s DRINK: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol takes aim at an alarming epidemic: the worrisome rise in binge drinking and alcohol abuse among girls and women. Bringing shocking statistical evidence to light, Dowsett Johnson reveals how dangerous levels of female drinking is on the upswing while also candidly discussing her own struggles with addiction. Below she discusses the spiritual development that took places alongside her struggle to remain sober. (HarperCollins Publishers, paperback on sale June 24th).
What is my faith? Why does spirituality work? Try describing air or water. This is a difficult one. The best I can do to is this: my faith sustains me. It feels like a poultice on my heart. I take the largest comfort in praying to a God of my understanding, a creative force of goodness with a better imagination than mine. This has been proven, over and over. I also take solace in Marion Woodman’s words when she writes: “We live in a predominately Christian culture which has lost its living connection to the symbolism of wafer and wine. Lacking spiritual sustenance there is a genuine hunger and thirst. The archetypal structure behind the wafer and wine is slowly giving way to a new configuration, but we are in chaos during the transition. That chaos breeds loneliness, fear and alienation.”
Amen. And to battle that loneliness, fear, and alienation, so many of us are cobbling together our own microsystems of something that sustains us. If it’s true that we are all in transition—and I believe we are—my own faith is still under construction. In my search for a deeper understanding, I turn to a variety of writers for guidance: the Jungians Woodman and Robert Johnson and Marie-Louise von Franz; the Buddhists Pema Chödrön, Jack Kornfield, and Thich Nhat Hanh, among many others: Annie Dillard, Sharon Olds, the poets. It’s a wide-ranging search. As I said, it’s a work in progress.
I cannot explain what happened to me on November 3, 2008, when I got down on my knees. But I know there was a huge internal shift. I was so broken by that point—emotionally and spiritually—that my soul just cried “uncle.” And for the next two years, my faith evolved— it’s still evolving.
The Bahamas, Spring of 2008
Fresh out of rehab, a trip to Kamalame Cay, where Jake proposed two years ago. Walking to the great house for breakfast, we come across a small egg: a baby killdeer, just emerging. My bird. Here is my small bird of recovery. I pick up the fragile shell: I will keep this by my bed as a reminder.
That night, I offer to get Jake a drink at the self- serve bar at the beachside villa where we’re staying. I pour him a gin and tonic. Then, with considerable restraint, I pour myself a cranberry and soda. At the last minute, defiantly, I add a generous shot or two of vodka. How bad can it be?
All of a sudden, a man is at my elbow. “Hi, my name is Bill.”
“Can you pass me the cranberry juice?”
“Sure. Anything else?”
“No, I don’t drink.”
I look at him: tall, healthy, in his sixties. “Nor do I,” I say.
“Really? I could have sworn I just saw you pour vodka in that glass.”
I put down the drink. “I think I need to talk to you. I just got out of rehab.”
Bill and I spend the next half hour discussing sobriety. He has been a member of AA for many years. So has his wife. A close call.
Two days later, lunchtime, eating alone. Jake has gone fishing for the day. I bring the New Yorker for company. At the next table, an enthusiastic crowd of women, sipping margaritas and white wine, laughing. They order a second round. Damn it, I think, I’m having a glass of wine. I start to rise, heading to the self- serve bar. “Hi, darlin’! I just thought I’d circle by to see how you’re doing.” It’s Bill.
“Can I sit down?”
I’m beginning to think there’s something larger than myself. Is this possible?
Toronto, November 3, 2008
I cannot stop drinking: two weeks, three weeks, and then I relapse. I don’t drink much— a glass or two— but it calls out to me. I cannot stay stopped. I am broken: mentally, spiritually. Down on my knees before breakfast, in tears. In my journal, Carol Kushner’s words: “Our awareness of God begins where our self- sufficiency ends.”
At a crowded noon meeting, I am at the back of the room, quietly weeping. A woman approaches me. “Do you need to talk to someone?”
She picks me up for the evening meeting, and delivers me home. Opening the door, I hear the phone ring. “Hi, darlin’. It’s Bill. Just found your number in a knapsack from the Bahamas, and thought I’d give you a call to make sure you’re doing all right.”
Seven months later, and he calls on the day I got on my knees. What are the chances? And I am down on my knees again, with prayers of thanks. Am I just hedging my bets? Who knows. It’s too early to tell.