Yellowknifers: the Alcoholic

The first question we asked Andrew Livingstone was: are you comfortable with the title, the Alcoholic.

“I’ve always kind of just associated with that word, despite the difficulty with it at first,” he says, seated at his kitchen table in Trails End.

“I think I’ll always consider myself that. I wrestle with whether or not I’ll be considered one down the road, but it’s always been, as I’ve gone through this process over the last six years, something I’ve come to terms with.”

At first, he said the term bothered him – the negative connotations and implications of identifying as an alcoholic.

“It is such a stigmatized word in society,” he says. “’You’re an alcoholic, that’s terrible.’ At first I thought it was terrible. I thought, ‘I‘m not normal.’ Now, I don’t think that way. Yes, I’m an alcoholic. It happens to a lot of people in society, whatever your economic background, whatever your profession, whatever social standing. It comes from all walks of life.”

Coming forward

He wasn’t always as open with his choice not to drink and the reason behind it. It wasn’t until November 2013, four years after not only recognizing, but addressing, his drinking problem, that he made it public.

When incriminating videos of then-Toronto Mayor Rob Ford surfaced – displaying crack-smoking, racial slurs and generally lewd behaviour – the mayor blamed his actions on addiction. A “drunken stupor,” to be exact.

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I wrote a piece for Hazlitt in Toronto when the whole Rob Ford video started appearing, and it was apparent he was struggling with alcohol addiction. I wrote an open letter about how it can get better. Alcoholism doesn’t have to be – it’s challenging, and I certainly struggled to get through it – but it’s possible,” he says.

“When I wrote that piece, I was so worried about it being out there in the public.

I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received or what would come of it, but it sparked a conversation online about people being more open about it and talking about it.”

Afterward, friends and family members came to him with issues and struggles he’d never known about. Strangers sent e-mails and contacted him through social media, sharing their own stories and gratitude for his openness.

“Across the board, I think people really appreciated that I was able to be upfront and honest about what I was struggling with in my life. Often people have a really hard time talking about what they’re struggling with because it’s like you’re admitting defeat or failure or you’re weak,” says Livingstone.

“After I wrote that piece, there was this outpouring of support because people didn’t know, they knew I didn’t drink but they didn’t know the story.”

His story, he says, had common threads with those he heard at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in a church basement last October in Toronto – the first time he attended the meetings since they were first recommended to him in Yellowknife in 2008. He’d seen counsellors and sought out other supports, but said listening to people share their struggles with alcoholism was empowering.

“At first, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is pretty intense, pretty dark,’” he says.

“But we all kind of had the same thing in common: personal struggle with identity, confidence, trying to figure out what your place is in the world.”

Acceptance and finding help

After moving to YK in 2008, Livingstone found himself seated in front of a counsellor at Tree of Peace Friendship Centre on the order of his employer.

“I was working at the newspaper and I got really hammered one night and went back to the office. I don’t really remember why I was at the office, but I woke up the next morning not really sure what had happened and had this really awful dream that I drove a company car home,” he says.

“I looked over at my dresser and the key was there. I’d actually taken a company car home and had no recollection of doing it.”

At that point, he’d been struggling to get sober for just under two years, he says.

“All that was going through my mind was, ‘I’m going to lose everything that I’d been fighting for, for so long,’” he says. “I’d been looking for a job in newspapers for so long.”

Before moving up, he lived in South Korea, running through four different teaching jobs in less than a year. He moved to Vancouver where he was fired from a pizza shop and then a restaurant where he says his work was continuously undermined by his drinking. Then came Yellowknife.

He stayed north until 2011 and then moved to Toronto for a job at the Toronto Star.

“Since then, I fell off the wagon a few times,” he says, but more importantly, he found his way back on.

“It’s about self-care,” he says. “It’s about taking care of yourself and figuring out what works best for you and what situations push you to start drinking again – those triggers.”

The impact

When he was drinking and after getting sober, Livingstone says his personal relationships were strongly affected.

“When I was home in July in New Brunswick, visiting family, I sat down with my cousin who I used to be really close with – we were still close but over the years I had distanced myself from my family when I was drinking and struggling. We sat down and talked and she started crying and said, ‘I see this person I remember, this person you used to be,’” he says. “I’d built up walls over the years. I built up walls around myself and I almost feel like it was protecting others from me. I don’t do that anymore because I’m more comfortable with who I am. Those walls aren’t necessary.”

After 10 years working as a journalist – he says, equally pushed by a drive for a success and a drive to be consumed by work rather than dealing with his personal struggles – Livingstone moved back to Yellowknife in July to work in the Premier’s office.

“My current situation is very different than what I had five or six years ago. I feel like I’m in this place I wanted to be in. I wake up in the morning and I’m happy. I’m not struggling with my emotions the way I used to. I still do, but I know how to deal with it now.”

He shares his story freely, knowing how harshly criticized addicts are in society. Something he hopes more openness can overcome.

“I’m an alcoholic but I can still be a successful person in society. I’m not going to be a degenerate. There’s a weird association with what an alcoholic is,” he says.

“There’s this thing with substance abuse where we kind of shame it in society and make people hide it because why would you want to make it known if people are going to chastise you for it or look at you different. Why would you talk about it?”

Now, he has talked about it. With family, friends and perfect strangers. He goes to the bar and orders a non-alcoholic beer, no longer consumed by the thought that everyone is watching him and judging him for not drinking. For not being able to drink anymore.

“I still consider myself an alcoholic – I think I always will be,” he says.

“It came with a lot of collateral damage, but I got where I am today despite all that. It took a lot more work than I probably would’ve liked, but it certainly made me a better person. That’s why I’ve tried to embrace it rather than hide it. It’s a part of who I am and I’m not ashamed of who I am.”

What was your first impression of Yellowknife?

I remember getting off the plane, getting picked up at the airport and going right to the Black Knight. It was about 11 p.m., still really bright out and we had some drinks, listening to I think it was Jim Taylor playing. I get out and I’m walking down 50th near the Range and it was that moment that I kind of had a gut check and I was like, what am I doing here? This place is insane. I really quickly grew to love it.

What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

I think the people really make Yellowknife for me. There’s so many unique individuals that have unique stories and are open and incredibly friendly. People here are so supportive of one another, no matter where you’re from, how much money you make, what your job is, what your sexual preference is. Whatever. People are really supportive.

What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?

The permafrost roller coaster roads all over the city. I know that’s something that isn’t easy to deal with, but I really feel like I’m on a concrete roller coaster when I’m in my car.

What do you do in the summer?

I’m a terrible fisher, so I’ll generally go out and not catch anything, but the act of throwing a line in the water for a couple of hours in silence or even having a conversation for a couple of hours with whoever you’re there with is the most therapeutic thing. And Folk on the Rocks.

What gets you through the winter?

Last time I was here, I played a lot of squash in the winter, which was really great, but I also love holing up and reading a book and listening to some records. Also hoping to get into a woodworking project this winter.

What opportunities do you find in Yellowknife that you don’t find anywhere else?

There’s so much going on here, courses and classes in the arts, music, language, anything. Not that they don’t have that anywhere else, but it’s like it’s here on steroids.

Are you a Yellowknife lifer?

Three years ago, I remember leaving and getting on the ferry across before the Deh Cho Bridge was built and thinking, ‘I’m never coming back.’ Now, I feel like it’s, ‘I’m never going to leave.’

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