There is a wet, sombre tone to the whole west coast. It is 2021, the week before Remembrance Day. The poppies are everywhere. On social media. On the lapels of strangers in the grocery stores. The memories come flooding back. People, places, and things connected to us all.
As a Canadian Armed Forces veteran, I have always been affected by the mood of the first weeks of November. During my nine years served during the so-called Cold War, onboard warships I sailed into enough ports, like Hong Kong, like Manila, like Nagasaki, to form an understanding of the horrors of war.
As a man also in long term recovery from addiction, and for me that means I have not found it necessary to take a pill, drink, or line to alter my mood since July 8, 1988, I find this time of year to be as emotional as any on the calendar. A friend of mine used to tell me it was okay to look at the past, just don’t stare at it. The memories of my time in uniform intersect with memories of my battle to get sober at this time of year like no other time. The faces of friends and family members who succumbed, the love I felt for them when times were good, the angst and constant worry I experienced when times were messy.
During my time in uniform, from 1976-1985, we shadowed Soviet destroyers, missile cruisers and other warships as they bounced the cold, grey waves 20 miles off the west coast of Vancouver Island. We exercised with our allies the Americans, the Australians, New Zealanders regularly, ready aye ready. We certainly had our moments when things got tense.
In the spring of 1982, our close allies from Britain got themselves into The Falklands War, where over 10 weeks in 1982, 255 Brits and 650 Argentinians paid the ultimate price. We were paying attention, aware of the geopolitical possibilities. A year later, the Soviets shot down a South Korean passenger jet killing 269 innocent civilians. A month later, 299 American and France allies were blown up when a pair of suicide bombers drove a truck into the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. By the time I got out, our training onboard ship included plenty of small arms and tactical approaches to the proper ways to board boats who may be carrying explosives designed to harm us. Think the USS Cole, which suffered the loss of 15 crew in the year 2000 when it was attacked by a small boat carrying explosives. We remember them.
Military life is not all doom and gloom, of course. There are so many lifelong memories of fun people and places that come with it. But the comradery, the foreign port hijinks, all of that aside, sometimes there is nothing funny about military service. Certainly not this week.
The same goes for addiction.
Oh, sure, there were plenty of laughs, the concerts, the clubs, the sporting events. But there were also the fights. The pawn shops. The sketchy venues I ended up in, progressively worsening as I slid down the spiral of addiction. Eventually the funerals. Some via suicides, some by accidents, some by overdoses. Some of them friends. Some of them family members. All of them loveable humans who impacted me. All of them gone, all of it alcohol and drug connected.
Of course, when I signed up for that lifestyle, I never intended to get myself into dangerous situations. I was just trying to have fun. It made me feel good, strong, uninhibited by my anxieties or lack of self-worth. But it turned out that the more I consumed, the closer to the edge of darkness I lived. Until it owned me, from Cornwallis to Pusan, from Halifax to Melbourne, from Calgary to Parksville. From treatment centres, to drunk tanks, from 12 Step meetings to therapists’ couches.
Remembrance has never been a nonchalant activity for me. My parents were veterans. My step father was Black Watch. My father was part of bombing runs with the Royal Australian Air Force in the Second World War. My mother served in the RCAF after the war. Her dad’s big brother, Nathaniel Crane, was No. 363 of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, just a 20-year-old kid who survived the bloody wipeout of Beaumont Hamel, only to meet his fate at Monchy-Le-Preux nine months later. I studied their paths. I read the history. I try to put myself in their minds, before, during and after their time in uniform. Today, I am sensitive to what it must have been like to be them.
Sensitive. It is a word I have come to see as a big part of me in another way. I am a man in long-term recovery I have come to understand the importance of feeling my feelings. Not avoiding them, stuffing them down, freezing them or numbing them out with distractive or destructive substances or behaviours. So, yes, I am sensitive, always have been. But feelings won’t kill me. I can feel them today, and most of the time, not overreact. Recovery has taught me to feel, to be compassionate, to be gentle with myself, and to allow others to do the same.
This Remembrance Day will be like most of the others. I will suit up, show up at the local cenotaph, listen to the bugler and pause at 11, and feel my feelings. The faces of loved ones will come to me, and the memories of places will return.
I know I will be grateful. Sad, but grateful.
Grateful that of all the countries in the world I so happened to be born in, it was this one. Oh Canada. Grateful that my ancestors and probably yours too, showed up to confront the villains and madmen who tried to take away freedoms we too often take for granted. They did not back down. Not on their watch.
Grateful, too, that when I was finally ready to come looking for recovery, Marty and John, Don and Jack T, were there with out-stretched arms, with coffee and big books, and with enthusiasm and willingness to tell me the truth about my disease, our illness. Grateful for today, as my sponsor Tom, my best friends Russ and Byron, my kids and my partner Renee continue to be honest with me, to help me stay on the straight and narrow. I am not always easy to get along with. They accept me just the same.
In the end, to me Remembrance is about those who came before us, and those who live among us. They served that I might live in peace.
And in my heart, today I know there is a place for me on Remembrance Day to give a solemn shout out to the many who offered me, and veterans like me, recovery. They taught me how to be sensitive, gentler with my feelings, so that I can understand and feel empathy for those who stand with us at the cenotaph.
We shall remember them. All of them.