The Doc Project·Personal Essay

How my Grampy is helping me stay sober from beyond the grave

You can quit the booze, but it doesn’t magically fix all the parts of you that you don’t like. What do you do when you have nothing to blame? Faced with no options, I was dragged into introspection. That’s when I started thinking about my grandfather again.

Kate McKenna travels home to PEI to ask her grandfather’s AA buddies what advice he would have given her

Kate McKenna and her Grampy Jack Wedge, circa 1992. (Submitted by Kate McKenna)
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To know my Grampy was to love him.

My grandfather, Jack Wedge, died from cancer in 2016. He had been omnipresent in my life, never missing a graduation, holiday or birthday party.

I travelled home to Prince Edward Island from Quebec for his funeral. 

I figured it would be a small gathering to celebrate his life. Instead, there were hundreds of people, from many walks of life.

I was amazed. I asked my mom who they were. Many of them, she guessed, knew him from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) — a fellowship he'd been part of for more than 30 years.

It was then that I realized I had only known a small part of my grandfather.

I made a mental note and filed it away for the next two years.

Deciding to quit

Grampy in Summerside, P.E.I. (Submitted by Kate McKenna)

In 2018, I quit drinking.

I was nervous about my relationship with alcohol. I had started noticing I'd go out with friends and have three pints while everyone else was having one. I'd work till midnight, then stay out till morning. I felt myself slipping into a bit of a spiral.

I swore off booze altogether in May. The watershed moment came after a brutal professional disappointment. After that bad day at work, my first impulse was to crush a bottle of wine. Such a blatant urge to self-medicate set off alarm bells in my head. 

The next morning, I woke up and emailed two close friends, saying I was finished with drinking forever. I said it kind of flippantly, but their earnest reaction made me think that maybe my drinking had worried them too. 

My dear friend Dave Atkinson persuaded me to find a therapist. I followed his advice. After doing a questionnaire-style test, the therapist determined that yes, my drinking was probably problematic, and yes, I should probably stop drinking forever.

Lord, it was brutal, but I did it. I slipped up once, a month in. As of writing this, I've been sober for more than 19 months.

The things they don't tell you about recovery

Nobody warned me, but my body reacted when I quit drinking. I was not a vodka-on-my-wheaties-type drinker, but I still noticed changes. 

Some good — better sleep, weight-loss and clear skin. 

Some weird. People in early recovery will talk about the vivid dreams they have, where they relapse in some way. I didn't know that was coming and would wake up in a cold sweat. 

I also felt my emotions thawing. In my job and in my life, I had a reputation for emotional toughness. In hindsight, I had medicated away any bad feelings with alcohol. 

Once the booze was gone, I'd feel random spurts of intense sadness or happiness. Once I was walking to the bus stop and started weeping because of some long-buried memory of high school gym class. 

But I kept going with the sobriety, numbing my body into submission with a punishing regime of very early rising, CrossFit and marathon training. Those activities, combined, gave me a good excuse to skip out on after-work drinks. I artfully dodged further questioning by telling people I was on antibiotics and couldn't drink.

And it was fine. Until I hit the worst realization of early sobriety.

As someone recently said to me: a drunk horsey is still a horsey. You can quit the booze, but it doesn't magically fix all the parts of you that you don't like. 

All of my pre-existing bad habits — I could be selfish, inconsiderate, and an impulsive ass at times — stayed with me.  And what do you do when you have nothing to blame? 

Despite my best efforts, I couldn't hide from this question. Faced with no options, I was dragged into introspection.

That's when I started thinking about my grandfather again.

Gleaning Grampy's wisdom

Grampy and Mama, Kate’s grandparents. (Submitted by Kate McKenna)

I wished I could go back in time and ask my grandfather for his advice on sobriety. But since he was gone, I decided to do the next best thing: speak with those he had helped, glean his wisdom from beyond the grave.

Taking a break from my Montreal life, I flew back to Charlottetown for a month. I wandered around, feeling raw and uncertain.

The obvious place to start was with my grandmother, Phyllis Wedge. We call her "Mama."

Mama loves to talk about her family. She can rhyme off her children's birth weights and her grandchildren's occupations, beaming, as though they're markers of her own personal success.

While she raised eight children, Grampy worked as a garbage man. They didn't have many extras, but they were upright and proud.

She told me about his drinking. One night, she told him not to come home because he'd had too much. The next day, he quit outright.

He was sober for 36 years.

Mama knew Grampy attended Alcoholics Anonymous a few times every week. But, like me, she didn't realize just what that meant until his wake. Over and over, strangers came up to tell her stories of how Grampy had helped them. He even did things you're not supposed to do in AA, like loaning them cash. 

She didn't know many of the people, given that AA is anonymous. But she did have two names for me: Margaret Arsenault and a man named Greg.

Margaret and Grampy worked at a home for people with addictions later in my grandfather's life. His job was to hang out with the patients, playing cards and helping them with their day-to-day activities.

When we met, Margaret said Grampy loved hanging out with the people staying in the home. 

I pressed her for any advice he may have dispensed at that time.

"Mostly, he listened," she said.

She said he only really had one piece of advice: show up to AA meetings.

'Just go to the meetings'

I had hoped for something more specific, maybe more philosophical, but I filed that away and went to meet Greg.

Grampy met Greg soon after Greg first got sober.

Thirteen months later, Greg fell off the wagon and somehow landed at the local Legion.

Grampy showed up and hauled him out of there. Greg said Grampy had a look in his eye that told him not to fight.

Grampy put him in the back of his truck and drove him to a meeting; then he drove him to detox.

Greg said it was one of the first times anyone had ever shown him unconditional love. For him, it was a defining moment.

Greg has been alcohol-free ever since — more than 30 years.

I wanted to know: what was it about Grampy's intervention that was so compelling that Greg quit drinking for good?

"It was the meetings," Greg said. "Just go to the meetings."

Working the program was the most important thing to my grandfather.

Giving AA a chance

Grampy reading to Kate and her brothers John Thomas and Patrick McKenna. (Submitted by Kate McKenna)

I'm not sure what I was hoping for, advice-wise, but it wasn't that.

Lord, if there's one thing I didn't want to do, it was AA. To me, AA meant cold black coffee and despair, in a church basement. 

In my early days of sobriety, my therapist suggested I try it.

I looked up meetings in Montreal. My work schedule is weird and none of them were convenient. Once, I walked around the block near a meeting location, willing myself to go inside, but I never did.

I just felt I didn't need it. I quit by myself, white-knuckling my way through it. Honestly, I've never been much of a joiner. 

It may have been a case of cognitive dissonance, but I told myself I had a bit of a drinking problem, but I wasn't a problem drinker. I didn't want it to become my identity. 

But now I had no choice. I was on the Island, with the sole purpose of seeking out and then applying my grandfather's wisdom. I had to attend a meeting.

I still didn't want to, at all. So I called my buddy Dave to discuss. 

"It's almost so obvious that it's unglamorous," Dave said.

Yeah. That's exactly it.

"You sought lessons from your grandpa expecting it was going to be X and it ended up being seven," he said. "He was like, 'No man, go to the meetings. There's some community that can help you out.'"

As usual, Dave was right.

This whole journey was inspired by my want or need to connect with my grandfather on this thing we had in common — sobriety.

His ghost dragged me across the country so I could find some community and walk this road with some support.

The obviousness of the whole ordeal smacked me in the face. Grampy came through for me. Of course what I needed was community, and AA was it.

Now all that remained was to attend a meeting.

The first two attempts were a wash. There were a couple of brutal snowstorms. I waded through a metre of snow, knocked on the church door and walked away when I found it locked. 

When I was 20 metres away, a nun poked her head out the door and yelled "YOU LOOKING FOR ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS?"

"Jeez," I thought. "Cool it lady, now all of Charlottetown knows."

I attended and introduced myself as an alcoholic. It was one of those surreal life experiences you don't ever really think will happen to you when you're sketching out your five-year plan. 

The meeting was good. People were nice. A woman roughly my age followed me out and welcomed me, giving me the low-down on which meetings were the best and letting me know she was around if ever I wanted to talk to somebody. 

Leaving the meeting, I wondered if I'd been dishonest with myself about the extent of my problem. Maybe it was worse than I thought. Maybe I was still a "horsey" who had quit drinking through sheer will — but never dealt with the underlying reasons for why I drank in the first place.

I resolved to attend a few more meetings and see if it stuck. To date, my attendance has been spotty because life is bouncing me around to different provinces and countries. 

I will, eventually, go back.

Grampy's Legacy

My grandmother told me that near the end of his life, Grampy worried his alcoholism would be passed down through the family. To some extent, that has proven true. 

But that's not his legacy.

Through his quiet patience and unconditional love, he taught us that life is easier and better when you work through it with others.

He taught us that letting people into your life requires courage, but it will pay back dividends.

Something my grandfather understood better than most is that we are put on this planet to relate to and serve others.

And if I take anything from this experience, it will be that.

About the producer

(Submitted by Kate McKenna)

Kate McKenna is a Montreal-based journalist and author. She's been reporting for CBC News for the last six years and has covered major stories including the Quebec City mosque shooting, allegations of sexual misconduct at Concordia University and the 2019 federal election. Her work has aired on the BBC, NPR and CNN. Kate tries to tell complex stories with simplicity and humanity.

This documentary was produced and edited with Kent Hoffman and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.

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