This is a picture of me enjoying a glass of wine as a nine-year-old.
In February, I found it at my parents' house. I held it between my thumb and my finger, and I laughed. Such foreshadowing, I thought.
I put the picture on my fridge at home. It would be a conversation starter. Every time I went for a snack, to grab a soda, or to put away what was left of my dinner, I glanced at the glossy snapshot, half-thinking. I didn't talk to anyone about it.
As time passed, half-thoughts turned into full meditations, and by the end of March, I had to take the picture down. The girl in the photo had changed. She was no longer the goofy little kid that I had laughed at in February. She had undergone an unbearable mutation; every time I visited her, she looked a little different, a little dimmer, a little more drunk, even more like a nine-year-old than ever before, and therefore more sad. Such foreshadowing, I thought. Had the change happened over night, or over time? Not knowing, I resolved to throw the photo away, deep into the bottom of my junk drawer.
As a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, feelings of remorse exist frequently in the wake of nostalgia. I'm told that, with time, nostalgia and remorse will undergo a kind of mitosis, and begin to occupy different spaces in my consciousness. Until then, they are forced to coexist, making Memory Lane feel more like an unlit back alley.
April is Alcohol Awareness month. During this month, doctors, addictions specialists, and researchers ask us to examine alcohol; to determine whether or not it's something we consume, or something we use, whether memories of drunken nights evoke feelings of nostalgia, or remorse. Essentially, in April, the world is asked to live as I've been living for the last year and a half in recovery. Painfully, gratefully aware.
I don't know in which month that photo was taken, but I do know that, at nine years old, I was totally clueless. About everything. Unaware of the hardships that come with maturity, the challenges born out of relationships, the sentence that a guilty conscience is capable of handing down, and how quickly a person's life can slip away if they elect not to participate in it.
Wine every day, my grandfather told me, and I later told my doctors, was actually very good for you.
At nine years old, I couldn't know that alcohol would be the catalyst to my coming undone. That, for me, it would start with booze, and lead to cocaine, and then opioids and amphetamines, and high-risk sex, and then rehab, and then relapse, and then rehab again.
The photograph was taken at my grandparents' house. My biological father's parents. The side of the family that might lose the hereditary/genetic debate, if we were ever to have one.
When eating dinner at their place, which I did on Sunday nights, it was not at all uncommon for there to be wine on the table, cocktails for the adults before the meal, and then cocktails for the adults after.
Before the age of ten, I was introduced to what would soon become my go-to defense in every doctor's office I'd ever sit in. Wine every day, my grandfather told me, and I later told my doctors, was actually very good for you! He would rattle off a long list of health benefits, as he struggled with the screw, punctuating his pitch with the popping sound of a cork. Even at the age of nine, I knew to take heed. Somehow I recognized in myself the need to know these benefits by rote.
It's long been said that moderate drinking has its advantages, from a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, to achieving better defenses against cold and flu. But a recent study out of the University of Victoria argues that such might not really be the case; that we have overestimated the benefits of booze, and grossly underestimated the risks associated with alcohol use at any level.
I comforted myself for years with the belief that what I was doing to my body, my spirit, my friends, and my family, was normal.
As reported by the Vancouver Metro News, the updated research tasks us to look less at the old data, more toward the methods used in collecting it, and the sample group from which it was collected.
In the article, Tim Stockwell, director of U of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, concludes his interview with a soundbite. Though he was speaking to everyone -- to the journalist interviewing him, and all readers respectively -- I felt like it was directed specifically to me.
"Do not believe or comfort yourself by thinking [alcohol is] good for your health."
And there it was. Comfort.
I comforted myself for years with the belief that what I was doing to my body, my spirit, my friends, and my family, was normal. Everyone drinks with dinner, and dinner is eaten daily! Cocaine is perfectly acceptable on weekends, if you can afford it! Technically, these pills were prescribed to someone... I normalized extremely abnormal behaviour because, in many ways, society made it very easy for me to do that.
And every time I began to suspect that my behaviour was teetering on abnormal -- hard liquor before work for breakfast, cocaine on a Tuesday, "are these Oxys or Altoids... let's find out!"-- I normalized that too. Because by the end, I simply could not feel normal without this stuff, and I also had no clue what normal was. Awareness is a luxury of the living, and I had spiritually flat lined.
The truth is, much like the girl on my fridge, I didn't just change over night, and I didn't slowly change over time either. In fact, I didn't change at all, I just stayed the person I've always been: An alcoholic and drug addict, predisposed, though perfectly oblivious.
The definition of awareness is the knowledge or perception of a certain situation or fact. So, this month, don't make it about what alcohol is, but rather what alcohol is to you. Are you consuming, or are you using?
At nine, I used alcohol to feel grown up. It was my temporary invitation into the wild world of adulthood, with all of its fancy antioxidants and better conversations. Nearly two decades later, I used it to escape what adulthood had eventually become, which was a collage of uncertainty and isolation. A drink a day may be unhealthy for some, but it's potentially lethal for others. The awareness is essential to knowing which category we fit into. The ounces add up, so if you're not aware of it, that one glass of wine could significantly change things for you in the big picture, overnight and over time.
And if you're anything like me, changing it back will be anything but comfortable.
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In October 2015 The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) released guidelines for preventing the risk of dementia that suggested drinking alcohol is among several factors which can increase a person's vulnerability. "Drinking alcohol daily at home has become normal for some people, and this poses a threat to health," they said at the time.
A 2012 study from the University of Illinois in Chicago found that alcohol can actually have a positive affect on men's brain health. The study, which involved 40 healthy men, found that creative thoughts begin to flourish after four units were consumed (the equivalent of two pints of beer). Men who enjoyed a tipple (or two) were found to be better at solving brain-teasing quizzes and coming up with imaginative solutions to problems, compared to their sober counterparts.
In 2014 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine teamed up with University College London and the University of Pennsylvania to examine 56 studies on drinking habits of more than a quarter of a million people. Their results appeared to contradict previous studies which suggested alcohol is beneficial for the heart. Senior author Juan Casas commented: "In our study, we saw a link between a reduced consumption of alcohol and improved cardiovascular health, regardless of whether the individual was a light, moderate or heavy drinker. "Assuming the association is causal, it appears that even if you're a light drinker, reducing your alcohol consumption could be beneficial for your heart."
Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in grapes and red wine, has long been associated with a range of health benefits such as cutting the risk of heart disease. A 2015 study published in the journal Nature found that resveratrol may protect the body against age-related diseases by prompting an evolutionary defence mechanism which guards human cells against genetic damage. Study author Matthew Sajish commented: "Based on these results, it is conceivable that moderate consumption of a couple of glasses of red wine would give a person enough resveratrol to evoke a protective effect via this pathway."
A study published in The British Medical Journal last February suggested the benefits associated with alcohol (in particular red wine) may be limited to people aged 65 and over. The researchers, from the University of Sydney and University College London, found alcohol gave "little to no protection" of diseases such as heart disease to most people, regardless of how much they consumed. They did, however, find that women aged 65 and over who reported consuming 10 units or less on average per week had a lower risk of dying from illnesses such as heart disease compared to people who did not drink at all.
Research conducted by the University of Alberta suggested that a drinking a glass of red wine is the equivalent of spending an hour exercising in the gym. The researchers found that, resveratrol (a compound found in red wine), improved an individual's physical performance, heart function and muscle strength in the same way that they're improved after a gym session. "I think resveratrol could help patient populations who want to exercise but are physically incapable," lead researcher Jason Dyck said. "Resveratrol could mimic exercise for them or improve the benefits of the modest amount of exercise that they can do."
Last April the chairwoman of the Royal Society for Public Health, Dr Fiona Sim, warned that alcoholic drinks are contributing to Britain's growing obesity crisis and should come with mandatory calorie counts. "It is impossible to ignore our failure to deal with obesity," Dr Sim said at the time. "Drinking alcohol is common and, in excess, harmful."
A 2013 study by the University of Bristol's School of Social and Community Medicine found that drinking in moderation through pregnancy does not harm a baby's neurodevelopment. Almost 7,000 10-year-olds were asked to take part in balance tests, which are an indicator of prenatal neurodevelopment. Children whose mothers consumed the equivalent of a glass of wine a day were able to balance as well as those who had not been exposed to alcohol in the womb.
In February 2015 a study from Queen's University Belfast investigated the effects of low-level alcohol consumption during pregnancy. When analysing scans, the researchers found that drinking just half a glass of wine affected the unborn baby. Professor Peter Hepper, who led the study, said: "If women drink just one unit of alcohol, the baby's breathing and movement stop for up to two hours after that. That's not normal – the baby should be continually active. "The only safe [alcohol] level is zero."