Alaska Native dancer in costume including traditional mask.

Shreenyaa Spring

by Laura Wallis-John 

During my childhood years in Alaska, I split my time between remote interior village of Fort Yukon and the city of Fairbanks. I got to experience the winters in the city and the summers in the village. A favorite memory of mine is emerging from the harsh, cold winters and taking in the warmth and melting of the springtime every year.  

Now that spring is in the air once again, I feel nostalgic about the warmth and the light. The past few years have been hard on my family and me. My uncle passed from COVID-19 last fall. My mother had to be hospitalized and then was on oxygen for several months from having COVID-19 around the same time. The pandemic burdened us with undue stress in every aspect of our lives. Last year, not only was I dealing with the pandemic, but was also dealing with my own chronic and deadly illness: alcoholism.  

I have been battling my alcoholism for the past 3 years. It really first hit me after I graduated from college. I had broken up with my high school sweetheart, and I was growing lonely and depressed. I tried to make the best out of the situation and all of the stressors that were weighing down my life. But before I knew it, my alcoholism was triggered. I used alcohol for everything during this time: as a social lubricant, to help my chronic insomnia, to heal my loneliness, and most of all, to help numb the pain of having lost my long-term relationship, which had been a good one until it went wrong. The trickiest, most insidious part of alcoholism, though, is that it always ends up being your solution…until it isn’t. For me, it got to the point where I would feel physically sick if I didn’t drink enough, rather than getting sick from drinking too much, like healthy people. What a horrible paradox! It was no longer just “wine night on the weekends” by this point. I started getting sick in the mornings if I woke up without a drink in my hand. I would shake and sweat and feel so jumpy I wanted to jump right out of my own skin. Alcohol had turned on me. No longer serving me, even as a crutch, it had become my master. 

I struggled with recovery and relapse for two straight years following college. It was miserable. I hurt so many people that I loved and cared about. Today, my most recent drink was 7 ½ months ago. This is by far my longest stretch of sobriety and true recovery since my struggle with alcoholism began. I now have a strengthened connection with God and my family. The opposite of addiction is connection, I was once told. I have found this to be deeply, profoundly true. 

Sometimes, on a hard day of sobriety when I really want a drink, I draw strength from the past resilience of my ancestors. When I think of them, I think of my Grandma Mae. My grandma was able to overcome her alcoholism after 40 years of hard drinking. She was in true need of recovery. My best memory with her is us on the banks of the Yukon River at our family’s dry cabin. The orange, warm Alaskan summer sun shining down on us all. She told me that we could plant the seeds I had found in my orange and that they would grow. She was the best I could imagine a grandma could be. She never once let me see her drunk. She made sure of that.

This time of year is spiritual for me. I am both literally and figuratively coming out of the darkness into the light. I am Athabascan Gwich’in and my cultural background has always brought me close to nature. Alcohol had always gotten in the way of that relationship, but now nature and all of its new, child-like wonder is healing me. I look outside and see the sunlight extending out, I feel the warmer temperature, and I see the ice and snow melting. Such an awareness of nature is beautiful. I love taking walks with my family and being present with them. Coming out of addiction feels sometimes like I’m waking up from a bad dream. Today, I feel the immense hope of the happier times to come. Spring can hold new beginnings for everyone. If I can do it, then I know you can too. Never give up on yourself or the ones you love. Love yourself. Mahsi’(thank you).