by Jane Anderson, Columnist & Featured Contributor
WHEN THIS BOOK was given to me, I didn’t realize how well I would relate to the author’s story. From the first page, I thought this would be one of those books that has all the elements of a memorable experience told as though I could have lived through it myself. Born in 1950, Allan McDougall, joined his dad, mom, and older sister on their in Ontario, Canada where he grew up in poverty. His size, asthmatic health, and persistent stuttering contributed to his poor self-image which was amplified by his emotionally abusive home life and bullying classmates. The era through which his boyhood story takes place, and much of the nostalgia of his day, are familiar to me, although I was not subjected to the tragedy of alcohol or severe poverty. Allan McDougall’s rise from the ashes isn’t just another tragedy to triumph story, this book is more than a memoir, it’s an instruction book for anyone in the bonds of addiction, or a guidebook if you care about someone whose is trying to break free from the bonds of a chemical substance.
I’ve heard, as I’m sure you have, that the number one fear of people is speaking in public. I sat up and paid attention while reading through the real life experiences of the author who is now a sought after public speaker, but stuttered, stammered, and cried his way through oral compositions in school. What an awesome flipside to return to a reunion 40 years later as a confident, professional speaker. Talk about a transformational wonder, right? If you are still working toward a dream in your life, this book will inspire you to stay the course and not give up.
Allan’s battle with alcohol was full-on rampant by the time he as 18 years old. Its hold was so strong on him he said he never even got to the point of drinking for pleasure. He drank because it made him able to live with himself. Whoa! I couldn’t fathom being 18 and needing a drink to live. I was especially surprised because his parents rarely drank. Where did he get the desire? I definitely needed to keep reading and find out how the saga of Allan McDougall would unfold.
There were some bright spots for Allan. Although his life started on a farm, when he was 15 his dad went back to college and with his degree got a good job and moved the family into a nice town. Allan was quite a prankster and even his dad, who shared Allan’s humor and love of fun got into pulling some jokes. When he was in 10th grade he had a savage appendix attack and his recovery from the surgery caused long term loss of the school year and he had to repeat the grade. That was an embarrassment but though that experience and others through the tough remaining years of high school he became aware that he was able to do things he never thought possible. So how did his life keep spiraling downward? He says in one chapter, [Things in my life happened as they did because] of my fears and insecurities, not believing in myself, not seeing any potential in myself or having any hopes and dreams.” I read on.
The best job available around the time he turned 20 was in a mine in London, Ontario. Still a drinker, at least he had a job and thought he was alive, vibrant and ready to turn his life around. Little did he know that he was the living example of the old adage, “No matter where you go, there you are.” In fact with his new independence and living away from anyone who knew him, his drinking only increased. He didn’t recognize it as a problem though because he lived and worked among drinkers, and besides his job wasn’t impeded; in fact he was steadily employed when others were not. He had wanted to advance to the status where he could work in the mine underground instead of in the area above. Allan says, “Deep inside Mother Earth, half a mile beneath her skin … that is where I tasted security and learned to live one day at a time.”
Having grown up in a town myself where all nearly everyone worked in a mine, I can only imagine the incidents of danger and exhilaration that took place beneath the surface of the Earth. The chapters in this book are filled with fascinating stories of both life underground in the working environment and then dealing with the tragedies that occurred there. Miners couldn’t express their feelings about the things that happened underground and there was no understanding or sympathy either. Alcohol became the coping mechanism for many workers, some to the detriment of a lifetime of abuse. Even though alcohol was not allowed underground it was consumed in vast quantities and still coursing through their bloodstream as workers descended into the shafts day after day.
I was anticipating a change in his life when Allan married, as was he, but it wasn’t a change in his life so much as a change in his status. My heart broke for him when he encountered some of the same debilitating feelings from his wife as he experienced in grammar school. Those wounds live deep within and are the root for many manifestations years after. He had three beautiful children, his wife, and his home. Allan also had an extreme love of cars which he maintains to this day. His job continued and while layoffs took the jobs of so many, his secure place underground stayed constant.
I wish I could tell more detail of Allan’s story here in this report because it’s a challenge to know what to include and what to leave out. The facts he tells about the conditions of the mines and individual lives impacted by the tension, fear and danger of the miner’s lifestyle proliferate through the whole book. As Allan says of the mines they are dark, they are dank and musty, the noise is cacophonous, the stench is unfathomable, and they are hot – like 95 to 100 degrees. The tools, equipment, and working conditions are atrocious, but mining goes on every day and Allan was a reliable employee. He drank constantly but was able to pull it off for many years. He was able to change his focus from drinking to working and be productive. He could apply the same energy and the same focus to one activity as to the other. He could reverse from the destructive alcoholism to someone who could bring a measure of value to his life and to the lives of others. Remarkable!
Things started falling apart though and Allan found his family life deteriorating. He justified his drinking to the point that he surrounded himself with people who had the same problems so they could relate to each other. In 1987 Allan applied to the Labour College of Canada, but instead of attending required seminars, he spent all his time drinking. The college rejected him and he blamed the decision on political motivation. He sat in a pub and drank 21 B-52s and realized how low he’d sunk. He was 37 years old, had a family, a home almost paid for, a job where he made a good living and had to borrow $100 so he could get home when the college denied him.
If you’re reading with me this far, you’re probably wondering the same thing. Allan, wake up! Can’t you see that your life has been a miracle? It’s unbelievable that you haven’t had a deadly accident or caused one!” I guess rock bottom for Allan McDougall would be bottom of the ocean for me. What happens next is what I waited for all through the traumatic stories so far. There had been times in Allan’s life when he’d been in the mine when his headlamp went off. He had to sit there alone in the mine, in the dank, pitch black darkness and wait for help. One night in his ‘flophouse’ room he felt the blackness of his existence. He had three choices: continue drinking and be institutionalized, commit suicide, stop drinking – Those were his three options and he had no faith that option three, stop drinking, was possible for him. He called his union hall and asked for help. The pivotal point in his life came when he met with two men who saw through this casual inference that ‘alcohol is a concern’. On June 3, 1987 Allan says, “I took that step over the threshold from dying to living.” This was a giant stride for him because two years prior, as a slam on Alcoholics Anonymous, he had a t-shirt screen printed ‘Alcoholics Unanimous’. Allan’s 180 degree change is most noted in his reflection of his new life. “Ninety-nine percent of what I didn’t believe and hated about the whole AA program, all the things I didn’t believe in before sobriety, I have now adopted into my new life and have learned to love and cherish them.”
Life change, especially for an addict is treacherous. Giving up alcohol divided his friendships too. Allan began to see more clearly the values, habits, relationships, and mechanisms that made up his life. His ideas began to change but not without painful consequences. There is no substitute for a strong support system which is what Allan began to build into his life. After a miraculous 30 days sober, Allan checked himself into a rehab hospital, The Camillus Center, where they taught and reinforced the AA 12-step program. Even then Allan would wake up in the morning thinking he couldn’t go on being sober. He was assigned to different counselors because he couldn’t seem to connect with any of them. He couldn’t connect with himself. Finally, he was given an assignment to write about the heartbreaking childhood lived out with an erratic mother. He wrote for 12 hours straight. Next he got a letter from his son with a photo that said, “Dear Dad, This is Shane. I love you and I don’t want you to forget about me.” WOW! Just WOW! The purpose of getting all that out was achieved. Allan says, “Those eighteen inches from my head to my heart were the hardest distance every traveled.” And twenty years later he’s still convinced that it’s a bottomless source of personal riches.
The next few chapters of the book are an amazing recollection of his reformation. Allan talks about journaling and taking one day at a time, attending meetings, deep soul searching, confessing, reconciling and making progress. Alcoholics Anonymous regards milestones as significant and as Alan worked through the 12-steps he was awarded his sobriety medallion after 3 months. If you know anything about the 12-step program, you know that each step has a task to do. At step 8, Allan had to list all the people he had wronged. He made amends with his children and wife, but even more remarkable is his memory of the friend who lent him $100 to get home after that drinking binge. He made amends and paid him back too.
So many years underground and operating heavy tools took its toll on Allan’s back and he couldn’t do that type of work anymore. He was able to land a job above ground and later he reapplied to the Labour College and this time he was accepted. Drawing on his 17 years of addiction and his passion to help other people who fought the same demons, Allan went into a four year degree program by the Addiction Research Foundation in Ontario. Through his years of being educated Allan continued to uncover buried emotional wounds. Allen felt out of place in classes where he was the oldest student, he was working to support his family, attended AA meeting 5 days a week, and was admittedly scared to death most of the time. A lot of living occurred between 1988 and his premier lifetime achievement in May 2001. He became the first Canadian Steelworker to graduate from the National Labor College and his degree was in Labor Administration.
Many of Allan’s old wounds were related to his mother and baring his soul in the process of staying sober certainly had an impact on his recollections of his home life. You might recall the journaling that brought him to his first step toward real sobriety and that the subject was his mother. Forgiveness brings freedom and Allan’s relationship with his mother improved but she still regarded Allan’s abilities with skepticism. When he shared with her his dream of becoming a motivational speaker she was quick to point out that he had his education and a good job. Being a motivational speaker was not realistic; he needed to live in the real world. Don’t we all have loved ones who don’t believe in our dreams? Allan’s very succinct reply was,
You know, Mom. You’re absolutely right. It’s not the real world, but it’s my world.”
Through the next years, Allan and his dad exchanged letters. They made sure their love for each other was known. Allan did the same with his children. His relationships that had been tenuous for so many years were now better than most could hope for. The bond was even stronger in the successive years because of the tribulations they had all lived through. This was a good perspective for Allan to share. What started out as hopeless ended as hopeful.
Allan has become a motivational speaker, but he’s far more than that. He’s a friend to the needy and goes out of his way to support and encourage people who suffer from the stranglehold of addiction. He mentors but also holds accountable people who want help overcoming their detrimental lifestyle.
On each year of his sobriety, Allan rewards himself. The first year he had a white sports jacket custom made for himself, year 5 he bought a Trans Am. If there is one thing that hasn’t changed about Allan is his audacious love of cool, sporty cars. For his 15 year anniversary of sobriety, he hired a mechanic to build him a 1966 Shelby Cobra 427. You’ll have to read the story to find out the nightmare he went through with that depressing ordeal but it didn’t turn him back to alcohol. Fast forward to the end where he found another mechanic who successfully rebuilt the car and in the process rebuilt Allan’s faith in human beings.
This book really tugged at my emotions, but not in a sappy sort of way. I didn’t grow up in an abusive home ruled by an unstable mother, and alcoholism never became a personal demon, but I witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of lives in turmoil by disease and mental illness triggered by addictions. This isn’t an easy book to read, but it’s worth it because it’s infused with hope that the story lived out in this man can be the story that brings a new beginning to others who are tormented and being destroyed by addictions. This is inspiration with instruction – a book that really does travel the path from tragedy to triumph and proves that an amazing life is possible on the other side of addiction.