Living

Read An Exclusive Excerpt From Jann Arden’s New Book

"It’s never too late to help yourself. It’s never too late to repair old wounds. It’s never too late to take responsibility for your actions."

A photo of the cover of Jann Arden's new memoir, If I Knew Then

If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging (Penguin Random House Canada, $32)

I abused alcohol on a regular basis from the time I was sixteen years old. I was a lousy drinker. The first time I had a gulp of rum, I loved it. The feeling was liquid oblivion. It hit my veins like the perfect lover. I felt invincible. Thank God I never got into drugs, because I doubt I would still be alive. I have read many descriptions of what having the first drink or the first hit of a drug feels like. My dad’s version of it was one of the most haunting. He said that “people who are alcoholics or drug addicts are practising how to die.” That always made me shudder: people who are practising how to die. I wish I’d asked him if that was how he felt about it. I guess the unhappiness and desperation in that statement says it all.

Some part of me had the sense to stay away from drugs. Where I grew up, they weren’t really a thing, or if they were, I didn’t know about it. The only drugs the kids around me used at the time were the marijuana they grew in their parents’ basements, that hash oil the rich kid I knew was selling and magic mushrooms.

I never understood the mushroom thing.

I remember being at a party in the early eighties and everybody who had done mushrooms was throwing up and then freaking out. It didn’t look all that magical. Drinking, on the other hand . . .

But drinking made me let people down. I was forever calling friends and business associates to cancel lunch dates or meetings, not because I didn’t want to see them, but because I was hungover. And when I say hungover, I mean really, really sick. Miserably sick. Profoundly sick. The saddest part is that I’d made myself sick.

Most of my friends were in the dark about how much of a problem drinking was for me. I hid my abuse as much as I could. I played down my hangovers, when, in reality, I was hungover three or four times a week. The version of me people saw didn’t actually exist.

I didn’t even show her to the ones closest to me. When I was able to come up for air, I was ashamed of my behaviour, but the shame wasn’t enough to get me to stop drinking. I kept right on going. It makes me cringe when I think about those days for too long. I’m still working on forgiving myself, but I am also working on taking in and acknowledging the glory of my accomplishment when it comes to my overall health now. I am so proud of what I’ve done and where I’ve come from. I am so f-cking proud that I stopped drinking, and I remind myself of that every damn day. I don’t know why we feel we can’t say those kinds of things to ourselves. Don’t ever think you’re too far down the tunnel to find your way out. That’s simply not true. I am living proof.

A photo of Jann Arden in a white dress and blazer in a field next to a hay bale

(Photo: Alkam Emin)

And please keep in mind, I did not succeed on the first or second or even the third attempt to stop drinking. It took me a dozen or so times. Don’t be hard on yourself. Reload, regroup and try again.

So how in hell did I stop, you may be wondering.

I had many “episodes” with my heart health over the years that put me in hospital. I suppose they were heart attacks, but the medical people called them “episodes.” Whatever they were, they were scary as all hell, and unbelievably painful. My left ventricle would literally puff itself up so that it was only able to pump a third of what it was supposed to. I was very fortunate that it went back to normal each time after about four weeks, although my overall recovery could last up to a year. It was a slow crawl back to feeling good again.

I actually lost count of how many episodes I had. “This can’t possibly have anything to do with alcohol,” I would tell myself. But I was never forthright with any of my doctors about how much I drank. Finally, on my last heart-related hospital visit, in 2016, I told the nurse assigned to me in emergency, “I’m drinking a lot.” I don’t know why I finally admitted it. I didn’t want to die, I guess.

The nurse’s name was Nancy, and I don’t think Nancy has any idea that she saved me. I’m sure Nancy spoke to hundreds of patients in the same calm, reassuring, non-judgmental way she spoke to me.

“You need to care about yourself enough to stop drinking,” she said. “Your heart doesn’t like it.”

Just like that, I did stop drinking. I feel so grateful for Nancy’s words that day.

Good things come out of bad things. Sobriety is now my superpower.

If you’ve ever looked into a mirror and said to yourself, “I’m drinking too much,” you are drinking too much.

It’s never too late to help yourself. It’s never too late to repair old wounds. It’s never too late to take responsibility for your actions. It’s f-cking hard owning up to the things you’re doing that aren’t good for you. It’s hard to be brave, because you have to summon up courage from the most vulnerable part of yourself.

Sometimes life seems like one giant secret.

We all walk around hoping that nobody will find out what we’re really doing to ourselves and to the people around us. I knew full well when I was off track. I knew when I was not being true to who I was. We all know when we’re being less than we can be, because we don’t feel right in our body. We fill up with anxiety and dread, and then we get so used to feeling that way it becomes our default setting. You forget how great it is to feel safe and sound in your own body. When

I stopped drinking, I immediately started to feel more and more like myself.

I am myself again.
I am myself again.
I am myself again.

I kept saying that over and over in my head because I was so relieved.

I hated myself when I was drinking, I really did.

I LOVE MY SOBER, SUPER-POWERFUL SELF.

There are many reasons why people abuse alcohol. For me, it was partly because I didn’t feel worthy of good things. I was scared of succeeding—there it is again—and it was also partly because it made me less inhibited. Or so I thought when I was drinking. It turns out I’m far less inhibited sober, which still kind of blows my mind. Also, how did the thing I disliked most about my dad, his alcoholism, manage to push its way into my life?

A photo of Jann Arden in long black jacket standing on a dirt road

(Photo: Alkan Emin)

Sometimes I would be sober for a few weeks and convince myself that I didn’t have a problem, but then I’d fall right back into it. I know I ruined relationships because of my drinking. I know I damaged my mental and physical health. But I have forgiven myself for all of it. I’ve forgiven myself, and I haven’t for one second felt anything but compassion and love and enormous pride for not giving up on my future or myself.

You mustn’t give up on your future self.

I was the curator of all my obstacles. That was a difficult thing for me to accept when I finally came up for air long enough to truly see what I was doing. That’s why addictions are so insidious: they don’t want you to see your true self. You are not what you did, but what you will do.

For me, the old saying about needing to hit rock bottom was true. My mother used to say about people she knew who were in trouble, “When they finally hit rock bottom, they’ll have something to push themselves off of.” Hitting that solid bottom of the barrel was my saving grace.

My long failure to be a person of my word—drinking or not—filled me with a lot of confusion.

I hated being disappointed in myself. What a vicious circle that can be. Doubt is loud and obnoxious as it yells in your ear, and everybody can feel it emanating off you. I didn’t feel as though I could enter a room without the entire place knowing what a fraud I was. When I finally started doing what I said I was going to do, I changed my life. And it wasn’t just big things that changed, and it still isn’t—it is the tiniest, seemingly most unimportant things. The little things have a huge impact on how you make your way through the world. When I wasn’t accountable to myself, things unravelled on a regular basis. When I wasn’t authentic, I was almost always unhappy. Self-respect was sorely missing in my life as a young woman. Now my power stems from being a person of my word and being sober.

Do what you say you’re going to do. You’ll experience a huge shift in how you feel about yourself, and how others feel about you as well.

I don’t have any easy answers as to how a person comes to respect themselves. I am one of those people who always had self-confidence but very little self-esteem. You’d think those two characteristics can’t coexist in the same body, but I’m living proof that they can and do. If you tell yourself something often enough, over a long-enough period of time, it will manifest itself. When I’d finally had enough of sliding downhill, I began to tell myself positive, uplifting things. I didn’t believe in them wholeheartedly at first, but I kept repeating them. One day a shard of what I was saying finally seeped into me for real. It felt like an answered prayer of sorts. Even though I’m not a particularly religious person, I pray all the time. When I’m talking to myself, I’m praying. When I’m wondering about things, I’m praying. When I’m cheering myself on, I’m praying. When I’m singing, I’m praying. I pray all day long.

For me, a prayer is a thought that connects me to the human grid. A prayer is a positive affirmation and an earnest attempt simply to help myself. If I don’t give a sh-t about me, how in hell is anybody else going to give a sh-t about me? I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. You have to ask for help, but you have to want to help yourself as well. Nobody else could stop drinking for me. I had to do that.

My dad used to say, “First the man he takes the drink, and then the drink he takes the man.” Yes, he had a drinking problem, but he also knew what was going on.

My grandmother told me a story when I was young about an angel bringing an old man who had just died to see a beautiful room in heaven—showing the old man the ropes, as it were. This room was the last stop on the tour “before,” the angel said, “we take you to Jesus.” (Bear with me.) The angel opened the giant, glittering, bedazzling door and led the man inside the biggest room he’d ever seen. It was so unbearably bright the man felt as though he was walking into the sun. Around him were row upon row upon row of beautifully wrapped gift boxes in different shapes and sizes. The angel led the man up and down the rows with a great deal of pride and delight.

“Where are we?” the man whispered. “What is all this?”

The angel stopped and gently rested her shimmering hand on the man’s shoulder. “Why, these are all the things you never asked for.”

That story has stuck with me all my life. All the things you never asked for. I am the WORST person in the world as far as asking for help goes. It’s something I’ve really worked hard to improve on in the last few years. When both my parents got sick in their early seventies, it took me by surprise. To cope with them—to help them cope—I had to reach out to my friends and colleagues and, sometimes, people I didn’t know from an old tire. Asking for help wasn’t easy and still isn’t easy for me. I’ll be struggling with something and then realize that I’ve shut myself off from my people. It happens without me even knowing it. What has changed because of my long journey with my parents is that

I have made myself aware.

I check in with myself all the time. I used to be reluctant to do that because I didn’t really want to know what was lurking in my head. Now, I want to know. I’m not afraid to see all of it. Sobriety has done that for me too. Clarity is life-altering in new ways every single hour I’m alive. Clarity is everything. Clarity is my new addiction. I want to feel everything.

Need more Jann-spiration? Read our new interview with the beloved Canadian singer, author and sitcom star. 

Excerpted from If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging by Jann Arden. Copyright ©2020 Jann Arden. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.