Years ago, I met a man named Collin who wanted nothing more than to be a role model for his sons and the youth in his community on a Reserve in Saskatchewan.
He told me this while taking a course on self-esteem I was teaching at the homeless shelter where I used to work.
“I don’t get it, Louise,” he said as we were discussing the concept of ‘balcony people’ versus ‘basement dwellers’. “I’ve been sober for 3 months and all my friends here want me to do is go drink with them. Why can’t they be happy for me? Why do they want me to get drunk again?”
Collin had spent many, many years in a drunken stupor. He’d left his wife and sons behind and followed the path that almost killed him until one day he realized he couldn’t do it anymore.
“I didn’t want to be that drunken Indian people saw lying on the sidewalk. But I didn’t know how to get up,” he said. And then in Rehab for yet another time, light slipped through the cracks of his despair. He realized he couldn’t show his sons, as well as the youth on the Reserve from where he came, what it meant to walk the path of honour and pride unless he got sober.
It was his dream. To return to his Reserve and teach his sons, and all the youth, what it meant to walk with your head held high, proud of your heritage, proud of your People.
Collin found his balcony and he wasn’t coming off of it.
The challenge was, he still had a lot of people around him who were scared of looking up. Scared of reaching up from the gutter where they drifted through every day, their senses dulled by drugs and alcohol.
“What if you’re already doing what you dreamt of right where you are?” I asked Collin.
“What do you mean?” he replied. The lines around his deep black eyes crinkled up, deep furrows appeared in his brow. He shoved the tip of the white cowboy hat he always wore back from his forehead.
“What if your getting sober shows them that it is possible. That no matter how often they tell themselves they can’t do it, the path of sobriety is open for them too.”
“Then why don’t they just get on with it?” he asked. He smiled when he said it. He knew the answer. “Because it’s not that simple. Right? I was one of the basement dwellers too.”
He sat quietly for a few moments before sharing the rest of his thoughts. “If I’m in the basement living in the dark, it’s hard to see there’s a path leading towards the light, not just deeper into the dark.”
And that’s when the truth of his position hit him. “I couldn’t see in the basement because I was surrounded by people who were just as scared and lost as me. And they’re no different. They can’t see the beauty of the view I see from up on the balcony because they’re down there living in the dark. I can’t go back to the basement, but I can keep standing on my balcony showing them what’s possible.”
Climbing out of the basement is not an easy task. We want to cling to the darkness, hold onto the familiar, stick with what we know. And if it includes using drugs and alcohol to keep us numbed in that place, it can be even scarier to step up.
The only way out is to let go of what’s holding us down.
Staying out of the familiarity of the basement can be even harder when we are surrounded by those we knew ‘back there’. In their fear of what is ‘out here’ they want us to come back and help them feel safe in the dark.
Collin never got to show his sons what it meant to live a proud man. He died of a heart attack three months after our conversation.
But he did get to show those around him who feared the path out of the basement that it was okay to step into the light. He never gave up on his sobriety in those final months. He never let go of standing on his balcony and telling others about the beauty of the view he saw from up above.
I like to think he died with a proud heart. That even as it beat the final drum note of his life, he was standing tall, standing proud on his balcony surveying the wide expanse of the universe around him knowing that in walking the path out of the darkness, he was showing his People how not to be afraid of the light.