Ninety-year-old Joan Giles has much to celebrate, having been part of Maine’s recovery community for 41 years. Journey’s Amy Paradysz talked with Joan at the Sarah Frye Home, an assisted living center in Auburn, about changing perceptions and how Joan, as a single mother in Scarborough in the 1970s and 1980s, broke free of alcohol. In recovery, she went on to help prison inmates and run Bright New Day, a 12-step bookstore in Portland, among many other achievements.
This interview was edited for length.
Amy: It sounds like you’re one of the elders in Maine’s recovery community.
Joan: I would say so. I’ve been sober since Aug. 28, 1978. And I never walked away.
Amy: Did you have a family history of drinking?
Joan: Drinking was in my family. My father was in World War I. If you could see the snapshots that he brought home of the skulls in a grave – well, my father drank. He was an editor for The Associated Press, and he went to work every night. My father was a functional drunk.
Amy: When did you first start drinking?
Joan: I lived in Jackson Heights, a suburb of New York, and you could drink beer when you were 18. We thought we were hot stuff, so we all drank beer. I did everything to keep up, to be part of the group. Amy: When did your drinking become a problem? Joan: Not for a long time. I was a Recovery’s elder stateswoman celebrates four sober decades social drinker for many, many years. When it became a problem for me was after my husband left. I’d been married two times before, and I had lived a lot of life. But I’d never really addressed the fact that I had a problem with drinking. But after he left, I used to come home and start drinking wine. That’s when I started to realize I had a problem. I asked my mentor, my girlfriend’s mother, how she stopped drinking, and she said she just quit. Ten minutes later, she called back to say she went to 12-step meetings. I asked if I could go with her because I wasn’t going to go all by myself. I just didn’t have that sort of courage. When I went, I knew I was in the right place and, thank the good Lord, that was it.
Amy: And you went to meetings for decades?
Joan: For years and years and years. But, at first, I only went to one meeting a week because babysitters were expensive.
Amy: You started attending recovery meetings after your ex-husband left?
Joan: I never call him my ex-husband because I don’t feel like he’s somebody that I dislike. He’s just no longer my husband. He turned out to have bipolar. When he was good, he was fabulous. I started going out with him, and before you know it, it turned out to be something where we were very physically attracted to each other as well as mentally. We just fell in love immediately. When he moved out, I started drinking really, really seriously.
Amy: When he left, were you …
Joan: I was devastated. We had gone to all the trouble to adopt this baby. We knew we couldn’t have any children, so we went to St. Andre’s Home in Biddeford, and we got my daughter. She was 12 days old when we got her, and he stayed around until she was five. When he left, I had nobody. I can’t tell you how bad it was. I loved him so much. I couldn’t take it, and I started to drink. I’d come home from work and drink. I used to take a shower before I went to bed, and that was pretty stupid because I was half in the bag. I slipped on the floor, and I came to my senses. I could have hit my head, and my daughter could have woken up and found me either unconscious or dead. My drinking bothered her. I used to lie there on the sofa in the TV room, and I’d be passed out. So I was a single parent left with a house and a dog and a car and a little girl. I got a babysitter and went to meetings Saturday nights in Portland. I just did the program hodgepodge, the best I could. But it worked. It was a feeling of revelation. Like, thank God, somebody finally has an answer to this problem.
Amy: You’d been drinking for 20 years. How much of that time do you think you were an alcoholic?
Joan: A good five years, maybe more. I only drank in the evening.
Amy: Is that how you told yourself that it wasn’t a problem?
Joan: Yeah. I just drank at night. It was social drinking. It wasn’t alcoholic drinking.
Amy: How long did it take you to stop wanting to drink?
Joan: I never started wanting to drink. One of my favorite expressions is, If I drink, I drink. There are situations where formerly I would have gone straight to the bottle, but I don’t talk that language anymore.
Amy: What made the difference?
Joan: My higher power. I was so fortunate. I could have ruined the rest of my life. I did a lot of stupid things because I used poor judgment. I’m too trusting. I’ve done a lot of things that didn’t show very much good sense – but at least I wasn’t drinking.
Amy: Do you consider yourself religious?
Joan: Oh, I go to church, but it’s kind of above and beyond religion. It’s a higher power. It’s your God, my God, everybody’s God. We all have a higher power.
Amy: Are people more open about being in recovery than they used to be?
Joan: There’s not the stigma that there used to be. Years ago, people thought that if you were going to meetings you were still drinking.
Amy: What is it about meetings that helps you to stay sober?
Joan: You have a very clear picture that you’re all in this together. You’re not in it alone. We’re all holding each other up, and we’re holding each other up because a higher power is holding all of us up.
Amy: Was the recovery community your social circle?
Joan: Yes. That was enough. In the summertime, we had a big lobster bake. Socializing together showed us how to enjoy ourselves without drinking and we laughed a lot.
Amy: I heard you were a longtime prison volunteer. How did that happen?
Joan: I knew they needed volunteers to run meetings at the Windham Correctional Center. I wanted to tell them: You’ve got an opportunity. Don’t lose it. You’re going to have to change the people you hang out with. If you hang out with them and they’re drinking, they’re going to say to you, you can do it, and you’re going to say to yourself that you can do it, and bingo bongo – I made that expression up myself – you’re in it again, you’re in the soup. Once they get out, they think, I’m free, I can do as I please, I can drink again. No, you can’t drink again. If you drink again, you put yourself into some sort of stupid situation that got you into this. There are a lot of people in there for doing things that they didn’t even know they did. I looked forward to going up to the jail to give them a ray of hope, that I was able to stay sober and I didn’t do anything special.
Amy: But it worked.
Joan: It worked for me. One thing you learn is, don’t be critical of other people. There but for the grace of God go I. If you need to go to a meeting in the morning and in the evening, and that’s the only way you can keep from drinking, for God’s sake, do it.