I have loved many alcoholics in my life already, coming from a long line of them, but none as beautiful, wonderful or tragic as Melinda Lee.
I had been bartending and selling booze for over half my life by the time that I decided to focus on BC craft beer and launch my career in the booze industry as Island Beer Girl. I had encountered the same problem several times in my career already in that I hated selling alcohol to alcoholics. I didn’t want to be a part of hurting someone that I care about. I would be met by the same sadness every morning at 9 a.m. when I would open the liquor store doors to find the same three guys waiting for me to give them their poison. One older, just getting off work, here for a 15 pack…..again. One, a young Chef at a fancy restaurant who needs a .5 of vodka to get through each shift…he would buy a 26 on his way home after … Then of course there was the retired road builder who drank away his loneliness with a six pack for the day and a mickey of fire ball for the shirt pocket he would stay and talk my ear off for a good twenty about nothing in particular. I would be saddened…. and yet every single day for years on end I sold it to them anyway….
I met Melinda two and a half years before my career shift to focus on beer while working at a little hole in the wall liquor store alongside the highway on Vancouver Island. I was working the late shift and the two of them stood out like a couple of blooming roses in a briar patch. Small-Fry had long hair and wore a bandana around his head. He was shorter than her but they just looked like they were made for each other. His stunningly beautiful girlfriend appeared to have their band mates tattooed on her arm in a G’n’R tribute featuring guitarist, Slash. In fact she was covered in tattoos. They adorned her hands, chest and arms, ran along her stomach and peppered her legs…although I didn’t know all of this until much later….I was immediately taken by her beauty and presence in this room filled with booze. I welcomed them to the neighborhood as they had just moved here from Alberta and gave them my number. It was September 2013.
FFWD a year and a lot had happened in our lives and in our friendship. I found out how hilarious she was. That she was an amazing artist and kind person. How she was great with animals and babies and loved to catch toads. She was lonely, not knowing many people here and drinking more than ever and working in a Pub to the dismay of her partner. Their relationship had failed as she spiraled into a habit of masking her loneliness in 100 proof. She had met someone new who also, as it turned out, had a love for alcohol. Beer, Whiskey, Cider, Gin, Rum, wine or sherry, the two of them together drank it all. They both fed off the other’s love of booze and together they culminated the perfect storm. Like when a volcano meets a tornado. He loved her so much he had to take away her sickness by giving her booze. She loved him so much she couldn’t give up the booze until he was ready to do it to because she knew it meant the end of “them” to get clean. She was so fiercely loving and loyal…. even though it was killing her and she knew it.
I invited her to stay in my cabin to get on her feet after the break-up be surrounded by love and the laughter of children and be in an environment where drinking was for social times and not the main focus of your day and diet. It started out fine, but then he came too….and because I loved them both I let them stay in my cabin for months. Every day by the time I returned from work they were drunk. She tried, at my request to only drink enough during the day to keep her from getting sick and wait until I was home to drink any more. Some for the day and a promise to buy more later. Every day. I watched her turn from the sparkling little sprite of my friend to a distinct yellow. Her light was dwindling out. I watched her get bloated and swell and complain about hardness in her abdomen and blood in her poop. I lay next to her suspecting an ectopic pregnancy and begged her to let me take her to the doc. I lectured her daily on the importance of detoxing now and properly and tried to make her eat at least one meal a day. Since he insisted she be vegetarian, I snuck her meat when I could. I begged her to stay with us and to let him detoxify away from her and then each go to treatment…she wouldn’t stay without him. Eventually I had to ask them to leave so my brother in law could move in *…..as he was struggling too. I told her straight to her face that I was here to help if she needed it but I was not going to watch her kill herself. They moved to his mom’s house and continued to drink together for another year, all the while Melinda was wilting away. Our walks became painful because I didn’t want to make her self-conscious but she was so thin and her skin, not her own as I remembered her to be. Even the doctors were telling her she was going to die if she couldn’t quit but she just couldn’t do it unless he did….but she wanted to….so badly she wanted to.
After Christmas 2015 I thought she was staying with her family in Calgary and not returning to the Island after the new years. She had told me herself that she was going stay with her family. But she had our friend give her a ride. In February she called me to confess that she had returned and she had started drinking again and that she was unhappy. We spoke that day for over an hour and much of it specifically about her alcoholism and in that conversation something happened; she asked me about my drinking. She told me that as a person working in the industry and selling something that is essentially killing people I had to put myself in check once in a while. She asked me what I was going to do if I ever developed a problem with alcohol and needed to quit even though it was the source of income that feeds my kids? How would I rectify my career with my own alcoholism in a healthy way? She reminded me that if it could happen to her it could happen to anyone. I promised that I would quit from time to time to “keep myself in check”….make sure that I can quit whenever I need and that I am not addicted to alcohol in a physical way or even in a habitual way. She screamed at me and cried out to me that she didn’t want to die. That she needed to get away and that she was ready. I once again offered her a place to be while she waited for a bed in detox but made it clear that I could not have her detoxing or being drunk in front of my kids who adored Melinda. I told her I would get in my car right then and come get her….but the loyal, kind, forgiving heart that she had would not let her leave him behind. She promised to reach out to her family, declined my offer and said she would come over for the night in a week or so. I told her that I loved her. That I loved her so much and so completely that as much as I wanted to be around her, I was not going to enable it. She said that she loved me too and thanked me for everything I said to her because she knew that she needed to hear it. I didn’t even realize at the time how badly I needed to hear it. I told her to call me anytime, day or night.
When the phone rang that morning, the following Friday, I ignored it. It started to ring again. I saw that it was Melinda and figuring she was probably drunk and not wanting to deal with it, I didn’t answer again… even if I had, it would have been too late. Melinda had passed. Her little body just could not take it anymore. She was 35.
….A year has gone by now Meli and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I miss you. I struggled for months wondering if I should even pursue this career anymore and sorting through my guilt like I used to go through the stuff at the dump with my dad when I was little.. I had to ask myself all of these questions that you had been asking me and put myself in check. Over this past year I have done some work inward and have come up with this conclusion:
Craft Beer is the perfect industry for me to be in for many reasons. It is a community, a family where I feel valued and accepted. It is truly an industry where we care about each other and collaborate whenever possible. We keep our eyes open in the craft beer industry and feel supported. Recently Dageraad Brewing Company had a tragic malfunction of equipment which cost them a lot of beer. The outpouring of support from competing Breweries was truly astounding and heart warming as attested to by their Feb 3 Facebook Post. https://www.facebook.com/DageraadBrewing/photos/a.357774761030094.1073741829.347731945367709/822647061209526/?type=3&theater If Melinda were here and well, she would be so proud.
Craft Beer is also not what alcoholics drink to get drunk. Craft Beer is about the taste. It’s about the process and the collection of ingredients and relationships. It’s about punk rock music and hipster glasses and making the nerdiest cool again! If consumers are drinking to get hammered they are buying cheaper or higher bang– for- your- buck than what craft brewers have to offer. Those of us who are self proclaimed “Beer Nerds” or “ Brewpies” are in it for much more than the ABV. We chose to respect The Brew and treat it as a privilege that we can drink a true beer in our market today. We are not drinking it to get pissed but to build our pallets and to be a part of something that we can take pride in. At least that is why I drink it. I do however promise to keep myself “in check” Melinda, as you called it. I will quit from time to time just making sure that I can and I will encourage others, in the name of you my incredible friend, to do the same. I have felt so much guilt over this last year because I was not there for you the way that I had promised I would be. I wondered what I could have done differently for you to save your life…like just getting in my car that day and going to get you against your wishes…but I also know now that the choice was yours and I need to forgive myself now. I will never forget you Melinda Lee and the love that I am so blessed to feel through you today and every day going forward in my career. I have the privilege of being the one who gets to hear your sweet voice in my ear telling me to watch myself. I just wanted to share that message with my peers in the industry who may be questioning their dependence on booze in ALL avenues of their life. Thank you Mel for your lessons and light. I was listening…. and it will change my life and the lives of my children.
*side note: my brother-in-law Christian who took Melinda’s place in the cabin, died from an overdose exactly a week after Mel. He was 26. The kid who passed out Noxalone kits to junkies every day, had given away his very last one and there was no one there to save HIS life….He was also an amazing human being who I had the privilege to love….and he deserves his own article