For Our Readers in Alaska, the Yukon, and Other Intense and Isolated Environments

Over 25 years of living in rural Alaska (“The Bush” – Aniak, Pt. Hope, Rampart, Seward, Kodiak) gave me a lot of insight into why alcohol problems occur there – and how to resolve them. Summers in Northern British Columbia, The Yukon, and Northwest Territories told me that the underlying problems cut across geography and, sometimes, cultures.

What did I learn about myself and about you?

First, we’re not exactly normal folks to start with. After all, most of us came from somewhere else and, frankly, “normal” folks don’t move to Alaska or the Canadian North. Even those of us born there, like my Inyupik children, didn’t exactly grow up in typical western communitiesIn the psychological profile world, the middle of the “bell shaped curve,” the part that makes up normal, is missing. So, who are we? Pretty much the extremes. The smartest, and dumbest, the sickest, and healthiest, the best and the worst, the most andleast interesting. And why do we abuse alcohol? In that, we have many of the “normal” reasons – loneliness, boredom, anxiety – but also a few less common ones.

One of the most common questions I would be asked during my years in Alaska was how I managed the isolation. I’d reply that the isolation was easy – it was the enforced intimacy that was tough! Geographic isolation in tiny villages and small towns means everyone is forced to know way more about friends, neighbors, relatives, and enemies that anyone wants to. Further crammed together by climate (think 8 people in a 15′ x 20″ cabin with the temperature at minus 50 degrees and only a couple of hours of dim daylight) and you’ll begin to get the idea. In these cases, alcohol helps to achieve an isolating cushion from one’s immediate surroundings, a weird degree of privacy.

Of course other factors also feed the abuse of alcohol. Rural and coastal Alaskans were first exposed to alcohol by whalers, prospectors, and the military. Guess whose patterns they learned, adopted, and handed down as appropriate? Others, far from “home” and the constraints of family and community, abuse that freedom. Many villagers find alcohol abuse an acceptable excuse to depart from cultural norms and act out aggressively, sometimes violently. And no one gets called on it because this week is “your turn” but next week may be mine! For others the abuse is even more situational – it’s what I do when I’m “in town” away from the village or off the boat from the Bering Sea, or….. But it still all comes down to the same thing. Temporary and dangerous escape from the usual miseries that we can’t seem to figure out healthy, permanent ways to escape.

That’s where we come in. We’ve been there, done that. We got a grip, got a life, and left alcohol abuse behind. You can too.

© Copyright 2011 by Edward Wilson, Ph.D., MAC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • martha

    January 20th, 2011 at 2:35 PM

    staying alone isn’t much of a problem if you get out of home and see people outside and have a bustling nightlife and other things. but when there is nothing and your everyday is something like a vacation in some far off place there are bound to be problems.

  • XN

    January 21st, 2011 at 2:52 AM

    Yes,loneliness can promote the habit of drinking.But that will not happen if the person has healthy habits that are not detrimental to his health…
    Also,town community centers that organize indoor and outdoor games and town festivals can do a lot to involve people and deviate them from alcohol…

  • Stephanie

    January 21st, 2011 at 5:40 AM

    This is such a great article. I have always wanted to visit Alaska but knew that this was not somewhere that I could live. Too much isolation and cold and dark would NOT be good for my psyche!

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