For years, I provided the soundtrack to a million brain-numbing buzzes.
For two decades, I was gainfully employed as one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most popular exports: the excellent folk pop party boy band Great Big Sea.
That success came at a cost, though. It’s a story that involves addiction — and overcoming sexual abuse.
I’m now 52, and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, but I have to wonder how I now fit in with the “Newfoundland brand” I once worked so hard to sell.
First, let me tell you about where I came from.
I was born in Carbonear and my people come from Gull Island and Northern Bay.
When I was two years old, my dad got a job in the “city state” of St. John’s so I was raised a townie but we always kept our hearts close to where we came from.
My grandfather Jeremiah McCann taught me how to clean a fish, cut and haul wood, and handle a dory, essential skills for any self-respecting bayman to possess. He had spent the vast majority of his 98 years on this earth labouring as a fisherman, carpenter, coal miner, and swiler to spare his 16 children from starvation.
He was a gentle and quiet man with hard-working hands swollen as big as his head and even in his old age local “hangashores” were careful to keep their distance. Whenever I introduced him to my friends from town, instead of asking where they were from, he would pose the far deeper question, “Where do you belong?”
Selling the ‘kitchen party’ brand
Great Big Sea was born out of the collapse of the cod fishery in 1992 and the subsequent lack of employment opportunities at home, our big little local band decided to give the music business a go.
Somehow, through shared determination and some very good luck, we managed to build a lucrative career singing traditional Newfoundland folk songs and selling the “kitchen party” brand.
We sold almost two million CDs (remember those?) and hoisted at least double that many “sociables” at thousands of soldout shows all over North America, all the while extolling the many virtues of Newfoundland and Labrador and inviting everyone to visit.
A great many did, and for a time we were hailed as the province’s brightest ambassadors and even bore the tourism campaign logos on our tour bus.
In truth, this was no heavy burden because we were all genuinely proud of where we came from and eager to help promote the fledgling tourism industry as an economic offset to the devastating loss of our fishery.
We sang our hearts out every night preaching the Newfoundland gospel and for 20 years we were arguably the best Saturday night Canada ever had.
The dark side of Saturday night
Unfortunately for me, every night was Saturday night.
I am an addict and for 30 years I used alcohol and drugs to help me forget a painful past.
I was sexually abused by my priest as a teenager and I carried that secret around inside until it almost killed me.
It wasn’t until I sobered up and faced my truth in 2011 that I was finally able to move forward and slowly recover.
Séan McCann wrote the song One Good Reason based on the conversation he had with his wife Andrea in November 2011, when he realized he needed to stay sober:
My sobriety was hard won and came with some serious side effects.
St. John’s is the Canadian equivalent of the legendary New Orleans of Louisiana and its reputation as a hard partying town has been well earned and definitely deserved.
I certainly did my bit bragging about the benefits of its prolific pub scene and spent most of my nights home bar-hopping with my drinking buddies.
When I finally put the bottle down these “friends” were nowhere to be found. My phone stopped ringing and I was left alone.
A lust for liquor was apparently the only real thing we had in common, and as an alcoholic living in St. John’s I found it very difficult to make new friends who were willing to support my alcohol-free lifestyle.
This isolation, I have learned, is a common side effect of sobriety encountered by thousands of addicts before me.
Life at work was no less lonely, and although I managed to remain sober on the great big bus for our 20th anniversary tour in 2013 (an achievement for which I shall remain forever proud), the tension it caused would ultimately prove too much to bear.
For the sake of my family and my own recovery, I walked away from my extremely well-paying job and the only home I ever knew and, at the age of 48, relocated to Ottawa to start all over again.
I have no regrets.
The hardest decision
Aside from actually getting clean, leaving Newfoundland was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Four years later I am still sober and I still have my family … and my life. Change is never easy but often necessary for survival. This is especially true for an alcoholic in recovery and I am grateful for all the new friends I have made along the way.
Through it all, music has remained my constant and faithful companion and I still earn my living doing what I love to do most; singing and sharing my truth with others so they too might learn how to help themselves.
Today I sing a different kind of song.
It’s not about partying in the kitchen and drinking your troubles away, but about doing the hard work of actually facing your problems and trying to overcome them.
A secret can kill you but a song can save your life, and I intend to make sure every single song I have left in me is sung with that purpose in mind.
It’s been fully 25 years since I last toured rural Newfoundland. When I was invited to speak at this year’s Provincial Student Leadership Conference, I saw an opportunity to share my experience with local teenagers in the hopes of sparing them from the life of addiction I endured and was lucky to survive.
I’ve travelled this country as a keynote speaker for the past four years, sharing my story and singing my heart out for tens of thousands of addicts, survivors, and frontline workers who have, in turn, shared their own stories with me.
It is a powerful connection and one I never take for granted. I have learned that people drink and use drugs for reasons and my own addiction began as a direct result of the trauma I suffered from sexual abuse as a teenager growing up in Newfoundland.
I know exactly how it feels to be young and in trouble, alone and afraid, and I hope my experience will help today’s youth cope with the problems they too will face.
I also know how incredibly easy it is to develop an alcohol dependency in my old hometown.
Immune from scrutiny
Drinking has become engrained in Newfoundland’s cultural identity and enjoys a certain immunity from local scrutiny and concern.
But it is no less dangerous.
On Nov. 9, I will be eight years sober. Recovery has shown me my true voice and I have found the best version of myself singing and sharing my truth openly with people.
I was once very lost but now I know exactly where I “belong.”
Today I sing a song of sobriety, survival, and sharing personal truth. I still wear my Newfoundland heart on my sleeve with pride everywhere I go but now my “ranting and roaring” is all about recovery.
I love you, Newfoundland, and I miss you very much but I can no longer be your kitchen party poster boy.
I hope we still have some songs left together to sing.
Séan McCann will be touring Newfoundland and Labrador in October, with appearances in Corner Brook, Placentia, Marystown, Clarenville, English Harbour and Twillingate.