A Devil that Kills

Book Review: Le diable sur mon épaule (The Devil on my Shoulder) by Sylvain Simard

By Colin McGregor

There are dozens each day, and perhaps one very close to you.

I counted the number of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Quebec on a typical Friday as shown on the website aa-quebec.org and found 201. Most take place in French, but they can also be found in English and Spanish. From the Magdalen Islands to Kuujjuarapik, from Magog to Rouyn-Noranda, the meetings begin at 7 a.m. and don’t stop beginning until 11 p.m. at night (« Le minuit Montréal » à l’Église Saint-Fabien, 6455 Av. de Renty, Montréal).

These meetings all have names, like “Brewery Mission Wakeup” and “5 O’clock Shadows.”

Seven days a week, there are alcoholics who seek the company of their peers in order to beat an addiction that is cunning, baffling and powerful. AA is an international movement – there are meetings in 180 countries.

That means there must be a lot of alcoholics in the world, including Québec. AA meetings are for those who admit they have a drinking problem. Imagine all the alcoholics who haven’t yet admitted it…

Sylvain Simard freely and openly admits his dependence. A high flyer in the Quebec media world, he worked in radio for over 35 years as an announcer and an administrator before opening up his own talent management agency. Most notably he was the program director of Quebec’s number one radio station, Radio Énergie in Montreal. And all that time he was a horrible problem drinker.

The Devil

He traces the story of his illness, because that is how AA conceives of alcoholism, in his book Le diable sur mon épaule (The Devil on my Shoulder). How did he manage to get by with his addiction for so many years?

In the media world, he explains, liquored-up parties are not unknown. Under the spotlight everything seemed to be going well for Simard. But in the shadows his life was dark indeed.

Born of an alcoholic and controlling father and a patient, saintly mother, his slide into alcoholism began when he moved away from home to study communication at Jonquière Cégep with a childhood friend. “Three days after our arrival,” he recalls, “there were initiations. I failed the first test. My punishment was to drink a huge can of beer… I came to realize that my body was able to consume big Labatt 50s at will.”

Overdrinking became his favorite hobby throughout his school years as well as afterward, when he worked in Rimouski, Trois-Rivières, Quebec City and Montreal. His blackouts, when he had no memory of what he’d done the night before, and occasions when he’d fall asleep in restaurant bathrooms alarmed some of his friends and colleagues. And yet, his charm and his efficiency at work saved him from the grimmest consequences of his behavior.

Personal Tragedy

An emotional man, he describes with frankness his successes and his failure. He experienced a profound personal tragedy when at the age of 26 he lost his first wife and their unborn child in a medical emergency. If you don’t shed a tear when you read this section of the book you are made of ice. His sent him into a tailspin of depression that lasted decades. He was lucky to escape with his life.

And throughout it all there’s the Devil sitting on his shoulder, whispering to him that he’s good for nothing and that alcohol will erase his doubts, his worries, his problems.

He managed to fool some people. His friend and client, Quebec media personality Isabelle Racicot, admits in the book’s preface that “I worked with Sylvain for 15 years and never did I suspect that he had an alcohol problem.”

Eventually, after years of excess, he found himself at a rehab centre, the prestigious Maison Jean-Lapointe, for a 21-day stay. It was in July of 2018, when his friend the former Alouette footballer Étienne Boulay and his in-laws came and fetched him one night from a resto-bar where he was very drunk, and, the next day, delivered him to the rehab. He finally admitted that his addiction had made him lose control of his life.

As a boy he had attended AA meetings with his father, who was a member. That first night at the rehab, he attended his first AA meeting as a participant. “Seated in the back of the room,” he recalls, “I spent the 90 whole minutes crying. At my side, a man and a woman, also at the rehab, tried to console me. But I couldn’t contain myself. I emptied myself completely.”  

A Trap

He’s not the only person to fall into the trap that is alcoholism.  According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, over 400 Canadians are hospitalized each day for drinking psychotropic substances, including alcohol. And Statistics Canada says that over 10 people die each day of alcoholism. Two thirds of these are men.

On a global scale, the misuse of alcohol causes 3 million deaths a year, which is over one in 20 of all deaths worldwide.

For Sylvain Simard, the consequences were devastating: “You can’t minimize the effects of this terrible disease. I often denied my alcoholism despite its constant presence in my life. I also denied the health problems it caused: stomach, intestines, headaches, overweightness. The more I enjoyed laughing and having fun, the more alcohol kept me in its shadow. My entourage put up with my mood swings, my impulsivity and my rudeness towards them. What I found the saddest, when I sobered up, was how I’d minimalized and trivialized the nastiness I’d foisted on others.”

Sometimes you have to reach the bottom of the barrel to realize that you’re in a barrel. That’s what happened in Sylvain Simard’s life. And he survived.  

That’s good for all of us, as we get to read about the roller coaster of highs and lows of a drunken media life, and perhaps draw some lessons from it. We learn that you don’t have to listen to that little voice inside your head all the time, especially when it’s the Devil on your shoulder.

Le Diable sur mon épaule by Sylvain Simard, published by Performance Édition

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