Five years ago, Eva Gregg was in the process of divorcing her husband. She was 45, and had recently moved from her parents’ into an apartment near O’Malley and Elmore roads.
“I had a window that looked over to O’Malley,” she said. There, in a pensive moment, she had an epiphany: “I survived 30 years of alcoholism and drug addiction so I could help other people. I asked myself, ‘How can I help them?’”
UAA would help her figure out the answer to that question, Eva decided, so she started looking for scholarships, applied for a Pell grant and then, in the fall of 2014, enrolled in classes that would move her toward the goal of earning a social work bachelor’s degree.
“I can offer empathy because I can relate,” she said. “I know what it’s like, I know that feeling of desperation, what it’s like to climb out from underneath the rubble.”
Healing the pain of losing culture
Just a few weeks ago — a week shy of Eva’s 50th birthday — she and UAA’s Paul Wasko delivered a presentation in San Francisco at the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ 8th Annual Forum on Digital Learning and ePortfolios.
There, Eva talked about her use of UAA Native Student Services’ and eWolf Program’s ePortfolios as a tool to engage Alaska Native (and American Indian) students in a cultural-identity project.
That project seeks to address and heal aspects of historical trauma, particularly the widespread practice in Alaska and the Lower 48 (from 1879-1974) of removing indigenous children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools that forced them to speak English, wear Western clothing, and behave as white Americans behaved.
The children and their families, villages and descendants all suffered consequences from that dislocation. Those children were forced to give up their language and culture; families and communities felt pain from the absence of those children; elders died, taking knowledge of cultural touchstones and practices to their graves.
Some people clasped their culture, inside, and somehow summoned the strength to weather the catastrophe, eventually returning home and weaving their culture’s rich subsistence knowledge, art, language and people back into their lives.
But many people who returned from the schools no longer had their culture to sustain them.
Some escaped their emptied lives by accepting a damaging culture soaked in alcohol and drugs and darkened by abuse and suicides — a bruised new culture their children and grandchildren absorbed into their own lives.
That damage afflicted Eva’s family, shadowing her life from its beginning, she said.
“My story will die if I don’t tell it,” Eva said, talking to a gathering of elders last year as she shared her life story, memorialized in her ePortfolio.
Into the abyss
Eva was born and grew up in Kotzebue. Drinking had always been a part of her life. Her parents drank; their friends drank; her friends’ parents and their friends drank.
“I didn’t know other people lived differently than that,” she said. “I’m a third-generation alcoholic and a first-generation addict. A lot of us are broken, for whatever reasons.”
Eva had been “in diapers” with the kids of a weed dealer who was friends with her parents. She first got stoned with friends when she was 12.
“There’s a playground at the elementary school with a curly slide,” she said. “We smoked a couple of joints up there.”
Eva was 14 when she and some classmates pooled their money and got a “runner” to buy them some Miller Genuine Draft. “I was one of those who drank until I was blackout drunk,” she said.
She was 17 when she and a boyfriend snorted cocaine and 21 when she took pain pills prescribed for a tubal pregnancy.
She smoked, drank, and got high to escape sexual abuse and bullying.
One of her father’s friends molested her for three years, beginning when she was only 10. Another of his friends started molested her, until one day he approached her after she came home for lunch.
“I was cutting up potatoes to fry,” she said. “I spun around and said, ‘If you touch me, I’ll cut you.’ He never touched me again.”
Another man tried to molest her, but she fought him off.
“By the time I was 13, I was 50 pounds overweight,” she said. “I figured predators wouldn’t find me attractive and would leave me alone.”
Four girls in her class bullied her, so Eva dropped out of school three weeks before the end of her 11th-grade year.
She worked at the daycare center, the AC store, the senior center, Maniilaq Association, and earned an entry-level accounting clerk certificate from Kotzebue Tech Center.
Over the years, she left Kotzebue and moved to Anchorage in hopes of being a better provider for her children: She had adopted a daughter, given birth to a son and second daughter, and then (later) adopted her older daughter’s son.
“I thought doing a geographical move would change my life, but it didn’t,” she said. “Not for the better.”
‘I knew I wasn’t going back’
Eva hid her addiction to alcohol and drugs for a long time. She was 28 when a childhood friend she’d been drinking with one night told her she had crack cocaine.
“I said, ‘I’d like to try that,’” Eva remembered. “She showed me how to get a good crack hit. I held it in. It went through my body like a rush. Halfway through exhaling the crack hit, I knew I was f—–. It was a pivotal point; I knew I wasn’t going back. I wasn’t going to be able to hide it anymore.”
She and her boyfriend bounced between apartments, her parents’ home and homeless shelters, over and over. One time, when CIRI paid an especially large dividend to its shareholders: “I spent $65,000 on booze and drugs that year,” she said. “I could not see past the end of the pipe.”
Someone called the state Office of Children’s Services and Eva faced the prospect of permanently losing her parental rights. She admitted having a problem, submitted to random screenings, attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She still figured out how to sneak drugs and alcohol.
“I used everything from Dec. 1-5, 2009; let my kids go here and there so I could have a free weekend,” Eva said. “I was still hungover Dec. 7. I went to a meeting and gave back the 30-, 60- and 90-day coins I’d earned [through AA] and told them I didn’t deserve them.”
That was Dec. 7, 2009. “I’ve not used anything since then.”
Eva’s two older children “carry the wreckage of their past in their souls,” she said. “I perpetuated the cycle.”
Growing a new life
Eva fought hard for sobriety and started rebuilding her relationship with her children. Then, she met a man. They dated, married in 2011, and moved to Palmer. Eva said he threatened her daughter, so she left him on Valentine’s Day 2012 and they divorced later that year. She came home to her parents’ and then, moved to that apartment with the window.
What did she find at UAA after that?
“This is my second rodeo here at UAA; I came in 1996-1997 and did horribly,” she said. “The one class I did do well in was psychology.”
Eva grew a nucleus of friends in Anchorage and then found a supportive community at UAA at Native Student Services — “That’s like home base for me here at UAA.”
She lost weight, discovered mountain hiking, kicked cigarettes and joined a Native dance group, the Anchorage Northern Lights Dancers — “It’s hard to sing Iñupiaq songs and dance when you can’t catch your breath,” she said. “Dancing is another way to fill my spiritual cup.”
She hopes to complete her undergraduate studies next year or the year after. Preparatory math and English classes helped her build a firm foundation to succeed in classes she needs for her social work degree.
Now, Eva is considering pursuing an associate degree in human services, and hopes someday to earn a master’s in social work and help others find their way toward peace, independence and fulfillment.
“I’m very open and honest about my recovery,” she said. “I want those barriers broken; I want those stigmas broken. I like who I’m becoming; I’m a force to be reckoned with.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage