Memoir: I couldn’t shake the abuse and despair I saw on a First Nations reserve
In 2010, I spent four months researching a book in Kashechewan, a troubled First Nation on James Bay with a population of 1,500. For such a small place, it’s riddled with problems. There are frequent floods. The high school has been on permanent suicide watch since 21 kids (including one nine-year-old) reportedly tried to kill themselves in January 2007. People suffer from malnutrition because they can’t afford vegetables: in Kashechewan, a cabbage costs $12.89.
I did my best to help—I cooked meals for children who came to my door hungry, and ordered vitamins for residents who couldn’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables—but it was never enough. There was nothing for the 14-year-old girl with purple cutting scars along her arms, nor for the kids who rubbed their skin with erasers until they were covered in sores.
I started having trouble sleeping. When I did manage to nod off, I’d dream of the people I interviewed—except in my nightmares, I was the one who’d been abused and neglected. I’d wake up screaming and bathed in sweat. When morning came, I found it hard to get out of bed. Eventually, I realized I was profoundly depressed. I left the reserve and came home, naïvely thinking I could just return to my Toronto routines, that the semblance of normalcy would fix my problems. But they only got worse. Little things required huge effort, and I easily grew distracted, drawn into thoughts of Kashechewan. Each memory triggered anxiety, anger and guilt.
My career started to suffer. I attempted to continue my work as a freelance journalist but couldn’t focus on my writing. I forgot appointments with editors, which I covered by fabricating family emergencies. My obvious dysfunction was affecting my reputation, so I quit writing and holed up at home. I began drinking every night—I’d start with a few shots of vodka, then guzzle whatever was left in the liquor cabinet until I blacked out. I rationalized my behaviour to my friends, and myself, by saying it helped me sleep. My girlfriend, who lived in Santa Fe, tried to talk me down, but I was too shaken to listen. I wanted her to drop everything to help me with basic tasks, like choosing groceries and deciding what to wear. After several months, we broke up.
And who could blame her? I was a wreck. I visited my family doctor but was too ashamed to mention my binge drinking. Two weeks later, as my insomnia and anxiety got worse, I was finally desperate enough to tell her the truth, and she diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. I was shocked—nothing I experienced compared to what the people I’d interviewed were going through. What right did I have to appropriate their suffering?
As it turns out, PTSD can affect people who’ve been confronted with the trauma of others, as though they experienced it themselves. I had all the textbook symptoms: intrusive thoughts, nightmares and dissociation. My doctor prescribed the antidepressant Effexor, which eased some of my inner turbulence.
My friend Jeff suggested I try mindfulness meditation, which he’d just started teaching out of his Kensington Market apartment. It offers techniques to disentangle memory and emotion, he told me. I was skeptical but desperate enough to try anything. At one of my first sessions, Jeff was away and a student was leading the class. “Open your hearts,” he chanted in an earnest baritone. “Touch the universe! Reach for the beyond.” With each cliché, I felt irritated and impatient.
I left the class worse than before, but Jeff convinced me to sit through a free lesson over lunch. He told me to focus on the heartache—think of it as the body’s natural way of expelling trauma, he said. Instead of panicking when pain arose, I should pay attention to it, observing and taking mental notes. The key was to learn how to isolate the physical sensation of pain, so I could experience it without terror taking hold.
Jobless and exhausted, I figured I had nothing to lose. I read as much as I could on the subject and discovered that, all the new-agey trappings notwithstanding, mindfulness is based in real science: daily meditation rewires the brain, creating neural pathways that help the practitioner cope with stress and anxiety. It also regulates emotions by shifting activity from the brain’s fear centre (the amygdala) to the rational prefrontal cortex. At first, it was hard to focus: when I tried to concentrate on my emotions, I had too many contradictory feelings to get a grip. But I found a technique that worked, one that encouraged me to regard my thoughts dispassionately, the way I might watch a reality show. Slowly, I began to repair the damage to my life—I stopped drinking and mended relations with my editors.
When I returned to Kashechewan earlier this year to finish my book, my nightmares and anxiety came flooding back. This time, I didn’t panic: I increased my meditation, reread my notes and stayed calm. Within two weeks, the feelings passed, and I was able to continue my work. It was a difficult relapse, but one that I needed. It was only then that I realized recovery didn’t mean eradicating my pain—it meant accepting it.
Alexandra Shimo’s next book, Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve, will be out in summer 2016.
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8 thoughts on “Memoir: I couldn’t shake the abuse and despair I saw on a First Nations reserve”
Actually, 1500 is fairly big for a FN community. I was surprised Kash had that many people.
The reserve system is an epic fail. The Indian Act needs to be scrapped, and most reserves need to be moved closer to centers where goods and services are readily available (as opposed to either an seasonal ice road or costly fly-in trip). And before people start hating..let me add, while those suggestions may not be the most desirable (in the eyes of FN’s people), it is a much better solution than living and existing in 3rd world conditions as many reserves do at the present. NOTHING will change until some of the bands and band councils make the decision to move entire reserves closer to larger communities.The much awaited ROF, that most reserves saw as the answer to their hopes and prayers will never come to fruition.The leadership of FN’s people need to make some difficult choices if they are to survive…and before anyone comments that it’s unfair to ask people to give up certain traditions they’ve had (hunting, fishing, trap-lines,etc.,), I ask “haven’t we ALL had to give up a few things in life that we wish we could keep?” Thank You…JMHO.
Thankfully Jeff was gently persistent! Great work Alex.
Why do Indigenous people not want to move closer to places where things are more available?
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the current lifestyle that Indigenous people lead. Feel free to go into detail, especially regarding how they have been treated by the Government of Canada, and why you think mainstream media within Canada chooses not to cover the stories about the missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Also, what is the ROF. I believe I’ve never heard of that..
Let me simplify it for you “Jorge”. No where in my post, did I say “the mainstream media within Canada chooses not to cover the stories…”, I’m curious to learn how you managed to come up with that summation? In fact…I never even brought up the issue of the “mainstream media”, YOU did.
Just an FYI Jorge, imo I happen to agree with the current Gov’t position, that any inquiry into missing and murdered FN’s women should be undertaken by the RCMP, the OPP, and other policing bodies, and not the federal Govt. The ROF, stands for.. The Ring Of Fire. Google it for yourself “Jorge”, and educate yourself on what it is, and why it will never come to fruition. I had stated in my first post, that the Indian Act needs to be scrapped–and if, if the reserve system had supported/valued it’s female population properly over the past few decades, then (I) speaking as a person that’s lived within spitting distance of a far north reserve, and has seen the despair of some of it’s residents…I can state that if the reserve system was/is so great, then you would have NEVER seen any of the female aboriginal band members feel like their only value, their only option, their only escape in life was to be a worker in the sex trade.I’m glad you asked for my opinion Jorge..it gave me a chance to clear the air. Sorry if you don’t like my opinion, but I’ve lived in the far north my entire life, and sincerely was NOT impressed with either the article, or the author’s “woe is me, must meditate more” attitude. Perhaps the author could spend a few years living up in the far,far north, THEN pen a non-fiction novel about reserve life for FN’s people. Spending 4 months out of an entire life is akin to a joke.
Hello Laura. I don’t know why you’re putting Jorge in quotation marks. Lol.
In regards to my question to you. I know you made no mention regarding the mainstream media. I simply asked what your opinion was regarding the media’s behaviour and lack of interest in the missing and murdered Indigenous women. It was a question I thought to ask your opinion since you seem very educated on Indigenous issues in Canada.
I completely agree with your opinion on the article, however. Four months? Imagine living there permanently. Imagine the reserve being the only home you know. I must admit, I have never visited a reserve and I would love to sometime soon. I’ve never really been past Ottawa. I’m just a university student who is very interested in Indigenous studies as well as the issues Indigenous people face in this country. Thank you for your response.
and thank you Jorge. Although we may not agree on some points, we both share the opinion that reserve life leaves a lot to be desired. Some reserves are quite prosperous, and do well for their band members… unfortunetly the standard seems to be examples like Kashi. I wish you well with your indigenous studies–it is the one area that all we Canadians need to be improved in.
Thank you very much. I appreciate that. And I agree, all Canadians SHOULD be educated when it comes to Indigenous studies.
I also wish you well, in life and in all your pursuits. Have a great day!
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