Memoir: I couldn’t shake the abuse and despair I saw on a First Nations reserve

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.

Email submissions to [email protected]