Indigenous Persistence

Addiction, Shame & Philosophy

I wrote this in Foothills Medical Centre while awaiting a redo open heart surgery due to life-threatening complications that occurred after my first surgery only one month ago. I explain my situation on my GoFundMe which I initially opened for my first heart surgery, but I am now asking for additional financial support due to extended recovery. Please consider donating if you found this reflection helpful.

This is a personal reflection on my ongoing healing journey that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. I’ve had many people ask me for advice on how to overcome childhood trauma which is challenging to do in a brief conversation, and so this is an amalgamation of what I think the answer is at this point in my life. My story starts with a traumatic nightmare I had when I was around 8 or 9.

In my dream, it was the early hours of the morning and my parents were taking me into a mall. The mall was open but most of its shops were closed, except at the other end of the mall there was one open diner. The diner was just opening up for breakfast and still had no customers except for one waitress. From what I remember, this waitress was white with dark hair, had a ponytail, was a bit on the larger side, and she wore a baby blue waitress uniform with a white apron.

In the dream I was being dragged into the mall by both of my parents. My protectors, my whole world, dragged me into the mall while I cried desperately, trying my hardest to pull back from their strength as they brought me closer and closer to the lady in the blue waitress uniform. The lady took hold of me forcefully and strapped me into a wooden highchair as I continued to bellow. I cried, looking as my undisturbed parents ignored me, turned around, and left. As they continued to walk away I continued to cry in a panic, desperately calling for my mom and dad until they opened the mall doors and disappeared into the bright morning light.

I remember feeling desperate as they brought me to my new home. I remember feeling abandoned, unworthy and unlovable as they turned their backs to me and the waitress, and walked out of the mall.

The desperation is the same feeling I have had when I felt that I am going towards a life destination that will lead to a new way of living that is filled with abandonment and shame. Abandonment and shame is what I’ve spent my entire life trying to avoid.

I, like many folks, have tried to avoid abandonment and shame through vices like alcohol, drugs and sex. Drugs and alcohol are great coping mechanisms because you become numb and get a false sense of worthiness through associating with other broken people who are also consumed by their own fears. With sex, you’re sharing a very vulnerable part of you, and the passion of your temporary partner tells you, even just for a few moments, that you are worthy to them.

The only difference is that there is no love in these interactions, and you are often abandoned. I’ve been left by friends and family who I thought would always be there. They were there only for what purpose I served in their own numbing goals, and never because they actually cared about me and my well-being. My well-being has suffered greatly with people like this, people who all scooped up from my barely half-full cup and into their empty ones.

The Challenge of Love

I think what I learned in childhood was that love is a house of cards; a tense situation that prompts the fight or flight response. This fight or flight is eliminated with alcohol, drugs and sex, except any relationship or friendship worth fighting for is cultivated through love, which requires the work of navigating with the root cause of the fight or flight response. This root is the mean voice of “shame”, which is the fear of disconnection. This fear manifests itself through uncertainty and through having had adverse childhood experiences that taught you that the chances of you overcoming the odds and achieving reciprocal love are infinitesimal. The odds seem infinitesimal because our experiences with potential love as children (from our guardians/parents) were perhaps given and taken away, then given and taken away again and again, or maybe, like for me, conflict wasn’t taken care of in a healthy way in your household, and so our brains are prone to seeing love and relationships as a risky game worthy of anxiety. That anxiety, or that fear of disconnection, makes waking life seem almost unbearable because a world without love is then a world of distrust and fear.

Even when we do have love in our lives, we are afraid to lose it. The uncertainty of everything potentially crashing down before us is excruciating. It’s so excruciating that some of us avoid love to prevent pain, or to be anxious to lose love when we have it, and social sciences of attachment theory tells us that this way of feeling only further guarantees us a loveless world of distrust and fear because it pushes people away. When there’s no one left, what else can you do other than to cope? This is why alcohol, drugs and sex are so seductive, because they are the fast and easy way of getting belonging and worthiness without the risks involved with love.

This conundrum of needing love yet being so adverse to it (sometimes to the point of self destruction) can be resolved with a healthy loading dose of Indigenous and European philosophy, specifically Blackfoot and Stoic philosophy. Blackfoot philosophy is rooted in pursuing balance with the source of life (the land, the natural forces of life), and Stoic philosophy is rooted in the virtues of Justice, Wisdom, Courage and Temperance. These Stoic virtues are compatible with Blackfoot values because by engaging in wisdom, such as learning what you can and cannot change, what is right and what isn’t (i.e. justice), and knowing how much you should engage in something before it negatively affects you or others (i.e. temperance), and then having the courage to practice and embody all of that wisdom, then you are finding balance and congruence between yourself and with the external world.

This is easier said than done, and I’ll tell you why.

The Challenge of Self-Loathing

This is a life-long practice that helps develop your character, and therefore your resilience, and you can only develop your character during times of adversity. Adversity tests the limits of our wisdom and our ability to make the right decisions in order to sustain our balance and congruence with reality. We’re born balanced and congruent with reality, but the challenges of life show us when we’re not congruent, like when you make someone cry, you then learn that teasing can be harmful.

There is one barrier to embodying these virtues and values, especially for Indigenous people who’s adverse childhood experiences included incessant shaming (e.g. teasing, love withdrawal, conditional approval through the use of treats and other methods) which stemmed from the intergenerational trauma from residential schools, which is our inability to separate our sense of self from our behaviour and actions. Our actions, according to stoicism, can be good or bad in the sense that good behaviour is behaviour that is rooted in wise justice and wise temperance, however our sense of self is an indifferent phenomenon; the self cannot be good or bad, it just is.

If we judge ourselves rather than our behaviour, then we cannot effectively and efficiently embody Stoic and Blackfoot philosophy because it’s like a faulty connection which leads to self hate and self loathing. Self loathing over our poor decisions when we were faced with a challenging life circumstance (i.e. adversity) prevents us from learning and altering our behaviours in order to increase better life outcomes, such as real love; in other words, we feel that we are the problem that needs fixing, and not necessarily our unwise behaviour (which actually does need fixing).

This might be hard to understand because English doesn’t recognize this difference effectively unlike many Indigenous languages. Blackfoot is a language that, traditionally, had no way of shaming individuals, but rather moderated and challenged the behaviours of individuals. Behaviour and the “souls” or “selves” of individuals need to be differentiated if we are to embody Stoic virtues in order to find balance and congruence with reality.

The Challenge of Trusting Oneself

For me, the answer has been two-fold: (1) Understanding and cultivating my own mind and beliefs through establishing my own principles, and (2) learning how to speak up for myself.

I grew up as a pastor’s/missionary’s kid, and that role involved a ton of pressure to be perfect and to not cause waves with people. I learned to be quiet and to never talk back, but yet still be outspoken about “the message,” and so this prepared me to use my voice on important matters (such as this one), but it didn’t prepare me for my own independence when it came to dealing with mean-hearted people, or people who simply didn’t have my best interests at heart. I would believe their criticism, I would see a piece of truth in everything anyone ever had to tell me and I would absorb their messages. Absorbing those messages have led me deeper and deeper into shame (i.e. seeing myself as unworthy, self hatred). That shame would paralyze me and I would submit to their demands or accept their unfair statements about my character.

The lesson came in when I realized within the last year or so that no one knows me better than I do, and that no one’s opinion should matter other than my own. My own voice needed to then be cultivated: who is Spirit? What kind of person does he want to be like? What does he believe regarding certain subjects? I started writing a list of my principles where I would name the subject of my vulnerability and then use reason to make sense of the uncertainty associated with that vulnerability, and this would form my beliefs.

Early in my career of working with my community or other Indigenous community members, I really struggled with the vulnerability of dealing with lateral violence. Lateral violence was a subject of my vulnerability, and my reasoning provided me with this principle/belief:

Lateral violence is unavoidable because we were all raised with different biases against our own people due to colonization, such as the tensions of on- versus off- reserve dynamics, or rivaling families within the reserve. The answer, to me, rests in practicing and promoting trauma informed principles and restorative justice practices.

This practice of establishing my principles and my beliefs have helped me navigate situations that were once excruciatingly vulnerable by decreasing its uncertainty on me. Uncertainty was decreased because I knew what I knew to be true, and I could then rely and trust my own perspective instead of the perspectives and opinions of others. People who are laterally violent is still challenging, but it no longer had such intense power over me because I had my own understanding of it and I no longer suffered when I was confronted with it because, well, you don’t cry when a storm is coming, you simply take shelter from it.

It’s the same with stuff like lateral violence: you understand it, you expect that it’s most likely going to happen, and you outline your strategies to deal with it that helps you and doesn’t hurt others. This is where the Stoics and the Blackfoot values come into place: the strategy we use to deal with these types of things must follow justice, wisdom, courage and temperance, and through that we can find balance with nature (especially human nature).

Counselling and therapy, for me, have been great ways to understand and cultivate my own mind and my own beliefs. It’s really important because some of the vulnerabilities that I and many others face (due to childhood trauma) are really tough to work through on your own.

The Challenge of Being Your Own Advocate

My last solution that has worked for me is learning how to speak up for myself. As I mentioned before, I was not raised to properly defend myself, in fact anytime I had an issue on the playground or with the neighbourhood kids, my parents would always step in and I never had the opportunity to learn how to navigate those difficult conversations, or how to defend myself. I don’t feel that this made them bad parents but perhaps a bit misguided, because what parent doesn’t want to protect their children from that kind of exposure? Age appropriate life challenges and adversity helps show us who we really are and prepares us for the real world when we’re older.

After I served as student president at Mount Royal University, I really learned the importance of the skill of rhetoric and persuasion. Persuasion is an ancient skill that highlights logos, pathos and ethos. I won’t do a lesson on these topics, but I’ll explain what logos and persuasion have meant to me.

Logos or logic is a key concept in Stoicism and Blackfoot philosophy. Stoics look at the logic of how the world and universe functions, and works with it, not against it. The Blackfoot looks at what is good for the people, how it can help us adapt to the ever evolving and changing world that we live in, which is why the adoption of the horse was so important for us–it was necessary for our survival in a rapidly changing world. In its basic sense, logos is about looking at things and presenting ideas logically and functionally.

I encourage anyone to pick up a book on rhetoric and persuasion because understanding how to get your message across to others is such a powerful tool and practice. The practice of persuasion allows us to think critically about issues and how to increase the chances that we further our own self interests and well-being. Your interests might not immediately be recognized and affirmed by whoever you’re talking to because we don’t have control over what other people think or decide, but we can (ethically and justly) influence their perspective to hopefully see our point of view.

This might be basic stuff but, to me, learning the wisdom of speaking and persuasion has been healing for me. It’s healing because what I’m doing is ensuring that my inner child has an effective adult (i.e. me) that can efficiently protect and provide for him.

If this blog post helped you or someone you know, please consider donating to my GoFundMe as I recover from the complications of my first surgery so I can focus more on creating content like this that is helpful.

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