Finding My Purpose as Someone Born Into Tragedy
Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
I could never figure out my purpose. To this day at 42 years old, I still question my self- worth.
I’ve been lent beautiful gifts; my angels, my family. I’ve been allowed to survive my living, sleeping and dying nightmares. Simply the clarity that comes with reaching this milestone of being able to tell my story to try to help others is monumental to me.
But there is still something missing and there always will be. Understanding what and why is up to me, there is no easy way. I have tried. With much resolve I make a choice to move forward regardless. This is the tragedy: that most of the damage to my soul is irreparable. That I was born into tragedy. That I had no choice. I am not guilty, and I shouldn’t be ashamed anymore. I do hope that at the end of this journey my image of myself will change for the better. Part of my survival has taught me that I am strong, spiritual, I have a voice and now I know that I have a choice. I will tell myself that I can overcome almost anything…
This is the story of how my life and the lives of those around me have been affected by colonialism and the residential school system in Canada. It is about how I survived colonialism and the effects of the residential school system on myself and my family. Unfortunately, my father did not survive and part of his story will also be shared later. This is the story of my reconciliation, my insatiable need to not give up but to instead look back, to dig deep, and to discover — to understand. I need to understand who I am really am, where I really come from and I need to go where I am really meant to be. I am on my journey to find my true identity, in the hope that I may have peace in life, unlike my father who died in vain.
I’m calling on those gone before us, my ancestors, for guidance, strength and a pure heart and mind as I share my story even if it only helps one person they will be one not lost. I’m calling on them to help me move forward, and to watch over me but mostly to help me understand who I really am so that I may be able to help others who still struggle. I want to wash away the loss and tragedy and I want to seek out and be filled with blood memories. Most of all I want to tell my story to help someone who may understand what I’ve been through, and by doing this find my true identity. Not the girl who is confused, hates herself and wants to self-destruct — not the damaged me. If I do this, my children might do this. If I learn who I am, then they will know who they are. If I can show them how, they will learn. If I can be strong now for them, they will survive being born into tragedy — just like me.
Before it is too late I must go back for one last look, to find my own reconciliation my own closure, my hope is to also help someone — anyone. In order to do this I must take the time to find and share my memories. I will write down and share with you my own blood memories. One of my earliest “memories” or pieces of information that was shared with me was the story of how when I was only a year old, my dad had been drinking. My mom, him and me and were at home at our apartment in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My dad had been drinking and was drunk sitting in his lazy boy recliner, when I was told that I had tried to stand (learning to walk I suppose), that I leaned against his leg and tried to pull myself up at which point he kicked me very hard and “I went flying.” In response, my mother, who had been washing dishes behind him, used the cast iron frying pan that she was washing and knocked him upside the back of the head.
Growing up this was supposed to be a humorous story. I mean when I was telling it I thought people would find it funny. This one instance alone is a very good example of how violence was so normal for me, how I was normalized and conditioned to violence and abuse. Since I never heard anything about my dad going to jail or being charged for this, I guess life carried on for a little while, but not for long, as my mother left my father around this time and moved over 700 kms north of Winnipeg. Years later I realize this was physical abuse, as an infant — what happened after this? I may never really know. What I do know is that 29 years later I would find myself living beside this apartment with a man who was very abusive when he drank. My own daughter was there also and this man was not her father. Four long and violent years later this relationship would end. His own parents attended residential school and he never seemed to get over being put into care at a young age. He also suffered a lot of loss and trauma. Perhaps in another life we would have stayed together, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Shortly after moving North where my aunt lived (my mom’s sister), my mother met a man who had a daughter of his own and she was the same age as my oldest brother. I have some fond memories of running, playing, laughing, most of all fond memories of my mother’s amazing greenhouse. I would slip away and sit in the corner of the greenhouse with the sugar bowl and pick fresh rubarb. I would pick the snap peas and the tomatoes, one of my favorite smells today is garden fresh tomato leaves… in times of hardship I will reach back to these sunny memories — a trick I learned and have practiced when dealing with trauma. These good thoughts are an “out” for me, however temporary. Although he was a big, strong man who cared for me as his own when my own father had been abusive to me, this did not last. I was saved and then it ended when he, as a recovering alcoholic, began drinking again. His own parents and grandparents had attended residential schools here in Manitoba. He had been abused all his childhood, and like my biological father, he also became the abuser.
I recall being awoken at night by screams, yelling, terrifying fights — my sister and I hiding in a closet waiting for it to end — waiting in the dark trying to be as silent as possible. In the end, I remember packing in the middle of the night while my mom held a loaded shot gun. She stood on the step as all of the kids loaded up what we could of our belongings in the middle of the night. We were fighting, fighting to leave and get to safety, our lives as always disrupted and ripped apart by violence and dysfunction. Later on in life I would go back to him as an adult, and until his death last year we remained in touch. I needed him, I needed a father figure. As he grew older he realized everything, and when I did show up or call he was there for me, but now he too is gone.
When we left we moved to where my mother is from and years earlier as a child had attended the community Missionary Day school that was run by nuns. There she had been forced to learn to write with her right hand as she was left-handed. Being left-handed according to the nuns, was evil and had to be unlearned, changed, forbidden. Also forbidden was speaking her language — Cree. If you did not obey you were strapped, this was normal punishment, and to this day my mother is ambidextrous. As a child I was not taught Cree, and this is why — she had been taught it was wrong, it was unnecessary, it was lost.
Some of my fondest memories are of time spent with my grandparents down the road from us. These were precious times. My grandmother was always in the kitchen, or helping my grandfather who was a commercial fisherman, hunter and a trapper. He was an amazing man. He knew I was fatherless, and he always took me under his wing. Later on in life when I asked myself who am I? Who is my father? It was him that I knew had been my real father, who had loved me like his own and unconditionally. I took his name as my own, and I have it to this day. He passed away from cancer when I was 14 years old and I miss him dearly to this day.
One time when I was deep into my cocaine addiction, I had been attending college and had reconciled with an old boyfriend. He always worked and always had money. He also always wanted me to find him drugs, and I mean a lot of drugs. We were using together at night and I attended college courses during the day. I eventually began dealing and using too much and lost control. My marks went from B’s to F’s within two months of being with him again and when school was over and the drugs and money were gone, so was he. He left me there after losing almost everything. I was abandoned, coming down hard and alone. This was the only time in my life I seriously thought of suicide. I wanted to die. I was alone in a trailer in the small Northern town where I lived, and I had dozed off while crying. I had been thinking of killing myself all evening, and into the night. I had a dream, in my dream I was in the same place and I left the bedroom and walked in to the kitchen. There is only an island width between the kitchen and the living room, and I walked through the kitchen to get to the living room. When I walked out my grandfather was sitting in a wicker chair in the living room, beside this island. He said nothing, he looked at me and smiled, and that is all. In an instant every single bad feeling I had inside was swept away, there was no more sadness, no more inner turmoil. It all just disappeared. His smile said to me, “It’s OK, you’re OK. Things aren’t that bad, just slow down. There is nothing you have done that means you need to give your life.” He had this mischievous little smile, the way he used to look at me. He always called me “kekepatis” or “kekepatiskwew” meaning “crazy old lady.”
He saved me that day, I can see him plain as day. He watches over me, this I know.
We remained in my mother’s community for a year or so living in the “mission house.” It was the home built for priests and our yard was shared with the graveyard and the church. It was while living in this home that my night terrors began, or at least this is when I have memories of them. My most vivid nightmare is still so clear, to this day it is it like I am watching a movie. I am sleeping on the living room couch with my mom (which I did often), and two men wearing long coats, hats and suits enter the room. They seem tall and well-dressed to me, with light skin. The stand over me. I had tried to wake up my mom but she didn’t respond. I don’t remember them saying anything, but they do force an orange powder up my nose, and I am paralyzed with fear. That is all I remember. This nightmare haunts me to this day at that time I was only 5 years old.
During our stay in my mom’s community, I was allowed to just be a kid. Thinking back, I must have felt safe with my grandfather so close. I had close cousins, some who still live there, and we explored, played, laughed, built forts and got dirty. It was awesome, but unfortunately short lived.
My mother applied for and was accepted into university in the city and I started grade two in the south end of the city. We moved into a housing complex walking distance to a school. The complex had a centralized playground and a little lawn area. I met many friends during this time and we lived there for about four years. There are fond memories I have from this time, playing in the playground, biking around the complex, listening to 80’s hits, and most of all those of my mother. When it was bed time my mom would sit in the foyer area on the floor with her guitar and sing all to sleep. She would place herself in the middle of all of our bedrooms and sing, I miss that. I grieve for that…
Life was not perfect, but it was good for a while. I made some close friends in the complex where we lived and at my elementary school. I spent a lot of time playing at the park and in the surrounding green spaces — I “cartwheeled” everywhere. These feelings of peace and being allowed to just be a kid and feel safe didn’t last, however. It began with a man who chose to target children, and he was waiting for me on our isolated fitness trail between my home and my elementary school one fall day. When I can around a corner and was ready to walk the balance beam that was part of the trail, there he was sitting with his legs wide open and his private area exposed. Shocked, my instincts kicked in and I ran. I ran as fast as I could. I didn’t know if he was behind me, but I did not stop. I found the nearest home, banged on the door, and when they opened it I began crying. The police were called and a short article warning parents was posted in the Winnipeg Free Press. It was shortly after this that my mom met a man who she would later marry. Meeting this man changed my whole life and me as a person forever.
He was a student at the same university my mother attended and was in Canada on a student Visa. He was very charming (so they say) and my mom, who spent most of her nights at home alone, was swept off of her feet. She was completing her own education during the day and singing us to sleep every night, all five of us kids. They moved quickly into a relationship and he insisted on marriage. He became my step-father.
There are bits and pieces of memories of him, but for the next four years he would sexually abuse me, even when my mother was in the next room. One memory, I was 9 or 1o years old, and it was daytime. I remember the lace curtains and the bright sunlight trying to peek into the room. I black out — the next thing I remember is reaching for the door knob and exiting the room. Without the leaving the details here, I still struggle with these memories today. I tried to have him charged when I was 24 when I finally told someone, but the prosecutor declined to have him brought back to my province to charge him. “Too costly,” he said. My step-father, who had tried to get custody of me during the divorce, had moved to the East Coast and was living with a woman with twin daughters. Based on current laws, he wouldn’t be brought back, he wouldn’t be charged and the woman and children that he was living with could not be warned or told what was going on. I was devastated, and it rocked my broken world even more.
I vaguely remember the horrible assault by him on my mother, which involved him chasing her out the front door with a box cutter knife, trying to stab her in the back — burying their wedding photo in the snow in our front yard. I remember the same trauma of feeling, hiding, being scared. He was gone a few nights after that, and then back at home, once again, my mom made changes which would eventually remove us from the city. My brothers went to their fathers’, and me, my sister my mother moved to an isolated community where she would have her first teaching job. My birthday is in September, after school starts. I was turning 11, and I had a slumber party with my brand new friends. To my horror, my mother allowed him there and I remember him unpacking bananas, bars, other “treats” for me on my birthday. I spent the entire night sitting on the basement steps as my new friends slept in the make shift fort in the basement. There was no way he was getting to them too… that was a long night.
During my childhood I was also molested by two very close family members. Somewhere deep inside I still blame myself it’s so ingrained. Through my years of counseling, trauma therapy and treatment, I have been taught this message to myself is oh so wrong. Funny how the mind works…
Throughout the years, I have a few memories of my father, my real father. He drank heavily and had numerous surgeries to repair damage done to his stomach from the alcohol. I would go to him here and there over the years. He never came to me. Well there was once, I was about 9 or 10, and he came to take me to buy a birthday gift. We went to Canadian Tire and he bought me a gold five-speed. He was drunk. I remember his slurred speech and his wobbly walk. I also remember the sadness in his eyes. He was ashamed to be drunk. I took him anyway. I was very proud of my new bike, besides I had no idea what “normal” was.
During this time I would have already been victim to my step-dad, as an adult looking back what must that have been like? This was my father who is supposed to be my protector. This anger resonated with me and still lingers somewhere to this day. I abused myself over many, many years. Drugs, drinking, abusive relationships, putting myself at risk, being reckless… if no one cared why should I care? I exist to be abused, I told myself. I am only good for one thing. I can control my pain, I can make it go away, I need more when the pain gets stronger, all my abusers are right. These messages and more I told myself over and over, and over.
By the age of 30, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and an anxiety disorder. Night terrors, heavy drug and alcohol abuse, flashbacks, physical illness due to stress, violent outbursts, extreme depression. This was me in a nutshell. However, I was a mother now, and I never loved anyone so much as I loved my daughter. At the end of my story I know now what my purpose is, to be here for my children. To stop the cycles of violence, to end my “curse,” to love them and cherish them and to tell them 500 times a day how much I love them and need them. As I write, speak in classes, volunteer, work in groups I get to meet, speak to youth who want to give up, I plead, “Please don’t take your life, there is nothing you have done that is worth sacrificing your precious life… please don’t give up just try to understand.”
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure