Reprinted from "Aboriginal People" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 5(1), pp. 17-18
As a Métis man with bipolar illness, I have worn a mantle of shame—a sackcloth of self-loathing, fear of exposure and a deep sense of failure—for most of my life.
My Métis family has had roots in Western Canada since the 1780s. As half-breeds, we were always in denial of who we were and our proud history. Our greatest hero, Louis Riel, was at that time held to be a traitor, and we felt the scorn of the white community.
As an Aboriginal, I seem to have acquired this sense of shame very early in my life; I always felt second-rate. Poverty and the way we lived, scrabbling a living from unyielding stony ground, reinforced my feelings of worthlessness.
And, as a young boy, I was sexually abused on several occasions by a drunken neighbour woman. I was ashamed and too terrified to tell my father and mother, because I knew I’d be beaten for making up stories. My father was a violent alcoholic who delighted in physically and mentally abusing my mother, my brother and myself.
In hindsight, it’s clear to me that my bipolar illness manifested itself in my youth. Intense emotional outbursts and feelings, compulsive talking and dark days of hopeless despair were the cycle of my life. I was taken to a family doctor once or twice, but no firm diagnosis was made. The doctor told my parents I’d “grow out of it.” What “it “ was, was never explained to me. And though no professional ever labeled me “retarded,” my parents put that handle on me.
By extraordinary will power (many of us bipolar sufferers have it), I was able to function somewhat in the world. Though I was called “disruptive” and “uncooperative” in school, I maintained above average grades. School, however, was a pressure cooker of adolescent emotions and feelings that I couldn’t bear—so I quit.
I went into the construction trade, because it was “manly” and I didn’t want my father to say I was weak and stupid. I come from a cowboy family where no one was ever allowed to say he was tired, hurting or just couldn’t cope.
I married young and in four years we had three children—all boys. I wasn’t prepared or equipped to be a father and sank into deep despair. I turned to alcohol for relief from these intense feelings. For a time, it did banish the despondency and gave me a feeling of peace and a heightened sense of self worth.
Alcohol, in its addiction, is the great remover. It can remove a little stain from your clothing, a feeling of nervousness when in stressful situations, or the anger that arises from frustrations on the job. In my case, it removed my wife and job and any mental stability I’d had. Eventually, it almost removed my life.
When I was teenager, I attempted suicide and it was dismissed as youthful rebellion. In my late 20s, I diagnosed my self as hopeless and insane, and one night, after an unusually intense day of feeling despair, I decided to end my life.
In my insanity, I was unaware that my wife—terrified by my behaviour and threats of suicide—had called the police to our home, then had fled. My memory of this event isn’t clear, but I was later told that I had a shotgun in my hand. Maybe I wanted to go out in a blaze of gunfire. When I heard a loud pounding on the door, I suddenly believed that a group of low-lifers I’d fought with outside the bar earlier that evening had come to get me. I fired up into the air—and then the front door crashed open. All I could make out was hands holding guns pointed at me. Someone opened fire and I felt the bullets strike my body; it felt like a punch that hurt deep inside, then a tightness and a burning sensation. I went down in pool of blood and was soon surrounded by police with very worried faces. I wanted to die. A white light filled my eyes and I passed out.
This may sound trite, but I did journey toward that light—it was a place of peace for me—at last. But somehow I knew I couldn’t stay there.
The next thing I knew, I was conscious of was a voice saying, “Breathe.” I sucked in a big lungful of air—and was in the back of an ambulance with sirens screaming, on my way to the hospital. There, I underwent surgery to patch up the damage the bullets had done. My right arm was shattered and I lost most of my right kidney, my entire left kidney and about three feet of bowels.
Turning to the light of hope
My healing journey has been long and difficult.
After the shooting incident, a three month period in the hospital began the healing of my shattered body. Later, locked in a jail cell awaiting a bail hearing, I cried out in despair and anguish, asking God to help me. I finally became willing to let Him take me to better things—I had come to a place of readiness to deal with my alcohol addiction and mental illness.
When I was released on bail, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) became my place of recovery. After my trial and serving 13 months of a two-year sentence for assault with a weapon and endangering the life of a police officer, I stayed close to AA and the program of recovery. My mental illness, unfortunately, did not respond to the medications given me upon release from prison.
Fourteen years later, living in northern BC, I was still falling into cycles of depression and mania. I was diagnosed with all sorts of things, from dysthymia (i.e., chronic depression/low mood) to having a severe personality disorder. No medications were prescribed, save for a brief regime of Prozac.
Finally, while attending university—18 years after being released from prison—a psychiatrist at the regional hospital psychiatric outpatient clinic reviewed my history and came to the conclusion that I had bipolar illness. This was the first time that an accurate diagnosis of my illness had been made. Unfortunately, the antidepressants and mood stabilizers he prescribed triggered profound depression and a third suicide attempt.
After my 10-year second marriage ended, I moved to southern BC and was referred to a psychiatrist who specialized in bipolar treatment. A new regime of medication was prescribed—and my life changed. The emotional intensity that had been so much a driving force in my life became manageable. The profound highs and lows of mania and depression became smaller bumps.
Recovery was still slow until, in later years, I dealt with the issues of my early life. Professional counselling helped me release the dark demons that drove me, and at last I was able to walk in the light of hope and peace.
Even though I’ve undergone many dark days of despair, I thank the Great Spirit for all the paths I’ve walked in my journey of self-discovery. I am of Aboriginal heritage and honour the ways of my Métis people and put that knowledge into my life to serve my fellow man. Not every day is perfect: there are still periods of depression and mania in my life. But I’ve been given the skills to cope with and survive the illness that would destroy me. I no longer wear the rags of shame, but walk with my head always turned toward the light. And I walk proudly.
About the author
Ron was born in St. Laurent, Manitoba, where his family ranched, and he spent his teen years in Winnipeg. After working in the construction trade, Ron majored in First Nation Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia. He now writes for outdoor magazines and a Canada-wide Métis publication