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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

How Flo got her groove back

TORONTO, November 15, 2016 - This is the story of a remarkable woman named Flo. But in many ways it is also the Aboriginal experience in Canada writ large.

Like so many Aboriginal people of her generation, she is 58 now, Flo was born into a world completely alien from that of her ancestors. Born on a First Nations reserve on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, she spent her entire childhood as a ward of the state in the care of Children’s Aid. She moved from foster home to foster home until she turned 18, never living with one family for more than a few years at a time. Her Aboriginal heritage, especially her spirituality, was drummed out of her as a young girl. She was taught to worship a Christian God that she came to believe was a vengeful and judgmental God – a God who had no time for a young Aboriginal woman in the throws of alcohol addiction.

“He was a fearful God to be scared of,” says Flo. “That’s what I grew up with. I think it left me just not caring. Not caring whether I drank or not. I’m just going to keep drinking, because he doesn’t love me.”

Aboriginal Service client Flo at a prayer circle smudge ceremony
Aboriginal Service client Flo at a prayer circle smudge ceremony with social worker
Barbara Hurford (holding the feather) and CAMH Elder Diane Longboat.

For the next 30 years, she continued not to care, not to feel worthy of God’s love. Somewhere towards the end of that period, the early death of a dear friend from alcoholism made her believe that she was next if she didn’t turn her life around.

“When I went to the funeral, all they could talk about was his drinking days,” says Flo. “I thought about my own death. Who is going to come and see me? What are they going to say about me? That scared me a lot. I wanted to make a mark on my life where when I died, I wanted people to have a fabulous memory of me and say she was a really good, honest, caring, lovable lady.”

She began to explore her Aboriginal heritage more deeply. She sought out Elders who taught her, for the first time really, the fundamental tenants of Aboriginal spirituality. That ultimately led her to CAMH’s Aboriginal Service, and an experience with the CAMH sweat lodge that became a transformative moment in her life.

“Going to the sweat brings me so much closer to spiritualism,” says Flo. “I was not a spiritual person before. I was a religious person. I started questioning (my Christian faith), and I started thinking that this (Aboriginal) spiritual being seemed a lot more loving than the white God I had been taught. I’m starting to feel much better about myself. Our spiritual being is loving beyond words. When you go to meet him or her, she’s not going to go over the terrible things you’ve done. She’s going to look at all the good things. She’s a far more relaxed, loving, trustful, peaceful, personal God. And it was this being I put my absolute faith in.”

Only then was she ready to take in the power of the sweat lodge, in which participants pray and are led in prayer while they physically sweat in the dark around a circle of hot stones.

As CAMH Aboriginal Elder Diane Longboat explains, the sweat lodge predates the addiction crisis in Canadian Aboriginal communities. Before the arrival of Europeans, Canadian Aboriginal people had virtually no experience with addiction. For the Inuit it was a simple matter of geography, living on the land above the tree line where nothing grew and there was nothing to get addicted to. Elsewhere in Canada, drugs and alcohol had no part in Aboriginal culture until they were introduced to them by early settlers.

In modern times, the role of the sweat lodge in Aboriginal cultures has been adapted to some extent to help people overcome addiction. But it remains in essence a spiritual experience.

“It’s an evolution of our healing process in a modern time,” says Longboat. “You are meeting the Creator and his helpers – the bear, the buffalo, the eagle and many other spirit animals. That was the same in the old days as it is today. Today additionally our prayers include mental health and addiction.”

Flo’s first experience inside a sweat lodge was not a positive one. In fact she vowed never to go back again.

“Back then I was still drinking and my head wasn’t clear,” she says. “I knew nothing about it and I was very scared. The total darkness, the drumming, everything.”

But as she continued her spiritual education, continued being counselled by her Elders, she came to embrace the raw power of the sweat, and tried it again at CAMH, which in June became the first hospital in Ontario to have an operational sweat lodge.

“The first time here was good. I really got a lot out of it. The second time was incredible. It was amazing. When you go into the sweat lodge you’re humbled. You’re drawn to the birth and the spirit world. You’re among the grandfathers and the grandmothers. And then your peers come in and we are all joined mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. I just experienced the absolute stillness and peacefulness and love, absolute love in there.”

Barbara Hurford is a social worker in the CAMH Aboriginal Service who has worked one-on-one with Flo during her recovery.

“You can’t walk in here as an Aboriginal person not raised in the culture and not connected with Creator and just go into a sweat,” says Hurford. “I’ve watched Flo over the years and what’s amazing to me is how open she has been to getting herself where she is now. The mainstream equates the sweat with more of a sauna-type experience. No it’s not like that at all. It’s a spiritual experience that has had a tremendous impact on me as an Aboriginal woman.”

In Flo’s mind, without that spiritual awakening that reached its pinnacle in the sweats, she would have never been able to get and stay sober. For her, reconnecting with her Aboriginal spirits taught her a concept she felt she had never understood… love.

“An elder asked me once, what do you love? Love?” Flo pauses to let the word hang in the air. “Love? I didn’t know nothing about that. That was a word I didn’t understand. So I just kept hanging in there. And I got further away from the drinking and I just kept walking forward I couldn’t go back. There was no back.”

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