Wednesday, May 22, is National Aboriginal Awareness Day - a day to celebrate and honour Indigenous cultures in Canada.
Here at CAMH, Aboriginal Services offers unique programs combining therapy with cultural and spiritual teaching. Each year the Aboriginal Services team works with more than one thousand clients. One of those clients is Tamara. Tamara learned at an early age that her spirituality and being connected to the Creator were important aspects of her life and culture. “I’ve always held on to my spirituality, it is the greatest gift my parents gave me,” she says. “My father instilled in me to be thankful for everything I have, he taught me how to smudge and how to rely on my spirituality when times got tough.”
Born in Winnipeg in an Aboriginal community, Tamara lived with her birth parents for a short while before moving around to three different foster homes during childhood. “My father was in a residential school when he was a child. From the abuse he endured from that experience, he became an alcoholic and couldn’t properly take care of me or my siblings,” Tamara says. “If you’re not taught a healthy way to cope, you use the easy way to escape which is drinking and that’s what my father did.”
At 14, Tamara started drinking. Though both her parents struggled with alcohol use, she didn’t think she would develop a problem. By 16, she had developed an addiction to methamphetamine that lasted until she was 20. “At 21, I was done with meth and thought I’d be okay, I didn’t realize my alcohol addiction was so bad.”
Tamara moved to Toronto at 21 and her drinking worsened. Losing many close family members in a short period of time, including her father and sister, caused her to continue drinking heavily. “I saw my family members die from drinking and I continued to drink. I knew I needed help if I wanted to survive.”
CAMH’s Aboriginal Service was where Tamara got the help she needed. In a 21 Day Treatment Program, Tamara, along with other Aboriginal women with addiction challenges, worked together in treatment groups that provided services based on Aboriginal values, beliefs and traditions. Tamara found the program extremely helpful. “Being around other Native women who were going through the same thing as me created such a nurturing environment. We learned from each other, had good times and used a lot of humour, which is something we do a lot in Native culture.”
The Aboriginal program, along with dealing with addiction issues, looks at the history of trauma in Aboriginal cultures and how that can be passed down. Many programs do not take this into account, but the CAMH Aboriginal Service understands the importance of addressing the various underlying causes of addiction and mental health problems. Tamara found it to be a great experience that was respectful of her culture.
Now that Tamara is getting the help she needs, she is determined to help people in her community. “I want to go back to Winnipeg and help other Native women with addiction issues, maybe create a housing initiative program to help people. I want people to know that there are ways to get help; if I knew there was help I would have got it sooner.”
Life has changed completely now that Tamara is clean. “I wake up happy in the morning. I see the humour in life and live with no regrets. I have a great support system and a better attitude about life. I’m hopeful for the future."
See Tamara's remarkable video below (video courtesy of TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin