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A place of peace

The Health Arts Research Centre (HARC) at the University of Northern B.C. in the Northern Medical Program is exploring how art might positively affect health.
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Dr. Terri Aldred is a First Nations doctor who has dedicated herself to healing her people in northern communities.

The Health Arts Research Centre (HARC) at the University of Northern B.C. in the Northern Medical Program is exploring how art might positively affect health. The Art Heals series shows how Indigenous people, and their healthcare workers, have come to terms with emotional and physical trauma through a variety of art making in an effort to find a place of healing and peace.

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She can still feel her head bouncing off the floor boards at the hands of a boyfriend.

Dr. Terri Aldred, a Carrier member from the Tl'Azt'En nation, was able to move away from the violent relationships, the sex abuse survived as early as four years old, the alcohol and drug abuse in her teens and the lingering feelings of shame and guilt.

Aldred shared her message of becoming a rural doctor traveling in the northern regions of British Columbia to heal First Nations people in remote areas of the province during a panel discussion hosted by the Health Arts Research Centre at the Two Rivers Gallery last spring.

Aldred used autoethnography to write her paper, which is a form of self-reflection that explores the writer's own experience to connect with her culture. She used indigenous traditions such as beading, smudging, sweat lodges, dance and ceremony to help heal from her past and move forward.

Aldred believes art is the cornerstone to reviving indigenous culture, that connecting people with their roots is the start of the healing process, and in her eyes that makes health and art one and the same.

Aldred was born in Prince George and when she was seven moved to the Tachet reserve at Granisle.

"For me it became very evident that misery breeds misery," said Aldred. "The anger and the shame and guilt were very heavy in the reserve."

She believes that was a direct result of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse First Nations people experienced at the residential schools.

"When the children went home, they came back to a very different place compared to what they had left," said Aldred. "There was a lot of alcoholism and the children returned from residential school as strangers."

She says physical and sexual abuse is rarely talked about among aboriginals.

"Survivors of residential schools carried a lot of that abuse into relationships and to their children because they didn't know how else to be," said Aldred.

At the residential schools, girls were taught that sex was bad and to be ashamed of their bodies and who they were.

"That goes directly against our values," said Aldred. "Women were revered in our culture because we're the givers of life and that connects us to the Creator and Mother Earth."

In Aldred's family it was her maternal grandmother who was the residential school survivor who hardly ever talked about it and her mother grew up in what Aldred calls the angry generation.

"For a big part of my life I lived in poverty, we never had much but we knew our parents loved us and my mom always told us to be proud of who we were and that made a big difference."

When she was six years old Aldred was abused by a friend of the family and she was put in counselling right away. But it wasn't the first time she had been abused. It started at four years old, as far as she can remember.

"At first I didn't hold onto a lot of it but when I went to the reserve a lot of it resurfaced because it was very normal. Everyone lived in poverty and everyone was abused. Looking at my life it was pretty good because both my mom and dad were still in the picture and they both loved me. I was doing really well in comparison to a lot of my friends."

Life on the reserve changed how Aldred felt about life. She naturally just let things go but inside reserve life, she became a different person.

"There was a real tendency to grip onto anger and to use it as a justification for delinquent behaviour that made us feel better," she explained. "It was us against the world and I just think I became very angry and bitter about things that didn't bother me before and I felt very justified in my anger for years and I still don't think I have completely reconciled with it."

Aldred started drinking at 13 and when she was 15 her father sent her back to her mother in Prince George. Once in the city, she ran the streets with a rough crowd.

That continued until Aldred overdosed on alcohol and what she thought was a hash brownie. It turned out the brownie had been laced with a dozen different drugs including cocaine, amphetamines, and the date rape drug. When she regained consciousness in the hospital she was very remorseful having put her parents through the stress of almost losing their 15-year-old daughter. Aldred decided her life needed to go back to where she was comfortable and focus on her education.

Aldred continued to succeed academically and during her third year of post-secondary school, her teachers approached her after she expressed her dream of being part of an interdisciplinary traveling health clinic that would go into the remote reserves on a regular basis to care for the First Nations people. Her teachers told her that to achieve her dream it would be better for her to go into the medical program.

"I literally laughed in their faces - that's how comical I thought it was - I can't become a doctor. People where I come from don't become doctors," said Aldred. The teachers spent the whole next year trying to convince her she was capable of becoming a doctor. And she finally agreed to apply, a process that took about a year. In the meantime she went into pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Alberta and was accepted into the medical program at the university while she was doing her pharmacy practicum that summer. She said she was terrified she couldn't do it, terrified to have people's lives in her hands but she accepted the challenge.

Going into the medical program gave her the excuse she needed to leave the abusive relationship in which she was trapped.

"As I entered med school I did carry more shame and guilt than anything - shame for the abuse and feeling very guilty about the trouble that I got in as an adolescent and choices I made as an adult," she said.

Aldred said that included getting into romantic relationships that were really abusive physically, emotionally and sexually. That's where she carried the most shame and guilt, she said, because she thought as an adult she should have made better decisions.

"I thought I was stronger and better than that and I always felt really bad because it hurt my family and my friends so much," said Aldred.

It was a lot to process, she added.

"When I got into medicine, I connected with the indigenous community," said Aldred, who felt valued for her input from a community of people that knew exactly what she was going through.

During her studies she traveled to Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand and her experiences there seemed to align with everything she wanted to do.

After her struggles in her third year in the medical program where she was challenged at every turn by her preceptor, the specialist who trains students in practical medicine, Aldred said she internalized a lot of it. She felt just like she did when she first started the medical program with a lot of self-doubt and some lingering resentment. She passed all her classes and did everything she was required to do.

Then she hit a low point in her life.

Fortunately, a psychologist helped her on her healing journey by using the traditional medicine wheel and the four aspects of self that contribute to being well: physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health, Aldred explained.

As she grew stronger through counseling, yoga, healthy eating and exercise, she had a breakthrough during a yoga class and realized because she wasn't like anyone else, she couldn't follow anyone's path but her own.

Aldred needed time to figure out who she was without expectations of others influencing her. She started to further explore her roots, which meant connecting with indigenous mentors. She explored beading, smudging ceremonies and participated in sweat lodges. She decided to explore other indigenous cultures and made her way to Molokai, Hawaii.

During her few weeks there, along with learning the traditional storytelling method of dance, she was invited to be a participant in a rebirthing ceremony called umeke. During the ceremony where participants cleansed and created protection for a gourd that symbolically holds inner light, to finally emerge from the ocean - person and gourd - renewed and reborn, she felt a shift in her perspective. It took months to process all she learned during the ceremony but Aldred said she became a stronger, healthier person for it.

She learned to be kinder to herself and offer herself the compassion, empathy and consideration she had always extended to others.

"Indigneous ways, indigenous art and ceremony can help people be more healthy and I wanted to share that with people," said Aldred. "It was miraculous how things changed for me. What the ceremony did was it shifted the lens I was looking at everything through and helped me see things for what they actually were rather than what I saw through my own anger, hurt and shame. The ceremony allowed me to let go and move forward in a better way."

Today Aldred visits many remote reserves, connecting personally twice a month with many First Nations people. She also uses video conferencing through Telehealth for unscheduled consultation and continues to make meaningful connections with her First Nations community.

"I see now, looking back at it, the Creator had a plan and for me I needed to go through what I went through so I could become healthy and well enough to work with my people."

Editor's note: Christine Hinzmann won the 2015 Ma Murray Award for Online Innovation for her May 2014 story in this series on Jane Inyallie.