Sarah Treleaven seeks out someone who has gained wisdom and insight into how to live a happier, more fulfilling existence and gets their best advice.
This week: Journalist and author Richard Wagamese’s life was dominated by trauma from an early age, as he was neglected by family members and foster parents and later became an alcoholic to cope with the unpleasant reality of his upbringing. In his new book, One Native Life, he chronicles his path to recovery. Here, he discusses how a move to a cabin near Kamloops helped spark the healing process, and how to make peace with the past.
Q: What role did your move from the city to a country cabin have in this thorough examination of your past?
A: Leaving the city behind allowed me to connect to the land again and it opened up a spiritual conduit I had missed for a long time. The simple act of walking on the Earth, being with Her on a regular basis, is a healing relationship and it strengthened and enriched me. The consequence of that was an ability to look at my life in a healing and strengthened way. It made the writing possible.
Q: How has an examination of your past led to healing? Did you sometimes think some things were best left unexamined?
A: I used to look at my past as bleak, despairing and sad. So long as that was the lens I used to look through, it was all I could see. But with therapy I learned to look for the lessons in it, the light, the moments when something or somebody or some circumstance brought me to a higher level or changed something for me. When I used that lens I saw my life as a marvelous combination of contrasts – and learned that it was the contrast itself that was the healing. There are, of course, a number of things that are not touched upon in the book. That’s not because I felt they should be left unexamined, but rather, they’re far too personal to share at this point in my life.
Q: In what ways has the terror you’ve faced – at the hands of relatives, foster homes and adoptive parents – shaped who you are?
A: The trauma (a better word since terror admits a relinquishing of spirit) made me a loner and in that solitude I discovered writing and storytelling. In the end, through healing from it, I became a gentler, more forgiving person.
Q: How did that trauma lead you to “choose hurt over joy”?
A: When you’re wounded in that primal sense, as an innocent, you become addicted to the idea that you deserve no joy, no love, no success. So I went through my life choosing hurt because it was familiar, what I was used to, what I knew.
Q: Tell me a little about your problems with alcohol. How did you eventually overcome them?
A: I drank too much for too long too often. I drank to be numb, to disassociate, to disappear. I never ever had a drink to be happy. Never. It was always to make something go away. When I drank the last time I remembered the pain, trouble, hurt I caused in the lives of those who loved me and I did not want to do that to someone again. I stay sober on the memory of the hurt I caused. I stay sober on a commitment to living the opposite every day of my life.
Q: Has your work as a journalist offered opportunities for redemption? How?
A: Journalism has allowed me to write about my life and to be honest about my failings as a comparative tool to the issues of the day. It’s allowed me to get over the shame of it all and to learn to see it as a healing thing in the end. I’ve been able to present myself as a “learned” person by virtue of all I have experienced and it has given me freedom.
Q: Have you made peace with your past? Do you still carry any anger over the things that have happened?
A: Anger is a non-empowering emotion and I have no time for it. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is elevating and allows us to get to a higher level of consciousness. I’ve learned to forgive myself and others and there is no longer any need to be angered over things I could not and would not change these days.
Q: “Acceptance is an Aboriginal principle.” What role has acceptance played in your ability to heal?
A: The most spiritual word in the universe is “yes.” It means to be able to see the world and people for exactly what it and they are. It means yes, there are painful things, yes, life sometimes hurts, yes, I would choose other eventualities, yes, I am sometimes overwhelmed – but YES I would rather live this way than any other, Yes I can accept this, Yes I choose peace over struggle. Acceptance, in the form of yes, allows me to live freely and well.
Q: The book is a collection of columns, but how would you describe the core message?
A: We’re all neighbors. We are all one soul, one spirit, one being and we need to reach out and talk to each other.