Like that old song says “there aint no cure for the summer time blues”. I remember very well what it was like being a teen in summer back home up the James Bay coast in Attawapiskat. I always had to work and that was good in a way because it kept me busy and out of trouble more or less. Still, when I was 16, 17 and 18 I wished that I could leave my dusty, remote rez and head out to the big world where cities with sky scrapers, thousands of people, cars, trains and planes captivated my imagination.
That coming of age time which is probably from 14 to 18 or 19 is remarkable. Everything was so intense for me and I was learning about my home, the world and myself in leaps and bounds. Hanging out with my friends was always the release and comfort I needed while I felt trapped working on construction projects with my dad, Marius. In a way I am thankful that my dad had a construction and cargo business that provided much work for myself and my brothers. Long hours at work kept me away from drinking and drugs for quite a while.
Still, I remember as a teen that my life was all about adventure, risk and wanting to fit in with the other teens around me. I had always promised myself from the time I was very young that I would never drink or get into drugs because of so much tragedy and horror I had seen in my community when I was growing up. However, no matter what my intentions were when I was a teen suddenly the idea of having a drink with the boys, going to a party or trying a joint seemed like an acceptable thing to do.
Of course all teens want to fit in and take risks and that is just a reality for most of us at that age. However, what we never realized was the addictive power of alcohol, drugs and nicotine. It was hard to believe that something that most people did on a regular basis could actually turn a person into a helpless slave. I survived a relatively long time with out joining in for the drinking, cigarette and drug experience but one day I decided to accept someone’s offer and that was it. My life changed from my experience of being a more or less innocent, wide eyed kid enthusiastic about learning, succeeding in life and reaching for the stars to becoming lost in drunken nights. Somehow I rationalized taking that first step and then keeping on that trail into some dark, lonely and very confusing days. It was terrible.
Lucky for me in the midst of this darkness a light came my way. A cousin of mine who had been to drug and alcohol treatment and taken a college program in Native drug and alcohol abuse had returned to the community and with the assistance of some others started an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group. All of a sudden I felt like someone had thrown me a life preserver as I was floating helplessly on a rough and dark ocean. It was difficult to make the move to attend my first meeting but I was helped by my cousin Ron and the small group made me feel welcome. Wow, I had a safe place where people were not judging me or stressing me out. We were all in the same boat and doing our best to follow the AA program and figure out what this addiction reality was all about. We had each other to count on and although life was not suddenly just a piece of cake it got a lot easier and slowly I moved back into a reality that was more sane. This was not a popular thing to be doing because most of the community was heavily involved in drinking and drugs and they were very negative and nasty to our little group because we threatened them.
I was lucky to have connected with some people that knew what I was going through and what it would take to get my life back. Soon after I got sober I had the opportunity to head out into the greater world and began my path as a writer, videographer and digital graphic designer. I chose to surround myself with sober people and I realized that I was one of those individuals that just could not handle alcohol or drugs and I got that. My life could have gone down many different trails that summer when I was 18 but lucky for me somehow I ended up on one that gave me back my life before I had gone on too far into the darkness. I have met many Native and non Native people over the years that have given me insight, education, traditional knowledge and provided me with the opportunity to write for a living. I owe so much thanks to my family for understanding and supporting me, my mom Susan and my dad Marius for being hopeful that I could have a good life, my partner Mike for leading me through the jungle of life and pointing out many of the traps on the trail. I give thanks to so many of the Elders I have met on my journey who shared some of their wisdom, culture and traditions with me. Meegwetch to all the Native organizations and groups that have provided me employment over the years so that I could write the stories of my people. I am also thankful to the media who feature my column and stories far and wide.
I know that many teens are going to have an intense, hot summer and I hope and pray that they think twice before they leave their innocent childhood behind and trade it off with a tumble into a difficult life. There are people you can reach out to in all First Nations that are sober and won’t ever judge you if you decide you need help. You can contact Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention (NADAP) Workers in most communities or if there is no AA, NA or traditional leadership to access then ask your community to develop these so that more of us can survive those critical coming of age summer time blues.
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I grew up in my home community of Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast and there were a lot of challenges living in the far north. As a matter...