Updated: Jun 5
Arlene is a kind healthy indigenous lady in her sixties. Her parents were from two big Indian colonies spread around rural Ontario. She just retired from her caregiver job. As she said - “I spent all my life taking care of others. Now it’s time to take care of myself.”
Arlene couldn’t hold up the tears while she talked about her childhood. She spent 3 years in a residential school - a dark history specifically among North American indigenous people. “It’s not a school, it’s like a concentration camp to our people. My grandparents went there, my parents went there, and me and my sister, we had to go there too, no choice. It’s the law! And they didn’t teach us knowledge like in a school. They trained us to be servers. We did hard labor work everyday in school. That’s the only skill I’ve ever learned and the only job I’ve been working on all my life was caregiver. “
She has been in an abusive relationship for over 30 years. The only comfort was the love she shared with her three children. As she enjoyed the time with her beautiful grandchildren, the flashback memories of her own childhood kept haunting her. That’s the reason she came to me.
With the guide of progressive relaxation, Arlene let herself fall into a totally relaxed trance. I asked her to go back to a happy moment in her childhood. She said she’s on a canoe in a big lake. She was 5, and her sister 3. Both their parents were there too. Young Arlene had no idea where they were going but nonetheless she’s so excited to go on a canoe trip with the whole family. I asked her to see her parents. She said dad was focusing on paddling, not much expression on his face. When it came to mom, she flinched and I could feel the shift of her feelings.
“Why is she sad?”
“They are taking me and my sister to The School. She knows that she will not see us for a long long time. We are still so tiny. But she knew she had no choice. She’s been there before, so she knows what’s ahead of us. That’s why she’s so sad.” Tears trailed down her face from her closed eyes.
“Do you have to go to that school?”
“Yes, all my grandparents and my parents had been there before and now it’s our turn. It’s the Law. If they don’t send us there, they will be put in jail.”
That turned out not really a happy moment, but a moment she held deeply inside of her heart - The last memory of her innocent childhood. The next 3 years in School was a nightmare to her. They started working very early in the morning and went back to the dorm very late in the evening everyday. Any disobedience or imperfection would be punished rigorously. She can still remember how it felt when her palms were all swollen by splint whips. Meanwhile she knew she had to take care and protect her sister. If anybody felt sick in the morning, he would be left alone in the dorm all by himself until evening. She remembered the cemetery behind school and the small funerals that were held once in a while.
She was full of hatred during those days. She hated the School, she hated the staff who punished her and her sister, she hated her parents who betrayed her trust and left her there - She didn’t understand why the loving mom and dad could just dump her and her sister in this terrible place. She felt the strong responsibility for her sister since she’s the only one that her baby sister could rely on. She swore revenge, toward anyone who caused her suffering, including her parents. She said a lot while the tears just ran like a river. I put some paper towels in her hands in silence - Didn't want to interrupt her memory flow. I could almost feel the tears in my eyes to witness how a child lost her innocence by so much social injustice. It seems nobody should be blamed since everyone was just following the rule. Even the School stuff, they were just doing their jobs. But the young girl Arlene could only see what had happened, why it happened was beyond her understanding. I can feel the frustration and the vulnerability from a small child trying to against the whole system, the system that tormented their people’s mental health for generations.
Three years after she was there, the Canadian Government finally acknowledged the problems and dismissed the School. She said she’s lucky since many people stayed in this kind of school a lot longer than her. When her dad came to pick up her and her sister, she couldn’t recognize her father any more - 3 years is a long time for an eight-year-old.
She regressed back in time. She’s trying to run away from this big vague authority figure that was like a dark shadow lurking around all her life. Different scenarios, same figure. All the time she’s just trying to hide in vain. She said that man reminded her of this big guy who whipped her whenever she made any mistakes at the School. “He’s a bad man”, she said. This man feels like the symbolic figure of the rules mounted by the whole system upon generations of indigenous people.
She recognized the patterns in her life. Anti-authority, compassion. Protector - She’s always been the one who protects her sister. Problem solver - she was the go-to person whenever there’s tough characters in the facility where she worked before - That’s the skill she learned from the School. And endurance - In over 30 years she lived in an abusive relationship. She knew how to be a survivor. Unconsciously she utilized that skill and let herself live through all these years in a survival mode.
Arlene is such a typical example of how much childhood experience affects our lives as an adult. When she met her husband, her subconscious simply drew her to that aggressive type of man since that’s the only type she’s familiar with and knew how to deal with. She might like others as well, but she never learned how to get along with other types. She also knew how to survive, so when situation called, she brought herself on right away. It’s much easier and natural to just do what we were used to do, despite whether we like it or not. We react instead of act when we feel we are in danger. So for over 30 years, she unconsciously recreated her own life in hell - The price she paid for the 3 years she spent in the School.
Behind her closed eyes, I sensed a sad heart. Gently I whispered a story into her ears. “Once upon a time, a little girl went to a circus with her dad. After the show, they went to the back of the stage to see the big elephants. The little girl asks - ‘Dad, dad, you see that elephant is so big and strong, and that chain he’s tied on is so thin. I don’t understand why he didn’t break it open? Doesn’t he want to be free?’ The dad explained, ‘ Of course he likes to be free. Humans caught him when he’s very young and small. They leashed him with that same chain. He tried very hard to break free. But because he’s so small he couldn’t break the chain. So after a while, he gave up, he stopped struggling and allowed humans to do whatever they want with him, even now when he’s so big, he never tried again. He’ll never know that he can easily break that chain and be free.’ “ Arlene listened carefully and then said: ”I’m that elephant.”
I guided her into a future picture. Arlene saw herself enjoy being single with lots of friends and grandkids around, doing the things that she likes to do the most. She finally breaks free from the chain.
She had that peaceful and knowing smile on her face after she came out of the trance. Tomorrow is going to be a new start.