Healing While Indigenous

TW: This post discusses thoughts of suicide.

My emotional dam broke earlier this year and I almost drowned in my grief. It’s not something I planned on dealing with in 2021, or ever, if I could help it. All through the winter and spring I was choosing to be happy in a relationship with a beautiful man, blissfully ignoring the ocean of grief swelling behind the emotional dam I built. My dam is made from unrealistic relationships with men who aren’t ready to commit. You could say that my drug of choice is being in love. As long as I can be in love, I don’t have to deal with my grief and the difficult feelings associated with it. Love can save me from pain. If I’m busy in love, I don’t have time to question how my broken internal systems and false beliefs are contributing to my unhappiness, and I can just be happy. Until I’m not.

I didn’t date anyone seriously in law school because I didn’t have the time. Every day I poured myself into studying federal Indian law, learning about the rules men made to take everything from Indigenous people. The ocean of grief grew substantially during this time. As soon as I graduated, I wanted to experience the land I had spent so much time learning how to protect. I made plans to thru-hike the Colorado Trail, 486 miles through Ute ancestral homelands, which took the entire month of July, 2020. I was so happy to be on the trail, and I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do once I finished. 

Thankfully, I didn’t have to try hard to figure it out. I met another hiker on the trail and let myself be absorbed into his life. His trail name was Over-the-Top, and we spent a blissful couple of weeks together before he told me he loved me, just as we approached Creede, Colorado. Less than 24 hours later, he left me alone on a porch past midnight with three drunk conspiracy theorists and a gun. I forgave him, and moved to California with him after we finished the hike. Not long after we arrived in California, I realized that I had made a huge mistake. Over-the-Top drank more than I was comfortable with, and he ignored and avoided my desperate attempts to try to work out our issues. I packed my car and left him after a miserable, heartbreaking month together in California. I stayed with a friend near Lake Tahoe until I could figure out my next move. 

I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do.

I was lost and heartbroken and I didn’t know where to turn. I decided to drive out to Tulsa to visit friends. While I was visiting Tulsa, Chris, my high school love, popped back into my DM’s and my life.  

Chris had accomplished what he set his mind to so many years ago; he became a successful professional musician. Over the past 10 years, I have seen his band play every time they came to a city near me: Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Washington, D.C.. The love I had for him when I was in high school was still strong over ten years later. Because COVID-19 shut down his band’s touring schedule, he was living in a cabin 3 hours from Tulsa. We were both single, and I thought it was a perfect time to see if the spark was still there for him too. 

It was. Chris and I picked up right where we left off. I was so excited that we finally had time and space to let our love grow. I quickly fell back in love with him, as he was just as funny and brilliant as I remembered.

“Darrah, I love you,” he said on a beautiful fall day. “I’m in love with you, and I never need to love anybody else.” It was exactly what I wanted to hear. I took him at his word, and we began talking openly about getting married and having children. I rented a house in Tulsa to stay close to Chris. Because I work remotely and his band wasn’t touring, we were able to travel to see each other often. I had persistent dreams that we had a daughter together. In my dream, her name was Charlie and she was born in a hogan just before dawn. 

If this were a movie, you could insert a love montage here. We spent winter days playing cards and frying corn cakes in front of his fireplace, walking in the woods, playing music, and browsing antique stores to outfit my new home. In the spring we dug a garden and talked about our careers next to waterfalls in the Ouachita forest.  

I loved our life together, and I loved Chris for so many reasons. It was a deep love full of music and laughter and wit. But a few months into our relationship I began wondering whether Chris would be able to fill my emotional needs. I knew that I wanted a committed relationship, and he began avoiding conversations about commitment in ways that made me feel insecure about myself and our relationship. I hoped that he only needed time to figure things out, so I decided to be patient. 

In the midst of my relationship woes, my Aunt Tammie, my dad’s sister, died of COVID-19.  A few weeks later, my Uncle Harvey died of the same virus in the same hospital under the same doctor’s care. The blows kept coming, and I began to fear the buzz of my phone, as it only brought bad news. “Your cousins have COVID.  Your great aunt has it.  Your mom and brother were exposed.  We think grandpa has it.” I watched the virus explode on the Navajo Nation from across the country.  I watched this disease work its way through my family, and take some of us with it.  I wondered when it would be safe to go home, and who would be left to greet me. I berated myself for not spending more time with those we lost, and those I could lose at a moments notice. My grief continued to grow, and it was increasingly difficult to ignore it. 

I wondered when it would be safe to go home, and who would be left to greet me.

As soon as I could get vaccinated, I went back to New Mexico to be with my family. It felt so good to see them and know that they were safe. When I returned to Tulsa, I was eager to see Chris after we’d spent a month apart. I was so ready to be held, to share stories, and to laugh with him again. 

But before we saw each other again, Chris ended our relationship.  His method was both abrupt and harsh.

“Darrah, this might be hard for you to hear, but I’m just not attracted to you,” he said.  “You don’t give me butterflies. Dating you is like dating a sibling or a cousin.” Then he hit me with a deep, emotional uppercut: “I don’t think you’re even in love with me.  You’re just in love with the idea of me.” 

These were the exact words Angela, the abusive youth minister, used to gaslight me so many years ago. My body became a lightning rod of fury. 

 “Don’t tell me what I know.” I said, as calmly as I could. 

When the conversation finally ended, my unraveling ensued. Once again, I had fully committed to someone who would never commit to me. My perfectly constructed emotional dam crumbled, and I could no longer ignore the lifetimes of grief and hard feelings behind it. I spiraled downward hard and fast into the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced. Once again, the harsh words and beliefs that Angela instilled in me 10 years ago flooded my head. They blended with Chris’s words, bleeding into every dark crevice of my head: You are not good enough and you should have tried harder. You are not attractive enough to be worthy of love. You did everything wrong and you deserve to feel this way. You’re not a good enough girlfriend, sister, daughter, niece, or person. You should be ashamed of wanting deeper connection, and you were foolish for pursuing it.   

These thoughts and the feelings that accompanied them made every moment of every day a struggle. I felt the weight of the world on my chest, and I couldn’t take a deep breath for weeks. My stomach felt like it had a clamp on it, cinched tight, making it impossible to eat. I couldn’t open my mouth to say something without beginning to cry, then sob, often for hours at a time. I lost weight and hair and my grip on reality. It didn’t matter what day it was, or whether I lived to see another. Every time I drove through an intersection, I silently hoped someone would run a red light and end my life. It was a very dark place to exist, and I was terrified and ashamed of my own thoughts. I knew I needed help to survive. I started talking to a new therapist through Indian Health Services and got on an antidepressant. My mom flew out to care for me. My brother flew out to sit on the porch with me while I cried. Friends sent food and text messages to nourish me and check in. I spoke to my boss about my mental state, and she worked with me while I adjusted to my medication. 

Very slowly, I started to sort out where my feelings were coming from. I gained a deeper understanding of how Angela’s abuse affects my attachment style and the way I show up in relationships. I began reading about the personal effects of intergenerational trauma and how it affects my family dynamics. Up to this point, my family story had always been very matter-of-fact in my head. My life story was simply a collection of facts:

My elders were sent to Indian boarding schools.

They didn’t teach their kids to speak Navajo.

I wasn’t raised in traditional Navajo culture.

I was raised as a Christian in a border town where people called me and my brother “halfbreeds”

My ancestors are Europeans who moved here for a better life and called themselves Americans.

Americans enslaved, hunted, murdered, and tortured my Diné ancestors.

My Diné ancestors murdered, enslaved, and tortured Puebloans, Utes,  and others.

My youth minister in high school abused me.

I repeatedly give everything to men who treat me poorly.

But they weren’t just facts anymore. They were traumas that had been waiting to be processed, and I no longer had a choice not to. Chris breaking up with me in such an unkind way was the tipping point: the excruciating pain of rejection broke my heart open. Grief came crashing down on me, and I had no choice but to stop my life and feel it all. So I did. I fucking grieved.

I grieved the deaths of my aunt and uncle.

I grieved my Diné k’é that COVID-19 took because of inferior healthcare.

I grieved the brokenness within my family, my people, and myself.

I grieved being an English speaker.

I grieved the land that was taken and is being destroyed. 

I grieved the thousands of children who were killed viciously and died alone in religious, government boarding schools.

I grieved my relationship with Chris.

I grieved my dreams of Charlie, our beautiful daughter who will never exist.

I grieved the version of me that was not abused by Angela in the name of God.

I grieved everything I needed to grieve.

Today, I am still grieving. The emotions have been powerful. There were many times I thought I might not survive them. I had to learn how to humble myself and be vulnerable and share my “shameful” truths with people who love me. I had to learn how to ask for help and trust my family, my friends, my therapist, strangers, and my boss with the information that I am not ok. I am unlearning how to ignore grief and hard feelings until they nearly destroy me. Instead I am learning how to find balance by harnessing powers greater than trauma: healthy love, family, friendship, connection, the ancestors, the energy of the Universe. 

Healing is worthwhile, and I am worthy of healing

Healing intergenerational, historical, and religious trauma is not an easy task, and it is not my idea of a good time. The work is ongoing, and can be gut wrenching at times. But healing is worthwhile, and I am worthy of healing. Religious trauma will not be passed on through me. I am learning how to cope with inter-generational and historical trauma in a healthy way, and someday I will teach my children to do the same. With help, I will learn how to have a genuinely healthy relationship with a partner who has healed from their own traumas and knows how to communicate with me respectfully. I will forgive those who hurt me, and I will forgive myself for giving them the opportunity. This I know for sure: I will continue to heal, because healing is the most badass, anti-colonial, revolutionary thing I can possibly do. And I’m doing it!

3 thoughts on “Healing While Indigenous

  1. That is an amazing post. Some of the aspects really apply to me. Luckily not the most painful ones. Thank you for being so open.

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  2. First if all thank you for being brave to share your story. You are a survivor of grief and trauma. That so many are not able to fantom. Many ppl keep themselves drowning in the negative coping as you described (love is my drug of choice). A lot of things resonated for me as you shared and I seen similarities to how I carried the burdens of the pain and trauma.
    I hit rock bottom when I found myself all alone as you described. I healed my traumas through my education. I started working on myself when I started graduate school for mental health counseling. I had a whole family through this journey and could not focus only me and on my healing. Every opportunity arised at school, I had worked and faced the pain I endured. I remember being stripped naked from pain and felt like a helpless woman. The thiugh of being a mother, wife, and the significant roles helped strengthen me. I also had a great cohort that helped and fostered me through ever step.
    I wish I could write more bout my duty calls. I just want to say “Thank-You” for allowing us to hear your story. Your got a powerful story, may the Creator be with you and may you walk the corn pollen way from all directions sister. I leave this with you.

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