Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Friday, May 8, 2015

Joseph Boyden and Richard Wagamese Talk Mental Health

Richard Wagamese and Joseph Boyden at the Victoria Inn May 6.

They talked, laughed, joked, and talked some more. They told us straight what they had suffered, what they had learned.  I was taking notes as fast as I could but often I had to stop because the honesty and wisdom pouring from that stage was carrying me into my own journey.  I think the 400 people in the audience felt it too. 

Wagamese: For years he thought he was crazy, Despite his writing success the emotions were overwhelming. He called it a “tsunami of emotion” and he “would disappear down the rabbit hole.”  He used alcohol to kill the episodes of darkness. Many times he was drunk, unreliable, mean. He had only two feelings, anger and silence.  He was afraid that others would see into him, “see the truth that I thought was me."

But in 2003 his therapist gave his a diagnosis. He learned he had PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) and this diagnosis really helped him.

Wagamese was born north of Kenora into “a family who were survivors of the residential school system.” It was a “fractured community.” He was taken away  at 18 months old before he could speak and so he had no language to describe the experience, only sights and sounds. He was placed in three foster homes and the last was the worst. He suffered physical, sexual and psychological abuse. For years he was unable to make eye contact with anyone because he believed they would see the shame in his eyes.

When he left that place, he lived on the street. At 24 years old, he was “a mess,” but he could not explain it. The Ojibway elders called him a “disappeared one.” He had no traditional skills and he felt he did not fit in with others. But the elders told him that he was a story teller and helped him learn what that means. The traditional ceremonies helped him too and gave him strength as did therapy.

 He learned to deal with the discomfort, telling himself, “I can deal with this discomfort. I can move beyond it.” He stated that a person is never completely healed and something might hit you even after many good years. “A bit of brokenness can come and snap at you.” 

 Now Richard takes walks and talks out loud to the Creator. Now he writes wonderful novels and now he tells us what he learned. 

Boyden grew up in a large family. He was a withdrawn quiet child who loved to read. He suffered from depression and tried to commit suicide several times.  He worried about ridicule, but he stressed it is important to admit that you are damaged and broken. He even became depressed after winning the Giller Prize. His success was a burden.  He feared he could not continue to write. Now he tries to find youth who may be in danger of suicide and if possible help them. He hopes that his words will touch even one person. Boyden dislikes labels and says that so often, Aboriginal people have been labeled. He spoke about the stigma of talking about your mental health issues. You have to admit you are not perfect, you are not a whole man and parts of you are weak. 

Boyden's story touched me deeply. Like many women, I once suffered from depression. It was almost impossible to admit to it at the time. It took a long time to understand it. I had a tough time taking notes because I was being drawn back into my memories. 

The two writers gave the us, the audience, a wonderful gift of clarity and honesty. Thank you.






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