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A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Earl Joe's Story

Donna Panitow

Reprinted from "Aboriginal" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 5 (1), pp. 14-15

This story is extracted, with Earl Joe’s permission, from the full-length interview with Earl Joe that was used for making the DVD Aboriginal Journeys in Mental Health: Walking the Path Together

actual photo of earl joeTrauma and lost identity

Earl Joe is a member of the Spallumcheen First Nation from Enderby, BC, a community of about 800 people. He and many other members of his community grew up physically, emotionally and spiritually abused in foster homes and residential schools.

“I lost my identity as being First Nations from resident school, because they brainwashed us [into believing] that we were savages.” This led him to suppress his feelings until he was so numb he found it extremely difficult to express them. It was only later in life when he found a more effective healing path that Earl was able to feel again.

“I do a lot of crying just to release that anger and that bitterness,” he says. “There’s a lot of burdens that a person carries, a lot of hurts and a lot of painful areas of your life.”

A confusion of alcohol and depression

“I look back at my life—how I tried to destroy myself with alcohol—and all along I had this bipolar.”

Earl experienced depression earlier in life, but he thought it was because of his drinking. Later in life, however, he received another diagnosis. “Because I had this disease of alcoholism, I relied on that [diagnosis] for years and years, and I thought I had that until 30 years later. Then I was diagnosed with bipolar.”

He says, “I don’t want to take a whole whack of pills—it’s not me. I just want to zero in on that concept of bipolar, because that’s my master. That leads to my depression; it leads to alcoholism.”

“There are more better days today in the here and now, because I’m a recovering alcoholic . . . but I still have down days.”

“What keeps me going is my sobriety.”

Bipolar disorder—a scattered, twisted world

“I feel that I’m not a whole person,” Earl says of his bipolar condition. It’s “hard to explain because I’m all over the place, all over the map, and I feel like I’m all over the world, and living with this is very hard.”

Earl has general mental confusion and can’t properly communicate his thoughts and feelings. “You live in a scattered world.” Other symptoms he experiences are moodiness, restlessness, irritability and difficulty concentrating.

“I don’t even understand what I go through at times because it’s so messed; it’s so twisted mentally, twisted emotionally.” In order to understand his illness, he sometimes has “to sit back and get grounded and say ‘Hey, what’s the matter with me?’”

Earl goes through emotionally high states during which he is overcome with confidence and has extremely positive feelings about himself. He also goes through times of hyperactivity and sleeplessness.

But these times are always followed by disastrous plummets, so that once again he’s “stuck in that mesh of depression.”

Earl’s bipolar condition causes him to isolate himself a lot of the time. “Sometimes I feel like I’m nobody and that hurts, because it brings a lot of tears and I feel different from many other people”

He wishes others could understand the devastating nature of his illness. “Associating with my family, with bipolar—they don’t understand that I have this. Everybody thinks I’m weird. My whole community thinks I’m weird.”

Earl has seen how bipolar-related suicides have sent ripples throughout his community in the past. “It’s a deadly illness for anybody; it doesn’t matter what race you are.”

Moving toward health and wholeness

Earl recognizes that his bipolar disorder puts him at risk of suicide. “It leads to many dysfunctional feelings . . . and there’s times that I want to commit suicide because I’m not all there.”

But he also acknowledges that ne needs to reach out for help. “That’s a dangerous place . . . and I recognize today that I need to go out and get help for it; the help of treatment centres.”

“I want to be somebody who lives a healthy life.”

Seeing a therapist and taking medication to treat his bipolar condition are helping Earl achieve a healthier life. He also strongly recommends attending self-help groups and making use of any available community resources.

Traditional and cultural practices play an equally crucial role in his healing. “Just listening to the drums and the elders . . . that really helped me.” He also takes herbs alongside his medication and attends sweat lodges, which helps relieve stress associated with bipolar disorder and depression.

Simple physical exercise makes a big difference to his well-being, as does finding time for stillness. “I have to go for a walk or take time out and meditate and say my prayers, and that’s one of the ways that I can help myself.”

“I like who I am today, with the help of the teaching of the Elders.” They’ve helped Earl recognize that he is not a “nobody,” and that his bipolar condition doesn’t have to isolate him from the rest of the community.

“There are a lot of spiritual helpers out there to help you to walk through your painful journey—because bipolar is a very painful journey.”

In addition, family and community support are essential, as they comprise the backbone of the First Nation concept of being a whole person.

Earl advises people living with bipolar disorder to “go do things that you really like doing.” For himself: “I love to draw animals or listen to Native music that inspires me.”

He also urges people to “stay away from drugs, go back to your people, and learn your traditional language.”

Healing through helping

Earl aspires to be an addictions and substance abuse counsellor to help him stay on top of his illness and to help others.1 “It’s a deadly disease. What scares me is ending my life and I don’t want that. I want to go out and help my people. This is number one for me.”

He has accepted the challenges that come with bipolar disorder. “It’s okay to have this illness.”

About the author

Donna recently graduated from Simon Fraser University with a BA in Communication and Political Science. She is currently working as Communications Assistant at the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division


  1. Earl Joe has since completed the Substance Abuse Counselling certificate program at the University of the Fraser Valley. He lives in Enderby.

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