Skip to main content

Mental Health

Drawing from Métis Roots to Move Beyond Bipolar Disorder

Kim Bayer, MA

Visions journal, 2016, 11 (4), p. 21

For many years, I worked as a community support worker during the day, helping others with mental health and addiction issues as well as child welfare situations, dis/abilities and a range of other stressors. In the evenings and weekends, I wrote poetry and songs and played in alternative rock bands.1 After more than 15 years of this full schedule, I developed chronic anxiety. At the time, I dismissed the anxiety as nausea because I had no obvious worries in my life. Eventually, however, the nausea led to insomnia, and I decided to seek medical advice.

Diagnosis and treatment

My medical mystery took four years to solve: in 1995, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II. But my diagnosis was just the beginning. After I was diagnosed, I began seven years of lithium treatment. My recovery process was painfully slow, filled with starts and stops and a steep learning curve: not only did I have to learn about bipolar disorder but I also had to relearn all the other aspects of daily functioning, recovery and moving on. This, and learning how to navigate the medical and mental health systems, eventually became an all-consuming task.

Despite the fact that my health improved with treatment, I experienced a few setbacks, which led me to take a year off work while I continued with my music. Eventually, however, I experienced a complete physical and mental breakdown triggered by toxic levels of lithium. Out of desperation, I turned to alternative treatments, which included bi-weekly sessions of acupuncture with electrical stimulation, along with a combination of natural and medication therapies. With this new regimen, by the end of the first year, I had reduced my daily lithium dose by half. By the end of the second year, I stopped lithium and anti-anxiety/depression medication therapies altogether. I continued with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions provided by the public mental health system, and private sessions for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a non-traditional type of psychotherapy that focuses on the body’s rapid eye movements to alter our responses to negative emotions.

For several years after my initial stabilization, at the beginning of each summer and winter, I continued to experience a few weeks of insomnia followed by mild depressive symptoms. As this pattern had been with me from my teenage years, long before my diagnosis, I feared that I would never truly be free of symptoms. I also felt the effects of the trauma that results from years of recurring episodes: I both anticipated and feared the onset of symptoms. Recovery between each recurrence was slow and painful—emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting (a bipolar episode feels like having the flu: it's debilitating to the mind, body and spirit). I also felt that bipolar disorder took away the things that mattered most to me: during recovery, I had very little mental energy to focus on reading, let alone creative writing. My voice was tight and constricted, so I couldn't sing. Holding a guitar was also physically difficult; the weight of my instrument seemed symbolic of the medical condition that had brought my life to a grinding halt. So much for insomnia and all-night creative sessions: once these sessions had seemed so exhilarating, but I realized that eventually they all ended the same way—with the crushing immobility that comes with depression.

Rebuilding from Métis foundations

I knew that I had to rebuild all aspects of my life—work and play. One day at a time, as the saying goes. Within a few years, one course at a time, I completed a degree in psychology and then certificates in Aboriginal counselling and social services work. I then worked as a child welfare social worker. Ten years later, I completed a master's degree in cultural studies. All the while, the pieces slowly began to come together. I began running. First, I would run from one telephone pole to the next. Eventually I could run five kilometres, and then ten. I got a bike and rode everywhere. I learned that the world looks and feels different from alongside the road. This brought me new energy, a new perspective and the feeling that I could truly move on from the debilitating grip of bipolar disorder. Today, I continue on this way, whether it's one kilometre, one song, one poem or one academic course—it all fuels my overall goal of forward motion.

I also realize that nothing—not even bipolar disorder—can take away the things that inspire me. One of these sources of inspiration is being Métis. I can always draw from this. We have a beautifully vibrant culture, filled with stories of resilience and the teachings of Elders and people of all ages. Despite the challenges we have faced throughout our history, our artists keep our culture alive, through beading, crafting, poetry, stories and music. On days when I am stuck spiritually, emotionally or creatively, I draw from this rich tradition. I call one of my Métis cousins to say "hello" or attend a Métis community event. Even visiting artists' websites can take me back to where I belong, and remind me of my culture, my creativity and my resilience.

Setting new goals

Along with this newfound perspective, since I was first diagnosed and began recovery, I have changed my life goals. I still write and play music for enjoyment and because it is part of what I'm meant to do in this world. But now my goals also include education and healing work with Métis and all Indigenous people. There is still much work to be done. The need for this work can be traced back a few hundred years, as Métis historical experience has been shaped by loss. With colonization came the loss of Métis land and all that our land means: a sense of place, identity, language and family connections. This loss disrupted traditional teachings and knowledge sharing, family structure and the practices of hunting, fishing and gathering food. These traditions were supplanted by violence, abuse, addiction and disconnection, and we Métis lost our spiritual, mental and physical wellness. To survive, some families chose to assimilate. For others, assimilation was not a choice: it was an imposed reality.2

Today, Métis people embrace issues of self-determination. On a collective level, this means engaging in political advocacy for identity, rights and well-being, including social and economic development and health services. For example, in one Métis Nation health survey, depression and mental health issues were identified as a top concern.3 For this reason, the importance of sharing traditional Métis health knowledge, from Elders and communities, has significant and timeless value for both current and future generations.2 On an individual level, this involves rebuilding our connections to our culture and identity. There is a way forward!

For more on my recovery, please visit my poetry and music website, www.fractionsofdestiny.com. Here you will find Fractions of Destiny, my collection of poems about urban living and finding balance, and "I Am Machine" and Other Lies from the Edge, my latest book of storied poems about my bipolar disorder journey. As we say in Métis, Marsi! (Thank-you!)

 
About the author

Kim is Métis and lives in Vancouver. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master's in cultural studies. She has worked in early childhood education and as a community support worker, social worker and program manager. Kim is an Aboriginal Liaison at UBC. She writes poetry and songs, and plays guitar

Footnotes
  1. This article draws on material from my book of poetry "I Am Machine" and Other Lies from the Edge. www.fractionsofdestiny.com

  2. Métis Centre, National Aboriginal Health Organization. (2008). In the Words of Our Ancestors: Métis Health and Healing. Ottawa: National Aboriginal Health Organization. www.naho.ca/documents/metiscentre/english/TK_IntheWordsofOurAncestorsMetisHealthandHealing.pdf

  3. Métis Nation British Columbia. (2006). MNBC Provincial Survey (Health). www.mnbc.ca/ministries/health

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.