I’ve been on a journey of exploring myself that has taken me away from engaging in this work through writing. And while it was actually frustrating to me for a while despite the enormous changes and healing moments I achieved without writing, I’ve arrived at a peace within myself over it. I have long been aware that, as a person with dissociative identity disorder, about half of my life (especially my first eleven years) is completely absent of memories beyond a sort of singularity snapshot—like someone took a photograph at specific moments in time, and though I understand how old I was in each of them, and what was happening around me (or to me) and my relationship to each party immediately present in those moments, I have had nothing else to relate back to. Just a single photograph representing entire years of my life.
And there was a time that I could remember vastly less than I do now. These stills of my life at different ages were overwhelmingly negative, as these were often moments of intense and acute physical battery, psychological or emotional abuse, or sexual oppression. I remember a time that I held onto very few of these memories, struggling to grasp meaning from my life with just a dozen or so of these snapshots to piece everything together in my hands, and not one of them had a redeeming quality. It was as if the abuse itself became a constant humming in the background of my entire life. A sort of white noise that I had never not heard, that most of the time I could (had to) tune out just so I could move forward. A continuous humming that was normally tolerable but would suddenly become deafening when the same abuses I experienced in my childhood became my present-tense reality in my adult relationships. And, oh, how very many of these relationships became retraumatising — it didn’t matter what kind of relationship it was, either. My ghosts of the distant past simply kept coming back, slowly at first and mostly in my dreams. Then the nightmares would come. And then my every waking moment was the same terror I could not remember except for a single photograph.
Over time, the abusive episodes I experienced in my dysfunctional adult relationships and the few psychologically isolated events in my grasp from my childhood combined into a sort of soft rain of photographs constantly falling in the back of my mind. It made sense of the humming. And of the thundering crackle of old traumas recreated in the present tense with a simple substitution of the people involved. It gave me a context I didn’t have, with which to understand my weariness of being worn down. It helped me to see that a dark cloud did indeed follow me, and that I was trapped in a storm that I didn’t understand how I fell into. It gave me a sense of awareness and direction that I had never had, that motivated me to start searching for any little break in the storm. A glimpse of the sun—any glimpse at all, even if it was momentary. And I found that first glimpse when I picked up a camera and began to engage with the world the way I have engaged with my entire collective of memories. Suddenly, my world did not seem so consistently plagued by the storm. I could find patches here and there where the sun was allowed to touch my face. I could give myself hope.
Very gradually, between my camera and my psychotherapist, my entire paradigm shifted. Probably several times. And very gradually, memories I had lived without for my entire life as I know it began to return. Most of these were also overwhelmingly negative at first, but even that changed. I also began to see a more objective perspective on some of my most persistent memories (as well as some that later returned), that made already horrible memories seem that much more violent. But this was accompanied, at least eventually, by details that never stood out before but were not violent. The colour and smell of the flowers my mother grew in a tiny plot below the living room window. The trees we once had all over our front and back lawns. Fishing with my grandfathers. I now realise that I began to try to relive many of these memories with my camera in hand. Perhaps to try to balance the nature of that constant soft rain of abuse in the back of my mind with something—anything I could hold onto.
And so I found myself engaging a wide variety of events with my camera. I would take it to events where my friends played beautiful, inspired, passionate music. I would take it to pow wow (and stopped much sooner than I would have thought when I first began, but probably not quite soon enough). I even took it to concerts. But after a while, I realised that there are some moments in life that are not intended to be captured in this way. Pow wow was especially instrumental in teaching me this. These moments, once they are passed, were never meant to be revisited in a photograph or even a video. No means of photographing or recording will ever capture the fullness of these moments. A camera will always fall short of what it is to have experienced it. And it is OK to have been there, or not, because other moments will inevitably arrive, just like the deafeningly loud moments in which I relived my childhood abuse an adult, but which are overwhelmingly positive reminders of these events that were only meant for that moment — like the goosebumps and hair raising on your arms when you’re outside in that perfect summer rain, and thunder cracks directly overhead, and lightning spreads across the entire sky for as far as your eye can see, for only as long as it would take you to blink. A moment like my memory photographs, but a moment that was just for you (and maybe anyone lucky enough to be with you at the time) and just for that moment.
I was arriving at a place within myself where my desire to add my own photography to that steady rain of falling memories in the back of my head was waning, and my desperation to be able to cling forever to moments that are simply gone once they are passed was superseded by a confidence I have never known before just a couple of years ago, that I can be emotionally present in those moments when they happen and allow them to them pass without fear of losing them forever the next time I become emotionally dissociative. And though someone had tried to kill me very recently at the time, and I was becoming increasingly agitated by regularly reliving this event while I worked on a victim impact statement as the trial approached, I was still finding these special moments, and a few worth photographing, along the way. This is the time in my life when I was invited by someone I felt I could trust and later bond with, to attend sweat lodge ceremonies.
For those who don’t know anything about sweat lodge ceremonies, you are not about to read about them, because I am not about to tell. What I will say, however, is that my experiences both inside the lodge and for the first few days and nights following each ceremony have caused a great shift in my entire paradigm, emotional landscape, and the nature of my dreams, in ways that I do not believe Western medicine offers the means to achieve. These ceremonies are sacred traditions, of which I know very little, because these are not my cultures of origin. And while it is true that in at least two of my cultures of origin (Scottish and Jewish), there have existed, or even presently still exist, roughly analogous ceremonies through which spiritual cleansing is achieved with hot stones and (life-giving) water, it needs to be said that these are traditions which originate from a whole other continent. Being an ethnic Jew and Scot in a sweat lodge structured around Cree and/or Lakota teachings is not participating in my own cultures of origin. It’s participating in a sharing of teachings from Cree and/or Lakota traditions. It is a privilege, not a right, and one that I do not take lightly. And so, for the time that I had been attending regular sweat lodges, I rarely—if ever—sat down to write, and couldn’t justify to myself, finishing most of my very infrequent writing for online publishing.
But now I find the need to return to my healing through writing. I have not been in a sweat lodge since the late Fall last year, and Summer is now approaching in some of the places I seek out — and it’s already arrived in others. And if I am honest with myself, the reason for this actually began the very same day I was invited to attend those lodges for the first time by someone I felt I could trust and even bond with. I just wasn’t strong enough, grappling with emotional dissociation at the time from my very intense anger towards the man who tried to kill me as his trial (and thus, an event that almost guaranteed I’d have to look at his face again while maintaining my composure) creeped closer and closer, as well as a deeper feeling of low self worth that had persisted since my childhood, which was clearly in conflict with my feelings and this event in my life. With so much noise in my head, I couldn’t isolate the sound of that constant humming in the background enough to pay attention to it. To listen in on it and see if it was getting louder again. And this is essentially what it is like to move about the world, having a lifelong history of abuse, while emotionally dissociated.
The person whose path crossed with mine, who extended the first invitation I have ever felt safe enough to accept, to attend sweat lodges, was the person running them. We found out we had a lot in common, and we learned this about each other very fast. Lightning fast. We bonded with equal speed and intensity over our common ground, and began engaging almost daily in cultural exchange in privacy, while also engaging in sweat lodge ceremonies every two weeks. The only times I missed a lodge was when I was travelling to engage in cultural exchange with someone else in another territory, several hours’ travel time away. She became a close trusted friend to me, and I to her. For two people who have been rejected by our own biological relatives for as long as we can each remember, it was hugely important how much we shared in common, that we could understand without even saying, and that we could fill in with broader perspective when we did need to say. And sometimes we clashed. Sometimes things needed to be said that were beyond a simple clash. And sometimes things escalated to a breaking point. Always, we worked towards a resolution that we could both live with. That is, until we couldn’t.
What I had to offer in these exchanges with her concerns cedar bark weaving, leather work, and beadwork. Though weaving specifically with cedar bark is not from my cultures of origin, weaving is nevertheless a global tradition, with local signatures dependent upon available materials and styles that meet the demands of the environment. I have had the good fortune of learning cedar bark weaving from two different teachers from two different cultures of origin, though at the time, I had only had one teacher. A similar story applies to both my leather work and my beadwork, for each of which, I have had only one teacher. At the time, I had not yet begun working my own animal skins into raw hide or leather. What I received in these exchanges included a lot of teachings and perspective from the several traditions she had been exposed to over (roughly) the past 30 years; as well as some refinements and adaptations of my existing skills, to work with raw materials (some of which were new to me and some of which were not) to make certain kinds of ceremonial items. She also involved me in certain aspects of the sweat lodge ceremony, and gave me some responsibilities in that respect. My dreams took on a completely different character than I have ever known before, and it is equally important to me when she helped guide me to honour the gifts I had received through these experiences, as when she ridiculed me for similar or ignored them entirely.
I often felt like I had found where I was finally appreciated and respected, but continued for various reasons to struggle with my feelings of worthiness. I felt like I had a community, but still recognised and even openly acknowledged a pattern of emotional compartmentalisation that I was not comfortable with, given my history and my mental health problem. I felt like I had a responsibility to share what I had learned through my exposure to different cultural teachings (if and when I was solicited by members of my newfound community), but recognised and vocalised that my exposure is inherently limited by my relationship of my race/ethnicity to my teachers’ cultures of origin (and even by my teachers’ relationships to their own cultures of origin). I also felt like I had a responsibility to remain humble and quiet about what I had been exposed to, but I also felt pushed into essentially proselytising about it to this community, in forcibly confined fragments that were easily consumed in a single sitting. I felt like I had found a safe space to process my feelings and let much of my harshest emotions go without hurting anyone in the process, but I began to experience things right in that space that violated the intent with which I entered it — some of those moments were dismissed as “something he/she/they triggered in you” rather than how I actually experienced those moments, and some of them were just straight-up unnecessarily harsh outbursts in which literally no opportunity was presented for me to try to resolve my share of the matter in the moment.
There were other things going suspect and downright foul, too. For these things, there was always a previously formulated hand-waving explanation ready. If I received anything I did not directly ask for, which would normally be understood as a gift by any other standards, I was required to offer “protocols” or an “honouring gift”. This requirement was sometimes stated as an explicit demand, but most often, it was stated more passively, like “you can make your protocols/offer your honouring gift when you decide/know what that needs to be.” For instance, I was unexpectedly given a so-called “spirit name” (more on that another time, perhaps) on my birthday, like almost every single person in this particular community was/is given at one point (some of whom explicitly asked for it), and when this “spirit name” was given to me, I was told on no uncertain terms that an “honouring gift” was expected of me by the next sweat lodge ceremony after this name was announced before the entire community at the upcoming lodge. Everyone who received one of these names was told this, often in front of several witnesses (but sometimes in private, by someone who was directed in front of several witnesses to instead explain this reciprocal requirement on her behalf at a later time). We were told that this is “traditional protocol”. And who were we, with half as much life experience on average, to question the validity of this teaching?
If I received something I did explicitly ask for, I was also required to “offer protocols” (sometimes in addition to an “honouring gift”). While I agree and have experienced from people of several different cultures of origin, that when one asks a person they look to for guidance or as an elder for a teaching or a medicine or for work to be done on them, they ought to make protocols (which vary by each person’s cultural background) with that person upon fulfillment of that request, I have learned that there is a matter of scale that is all too often wildly disproportionate in her case. So, for instance, when I asked her for a particular medicine, the sheer grandiosity of her gesture (and thus the implicit need for me to answer with an “honouring gift” of comparable magnitude) was never even somewhat unclear.
Once again, if I’m honest with myself, this was achieved by a process of classic grooming behaviour. Almost every visit I made with her, she had a little trinket or tiny gift she would give me, because it excited her to see people get excited and joyful receiving a gift. She would say that this is her culture (something I heard before, from someone who else groomed me to give much more than I ought to). Then she would tell me stories of the extravagant sacrifices other people have made when they asked her for things that were a big deal to ask for, such as the right to hold their own ceremony. Then the naming thing. Then the protocols thing. And finally, when I asked if it would be too much to ask for this one thing that I had previously expressed interest in and which was available to me at last in that precise moment, she said “and you can give me your honouring gift when you know what it needs to be”. So of course I know it needs to be nothing less than the highest possible honour I can bestow upon another person with my own two hands.
In reality, I’ve since learned that everywhere else, people ask for (and expect) nothing more than tobacco (or sometimes a blanket instead) in exchange for what I asked for that day. For instance, I’ve since received similar items that I did not ask for, simply for agreeing to create an item for ceremony and refusing to name a price in dollars for it because we both consider it too important and too sacred to monetize it in that way. I accepted the request without material or monetary expectations apart from what I did not already have that I needed to create the item. It seems to me that this gesture was made to me, not only as a sign of respect for the skills I have to do this type of work in the first place, but to maintain the relationship between us in a good way as well. His generosity inspired me to greater heights than I could have accomplished otherwise.
By contrast, the enormous sense of obligation I felt heaped onto me by the person who extended herself only with the expectation of receiving something grandiose in return left me feeling so strongly intimidated by what I had received, that it took me months to complete the work I offered her as an honouring gift (which I of course felt compelled to do first before addressing my own needs, which was literally the antithesis of my request to begin with). It took me a year to address the item I asked for, and much of that year, I felt a crippling sense of guilt for being too goddamned intimidated to begin my work with it—most assuredly not the way to maintain good feelings between two people, let alone help build someone up enough to overcome their feelings of low self worth. But I guess that was all part of her strategy. Part of my harshest teachings too.
At the end of it all, she accused me of being a capital-R racist, of appropriating her culture, of being personally responsible for the genocide of her people (along with my blood relatives who have been on this continent for a mere 70 years after fleeing genocide themselves—by the same civilisations, no less), of dominating her, of sneaking around her back “pushing native teachings” on members of our once-shared community (when in fact, people had come to me, not the other way around), of gossiping (when in fact, I stayed silent while she ranted all over Facebook), and the list goes on. While I attended her sweat lodge ceremonies, and attended her “vision quest” ceremony last Summer as a general support/helper, I received a great many gifts (just a few of which were from her) for which I am still very grateful and expect I always will be. I’ve received a lot of growth, a lot of healing, and a lot of perspective. I’ve grown into my voice, my skills are meeting the work I desire to be engaged with, and I have a far deeper understanding of issues that were already important to me than they already were before she entered my life.
For instance, I now understand that when one is witness to their culture(s) being appropriated, it is ultimately experienced as a loss. Our first reaction is to deny that it is happening—to say “what (the fuck)?!” As if asking this question can even hypothetically stop time and suddenly put it in reverse, to undo the damage already done. Or as if asking that question has the power to terminate the process in its tracks and unravel a new process in its place, which provides a context and connection and meaning that gives congruence to this act so that we can understand it as culture rather than appropriation. But we ask this question already knowing the answer is the outright theft of our identities. We can’t seem to stop ourselves from asking it anyway. When time doesn’t stop, reverse, or a new process unravel itself that lends us any sort of understanding that can be reconciled at all, we move into anger. It is our very lives that are being stolen, and we are all too willing to become defensively aggressive. To fight for what it is that has kept us alive for generations, that is the very birthright and identity of our people, as was passed down to us by our ancestors (who learned from their ancestors). And when the anger fades just enough, and our temper is not quite red-hot with bloodthirsty rage, we begin to think of ways this offense can be reconciled if only the other party is willing to hear it and comply. But what meaningful gesture of reconciliation can possibly be offered for the theft of one’s very identity? Pleading, even forcefully, with words like “hey, just stop that, it’s not right” just doesn’t seem to cut it.
And if we have any empathy towards our fellow human beings, we find the words that cut them as deeply as their actions cut us, in the hopes that this will magically unlock their capacity to empathise with us. And when it doesn’t, because the reality sets in that they are intentionally avoiding empathising with us, only then can we begin to truly grieve what has happened. This is the moment we fully realise the depth of our loss for the first time. We may express this in a variety of ways, as just about everyone tends to grapple with persistent sadness by more than just crying. We rage when we can no longer shed tears, until we can once again. Our dark clouds seal over us and pour showers of photographic memories reminding us of every hurt feeling and abuse we have ever experienced that made us feel like this before. We feel helpless and hurt and powerless. Many of us will stay here for a very long time. But some of us will remember the reason and find the way to part those clouds once again. And when we do, we have finally arrived at accepting what happened, how it felt to not be able to stop or change it, how it cannot be reconciled or forgotten or tolerated but can eventually be forgiven (if only because we need to move on). But because we will not forget this — because we can’t forget this — we will always carry this trauma with us, too. Maybe it will become like a constant humming in the background that we can mostly ignore, or like a slow and steady rainfall that we just don’t fuss about. And we know the moment will come again one day when we hear the deafening, thunderous crackling of this moment in our past being brought right back into the present tense. We just don’t know when it will be, so we remain prepared for it. Vigilant.
If I am honest with myself, I now know and acknowledge that one does not simply decide to assume the role of spiritual leader one day when they are 30 years old, then build a community around them that holds them up in that high regard, finding themselves a sudden misfit in a community that has already chosen its spiritual leaders from the time of their birth. I have learned that perhaps one of the most important tragedies of cultural genocide is the self-worth complex of the intergenerational survivors, whose untapped and often violently stifled potential excludes them from assuming positions of power and authority within their communities and cultures of origin, by virtue of their upbringing — relegating them to a limited social standing that only confirms their persistent ideas of low self-worth. But I have also learned that this is, in and of itself, a valuable sacrifice for the entire community, for it leaves that room, for those who are raised to humbly lift other people up, to grow into their status to empower those most in need. I have learned that the title of elder or leader is earned in this way, not simply given to every person who survives long enough to teach people half their age or who takes the first step on a path no one else has yet ventured. I have learned that what I have done by taking part in those sweat lodge ceremonies may very well be judged as appropriation or it may not be—but there is no longer a doubt in my mind that the woman who spent so much time and effort calling a torrent of abusive attention to plastic shamans and casting out white appropriators from “her” ceremonies has revealed herself and the nature of her own actions in the same gestures. There is nothing more I can do to bring her to answer for any of it, for who would listen to me anyway? These are not my cultures of origin, which I rather ironically know even less about than I know about the teachings around the sweat lodge.
But I now know that those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know. I don’t ever need to say again.