Two FNHA Recovery Wellness Champions Share Their Stories



​​September is Recovery Month Canada, an annual campaign aimed at bringing awareness to supports for addictions

Two First Nations Recovery Wellness Champions share their inspirational stories: Dr. Nel Wieman, Acting Chief Medical Officer; and Liane Lawrence, Administrative Assistant, FNHA Office of the Chief Medical Officer​​

​​Each province holds a Recovery Festival on a different day this month. Here is information on BC’s festival, which will be held on Sept. 9 in New Westminster​​.

Life is great, but it's not easy, and pain and difficulties are a big part of it. “Everybody hurts, sometimes … and everybody cries," as the famous R.E.M song goes. Ways of dealing with the hardships of life can range from healthy (seeking counselling or other support) to unhealthy (drinking or using other substances excessively).

Usually, it's not a clear-cut decision to make unhealthy choices. A seemingly harmless habit like having a couple of drinks to calm your nerves once in a while turns into more and more. Suddenly, it's a problem. And as the statistics clearly show, it can happen to anyone, regardless of their background, race, or income. Again, “Everybody hurts, sometimes."

Dr. Nel Wieman and Liane Lawrence are two First Nations women who at one time found themselves in the pattern of drinking too much. They now wish to inspire others in the same situation with their stories of recovery and wellness.

Dr. Nel has been sober for over eight years and Liane for over two. (Liane was also a smoker; she has been a non-smoker since Feb. 17, 2022!) But they didn't stop there. Both women now regularly prepare and eat healthy foods, exercise daily, maintain healthy weights and fitness routines, have lots of energy, are happy and motivated, and enjoy an all-round healthy lifestyle.

Recovery and wellness journeys can take many forms and are different for everyone. These are two examples of what a recovery journey can look like.

Dr. Nel Wieman, Anis​​hinaabe (Little Grand Rapids First Nation, Manitoba)

“Being in recovery and choosing health and wellness daily remains part of who I am. I have always wanted to help people, which is why I became a doctor, but I believe my struggles have made me even more caring and sensitive to the experiences of people who have challenges with substance use. I especially understand the importance of eliminating the stigma surrounding this problem.

“These days, I'm so happy to be able to share that not only am I living a healthy life, alcohol-free for over eight years, but part of my job is working to help other First Nations people who may be struggling with substance use issues. Because doing my job to the best of my ability entails keeping myself healthy and well, I follow a self-care routine that works for my busy life.

I aim to get 10,000 steps each day, including my walk home from the FNHA's Park Royal office to downtown Vancouver, every time I'm in the office, rain or shine. I also aim to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, and maintain a healthy weight; keep up-to-date on cancer and other screenings, health and dental care, and vaccinations; set healthy boundaries between work and family life; and regularly spend time outdoors / in nature. Every weekend day, I enjoy long walks in Pacific Spirit Park with my life partner and our dog. I strongly encourage everyone to have a self-care routine that works for their life!"

It wasn't always like this. After significant personal losses in 2006, Dr. Nel tried to deal with her grief by throwing herself into her work. This failed, and her grief developed into a severe depression, one of the worst symptoms being major insomnia. To try and help herself sleep, she started to have a couple of glasses of wine in the evenings. Gradually, her alcohol consumption increased. In 2009, she finally sought help, with some successful periods of sobriety. However, in 2015, after years of on-and-off sobriety, Dr. Nel entered a residential treatment centre. (If you have a problem with substances that you can't beat on your own, this is highly recommended: a list of culturally safe treatment centres you can access will follow this message.)

This was not an easy thing to do, because as an Indigenous psychiatrist, she knew she was considered a role model for other Indigenous people, and didn't want to let anyone down. “I felt so much shame and internalized stigma, and that was a huge barrier to seeking care. I thought I had to figure out a way to manage this on my own."

Dr. Nel credits the eight weeks at a residential treatment centre, where she went through a combined trauma and addiction program, with saving her life. She also participated for five years afterwards in weekly accountability / support groups with other doctors who had the same problem. She celebrated eight years of continuous sobriety on April 20, 2023 and is feeling strong on her recovery journey.

Liane Lawrence, Haida Nation (BC)

“Being in recovery has changed my life in the most beautiful and fulfilling ways. Everything is so different now that I've been sober for over two years. I am living a healthy and happy life; I'm closer with my family, and have healthy relationships and friendships. For over two years I've been kickboxing three days a week, working out, taking walks, resting when I need to, eating healthy foods, meditating, and taking care of my emotional, mental, spiritual and physical health. I also still go to counselling; it's part of my health and wellness journey.

“My journey to this state of recovery was a painful one that began when my problematic drinking led to 16-hour hospital stay. I realized then that this was a life-or-death situation and that I needed to quit 'partying.'

“Once I became sober, I committed myself to healing. I started with neuro-feedback therapy, which is a non-invasive treatment that encourages the brain to develop healthier patterns of activity; counselling; and kickboxing and walking each week. I took time off work as I found the healing was a full-time job. I had a lot of heavy emotions, trauma, and intergenerational trauma to process. I had to be alone and feel all of the emotions and get through the heaviness of the healing. But I knew that this was all self-care and that I had to go through all of the healing stages in order to progress in my sobriety, while achieving good mental and physical health.

“Part of my problem, I realized, was that I didn't love myself as I should. Growing up, the beauty standard was to be very thin, and crash diets were common. I remember just torturing myself trying to get to the ideal unhealthy weight. I also took up smoking to avoid eating too much, and drinking to be 'part of the group.' These unhealthy habits and ways of thinking impacted both my physical and mental health.

“I'm so glad that nowadays, I am seeing empowering messages of being strong, eating healthy, loving yourself, and not starving or smoking to look a certain way. Self-love is so important; it all starts on the inside with how you feel about yourself. It's okay to be unique and different from everyone else, it's great to accept yourself and stay true to who you are. If you're struggling now with something, remember that it's okay to be where you are at this point. Even the longest journey begins with a single step, as the old saying goes.

“Once I realized all of these things and overcame the unrealistic expectations I had for myself, it's been more about finding my inner strength and peace. I now eat more throughout the day to fuel my body. I work out to get stronger, not to lose weight. I no longer stress about calories or do extreme workouts daily to compensate for the food I ate. I don't torture myself and make sure to rest when I need it. I am thankful every day for my body getting me through each day and I nourish my body and spirit in healthy ways.

“We need to ensure that the youth are being empowered and accepting themselves so they don't have the same poor self-image growing up and perhaps turn to smoking or drinking or other unhealthy habits to cope. Beauty truly starts from within, and everyone is beautiful, unique and powerful in their own way."

For more information about treatment centres, including referrals, locations and descriptions, visit this webpage.

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