The Story of a Healing Spirit

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Portrait of a First Nations Canadian Woman

This is the recovery story of Daisy Vanslyke, a gentle spirit who spends most of her time healing other people. In her every word and wisdom, she speaks from the heart: she has endured some of life's greatest adversities and hardships, but she still finds beauty and purpose in herself, her children and her recovery. And she's brave enough to see the same in others—and to help them see it too.

It is okay to feel a lot of the feelings that you're feeling. It is okay.

Daisy Vanslyke

0:00:11 Andrew Williams
Welcome to Let's Talk Recovery Equity. A series of conversations about how we can reach and help more people find freedom from addiction. Our series offers us a space to reflect on some of the complexities of substance use and other mental health conditions. And importantly, to also work to illuminate pathways to greater hope, recovery, and healing. I'm your host, Andrew Williams, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And today, I'm really excited to introduce you to our special guest Daisy. Who resides in Alaska. Welcome, Daisy. How are you today?

0:00:54 Daisy Vanslyke
I'm good, how are you?

0:00:55 Andrew Williams
I'm doing well. Again, thank you for joining us. And being willing to share your unique story of recovery with our listeners and viewers. You know, one of the things that I've had—one of the ideas and new learnings I've had as I've joined the organization, is that really the first step to recovery is awareness and recognition and acceptance that one actually has an addiction problem. And I'm wondering if you could share with our listeners and viewers, you know, when was that moment for you? And what was it that began to propel you on your recovery journey?

0:01:32 Daisy Vanslyke
I would say my most recent was in 2013. At that point I had small children and I—so I started using when I was nine. So, at this point, I was in my thirties and I had small children and I chose to take some pills. And then decided to take a bath, right? And fortunately, something about my brain made me you know come up out of the water. I realized in that moment that my kids would have found me and that made me really realize that I was continuing a cycle from my own childhood. And from that moment on, I have not used a substance. Because my children deserve a better life. And I don't want them to see what I had to see.

0:02:28 Andrew Williams
Thank you, thank you for being so open and sharing that beginning point or that most recent sort of beginning point. And the real significance of your love and care for your children. As the real force behind your journey toward healing and recovery. Now I know from our previous conversation and although you currently work in Alaska for the Inlet Tribal Council, you're originally from Oklahoma. So I wonder if you could contextualize your own experience of addiction and recovery within the context of where you grew up in Oklahoma. And how your experiences sort of compare to others in your community.

0:03:05 Daisy Vanslyke
So I'd say over the years, as a small child I really—so both of my parents were active in addiction and they were separated. So I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. And my grandma was very into the tribal culture. So I remember doing Pow Wows and all of the things, and really learning elders as a really young child. Being able to lean on those people in crisis kind of situations or anytime we needed anything. I got to watch over the years as drugs and alcohol and now opiates for sure really started to decimate reservation land over time. But as a small child, it was engrained in me really quickly, you know, to really become one with nature and Mother Earth and be thankful for all of the resources that have been given. And so, it really instilled a level of grounding that I think that I had as a small child. That I've been able to link back to as an adult. And that's really what's continued this passion to really get indigenous culture and awareness out there when it comes to recovery. 'Cause those are really key components. Oklahoma's really desolate for the most part. There's not a lot of things to do, right? So, you kinda do with what you have available to you. And with two parents that readily had things available, I know that—there's a first picture of me when I was five and I'm actually holding I don't know if you guys know what a tallboy is, but it's one of the really tall beers. And that was just the norm. That was just the norm back then. It's really interesting to look back now on it. And what that started, the cycle that that started.

0:05:01 Andrew Williams
Again, I really do appreciate the window you've given us into those early what we now call adverse childhood experiences. [Daisy nods] But I think it's important to me and what you shared and it resonates and reminds me of some of what you shared in our previous conversation is that we've always had people in our communities who in an informal way play the kind of formal roles that are now offered, right? Through sober support programs. So, here I think about your grandmother and the story that you shared about her and her coming to wrap her love and care around you. And to keep you grounded, right? In your cultural community. As giving you that possibility, right, for healing and connectedness. In your response too you spoke to, you know, the value and the need for greater integration. Of cultural traditions and cultural resources and worldviews. Into the healing and recovery process. Was that your experience at any point as you move through your treatment and recovery journey?

0:06:05 Daisy Vanslyke
So it's interesting to me as I grew up I'd say probably ten, maybe tenish, by that point like the reservation lands, a lot of things, had been taken over. I can tell you the hospital that I was born in is now a museum. They don't have the Native healthcare that they used to, when I was a child, and it just really started getting decimated over time. My grandma had mental—what they said was mental illness. I know how getting really engrained within my culture. That it was actually not. She was actually speaking to her elders, her spirit elders, so there's a lot of pieces. But back in the day, they would just medicate at that point. Like when we think about late '80s, a lot of these pieces were just medicated. Right? And so, I think in that era, a lot of our culture really got demolished. And I would say and then I married a military man. When I got old enough. And I had really separated from my culture really substantially until we got to Alaska. And when we got to Alaska, I would say the corporations and the boroughs and things of the Alaska Native community up here really wrap around their people. When I say the Tribal Health campus up here when I first moved here, I just cried substantially. And I have really worked since 2009 to re-incorporate myself and now Cherokee Nation has come up here multiple times. And they're trying to integrate some of these same systems down in Oklahoma. And in North Carolina and things like that. So, I maybe around-the-way answered that. [grins]

0:07:54 Andrew Williams
No, no, thank you for you know beginning to share some pieces of your treatment experiences. And I just love this image that you share with us, right, of when you arrived in Alaska at the beginning of your work with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council that you saw this robust suite of services and how it made you cry. You know, one of the elders in my community calls those tears holy water. Right? In some ways, you know, a symbol that there's some healing work there, right, that needs to get done. But also they represent the beginning of healing. And I appreciate the way in which you help us understand that moment really as a new kind of platform or new level. Not just in your professional work but in your own story of recovery. And I'm wondering if you could kind of maybe speak a little bit more about any particular moments in your recovery journey, your early recovery moments, or other moments, you know, in this continuum. That you feel like were really significant in your recovery and that others might learn from.

0:08:57 Daisy Vanslyke
I think probably when I was fifteen—when I was fifteen I had gone to the doctor and I was having some health concerns and they did all kinds of tests on me. And they were pretty sure I had leukemia. And because nobody wanted to face it at that time, they did some further tests and they had found out that I had stunted the growth of my liver because I had started drinking at such an early age. And nobody—you're fifteen, this is a fifteen-year-old female, there's no way. So I was actually put on Antabuse. Which is now they have Naltrexone and a lot of softer medication-assisted treatment. Antabuse was not a soft medication-assisted treatment. However, it saved my life. So being truly put on that and being in a doctor's office where they tell you if you continue to drink like this, you're not gonna make it another 90 days. And so, really letting the medical model save my life, right? I say that was the beginning of my recovery journey in the beginning. I then actually was diagnosed with cancer at nineteen. So I started fighting for my life in that regard and that's when I got put on Oxycodone for the first time. And so then that started that journey. So even though I've been substance-free from alcohol for a lot longer, pills become the new norm and pills are one of those really hidden situations because you can get away with those and nobody knows. There's not a smell to it, there's not a lot of these pieces. And it took me until 2013 and really just being scared of my kids and learning—I wanted to be a cycle breaker. I had no idea the amount of work that goes into that. And being able to break that cycle. But, it was all heavy and hard but one hundred percent worth it. Because my kids'll never have to live that life.

0:10:58 Andrew Williams
Mmm. Thank you. Now I know we've had a chance to be in conversation earlier and learn more about your work with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and you've been very open and vulnerable in sharing and talking about your own recovery journey. I always appreciate this opportunity with guests to ask them, you know, what's your source of strength? I mean what's your source of strength that has allowed you to sustain the healing work that you do? And what's your source of strength that you lean on as you move through your own recovery journey?

0:11:31 Daisy Vanslyke
There's a level of resilience that comes from being able to help other people, right? If my one story can help one other person, not necessarily not have to go through it, but to be able to heal and recover from it, then a lot of those negative like my ACEs and things like that, then a lot of those it just makes them feel like they happened for a reason. Because they made me who I am. So seeing it as a strength instead of a weakness is a huge—huge piece in my recovery. But I'm also very grounded with nature. I do hiking, I do all of those pieces, and when I need to be grounded, I go out. And I go on a hike. It's a whole different just mindset. Really being not yet old enough to necessarily be considered an elder, but at the same time also starting. Starting young, I'm in my forties, but already starting to be able to use my story to help others. It tells me it's kind of a full circle situation. It's the same things that the elders try to do for us and have been trying to do for us for generations. And I don't know, I think my biggest piece is just helping others. And I wanna live. I wanna live. I want—there's so much more left of life to live and I know that for myself, if I pick up substances, I'd never get to see all of those opportunities. So I'm hopeful for the unknown. And the future. and all of the memories that I still have, you know, to create within my life.

0:13:09 Andrew Williams
Thank you. You know, I wanna circle back to a part of your story that really resonates with me. And part of it as I listen and reflect on your story, I'm struck by how early you began to struggle with addiction. And I also hear you know in what you share this deep love and care for young people in particular. [Daisy nods] You know, that resonates with me because once a week, I have the opportunity at our Plymouth location here with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, to be in a BIPOC youth group. That has included many Native American youth. I'm wondering, you know, if you could maybe speak to the specific challenges that are confronting youth in the area that you work with. And do you have a particular message for young people as you look back at your younger self?

0:13:56 Daisy Vanslyke
Oof. There's a lot of things I tell my younger self. It will get better. But it's—you don't have to be what you were raised into. You can create different. And although—I always told 'cause I worked in residential with youth for a quite a while, 'cause I always think prevention. I think we as a society tend to be very reactive to things especially you're seeing that a lot with the opioid crisis. I think we tend to be reactive. But if we can get into our youth and younger ages and things like that to just let them know, you're not alone, this is a situation like when they first start getting into the juvenile justice system, we wanna keep them from going into the adult system. So how do we do that? And I'd say one youth did it to me as they were graduating. And he came up to me and he said, 'Thank you. You were the most consistent person I've ever had in my life.' So, just getting up and suiting up and showing up every day, they could call me every name in the book, and I still showed up. Because I still believe in you, right? Just being there for each other and just letting them know it does get better, it can get better. You do have to make some choices, right? There are some really hard choices. And that's where we struggle with, you know, prefrontal cortex development. So late twenties is when you'll get a lot of that real healing growth. But as you've just—they're just not alone in it. I think a lot of trauma response and I had it myself is I got this, it's me against the world. Nobody was there to protect me when I was younger, right? Like, it's me, I gotta do this. And that's just not the case. I think there's so many of us that struggled. That really, really struggled as we were growing up and we just—we don't have to walk this journey alone.

0:15:55 Daisy Vanslyke
I think peers even for teenagers, I love seeing youth coming up to me now that are like 'Hi, Miss Daisy, I'm three years sober!' You know? And it's those moments where I get emotional. Because that's what I can do. That's what I can do for my community and other people. It was hell getting there, you know, doing my own work and those things. But, getting into our youth and just telling 'em you're not alone. And it is okay to feel a lot of the feelings that you're feeling. It is okay. There is a healthier way. Don't mask them by using substances.

0:16:35 Andrew Williams
Daisy I'll be honest with you, I'm also getting emotional as I hear you kind of share your message with young people. I feel that holy water kinda welling up in my eyes. And not only have I come to really care deeply about the young people I've had this privilege to work with and meet, at our Plymouth location, I've also come to care deeply about the professionals there who do this work. Which I can see is especially challenging. Do you have any consultation, any kind of insights to offer them? As we move toward closing out our interview today?

0:17:08 Daisy Vanslyke
For professionals that work in the field, this is a very heavy field. You have to learn separation techniques, right? So what I do when I come in in the morning is I have a ritual in the morning before in my parking lot at work. Where I let go of anything that's gone on in my home life, with my children or any of my stuff, and I just kinda put it in a bucket. And then I come in and I do work and at the end of the day, that goes in a bucket and I just kinda swap them out. It takes a lot of time and like I said I've been doing it for twenty years. So, it takes a while to be able to create those. But trying not to transfer your own onto others, a huge part of that is that you have to do your own work and your own healing before you can truly be—to resonate with other people and get through to them. I myself did six years of EMDR. It's a really deep dive in and to heal my traumas as much as I possibly could. So that now I—on the other side of it—can really, truly be able to separate from it when somebody is telling me. There's always gonna be stories that are gonna hit close to home, right? And also learning those, right? When I deal with a really heavy situation that's very symbolic of something that happened in my childhood, it's taking those, learning those grounding techniques. Going and taking a walk. Don't book yourself, don't book yourself back-to-back when you're dealing with a co-occurring and substance use and things like that. Allow breathing room between your people. So that you have time to decompress.

0:18:44 Andrew Williams
Mmm-hmm. Is there another particular layer you would add on to those working especially with young people?

0:18:51 Daisy Vanslyke
Don't be stereotypical. Don't be stereotypical. Each kid that's gonna present with you is gonna be their own story. Let them own their story and define their own path. Don't come in with a predetermined motion as to what you think their path should look like. Because that's going to demolish any rapport and any building work that you can do. To come to where they're at. And this is adults, youth, and everything, like our biggest piece here at the Council is come as you are. You come as you are and we're gonna meet you where you're at and we're gonna help you through where you're at. Same thing with youths. And stability. Give them stability.

0:19:33 Andrew Williams
Mmm. Yes, yes. Well as we move toward closing out our conversation and time together, I'll ask you this question that we invite all of our guests to answer. Which again, for those who might be listening, from Native communities or non-Native communities, if they're struggling with addiction, struggling and staying on the recovery journey, or they know folks who are navigating addiction and recovery, what kinda consultation, what words of care might you share with them?

0:20:07 Daisy Vanslyke
Sit and listen. So, a key piece for individuals that are in recovery, I use a filter. And I recommend that lots of people do this. When you go into a conversation, you're helping somebody, ask them up front. Am I listening or am I fixing? Because a lot of times they don't want you to come in and fix. Right? They want you to hold their hands while they fix themselves. Right? So just sometimes, we just need a safe place. A lot of youth, it's the same thing. They just want a safe place. They don't want you to come in trying to fix it and make it all better. [shakes head] So, just slow down. Slow down on trying to make it all better. And really just come to where they're at and sit with them.

0:20:55 Andrew Williams
Well Daisy, thank you again so much for joining us today for this conversation. I so admire and respect the authenticity and the vulnerability that you brought to our conversation today. And sharing your story with us, I have no doubt that your story has offered greater possibilities for hope and healing for those who are listening or viewing our show today. And along the way of course I think you've given us some very wise counsel. Meaning those of us who are in the field doing the work, you know, with our patients, with our family. You've also given us some really wonderful nuggets to reflect on and to try to manifest, you know, in our work here at the Hazelden Betty Ford. So thank you.

0:21:41 Daisy Vanslyke
I'm honored, thank you for having me.

0:21:44 Andrew Williams
[turns to camera]
To all of you listening or watching today, I wanna express my appreciation for you taking the time to join us for this very important and soul-growing conversation. Please let your family, your friends, your colleagues know about these conversations. And please consider coming back often to view more episodes of Let's Talk Recovery Equity. Together, we can advance health equity and bring quality and loving care to all those in need. Thank you.

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