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  • Writer's pictureGabriella Hillis

I used to hate the word resilient

It's true. I have been described as resilient countless times throughout my life. Each time I shared a part of my struggle, someone would say, "Wow, you're so strong and so resilient!" You'd think I'd be proud or grateful. But I was resentful. I hated the fact that I had to struggle. I'd ask myself what I ever did to deserve abuse, to experience grief and trauma, for what felt like my whole life.

The truth is, I was just that: resentful. I held onto the heavy feelings that went along with abuse and trauma, like shame, guilt, fear, self-consciousness, and so on. I was born in 1984 into vicious cycle of trauma, abuse, alcoholism, and neglect. It took me until adulthood to realize why this all happened, not just to me, but my little brother, Andy, as well. I'll get to that later.

It wasn't unusual for Andy and I as toddlers to spend afternoons playing outside near Carnegie Community Centre while our parents were nowhere in sight. If you're not familiar with the area, it's located in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC. Picture dirty sidewalks littered with garbage and paraphernalia, people stumbling on and off sidewalks or alleys, and tarps/shopping carts covered with peoples only valued belongings. Get the picture? Somehow we survived. Every time I drive through the area, I feel both numb and amazed that two toddlers, who didn't know any different at the time, came out of that scenario, time and time again, alive.

Some fond memories of my childhood, up to about 4 years old, were of Andy and I running up and down the stairs outside "Carnegie" as we called it, walking to the park with our parents, Gloria (nee Dan) and Alfred Hillis, running in circles on the patio in my diaper at one of our Native Housing buildings, jumping from trees and exploring East 5th Avenue with local neighbourhood children. I also vaguely remember Alfred strumming a guitar and singing "Gloria" to our our mother. I didn't realize I was stealing at the time, but I fondly recall sitting inside Save-On Meats with Andy (by ourselves), eating candy from one of those large plastic candy-filled canes they used to sell in the late 80s because we were hungry. I finally learned what stealing was when Alfred scolded me for taking a package of cinnamon Juicy Fruit off the shelf and chewing it without paying.

I can still hear Gloria's voice calling us at the park, "Calla" she'd say, meaning "come here." She called me "Lala," because that's what Andy called me. He couldn't say my full name, Gabriella. My memory can be both a blessing and a curse. I recall almost everything from about 2 years old onward. I remember the random visits we'd have from relatives who, later in life, said they were "aunties" or "cousins" who used to babysit us. I've come to realize that we have a lot of "cousins" (giggle). If you're native, you get it ;). What I don't remember a whole lot, is our parents being around. I can only assume that they were at a bar nearby while we played in the streets of Vancouver, or were inside the apartment recovering. I have fond memories of Gloria feeding me apple sauce and ginger ale when I'd have a tummy ache. I even remember one of the first times she scrubbed my nails with a nail brush. I often think about it when I wash my son Gunner's nails and he says, "Ow, Mommy, that's too hard."

Although I didn't have a shiny, clean, white picket fence childhood from the start, I was a happy, intelligent child. I could read and hand write by 4 years old. I learned compassion and good manners from my parents. We learned about Jesus from going to church at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society. I even remember the pastors names. I have this funny memory about praying - I didn't know how to pray, or the intention behind it, but I thought that it worked, because one year I prayed for a bike, and I got it. I got the basic idea behind faith anyways :D. I also learned how to be a mother from a young age, as I had to learn quickly how to meet mine and Andy's needs. One night, when our parents were out, Andy and I, 2 and 4 years old still, got hungry and decided to cook ourselves some dinner. We turned on an element and placed a pot full of things we found in the kitchen, one of them being Vim. As you can imagine, it ended in disaster. We almost set the house on fire, and a neighbour called the fire department. As you can also imagine, they figured out that we were neglected, so the Ministry of Social Services (as they were called at the time), were brought in and we were apprehended into foster care.

Like I said, I have a good memory, and although we didn't have the white picket fence-type life or family, I would have taken our "neglected" life over the experiences were endured over the next 5 years in foster care. After a couple temporary/emergency placements, we were placed into a foster home in Maple Ridge. I recall it being in 1989, but documents say 1991. We may have gone into this home, then back to our birth parents, and returned again. Either way, it was terrifying. I recall praying that our parents were really just hiding somewhere and they'd come out and surprise us, or that our foster parents were just costumes and our parents were playing a joke on us. Those were all coping mechanisms, so is the fact that we call those foster parents "the D word" and Debbie. On the surface, it appeared that we lived in a beautiful home with more than we could ask for, including nice bedrooms filled with beautiful clean clothes, a rec room with some of the best toys, a giant two-storey playhouse, bikes, Big Wheels, a pool, and a landscaped yard. In reality, our foster parents were monsters. They treated us like slaves: we sweated in the garden on hot summer days to help maintain the spotless garden and yard, I remember cleaning up all the dirty dishes at the end of the day while they sat around watching the news sipping iced tea, I remember sweeping and mopping the floor, doing laundry, and the list goes on... from about 5 to 9 years old. If I didn't do these all perfectly, I'd get called a "bitch" and receive a slap across the face, or feel the sting of a wooden spoon somewhere on my body. I remember taking out a pair of socks from the dryer - The D word watched me take them out and noticed that they were inside-out because I hadn't turned them right side out, so I "got it" pretty good.

I was told early on that I was gifted in math, reading, and for my memory, so there were high expectations for me to get good grades and remember a lot. I'd show my math homework to the D word when I was finished and if I got one answer wrong, I'd face the consequences. Similarly with my address and phone number. I still remember them to this day. I remember them with numbness and pain due to the circumstances in which I was taught them.

On the days when we'd have chances to play and be kids, the D word would scream from the patio or the windows of her solarium, "Don't do that to him." The *that* she was talking about was something deviant, which wasn't actually happening, but I learned later in life, was a way for us to appear to those around us (neighbours, her family or friends) as really bad children that put us at a high level (risk or need), which in turn, raked in more money for her to take cruises and trips out of town. There was at least one occasion where one of the older girls did do *that* to me and it took me until adulthood to talk about it. The D word also bribed and coached us how to report to the police that our birth father had abused us. It had never happened, but we were coached well, and it landed him in trouble. One day, while the D word was on a cruise, a respite worker caught on that something wasn't right and brought it to the Ministry's attention. Our social worker came to the house and questioned us. In 1994, we were finally removed from that hell and we finally had our chance to share what had been happening over the years.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I learned why we faced the struggles that we endured, and why our birth parents did, too. Gloria and Alfred had gone to residential schools, which as you may know, brought innocent Aboriginal children a lot of sexual and physical abuse and stripped them of their culture and traditions, for over a century. The last one closed in 1996. So, you see, I don't blame my parents for what we endured over that dark period of my life, I blame the systems that oppressed us and caused nothing but pain and lifetimes of addiction, alcoholism, and trauma. It caused generations of Aboriginal people to have to be resilient. I never wanted to *have* to be resilient, but I guess I did, and I was. Here I am today, still alive and able to tell my story. About 3 months ago I shared my deepest, darkest secrets with someone I trust, and it led to a spiritual shift in me. I guess you could say I'm experiencing a spiritual awakening because I am resilient and had an opportunity to repair my broken spirit. I haven't forgotten all of those awful things that happened to me, but I have forgiven the monstrous people and systems.

I don't hate the word resilient anymore. It may have taken some unhealthy coping mechanisms through my later years, like burying or numbing the shame, guilt, and fear by drinking and using drugs, but thankfully I was or am resilient because I'm here today to help others find solutions to the barriers they may be facing. I've had counselling off and on my whole life, and continue to work through some of my trauma and abuse with local counsellors and trusted confidantes. About two years ago I began a tour around the province of BC to co-facilitate conversations together with colleagues, youth in/from care, and Elders, about reconciliation. Gloria and Alfred never had a chance to recover from their alcoholism or trauma and abuse, nor share their stories - they died in 2002 and 2014 respectively - but I can. I hope this work does them some justice.

Today I collaborate with local service providers to support Aboriginal children and families who may face barriers in accessing services. I guess you could say that I've come full circle. I wish my parents had access to someone like me and the services I connect parents to, so we could have avoided all the trauma we endured, but maybe it wouldn't have given my support or services validity. I caught myself saying to someone recently,"I wish I had a *me* to help me with my daily struggles," because I do face a lot of challenges and barriers as a sole provider to a preschooler, due to some government systems that tend to oppress rather than help. Then I laughed and told myself, "I AM me, and I've got this!" I have so many tools at my fingertips, I just need to call or reach out to them myself and ask for help!

Anyways, I hope that this hasn't traumatized you but perhaps given you the strength to come forward and reach out for help too xo.

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Aug 17, 2019

Gabby, your writing is clear and beautiful. Sharing pieces of your life like that is remarkable...I know it will help people. I hope you keep this up! I have said it before and I will say it again, you're brave! Sending you love and more writing inspiration vibes



Aug 16, 2019

Deep bow Gabby 🙏. I love you. My heart aches imagining Andy and you in the care of these horrible people. I have deep respect for your willingness to share your story. Thank you. ❤️ You help me to understand more deeply the journey of so many young people in care. I’m humbled by your truth, understanding that although your parents struggled with the trauma of residential school resulting in neglect, they loved you and you needed to be with them. Or at the very least a safe and loving home inclusive to supporting a close relationship with your parents. You are an Inspiration in Healing. Take care Gabby. You and Gunner first. 🙏💕🙏

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