Now Or Never

Furry friends help residential school survivor fight off nightmares

Every week Vivian is woken up by nightmares because of her experience at residential school. The survivor depends on her cats to help her through those tough nights, and the medicine wheel to make it through the next day.
Vivian, 54, holds her beloved pet, Fat Cat, who helps her sleep when the residential school survivor is haunted by nightmares. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

Vivian does not get much sleep, despite the best efforts of her cat, Fat Cat.

"If I stay up too long he'll start pacing back and forth and tell me, 'bed time,'" said Vivian, whose last name CBC has agreed not to use.  

When that happens, the Winnipeg woman lays down on the only bed she has: a donated mattress on the floor. Fat Cat presses up beside her, she wraps her arm around him, and listens to him purr until she falls asleep.

But peaceful sleep often doesn't last long.

Vivian regularly wakes up because of nightmares that take her back in time to residential school.

Pulled into the past

"When I close my eyes I get pulled into my past. I feel my bedroom changing into the dorm room," said Vivian. "I can almost see and sense that flashlight that the housemother had. I can hear the kids, my dorm mates crying. I wake up screaming on occasion."

In her terror, Vivian reaches for the flashlight that's always beside her, and Fat Cat, who helps bring her back to the present.

"He'll start pressing against me and give me head butts, like as if saying, 'You're here. I'm here. Calm down.'"

Vivian attended Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora from 1974-1976. (CBC)

In 1974, Vivian was only five years old when she was taken to Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora, Ont. The school had a history of conducting medical and nutritional experiments on the students who went there.  

It's the same school Chanie Wenjack ran away from in 1966, nearly a decade before Vivian was there. Wenjack died trying to get back to his home reserve. His journey was famously documented by Canadian musician Gord Downie.

Vivian is haunted by guilt that she survived.

"I have a home. I have a job. I'm alive. A lot of my dorm mates didn't have that opportunity," said Vivian. 

Fighting the black hole

In addition to Fat Cat and her younger cat, Jinx, Vivian turns to traditional medicine to help with her anxiety and sleep disorders. The Anishinaabe​ woman bases her self-care on the medicine wheel. 

Fat Cat got his name because he used to weigh 20 pounds, but now he's lost a lot of weight and is getting old. Vivian worries what she'll do when it's time to put him down. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

"Smudging really helps. It brings me back to when my mom was alive, back by the wood stove — good memories," said Vivian.

But one night the nightmares were so bad that nothing, not even Fat Cat, could calm her down. She was awake and pacing, but couldn't shake the memories of the past.

I could still hear a voice telling me, 'Why don't you just give up?'- Vivian

"I could still hear a voice telling me, 'Why are you struggling so hard? Why don't you join us? Why don't you just give up?'" said Vivian. 

It got so bad she called the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line and spoke to a woman who was able to help.

"It was good to hear another voice, other than what was happening in my head. If I didn't have that help line, I think I would have taken that step and listened to that voice."

As she remembers that night, Fat Cat gets closer to her, his purring gets louder, and Jinx comes hops up beside Vivian on the couch.

"My cats notice by the tone of my voice if I'm sad," she explained. "I think they're an inexpensive response to my anxiety and my sleep disorders."

As Vivian told her story, her cats came closer and purred louder when she recalled her nightmares. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

Vivian always feels "off" the day after she's had one of her nightmares, but she forces herself to go to work or to walk outside. 

"My counsellor said I have to go out and do my regular routine," said Vivian, "Otherwise I'll fall into that black hole."

Vivian does community work, speaks to churches about her experience, does photography, and has won recognition for her writing. She's saving up for a new bed and looks forward to nights of peaceful sleep.

"I envy people who can just sleep," said Vivian. "I wish I could just drop off like that."

Vivian, residential school survivor 4:44

The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line operates 24 hours a day and can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

If you are not a residential school survivor but you need help right now, dial 1-833-456-4566 or visit Crisis Services Canada