Home and sweat ceremonies help Suzanne recover from addiction

The inside of the sweat lodge is completely black, except for the crimson glow of stones piled in the centre. A light splashes as an elder pours water on the stones and steam slowly sinks into her skin. The only indication of the 11 others inside the hut are the deep, steady breaths and the calming words of the elder.

Suzanne, a tenant with Calgary Alpha House Society, has been attending sweat ceremonies on the Tsuu T’ina reserve at least once a week for four years.

“It’s the best healing ever. There’s something very maternal about it,” she says. The lodge, a dome structure made of branches and covered in blankets, represents the womb of Mother Earth. “When you’re all pent up, it helps to clarify everything.”

When Suzanne’s husband was killed, she turned to drugs to mask the harrowing pain she felt with him no longer by her side. “I didn’t want to feel anything,” she admits. “I was broken.”

For 20 years, Suzanne has dealt with the harmful effects of a drug addiction. After losing her house, Suzanne lived on the streets for six years before entering detox at Alpha House. “I had some traumatic experiences,” she says, “but this place is a godsend.”

Suzanne started attending sweat ceremonies on the reserve with Alpha House. She found healing in other Indigenous traditions as well, like fasting and sun dances.

Alpha House is known for its Indigenous programming which will be made available to the 30 women in its future RESOLVE project. Using both Housing First and harm reduction models, tenants will receive intensive case management and 24-hour support. The 30-unit apartment building will be close to women’s and health centres as well.

“Having a home is especially important for women, and to be with each other to heal together in a safe place,” Suzanne stresses. “I know so many women who are stuck in purgatory. They have nowhere to go so they put up with abuse and sell themselves just so they can pay for a hotel room for the night.

“It’s incredibly dangerous.”

The mortality rate for women experiencing homelessness is 10 times higher than the general population. And because they represent a smaller portion of the homeless population, their needs are often overlooked.

The Women’s Facility will meet this need by providing a safe, affordable and caring environment specifically for women, with the supports needed to maintain the housing – this could include a female elder who would work with tenants.

Kathy Christiansen, executive director of Alpha House, has attended many sweat ceremonies with clients. ”Connection to culture is essential,” she says. “It supports ongoing healing, and, therefore, housing sustainability, for many of the women we see in our program.”

Suzanne says that having a home motivates her to stay healthy. “And just to be able to do laundry all night long is beautiful,” she laughs. “It’s the best!”

One day, Suzanne hopes to introduce other women to the healing that sweat ceremonies have provided her. “I want to be an elder. I want to pour water on the rocks,” she says. “For women.”

Having a home is especially important for women, and to be with each other to heal together in a safe place.