Self-Honesty is the Key to Recovery for Owen Unruh
“I couldn't even string thoughts together to make a sentence. I didn't have the confidence to speak. I just couldn't do it. I thought that there would never be a day where I would be able to speak clearly and say what I mean. I've come a long way since then.”
The key to recovery for Owen Unruh has been honesty—overcoming the challenges of being honest with the self. The night where honesty came unraveling at its core was when Owen found himself stumbling through the forest on Vancouver Island in a state of panic. After that moment, there was no more hiding what he was going through—he realized that being honest with his actions that led him to that moment was what would set him free.
In the seven sacred teachings, honesty is embodied by the raven. The raven is the reminder that honesty comes from within. Honesty is survival. I was told as a young girl from an elder that one of my spirit guides is the raven. When I was at one of the lowest points of my life, I dreamed that I was lost in the woods, unable to find my way home. At that moment, the raven appeared to me, hovering in front of my eyes, connected as if we were one. I could feel that the raven was me, as much as I was the raven, and once I knew that, the raven guided me home. When I woke up, I knew the change that I needed to make.
For Owen, he did not dream of the woods, he ran through them—but it was the spirit of the raven’s honesty that met him on the other side.
Please tell me your introduction, the nation you're from, and the work that you do?
My name is Owen Unruh and my pronouns are he/they. I’m two-spirited Nehiyaw (Cree) with family ties to Driftpile First Nation, but I was adopted and raised in a white family. I’m a wellness content creator who focuses on addiction and Indigenous identity. I approach wellness from a place of lived experience within both of those areas.
Tell me a little bit about your story and how you came to be in the position you are today with your platform and work?
I was raised in a white family and grew up queer in a town and environment that didn't accept me for who I was. Because of that, I sought acceptance and comfort in drugs and alcohol starting around when I was 16-17 years old. I had social media, but I wasn't posting anything personal or real on it. I was putting forth an image of what I wanted people to believe I was, but at the same time, I was struggling with addiction for so many years. I was living a double life. My real life was using every day and I was ashamed and trying to hide it.
I remember when I was really going through it with my addiction—there was a moment, well there were a bunch of moments, but I felt really alone. I always felt that I was supposed to help other people who are in the same situation as me by sharing my story. I knew if I ever made it out that I had to talk about it. There was a time when I had been sober for five months, but then I relapsed and had a near death experience.
Basically, I was dropped in the woods somewhere on Vancouver Island and had never been around the area before. I went to hookup with a guy and he drove me down this old logging road. I freaked out because there was something sketchy about the situation, so I left him and ran away. So, I'm in the woods and go on Facebook Live, because I'm scared. I thought I was going to die. I had never been on Facebook Live before and some people from my hometown started tuning in. They’re like, oh my gosh, I wonder what Owen has to say—this must be a special occasion. But it was just me pulling the camera down and stumbling through the forest, tweaking out. I scared a lot of people that day. After that whole episode ended, I was like, I can either lay low for a couple months and not mention it and just reemerge as if nothing ever happened, or it was an opportunity to speak on what I was going through. I don't think there was a better way to do it than to address head on what was actually going on.
From there, the first share I ever did was on YouTube—I thought I was going to be a YouTuber, but it was hard. My first video was a big trauma dump about everything I had been through over the past 10 years that people didn't know about. I was putting in a lot of work to make the videos, but I wasn't gaining much traction. Then I started posting on TikTok and that blew up pretty quickly and I just kept going from there. It wasn't all recovery related content—I was testing out other things as well. Now it's been over two years of social media, this version of Owen.
What's it like for you now on social media? You represent honesty for the Seventh Generation Wellness Series, which is clearly the most fitting for you, but what has the response been like for you over the years or sharing?
I think the response has been—overwhelming. It's very striking to me—how addiction makes you feel so alone and isolated. There I was, feeling like the only person who could possibly know the pain I was going through, but when I started to share on social media, I connected with people all over the world who shared those same experiences. There are people who have been through it, are on the other side, who are currently in it, and those who don't know how to get out of it. We're all doing this together, and it's been overwhelming, but in a good way.
In the beginning, I was really connecting with my online community but now it’s harder to get through all of my DMs so I’ve had to take a step back. I still post with the intention to help people but now I just put out what I put out and I have to trust that it affects people in the way it’s meant to. Overall, it's been such a positive response. Of course, I have some negative responses, people who don't understand addiction at all—but that's also part of why I do it. It's not just about helping people feel seen, heard, and understood in their struggles, or showing them that I made it out, that there's a way to get out, but it's also educating and normalizing. It's about reducing the stigma for people who don't understand addiction, and because they don't understand it, they treat addicts in a bad way. I want to inspire more learning and help reduce the stigma.
Indigenous knowledge is so much about speaking into our experiences—that's where our power is. No one else has our story. No one else has our gifts. Not everyone has the power and the gift to speak up, right? So many people can't find the words, and it's a journey to even find the words.
I couldn't even talk before. My throat chakra was just so blocked. I couldn't express my feelings. I couldn't even string together thoughts to make a sentence. I didn't have the confidence to speak. I just couldn't do it. I thought that there would never be a day where I would speak clearly and say what I mean. I've come a long way since then. People have told me that I've given them language to express something that they weren't able to. Or they say that I speak so clearly and love the way I speak and I never thought I would hear that. It's a lot of practice over the past couple years.
I can relate! Tell me a little bit about your wellness session within the Seventh Generation series that you did?
My wellness session was about honesty. I focused a lot on self-honesty, because I think the first step to being honest with the people around you and moving through the world in a good way is being able to look at yourself and be honest about who you are, where you're at, and be honest about the choices you make.
Honesty is the core pillar of my recovery. I had to be so honest with myself about acknowledging that I had a problem and couldn't control it. I had to be honest about that. Staying sober relies on me staying honest with myself and the people around me. That’s something I've practiced on social media as well—just bare, raw honesty at all times. There's a lot of strength in that, as well.
Absolutely. And why do you think it's important that we have Indigenous representation and inclusion within health and wellness?
I was just thinking about the medicine wheel the other day and how it's the four aspects of being and balancing those is essential to good health. In Western society, most of the wellness industry is predominantly white people who are adopting knowledge and practices from other cultures. But it's only on a surface level, they don't go deep into it. They also focus more on the physical body, and only recently the mental. Indigenous people, we know that it's physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. That's something we've always known. It doesn't make sense to not include Indigenous people in conversations when this is something we've been good at—it's our whole thing. It’s also safety.
In wellness spaces, you're already in a vulnerable place, trying to heal and when you add in being an Indigenous person, entering into those white spaces where the people don't know anything about my experience, are appropriating my cultural practices, and then not even doing it properly—it's not as safe to me as a space held by an Indigenous person with the knowledge.
I agree. I think it's really hard for our people that suffer from addiction, because we don't get the care that we need and horrible treatment ends up happening to our people.
It’s re-traumatizing. It's a cycle. It creates a feeling of not wanting to get help, because the time I got help from the people who are supposed to be the big helpers really fucked me up. It makes me not want to experience that again, not want to seek that kind of help. It keeps our people in that cycle. White people are not going to be the ones to lead us out. We have to lead ourselves out. We have to lead ourselves in healing.
Has there been a teaching or wellness practice that has been the most helpful for you on your journey of recovery?
Meditation, 100%. I started meditating in 2018 and I thought I was going to be so bad at it—and I was. But it's about constant practice. I learned it's not about sitting there with an empty mind, thoughts happen. That's completely natural. For me, it's a practice of remembering—giving myself permission to begin again. If my mind has run off on a tangent, that’s not a bad thing. It happens. It's noticing it and bringing myself back. It's given me a space between my thoughts and my reactions. So I'm not as reactive, I don't act on every thought because I know that my thoughts just happen. Every time I get triggered, I remember that. I'm able to observe the thought and ask myself if that thought is in alignment with who I want to be. It goes back to the idea of beginning again. I've relapsed several times since I first started getting clean, and meditation reminds me that it's okay to begin again.
Another wellness practice that has been really healing for me is fitness. I started running and then it turned into the gym. It's a place where I can connect with my body. A lot of my addiction was fully disconnecting me from my body, the panic attacks and the physical reactions were my body telling me I'm not supposed to be doing this. Fitness has become a way to reconnect me with my body. Ignoring what my body was telling me for so long created a practice of self-abandonment that caused a rift between my physical body and me; fitness has become a way to mend that and get back into relationship with my body.
Written by Chyana Marie Sage.