A Story of Resilience and Restoration
All of us are on a health journey. At any juncture along the way, we may need to make a U-turn or recalculate the direction we will take. Our Health MattersTM relishes connecting with our racially and culturally diverse community members.
This interview with Chageekee Owen Blackwood gave us an opportunity to get to know him and celebrate his journey.
OHM: Where you are from; describe your Native American affiliation; what is your Native American name and its meaning? What are some tribal traditions you and your family practice that supports your health and wellness — mind, body and spirit? Is there a native symbol that holds a special meaning to you?
Owen: I am originally from the Lawrence area, but have lived all over and worked in the Kansas City area throughout my life. I am a member of the Kickapoo Nation in Kansas, as well as Potawatomi and Cherokee. My Kickapoo name is Chageekee, which means “all encompassing thunderstorm” or the biggest part of the thunderstorm. Traditionally, we have certain foods that I was taught from a young age to pay certain attention to within my diet, such as berries and squash that I always understood as a way to share something with nature and be grateful for. In a similar manner, I was taught regularly to give special reverence to nature and everything around me, including my own health and state of being. Given that the Native American Church is a sort of spatial religion or belief, everything around me is something I consume, whether it be a part of my physical diet, mental or emotional state, and should be something to be considerate of. The symbol of a thunderbolt or a thundercloud has always had special meaning to me, being the boldest thing about the thunderstorm and the most prominent thing that comes to mind when thinking of my name or the meaning behind it.
OHM: What happened that caused your health to spiral out of control and what are the realities that you faced?
“UPON GETTING OUT OF THE HOSPITAL THE SECOND TIME, I KNEW THAT IF I WAS TO EVEN HAVE A CHANCE AT SURVIVAL, I WAS GOING TO HAVE TO COMPLETELY REBUILD MYSELF IN WAYS I HADN’T EVEN CONCEIVED WERE POSSIBLE AT THAT POINT IN MY LIFE.”
Owen: What really caused my health to spiral out of control was ultimately my loss of control over alcohol and avoiding any sense of real accountability in my own life. I had years of unresolved trauma I wasn’t addressing with tools like therapy, that I was masking or simply trying to ignore that caused me to become a destructive person, with actions rooted in fear and reactivity. I couldn’t point to a single relationship with anyone interpersonally that was healthy or wasn’t strained in some way because of this.
OHM: What was the turning point that made you want to shift and do some-thing different?
Owen: What really caused me to make a change was when I ended up in the hospital about a year and a half ago. I was the epitome of bad health. I was eating anything bad you can imagine, drinking excessively, and was at an unhealthy weight of 440 pounds. I found myself spiraling further towards death at an alarming rate and got incredibly close. I got so sick that even in my state of denial and depression, I asked someone to take me to the hospital. Upon arrival, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and was actually in triple organ failure.
The doctors didn’t think that I was going to make it through the first night there, and I had to be medicated to stop having seizures due to alcohol withdrawal. After the first day, the doctors weren’t sure how long I had left, and the odds I was given were less than 15% that I would survive at all, but not much longer than a month. I regularly had to go to the hospital and actually got readmitted a few weeks later. I was given poor odds of survival at that point and was in the process of getting on lists for organ transplants, if I survived.
Upon getting out of the hospital the second time, I knew that if I was to even have a chance at survival, I was going to have to completely rebuild myself in ways I hadn’t even conceived were possible at that point in my life.
OHM: What did you do to start your transformation?
Owen: Diet wise, I was very strict and cut out as much sugar and sodium as I could for awhile. I only ate egg whites, plain yogurt and oats, and plain baked potatoes with a lot of arugula and kale. Chicken was the only meat I ate. I would do yoga for an hour every day with weight training mixed in on alternating days, with nothing too heavy for awhile. I really focused on taking small walks daily trying to work my way up to a mile a day at first, with jogging a mile being the end goal.
OHM: What have been the most difficult and the easiest parts of committing to improving your health and way of life?
Owen: The most difficult parts of committing to being actually healthy and leading a life of wellness have been the mental and emotional aspects. Going to therapy and accepting myself and my mistakes, and who I was up to my turning point were and still are the hardest parts of growing into who I want to become. Forgiveness for myself and compassion towards the weaker parts of myself were the hardest lessons of them all, but easily the most rewarding and important.
The easiest part of improving my life is definitely the physical aspect of wellness. For me, this involves getting enough sleep, making sure I get enough of the right nutrients, and physical activity, because it really is a gift to be able to treat myself the right way every day.
OHM: Outside of your own self-determination, where did you find help and support?
Owen: Oddly enough, I actually found great support online through social media, where I was able to find like-minded people and build a network of friends and mentors in similar situations. I also found support and a space to grow in family around me, and among my closest loved ones.
OHM: Has your Native American heritage helped you succeed in your transformation to live healthier?
“ON THE DAYS WHEN THINGS ARE HARDER, IT CAN BE EASY TO LOOK TO MY ANCESTORS FOR INSPIRATION…”
Owen: My heritage has definitely played a large role in motivating me to keep growing and pursuing what I feel is almost tradition not only to survive, but to really thrive. On the days when things are harder, it can be easy to look to my ancestors for inspiration to keep going and trying my hardest for those in my family in the past, and those in the Native community around me today. I want to be the role model I desperately needed as a young Native American man.
OHM: How long has it taken for you to arrive at a healthier place? How are you today?
Owen: It has taken me a year and a half to get to where I am today. I’ve lost 190 pounds, but gained so much in terms of emotional and mental wellness and ways to move through life as a healthy individual. I am healthier and happier than I’ve probably ever been in my life.
OHM: What advice you would give to others who may be facing some of the challenges that you have overcome?
Owen: The biggest piece of advice I have for others is that it’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to struggle. But please ask for help, and please keep trying. Whatever that looks like, please keep striving to grow and accept yourself for where you’re at. If you can at least accept where you’re standing, that’s the best place to put your feet to step upward and onward.
OHM: What is your vision for your future?
Owen: For my future, I plan on opening and managing my own gym and overall Wellness Center someday. I plan on helping as many people as I can to reach heights they never imagined, whatever that looks like. I would also like to one day start a foundation specifically for Native Americans to feel safe and where wellness and health are accessible and attainable for them in a real way, and they have representation in the health community.
Owen is a certified personal trainer and fitness trainer at Planet Fitness, a national fitness chain. He helps clients focus on sustainable health for an overall sense of wellness.