Andy Nieman’s first book, called Free Man Walking, is like a train journey through his life. Each chapter starts with a poem and takes the reader deeper into his story.
Nieman is Northern Tutchone and a member of the White River First Nation. His book, which he self-published in January, is like a journey through his healing process from residential school, addiction, incarceration and finally finding peace and happiness.
“It took me 18 years to write this book,” Nieman says. “I started and stopped after 60 pages. It was too much, I had to go through my past and live it again. I had to write about the hardest time of my life — 23 years on drugs, 10 years on skid row and 10 and-a-half years in jail.
“I feel relieved now that the book is published and I am not afraid to talk about my past.”
The book starts with Nieman’s childhood in Sleepy Hollow, a long gone part of Whitehorse, where he grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“Sleepy Hollow, was one of the rowdiest and drunkest neighbourhoods in town where people hardly slept,” Nieman says.
He describes his childhood in great detail, which brings the reader right into his past with him. The reader sees through the eyes of a half-native child, who lives in fear of an unpredictable, alcoholic mother.
Nieman was the third youngest of nine children. With his father rarely there, he lacked a male role model. He started to steal and was punished with three years in a residential school in Lower Post, B.C. when he was 10 years old — an experience that changed his life forever.
Today, Andy Nieman is a survivor of sexual abuse and is able to talk about his experience.
The chapter called “The Pedophile,” describes his abuse in Lower Post. It’s one of the heaviest chapters in the book.
“When I started healing, I finally could forgive the teacher who abused me,” Nieman says. “I could heal from my trauma and find forgiveness to what he did to me. I learned a lot about how trauma works with the brain.
“I also worked with a lot of traumatized people, who were abused in residential schools.”
The affects of residential schools are still felt today.
“It can take a lifetime to heal from that trauma,” Nieman says. “In residential school you were not allowed to talk while eating. And this woman, who is now in her sixties, still couldn’t talk every time she ate with other people. One day, I saw her at a community centre and she yelled to me: ‘Andy! I did it! I did it!’ When I asked her what had happened, she told me that she finally made conversation during lunch, for the first time, after all these years.”
Nieman says the trauma he experienced was like a never-ending nightmare.
“The abuse that happened to me brought me shame – for years I was not able to look people in the eyes,” Nieman says. “I felt like they would see all my shame.”
When he left residential school he started stealing again, and ended up in a group home. He started drinking when he was 13 years old and experimented with all kinds of drugs.
Eventually he left Whitehorse and started his life in East Vancouver’s skid row.
“I felt at home there,” Nieman says. “People there were just like me. Most of them were native, addicts, and had a messed up life. All I wanted was to get away from the violence at home and my trauma.”
He started taking cocaine and heroin, and he drank constantly.
“I felt alone, all the time,” he says. “I had friends, but my loneliness was always there.”
A lot of his friends died from drug overdoses; Nieman survived – he was alive but gripped with the dead weight of Loneliness and unhappiness. However, people would come into his life who brought light and hope.
“I had people in my life who were like angels,” he says.
One such friend was Raul, who came out-of-the-blue one night when Nieman was close to suicide. Raul offered him a place to stay and offered to pray for him.
Talking about Raul, his eyes fill with tears.
“In my past I could only cry when I was drunk or on drugs,” Nieman says. “It took time to cry in a healthy way.”
Nieman tried many ways to get away from his addictions — from Alcoholics Anonymous, to self-help-books, to native spirituality. But he always went back to drugs and alcohol.
His life changed when he was in the darkest place of his life. He cried and prayed on his knees for help.
“My prayers were answered,” he says. “Since that day, 18 years ago, I started healing. My life changed, I found a strong belief in Jesus and God, I found my truth and I am born again through my religion. Since that day I haven’t had a drink, a cigarette, or any drugs. I am a free man, now.”
Now a university graduate, he is working as a child advocate officer for the Yukon Legislative Assembly, is also a United Pentecostal pastor in Carmacks, and continues to write.
“I am working on my second book,” he says. “It was always my dream to be a writer.”
And as Nieman’s story shows, sometimes dreams can come true, even if they have to come a long way.
Andy Nieman’s book Free Man Walking is available at Mac’s Fireweed Books for $25.95, and as an e-book for $3.99 through his website www.FreeManWalking.net.
by Andy Nieman
Looked back down the road I came,
Scenes of sorrow and picture of pain,
Never wanna go back again,
Where can I catch the Future rain?
Some have laughed and called me names
Kicking a rock I carried shame,
People can play the dirtiest games,
I need to board the forgiveness train.
My love, my love was all in vain,
It left my heart with scarred up stain,
I carried a burden of bother and shame,
I missed my ride on True Love’s Train.