Eat, Move, Learn, Heal

Everrrr sexy!” That’s what Jennie Vandermeer’s spouse James exclaimed last April when she walked into the kitchen while he was cooking dinner. Vandermeer, who was wearing bush clothes, moccasins and a parka, realized her husband was seeing her as she truly is: a resilient, confident, strong Dene woman. Along with that awareness, she also realized she had a name for her new online health and wellness support group and coaching business. “You know something is badass when ‘Everrrr’ is in front of it,” she laughs.

Badass is right. The 39-year-old Sahtúot’ı̨nę mother from Délı̨̨nę posts videos doing lunges in a canvas wall tent using a cooler as a step, speaks candidly about struggles with depression and her on-going work in recovery from alcohol addiction, and her Instagram photos often feature caribou bone marrow or trout from Sahtú (Great Bear Lake). “Eat Dene béré” (traditional foods), she tells her followers. “Our ancestors had it right!” It’s all part of an online business model that allows her to bring Everrrr Sexy Health & Wellness to women across the NWT.

“Here I am Googling, ‘how to get fit when you are a recovering alcoholic and Indigenous woman’, there wasn’t anything. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in recovery stories.”

The energetic Vandermeer, who works full-time as an environmental impacts analyst with the territorial government, devotes herself part-time to the four prongs of her online business. She hosts a free, women-only, private support group on Facebook that provides a safe place for women to post and share their experiences. Everyone can check out her public Facebook page exclusive to her posts. Then there’s a group coaching platform that includes pre-made online workouts, meal plans, support and motivation for clients willing to pay $­­­­200 for the first month, then $160 each month after. She also works as an in-person motivational speaker and health and wellness workshop facilitator.

Most of the people accessing her online platforms are northerners and the majority are Yellowknife-based women. Jody Pellisey, a 44- year-old Yellowknifer and executive director of the Wek’èezhìı Renewable Resource Board, credits social media for keeping her motivated since she joined the program last August. “I got a lot of comments and encouragement on the posts I made where I described my progress and feelings. It’s a positive space,” she says. “Body positivity is important to me, so it isn’t about losing weight but about being healthier and self care.”

While following a rigorous wellness regime led to Vandermeer shedding about 30 pounds, she says her online program is about so much more than weight loss. “I didn’t start Everrrr Sexy to just help people get into their skinny jeans,” she laughs. The program has allowed her to support other people in reaching holistic health and wellness goals while she continues to work through her own recovery from alcohol addiction.

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Vandermeer describes her childhood as loving, but also points out numerous negative experiences all too common in the North. As she captions it, “Trauma, Trauma, Trauma”… a reality of growing up in a community where multiple generations have been impacted by residential school. Addictions at home, abuse, a teen pregnancy, a growing dependency on alcohol and a continuing pattern of abusive relationships followed her into adulthood. On December 17th, 2016, she woke up with another hangover, coupled with a deep realization – if she didn’t make changes in her life immediately, something terrible would happen.

“When I quit drinking a dam burst. I was crying and laughing simultaneously. I thought I was losing my mind,” she remembers. This flood of emotions was hard to deal with. “The first few months [of sobriety] were hell but I’m so glad I did it. I’m still here. I didn’t die.” Rather than turn back to alcohol or another dysfunctional relationship to deal with struggles of recovery, she put every ounce of her energy into working out because she found that exercise was helping her process the trauma and emotion in her body.

She sought out a support group where she could connect with other northern women and realized that support group didn’t exist. “Here I am Googling, ‘how to get fit when you are a recovering alcoholic and Indigenous woman’, there wasn’t anything. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in recovery stories.” She wanted to share her story, but didn’t think she was qualified. So she took a number of fitness certifications, enrolled in the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition and started the support group she knew was needed. In just a year she has more than 450 followers on her Everrrr Sexy Health & Wellness Facebook page and around 700 in the women-only support group.

While Everrrr Sexy came from a desire to support Indigenous women, Vandermeer also has many non-Indigenous clients. “At first I was targeting Indigenous women,” she says. “I thought it was the cultural norm that we have this tougher life. In reality being the best version of yourself applies to all women.” Heather Nakehk’o is a cabinet policy advisor with the territorial government in Yellowknife. The 42-year-old, non-Indigenous mother signed up for Everrrr Sexy last September. She appreciates the northern perspective that Vandermeer brings to health and wellness. “I like how she changes up the personal development such as, ‘traditional Tuesdays’ where she’s encouraging people to get out on the land, celebrate culture and be connected,” says Nakehk’o. “I think that’s really important and has made a big impact on the people that are part of her program, Indigenous or non-Indigenous.”

Vandermeer sees social media as key to Everrrr Sexy’s success. She is able to make a first connection, which isn’t easy to do in remote northern communities. Plus, people can choose how much they want to engage with her, which can be less intimidating than a workshop setting.

Using a social media platform has also allowed her to build her business into her already jam-packed life. The mother of a 20-year-old daughter continues to work full-time while running her business, taking online classes and managing a busy family household. With so much going on, Vandermeer says it’s convenient to be able to work anywhere there’s cell service. “I can work from bed, late at night in my pyjamas if I need to.” There’s also the creative freedom that comes with entrepreneurship. “Lots of people give me ideas, but no one is directing me.”

Still, using social media as a business platform has challenges. People in larger southern cities might have a sense of anonymity in their online posts, but in the North, it simply isn’t possible. “I’ll post something super personal and then bump into three people at the Northern store who have read it,” she says. In one video, Vandermeer records herself en route to the health care clinic to talk to a professional about adjusting her antidepressants prescription because she is finding winter hard. “It’s okay if you need extra help,” she says in the video. “You’re human. I’m human. Fuck what anyone else thinks. Life can be hard. If you need some help to get through it, then do it.”   

That honesty resonates for many of her clients. “No matter what she is talking about, she’s not sugar coating anything,”says Nakehk’o.

To counter some of the heaviness of recovery, Vandermeer brings humour to Everrrr Sexy by posting funny photos and memes. With her large, contagious laugh, humour also helps her feel comfortable talking about hard subjects, “The things no one wants to talk about. Besides, Indigenous people are always laughing about the most horrible things. It’s a part of who I am.”

She recently broadened her online presence to include coaching. Last August, she was test-coaching with three of her cousins in the Sahtu. But helping them plan and prepare meals, recording exercise videos and doing weekly follow-ups took too much time, so she joined an online group-coaching forum. Today she coaches 50 clients through the platform, providing them access to workout videos, motivation and support through small, private online groups.

Vandermeer sees the hope her online presence has given others. “I’m proof you can go from one extreme to another. You can be in a really dark place and get through it. I get messages from people every week, they went to their first (AA) meeting, or bought their last bottle of wine. They feel more comfortable being intimate, or able to play with their grandkids. Just this week a woman messaged me for advice on how to leave an abusive relationship.” When she receives serious questions, such as how to leave an abusive partner, she follows the training she took in her mental health first aid course, encouraging them and providing information about accessing professional resources. She tells people seeking a counsellor to treat it like dating because you often have to meet several counsellors before you find one you click with.

Ultimately, she says the message of Everrrr Sexy Health & Wellness is working to be the best version of yourself in all aspects of your life. For her, that’s being comfortable expressing feelings in healthy ways, respecting herself, passing respect on and having a spiritual connection so she isn’t reaching outside of herself. “It’s finding a balance – hard work, but rewarding.”

Denenı̨́ Nátse, a Sahtúǫt’ı̨ne Yatı̨́ (North Slavey) term meaning to have a strong, powerful mind, to be resilient, captures her feelings about Everrrr Sexy the best. “Remember you have the strength and resiliency of your ancestors in your blood,” she writes in a post. “You can get through whatever challenges you’re facing. Denenı̨́ Nátse.
                                                                                                     
Vandermeer can be found on Facebook and on Instagram

5 Health & Wellness Tips from Everrrr Sexy’s Jennie Vandermeer

1.Decolonize your diet!
We are fortunate to live in the North and have access to some of the healthiest food in the world: Dene béré (“traditional food”) such as caribou, fish, berries, and moose. These foods are filled with the nutrients that our bodies need. If you can, try to eat Dene béré instead of store-bought food.

2. Move your body
I love how exercise makes me feel. I’ve never regretted doing a workout. Those endorphins! Exercise is not only good for the body, it’s also great for the mind. Instead of reaching for a beer or chocolate bar next time you feel stressed, try doing a workout to feel better.

3. “Got trauma?”
Real change will only occur if you decide that it’s time. It’s so important to relearn healthier coping mechanisms. If you feel like you’re struggling and might need some help, there are lots of resources out there. Here’s a few places you can call to talk to someone:
• 24-hour NWT Helpline: 1-800-661-0844
• Indian Residential School Counseling: 1-800-464-8106
• First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Helpline: 1-855-242-3310
• Shepell (for GNWT staff): 1-800-387-4765
• Tree of Peace Friendship Centre (YK): 867-873-2864

4. Identify your hunger
Are you physically hungry or is it emotional? If it’s emotional (say stressed or bored) you will crave specific foods like chocolate or carbs, but if it’s physical, a piece of boiled chicken. If you are physically hungry – go eat! But if it’s emotional, drink some water or tea and go for a walk. 

5. Reconnect
I have been working on building my resiliency by reconnecting with my culture and the land. I’m fortunate that I have people in my life who are willing to help me do this. There are many lessons and skills that I have let yet to learn as a Dene woman; I’m looking forward to it! If it’s an option for you, reach out to those you know who are getting out on the land. 
 

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