The Athabasca University (AU) community mourns the loss of alumna Autumne Atwood, who passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. She was 44.
Atwood was a social worker, wife, mother, mental health advocate and, later in life, writer who wrote candidly about her struggles with mental illness, including postpartum depression, in a Transforming Lives article she submitted in 2019. To celebrate her life, The Hub is republishing that piece below, followed by a tribute from one of Atwood’s professors, Dr. Angie Abdou.
Autumne Atwood: Restorying my life
I have struggled with mental health issues for nearly all my life.
In high school, I received a great deal of support that helped me to cope with severe depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite being hospitalized for six months in Grade 11, I finished high school. I started writing poetry as a means to cope with my pain. The experience of writing was very healing.
In 1996, I attended Conestoga College, followed by the University of Waterloo. I obtained a bachelor’s degree in social work and worked in my field for five years. Though my mental health persisted, this was a period in my life where I was able to thrive with my illness.
In 2006, I returned to school once again after being accepted into the social work master’s program at the University of Toronto. Once I completed my graduate degree, I moved to Thunder Bay, Ont. and worked there for several years as a social worker.
I received ongoing medical care throughout my time at university and subsequently while I was working. It has always been important to me that I acknowledge my health concerns, accept that I have an ongoing illness, and source out and accept help for my condition. This has meant continuous medication and therapy.
When my son was born in 2008, I struggled with severe postpartum depression. I was barely able to see or understand how sick I was. Following his birth, I had numerous acute hospitalizations and participated in two longer-term intensive treatment programs. These programs made a significant difference in my life, but it remained very difficult for me to manage having a child and employment. I have not worked in my field since 2012. It was extremely challenging for me to see my value while being a stay-at-home mom. In our current society, “just” being a parent is often undervalued. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of myself, and my illness.
“I struggled with severe postpartum depression. I was barely able to see or understand how sick I was.”
In 2013, I still found myself grappling with mental illness and continued to receive ongoing counselling to help me deal with my symptoms. I met my husband and made the choice to no longer be silent about my story. I talked about it. I posted things about mental illness on social media. I began writing about my struggles and successes. I stopped hiding who I was, and started to be the person I am.
Our daughter was born in 2016 and I again struggled with postpartum issues. I was able to cope with theses changes in my mental illness better with the support of my husband. We had an intimate wedding in 2017.
At the beginning of 2018, I joined our local writing group, and it changed my life. My writing friends are aware of my illness and are very accepting and supportive. My love for writing was re-ignited and I became very committed to the craft.
In September 2018, I enrolled in a creative writing course at Athabasca University. I was extremely excited about this but also very nervous. I was hesitant to put myself out there. I was afraid of rejection and worried I wasn’t smart enough anymore to complete the assignments. As I have two children, I was worried the workload would be impossible. I was scared AU was going to be just another thing I failed at. But I have learned that sometimes, you just have to go for it.
“I was hesitant to put myself out there. I was afraid of rejection … but I have learned that sometimes, you just have to go for it.”
My course has been extraordinarily interesting and very manageable. My tutor is beyond supportive and encouraging. The access to students with disabilities office has been wonderful and are available to assist me should I need help. Five months into creative writing, I have one assignment left. I plan on registering for another course in March 2019.
My experience at AU has had a rippling effect in my life. As I finish a lesson or assignment, I feel like I am completing something important. I am learning new things each day and applying them to my writing. I have more confidence and an increased sense of self.
I have even started writing a book about my mental illness. Our writing group has a reading night each month and, in December 2018, I read part of my book out loud. This was a big step for me and I never would have done that without my time at AU. I am striving to be the strongest and healthiest version of myself, and Athabasca University is a part of this journey.
Celebrating a special learner
Dr. Angie Abdou, associate professor of creative writing, shares this reflection of her student and friend:
“Autumne Atwood was not a typical AU student, if there is such a thing. She was a mother who had a career in social work and a private passion for writing. She especially loved poetry which had helped her through the hard parts of her life, including a challenging childhood that led to mental health issues in adulthood. Autumne came to AU not looking for job training or a career path, or even a degree. She wanted only to nurture her love of writing.
“She began her first AU writing course timidly, after we met at a library event in her home of Thunder Bay, but her confidence grew with each assignment. Over the following years, she took every creative writing course I offered at AU. Her love of lifelong learning, her passion for writing, her openness to exploration, creativity, and personal growth … all of these characteristics made her a delight to teach. Her writing took the challenges of her life and transformed them into literary material: raw, urgent, powerful stories full of energy and life. The above article about mental health was Autumne’s first publication and captures her strength, her resilience, and her enthusiasm for life.
“Autumne smiled until the end. She shared to the end. She wrote to the end. That’s who she was”– Dr. Angie Abdou
“When Autumne fell ill with cancer, she turned again to writing. On a private Facebook page, she documented her ferocious fight for life. She spoke candidly about her fear and sadness at leaving her young children behind and about her gratitude for the strength, support, and love of her husband. She also shared the acceptance that came from her religious faith, the certainty that she was headed somewhere better where her family would one day join her.
“Autumne smiled until the end. She shared to the end. She wrote to the end. That’s who she was—an extraordinary bright light of intelligence, creativity, and love, even in the face of impossible struggles.
“I miss her already.”