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Finding My Passion for Wildlife Photography Helped Me Overcome Grief and Drinking

“When I was in the garden photographing the red squirrels I could forget everything and I found peace with myself and in my head. I also reached the national geographic finals in 2019. That motivated me to enter more photography contests and take my photography to the next level. I totally stopped drinking in 2022 just to focus more on my photography.”

Hello! Who are you?

My Name is Niki Colemont, I live in Genk, Belgium and I’m 37 years old. I work for an automotive company in Belgium and my day job involves making sound-proof dashboard isolations for cars.

I’m not married but I have a girlfriend. My pets are red squirrels living in the forest and my passion is wildlife photography!

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

My depression started in the summer of 2019 when the police come to my girlfriend’s house to tell me that my sister had died. 

They had found my sister in her apartment without any info on how she died. This news had a big impact on my life because I came to Belgium in 1990 before the Rwandan genocide broke out with my sister at the age of 4.

It was hard growing up in a country without knowing the language. The money came out of the wall, snow was falling down from the sky, and I had to go to a special school because I was way behind in my knowledge. 

As a 6-year-old kid, not knowing the language I had no clue how to make friends and I was always alone and scared to talk to someone because everybody was white. My sister was 9 years old and we could connect with each other. I grew up in a white family. My adoptive family took care of both of us.

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But life doesn’t always go like you want it to go and at some point, my adoptive parents left my sister behind so she had to take care of herself at 18 because she was pregnant. I have had no contact with my adoptive parents since 2010. We only talk to each other through lawyers.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

I had the feeling that the moment my sister died that a part of my past died with it. She had all the information that I wanted from my birthplace in Rwanda and now that she is gone, I can’t get any information about my past. 

I have never had the chance to say goodbye to her and I was struggling to accept that she was gone. I thought it was a joke for a long time and that my sister would pop up someday on the street or shopping center. 

I had mental issues and I was mad because I wanted to know what had happened but I could not find any answers. I started to do research myself and talked to every neighbor I could find. They told me that I should move on and let the police do their job. 

I started to drink alcohol and lied about it to my girlfriend. I wanted to forget the pain and thought that alcohol would solve everything. As of now I still don’t know what happened to my sister but I stopped to search for answers. 

I think people around me could understand why I started to drink more and more. I’m not the kind of person who shows his emotions to somebody even to my girlfriend. They never know when I’m sad as I don’t talk about my emotions because I don’t want to involve people with my problems. 

Because I think nobody can take your pain away, it’s something you have to deal with on your own. That was my personal opinion. 

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

4 months after my sister passed away and drinking a lot of beer I slowly picked up my camera. Something in the garden of my girlfriend’s grandmother triggered me where 3 juvenile red squirrels were chasing each other.

Niki Colemont 1

I had never seen that moment before in my whole life. I have followed red squirrels since 2016.

In the fall of 18, I did not see them anymore for a long time but in August 2019 they came back. This was the moment that I needed in life to change things around, from that moment I spent all my free time with the red squirrels. 

I’m a wildlife photographer and I somehow developed a special kind of affection for squirrels. I consider them the perfect models. They can do a lot of things that humans can. They are cute, curious, persistent, and very smart.

Niki Colemont 2

When I was in the garden photographing the red squirrels I could forget everything and I found peace with myself and in my head. I also reached the national geographic finals in 2019.

Niki Colemont 3

That motivated me to enter more photography contests and take my photography to the next level. I totally stopped drinking in 2022 just to focus more on my photography.

In 2022 I achieved a significant career milestone by becoming a National Geographic photography contest winner with one of my squirrel images.

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My work has also been published online by media giants including Mirror, HuffPost UK, The Telegraph, Unilad UK, The Times UK, Bored Panda, and Daily Mail. I’m also very honored to say that I have my own 60-second documentary that has been watched over 5 million times.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

My girlfriend advised me to see a psychologist but I did not want to spend my money on that. I have spoken to a person who guided me through the process of my sister’s funeral. I have much respect for him because he had lost his wife. 

I had spoken with him about the hard life my sister had in Rwanda and that it was hard for her and me to grow up in Belgium. It was really a personal conversation I had never spoken about that to anybody! 

I was glad that I could tell him that. He told me to not give up on my passion and try to move on slowly. I can say that the thing that really helped me was my positive mindset and my love for squirrels. This keeps pushing me to move forward.

How to overcome challenges and find something you love to do? Find a good balance in your life and try to combine your passion with your daily work. This is something we all have to search for! 

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

Eventually, I spoke to my girlfriend and parents-in-law about my depression.

In 2022 I found the courage to tell them about my drinking problems because I never feel comfortable talking about my feelings. It’s hard to open myself up. I felt ashamed that I lied about it for so long. 

At some point, I had the courage to talk about it because I almost lost my job because of my drinking problems. I knew that I could not continue that way and had to talk about it. It was easier to talk to my parents-in-law because I know they would not judge me. 

They realized what was happening and they were not mad about it; they just listened to me and that was very important to me. They were happy that I wanted to work on my drinking problems. I’m 1 year and 2 months clean now.

I feel comfortable talking about my struggle now that I have a feeling that my story could help people see things differently. But I was not particularly eager to talk to my adoptive parents about it because they never believed in me from the start. 

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

My advice would be to have a positive mindset that can help you overcome your struggles. Having a positive mindset can lead to something incredible even if you don’t believe that anything positive can come your way. 

Try to talk about your emotions to somebody you trust it’s easier to talk to somebody who feels the same. It’s not a shame to show your emotions. I have learned that you’re not alone in these feelings. Everyone has to face their own set of challenges. 

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

I don’t read!

Where can we go to learn more about you?

You can find me on Instagram and Facebook.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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