IT doesn’t get better, but YOU do
IT doesn’t get better, but YOU do
I was 16 years old when I first felt the cool midnight breeze blow across my skin as I gazed up at the stars hoping they could answer all of my questions, most importantly the question of how I got to be here: homeless. I remember my first night on the streets; it was a Sunday and I had to go to school the next morning. I was in grade 11. I had just come out to my parents after years of contemplation about releasing my secret, a secret that was my sexuality of which only I knew. Why did I keep it to myself for as long as I did? Reflecting now, I can’t answer that confidently. Maybe it was because I was well perceived by my peers and didn’t want to receive any negative attention. Maybe it was because I was the student council president and the girl’s hockey team captain and didn’t want to ruin my reputation. Maybe it was because my familial values didn’t include talking about our feelings. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter on the night of December 15 in 2013. I remember the feeling in my stomach after I said the words, like the moment after the long anticipated wait at the peak of a rollercoaster when it drops from hundreds of feet above ground level. There was staleness to the air as silence filled the space in between my parents and I, and everything in my body felt tense. Those are the last concrete feelings I remember until everything began to blur together; from yelling with my parents, to consoling my younger brother who came upstairs in question of what was going on, to grabbing my favourite clothes and school books, to looking in the rear view mirror of my first vehicle that I bought with my life savings from a paper route I had since I was 9 as I watched the house I grew up in for 16 years get smaller and smaller as I drove away.
As I sat and looked up at the stars, I realized that I never did have any expectations about how the conversation with my parents about my sexuality would go, so it made sense that I never expected to end up homeless as a result of it. The days that followed were long and painful. I showered in my school gymnasium change rooms, I went to classes where I stared at the board long enough for the bell to ring and the day to end, I engaged in meaningless conversations with my friends, I read in the student council office until 9 pm most nights after school and then I tucked myself into the front seat of my car and fell asleep in the Wal-Mart parking lot. A week passed and my parents had not tried to contact me. No one at school noticed anything different about me. My teachers didn’t bother to ask why the A+ student was no longer answering questions in class. And I began to feel invisible. I started skipping class. I missed student council meetings. I went out on the ice, skated around and got back on the bench without exerting much force during the hockey games. No one noticed. I eventually made an appointment with the school guidance counsellor…actually, I made three. And I cancelled each time before I was supposed to meet. Looking back, I think that was my final cry for help, my last inch of hope that someone would notice my changes in behaviour and approach me first to take away the nerves I felt for voluntarily talking about my situation. I went to homeroom the morning after my third booked guidance counsellor appointment and I had a pink slip on my desk, which meant I was to immediately go to the guidance office. Someone noticed. I felt nervous as I walked down the hallway to the office, but I also felt hope in my situation. When I got there, the counsellor asked me why I never showed up to my appointments and why I was missing so much class. So I told her everything. The response that followed was not one that I expected of reassurance, of comfort, of sympathy, but rather the words, “I don’t know what to say,” followed by “ I am glad you have your car to keep you sheltered until you can resolve things with your parents. They love you and care about you and will reach out to you soon. This is a silly issue for them to be so upset about. You are who you are. I know you have lots of people who care about you in the meantime, your teammates, your friends, your teachers. It gets better, I promise.” I went back to my class replaying the conversation in my mind. The words “it gets better” meant nothing to me. When would it get better? How did she know that it would get better? Do I wait until it does? This affirmed what I was already feeling: powerless.
That night was the lowest point of my life. It was 3:30 am and as I sat in my car staring up at the stars, my hands were colder than the empty bottle they were holding. Memories of my family over powered my brain, events from my childhood in the times where I was oblivious to the realities of the world around me flooded my thoughts. My mind was spiralling as I pictured what my future would look like, or if I was even going to have one. Questions of what the world would be like without me and who would miss me if I wasn’t around were what I was trying to answer. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the snow that was hitting my windshield. I sat in silence, staring at each of the distinct snowflakes as they dropped on my windshield. I began to notice the sound of my breath and the simple, but revolutionary realization occurred to me; I am still breathing. From that night and the few that followed, what got me through to the next day was the simple fact that I was still breathing. I began to make this a routine, sitting in silence watching the snow fall, as I began to notice a calming sensation that silenced my thoughts each time I would do this. Eventually, over time of spending nights in silence focusing on my breathing as a reminder of my strength to live through my most difficult moments, I began to develop the skill of zoning in on my thoughts and feelings of the present. I started questioning the validity of own my thoughts in that moment and recognizing when they were negative or unrealistic. I started changing my thoughts. I started adding new thoughts, more positive thoughts that arose from the self-awareness I was building by spending nights alone focusing on my feelings. I reflected on who I was before I let the label of “homeless” define me: someone who came from a family where both parents held a grade 8 education and worked minimum wage jobs; someone who aspired to use my familial values as anti-role models and obtain the highest form of post-secondary prestige; someone who had a passion for social justice and an interest in politics and art; someone who had a compassionate heart and an analytical mind; someone who enjoyed nature and loved flowers. I was still that someone and THAT was empowering. I began to focus on my strengths, who I was, what I was capable of, regardless of the fact that I had no familial support and no home. I dusted off my passion that was covered by the debris of my life crumbling down and used it to bring change to my life. I ran for a student trustee position with the school board and was elected in a unanimous vote. I met a lot of phenomenal people in that position. I started working a full time job in a factory from 3pm-11pm after I went to school all day tirelessly trying to get my marks back up from all the time I had missed. When the time came around, I applied for university. I was accepted. I used the money I had earned from my full-time job to put a down payment on a spot in residence at the university. In the fall, I made the 6-hour drive up north and felt stronger in myself and my abilities than ever before. Ironically on my very first day of post-secondary I got a phone call from a number I recognized immediately, it was my mother. We talked for over an hour. I told her all that I had accomplished without her support and that I wouldn’t accept her apology or request to come back into my life. I was angry in that moment. I have forgiven her since then. Unfortunately I was not able to tell her that though, as she died by suicide in the summer of 2017. I have built my own family now. I have a compassionate and encouraging partner who is studying veterinary medicine and together we have three great danes: Duke, Winston, and Penguin! I am studying social work and working as a research student looking at different aspects of marginalized youth wellness. I still look up at the stars for answers. I still get chills every winter when I watch the snowflakes fall. I am constantly reminded of the challenges I endured. When the world gets too busy and I have the urge to pick up the bottle to slow everything down, I venture into nature and connect with the quiet world around me. I accept that at times, the simple fact that I am breathing is enough to get me through the day and I pay attention to that. I encourage others to pay attention to that, too. I speak to educators and healthcare professionals about the importance of teaching mindfulness to young people. I speak to professionals about the requirement of emotional labour when working with vulnerable youth and what this means. I speak to the profound impacts of structural and institutional marginalization and how to avoid perpetuating the system. I have worked with a multitude of organizations to develop policies surrounding safe schools and crisis interventions. I have travelled the nation delivering my story in hopes of empowering other marginalized youth by discussing with them that IT doesn’t get better, but YOU do. I use my passion to make change.