“Both of my parents suffered from serious mental health issues – my father’s depression led to homelessness for 25 years; my mother’s psychosis caused me to be miserable from the day I was born. To the outside world, I appeared to be the bright, grateful little girl of a highly educated, energetic and hardworking single mom, even though I exhibited many textbook symptoms of abuse (significant hair loss, facial tics, acute digestive issues, occasional bruises).
No adult in my life ever stepped in.
School was my sanctuary. I knew that as long as I studied hard and always handed in my homework, even the meanest and strictest teachers would like me and praise me. My fellow students, not so much. I was always very lonely.
But that bubble burst for me in grade 11. Although still a top student, a new lateness policy rendered me a delinquent who had to serve frequent detentions.
The walls of my sanctuary crumbled and so began my downward spiral.
I come from a family of scientists. My grandfather – whom I adored – was a Physics professor; I’d always dreamed of following in his footsteps to become a physicist. However, in spite of the fact that I was getting 100% in Physics, I often found myself in the principal’s office for skipping detentions. In my world – where sexual and physical abuse, degradation, humiliation, cruelty and neglect were constants – I failed to understand how skipping detentions was evil.
Any self esteem I possessed disintegrated and, believing I was too stupid to be a scientist, I decided to drop most maths and sciences.
The school wouldn’t allow me to drop the courses, so I just skipped them. My list of school infractions grew—not only was I skipping classes, I was skipping detentions, storming out of classrooms and generally being difficult and rebellious.
One day, after a particularly horrible night at home, I found myself in the vice-principal’s office, who said, “Olga, I’m worried about you. What on earth is going on?” I was so completely caught off guard that I gave an honest answer:
“Things are not good at home”, I stammered, and then burst into violent sobs.
That’s when the first of my angels came into my life. Ironically, his name was Angelo.
Angelo, a social worker in my school, spoke to me warmly. When he asked if I’d come back to talk to him again, I said yes because he asked; he didn’t demand or threaten. And he was just so nice to talk to. I opened up about how unhappy I was, confiding that I was seriously considering quitting school and leaving home to work full time.
Angelo told me about all kinds of options I had no idea existed—subsidized living, halfway houses, youth shelters, group homes. All of a sudden, graduating high school seemed possible. He took me to see a home just a few blocks from school. It seemed too good to be true—a nice place to live and eat for free, get material necessities (my mother would not buy me clothes or school supplies) and have adults around whose job it was to look after me and help me heal.
Once I escaped, my social workers told me that I didn’t understand boundaries, had anger issues and didn’t understand certain social aspects of life.
My response was “Deal with it.”
And guess what? They did!
Nicole, my primary worker, was always there for me with patience, humour and a “get-er-done” outlook. Bonnie and I spent many evenings talking about boys; what seemed like fun and lighthearted banter was slowly instilling ideas of what healthy relationships could look like. I wished I could be like Mary, who always stood her ground and never let anything or anyone get her down. Eric shared the best macaroni and cheese recipe ever with me; I still use it to this day.
Under the care and concern of my angels, I flourished – so much so that daily chores and adhering to curfew was okay.
It surprised me how much my life here replicated a “normal family”, like what I saw on TV – even though our “family” was a rotation of social workers, not parents. In addition to the chores and curfew, there was grocery shopping, meal planning, sharing dinners together, “family” meetings, arguments over who controlled the remote… even holiday and birthday gifts!
After I left, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. But I worked hard studying sociology at York University and graduated Cum Laude.
Then I nervously enrolled in York’s Physics program. Soon I was maintaining an A average, popular with fellow students, highly involved in clubs and making a name for myself with my professors and the administration. I joined and became president of the Physics Society.
Halfway through my second year, I applied for some summer research positions, not thinking anything would come of it (my self esteem still wasn’t completely up to par). Imagine my amazement when I received 4 offers! I chose to work under Dr. Cody Storry in his Antimatter Lab, where I designed and built the final stages of the McMaster Intense Positron Beamline Facility (don’t ask!).
Today, after 2 years of antimatter research, I am stationed at CERN in Switzerland as a Masters Student of Physics. I’ve won the highly prestigious Robert Tiffin Leadership and Robert Lundell Achievement Awards, not to mention the NSERC scholarship for my first year in Masters.
Thanks to Skylark – home of my many angels – I’ve learned it’s okay to ask for help. I’ve learned to love myself. I’ve learned how to be silly, have fun, grab life by the horns and squeeze everything I can out of it – every laugh, every smile, every opportunity, every grace.
I would not be where I am today without my angels, who helped me believe I was worthy of living, being loved and being cared for.
We would like to thank both Olga and Skylark Children, Youth & Families for sharing her story. Olga is an excellent example of how community mental health centres can change the lives of our children and youth. But there are currently over 12,000 kids in Ontario, just like Olga, who are waiting months to years for this life saving treatment. Sadly, some will die by suicide before they can access the mental health treatment they need. That's not right. Talk with your local MPP today and tell them that we can keep our kids out of hospitals by investing in community child and youth mental health centres like Skylark Children, Youth & Families.