David is 17 and has been in Toronto for five months, during which time he has gotten transitional housing, a job at Shopper’s Drugs Mart, and enrolled at an Independent Learning Centre. He looks his age and dresses ‘preppy’; there is a faux sophistication in how he interacts, and he describes a history of social exclusion for socially awkward behavior. He vehemently rejects a diagnosis of autism. He was desperate to leave his farm home, for reasons that he doesn’t articulate very clearly, and after a period of school and social difficulties, running, cutting and a hospital assessment, he ran away to Toronto. He is fairly focused on getting a university education and a good-paying career. He articulates an interesting perspective on the short-comings of the shelter system for youth like himself, and the ethical dilemmas of involving child welfare.
FM: Okay. Let’s start by you telling me a bit about where and how you were raised, who was in your family, what they did for a living, etc...
I was raised on a farm. My dad has nine years of university education and my mom about three years of college education. They both own small businesses. My dad makes about $10,000 a year, my mom makes about $30,000 a year.
FM: And any sibs?
Yes, one, an older brother. He’s three years senior.
FM: And do your folks farm as well, or is it more a ‘hobby’ farm?
No, the land is rented out.
FM: Okay. So you just turned 17. Talk a bit about when you started to think about leaving home.
I started to think about leaving home when I was about 14, 15. I’ve been planning it a loooong time. So I’ve had lots of run-away plans since I was about, before I was 16. When I turned 16 I went and got a full-time job at Tim Hortons. And there I planned on moving into an apartment using the money, stuff like that. But it didn’t go so well, because doing my schooling, I had to move into virtual. So when I tried to move into virtual, it took a long time because the school was trying to keep their funding
FM: You mean, they didn’t want you to leave?
Yes. So after that I ended up losing my job because of scheduling issues, and I got to move into virtual. I ended up living at home which was where I desperately didn’t want to be. So after that I spent about one year by myself at home with my parents doing virtual education and not being able to go to school.
FM: So this would be grade 9 or 10?
Grade 11. Grade 9, 10 I spent at the high school.
FM: I’m gathering you didn’t get along well with that high school.
No. I had mental health issues. I had mental breakdowns in the classroom and stuff like that and I was told that nothing should be done about it and I didn’t deserve any counseling because the school said I was autistic and these were autistic breakdowns. I brought to my high school a doctor’s note saying I was not autistic, from my GP, and they told me I needed to have my GP there at the school for them to consider it. They ignored my doctor’s note.
In May 2012, I ended up in a mental health ward where my psychiatrist told me I had ADD and bi-polar but I wasn’t autistic, which is what my school was telling me. And then, when I ran away and I was in the emergency department because I was homeless at the time and didn’t know where to go, I did a 2-hour interview with an emergency psychiatrist and at the end of the interview she said I was most likely borderline.
FM: So that was just a few months ago, you were 16, and you’d been out of the high school for –
A little over a year, probably about ten months.
FM: And where are your parents on all this?
My parents, they’re still up north. They’re concerned about my health, very. The thing is that I’ve always told them there have been problems but they don’t do anything about it. And now they’re willing to make some changes but they’re not willing to get rid of the core problems or anything like that. Basically, alleviate the symptoms but not treat the problem itself.
FM: And what would you say the core problem is?
Being socially isolated and being stereotyped and pitied by my family.
FM: For what?
The pity for the social isolation. There’s this one dinner party at my uncle’s who lives right next to my grandparents, and I went to Starbuck’s to do schoolwork for Internet access and the like because I was in grade 11 at the time, and when I went back I was told to go to my uncle’s because they were having a dinner party. When I got there I got a steak and food and I tried talking to my family but my cousin kept making comments that I had bad social skills and the like. I argued with him a lot about it and I could tell in my uncle’s face, my aunt and stuff like that, that they pitied me for stuff that wasn’t true. And I got really aggravated during that dinner and my grandmother was really drunk and she went to tickle me in the stomach and I took it for offence and I hit her in the arm instinctively. Before she did, she told me I was really weird and stuff and that got me really angry. So after that I sat down and I sort of ruined the dinner and everyone started leaving and my grandmother was really really angry and my uncle basically told me in a really calm voice to get out of the house. When I exited, the aunt followed me out and after we got out, my aunt screamed at me that I should never see lights again.
FM: I don’t understand ‘lights’ –
Daylight. When I got back to my grandfather’s, which was where I was going to be sleeping, my grandfather told me how much he should beat me up and stuff like that. I stood my ground and told him how much I was aggravated and I wouldn’t apologize or anything like that, and basically I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the house. My dad was really really sad and he just took me home at 2:00 in the morning. And he lied to my mother and told her it was because it was other family were staying at my grandfather’s and he didn’t have any spots.
FM: So when does it seem to you that your family began to see you as ‘weird’ or socially awkward?
Um, since my childhood. During my childhood I didn’t have many friends. My mom told me that I was an independent person, wasn’t a team player or anything like that, even before my personality had grown in.
FM: So she didn’t think you were weird, just different, independent, which is a good thing. Yeah?
Yes, but at the time that wasn’t very good because I never got a chance to learn or be proactive socially.
FM: And when did you begin to feel out of step at school, socially?
The earliest I can remember is probably grade 1, very young. Probably questioning why people would want to speak to me or anything like that.
FM: Are your parents socially –
They’re not socially awkward.
FM: Your brother?
He was bullied when he was a child but now, not now.
FM: Is he still at home?
No, he moved out when he was 20 and went to college.
FM: Were you a good student, academically?
No. I got Bs and Cs in public school. The only A I probably got was in art in grade 5. I remember that.
FM: Rare As are a memorable event! So childhood sounded pretty unhappy.
FM: And how did planning to run away seem to you to solve that problem? I’m assuming it seemed like a solution of some sort, and I’m enquiring about in what way it seemed a solution?
To me, when I lived in the [my home community], it was that I was bullied from like the first day of school to when I exited to virtual.
FM: And did people know this? Did they do anything about it?
No. Lately I posted on line because of Amanda Todd [a youth who posted a video with placards explaining why bullying drove her to suicide] because people were upset about that. I posted a very angry status about how I was bullied and how I once spent about an hour in a subway station contemplating suicide. I got responses from people not knowing that I was bullied. I was very very smart, that stood out in the messages I got. Every time they wrote smart I wanted to go cut myself.
FM: I’m a bit confused here. So you posted that you had been bullied, and –
FM: – and people responded –
By telling me how smart [I was], and the problem with that was that that wasn’t true. When I was a student I really wanted to go to university and complete high school in three years. I made that very explicit. People thought I was arrogant and stuff like that but I kept telling people that I just wanted to leave faster.
FM: Okay. Let me go at it this way – obviously you were very unhappy in ‘the boonies’ and I think thought that going to a larger centre would solve that in some way, and I’m wanting to hear more about how you thought it would solve things. Invisibility? More ‘different’ people so you wouldn’t stand out?
I wanted to go to the city because where I lived there wasn’t any stores, it was really rural. To me the city was, like, everything was within a block, all the amenities and that. Now that I’m here, it’s really two or three blocks.
FM: Does having the amenities more easily available make you fit into society any better, in your estimation?
I don’t care about fitting into society.
FM: But you cared about being excluded and made fun of.
I cared about having people to talk to.
FM: And have you found people here to talk to?
FM: Where? How?
In the shelter system. When I was coming here for the interview, I probably had an hour free time and I was going to Canadian Tire because I’m looking to buy a bicycle rather than paying for a Metro pass, and I saw a friend from an old shelter I went to. I didn’t really notice him at the time until he said my name and said Hi and [we] practically walked around the streets until I had to come here.
FM: Okay, so in the shelter system, you’re more ‘normal’ than you were in your rural community?
No, just that I’ve got people to talk to. Because back at home, there wasn’t anyone.
FM: They weren’t there, like there really was an absence of people, or you and they couldn’t talk, as in connect?
I was desperate for friends and people wouldn’t really be my friend because they could sense that desperation. Nobody wants a ‘des friend’.
FM: Okay. So what’s the plan going forward?
Going forward, I’m trying to hold down a full-time job right now and do full-time schoolwork. It’s really hard. Not keeping up to my school work as I should be.
FM: And where are you going to school?
The Independent Learning Centre.
FM: And what do they do there? What -
It’s an on-line high school. Everything is completely on line.
FM: So you go there to get on the computer and do your thing,
It’s just an office.
FM: So no human supports?
No, it’s independent.
FM: Is this the educational option you would prefer, or simply the one that’s available?
This is the educational option I prefer because it allows me to work. It would have been really helpful if it had been grade 9 or 10 because then I would have been able to finish high school when I was in [my home community] and be able to get into stabilized housing such as residence at university.
FM: And what kind of work are you doing, and how did you experience job hunting in the city?
Job hunting wasn’t really hard. I sent out tons of resumes and the first interview I got was at Shopper’s and I got the job right off the bat. It was also the first choice job I wanted because I would be spending a lot of money on groceries and staff discount really helps at 30%.
FM: They’re a bit short on fruit and vegs? Big on chips and dip?
All expensive stuff, that’s what I want. When I get my paycheck I’m looking to get a bicycle and hopefully a miniature refrigerator so I can get dairy products and sandwich meats and stuff like that.
FM: Would you describe your current living situation?
Currently I’m living in a warehouse with 48 room-mates. I have my own room. I won’t put anything in the fridge because I know it will get stolen. It’s a $0 apartment and it’s pretty disgusting. You get what you buy.
FM: What other options did you consider?
I considered going in towards an apartment but right now that’s not economical. And living in shelter is helpful. This shelter that I’m living in has a waiting list and I’ve been in it for two weeks. Before that I was in another shelter that I could get in off the streets, and that was in downtown Toronto. And before that, I was in another drop-in emergency shelter up in Eglinton which was where my hospital sent me [to] when I ran away.
FM: Okay, so is this the sequence? Got the job at Tim Hortons near home, didn’t work out, went back home, then the incident at your uncle’s house, back to home for awhile, then got depressed and hospitalized, ran from the hospital and –
Not that hospital.
FM: Fix that sequence for me.
Grade 11 got the job at Tim Hortons in Rapidsville. Before I could move out I had to go into virtual education, that took too long, and I ended up without the job and at home. During that time I’ve had other full-time jobs but the stress at home made me lose it. I ended up in a mental health ward in May, in Littletown.
FM: And that’s the one you ran away from?
No. I didn’t run away from the hospital. So after that I got discharged, sent back home. On August 8th I ran away. What caused me to run away was that there had been no water in the house for three days. I hadn’t done washing or laundry, anything like that, for three days, toilets were really bad. So my dad asked me to pack all my stuff and take it to my grandparents’ to get washed. And I jumped at the chance because my grandparents are in Pickering right next to the Go station. So from there I went from the Go station to Toronto, getting off at Union, went to a hostel which was St. Michael’s. And I spent the night over there, and they sent me to the shelter on Eglinton. From there I went to a shelter in downtown Toronto and got a full-time job, and then I went to the other shelter that I’m at now, presently. So that’s the sequence of events.
FM: Just to clarify a bit – I don’t know of St. Michael’s except as a hospital. Is there a St. M’s shelter as well?
No, I spent the night in the Emergency.
FM: That’s where I got all confused. When you got on the Go train, did you have the plan to find a shelter, or were you -
No, I just told myself to go to St. Michael’s and have them do it all for me. I’m pretty sure they’ve gotten guys like me before.
FM: And how would you define ‘guys like me’?
FM: How did you know about or learn about St. Michael’s?
When I got off at Union I sat down at a coffee place and Googled for the nearest hospital.
FM: Were you feeling suicidal?
FM: Just desperate?
FM: Okay. Just to check out my list – we’ve talked housing, education, employment, and mental health. Anything re physical health or involvement with the justice system that we’ve missed?
No. As far as the justice system, I had a principal in public school who called the CAS on my parents, that’s about it. My parents have sent out amber alerts before. When I first ran away and recently when I got home from work, after not sleeping for two days because of the stress and the problems with not being in stabilized housing, that wasn’t fun. Guess what, you’re missing. That’s not something you want to come home to.
FM: Did they not know where you were? Were they worried about you -
FM: But they appreciate that you aren’t coming home?
Yes. Just don’t like it sometimes. My brother stayed there until he was 20. He didn’t want to go to college. Right now he’s living with my grandparents.
FM: You started off by describing your parents as both being quite educated. Do they aspire to that for their kids and has that been an issue?
My father wants me to but his views are really unrealistic, such as Harvard and Hawaii. They don’t have the money to pay for that. Nor do I have the marks.
FM: Do you think this story would be significantly different if your family lived in Toronto, or say Pickering, but not rurally?
I think I’d have had more problems with the justice system if I lived in an urban environment. I think my childhood would have been a lot more pleasant if my parents were to have lived a more emotionally – if they didn’t think of me as a machine. They tend to break everything down into logic rather than emotions.
FM: Let me go back to the comment about the legal system – why would you have had more contact with the legal system in an urban environment?
Because when I was a child I was very very depressed and that tended to come out in irritability.
FM: So friction in the family, and also in the community?
FM: Were you diagnosed and/or treated for depression as a child?
No. I had my first diagnosis when I was 13, for Asperger’s. I went to an Asperger’s camp and I was very different than the other kids. It was really vexing. Basically you’re with people, like five or six other kids who are nothing like you. I wanted to talk about – well, practically I just wanted to talk – and they were more into video games and things like that. Like I had a WII when I was a kid but I sold it when I was 14 because I wanted the money.
FM: So just to clarify, you didn’t have involvement with the legal system, just a brush with CAS.
FM: Okay, are we ready for my finish-up questions or is there more?
No, not really.
FM: Allrighty… For the people who will read this story, to give it the shape and focus you intend, what would you say is the most important event that influences how this story is unfolding. It could be something that happened, or something that didn’t happen, an absence of some sort.
Are you asking me what made me want to run away and stuff like that?
FM: If that’s the most important event or element of this story, yes.
Well, what made me want to run away was that I was Skyping with this friend who is also a self-harmer like me, and she cut herself to the point where there was fatty tissue coming out and I practically had an anxiety attack. And that was after my dad had asked me to pack all my stuff away, and I decided at that moment that if I stayed at home, that’s what would happen, that I would cut myself that deep. I’d be that miserable.
FM: So – we didn’t talk about you self-harming very much – you mentioned it once before. How important was that or is that in this story?
Very important because it was practically at the point where I started to realize that I absolutely hated it there, to the point where I knew if I stayed another year, I’d be all scarred up.
FM: How old were you when you started cutting?
FM: I said, hmmm, because two things, one is my impression is that cutting is much less common among boys than girls, and that 16 is fairly late for onset of that as a symptom. But I might be wrong -
You’re right. Before 16 there wasn’t really much self-harm, and girls do cut a lot more than boys.
FM: Okay, so the most important event was your friend going to where you were afraid you would head if you didn’t get out, so it was the signal for you to get gone…
FM: Alrighty. Next finish-up question: People who read this story will be forming an opinion of how they think it’s going to turn out, for good or not so good. What is your opinion about that? How do you think this story will unfold, good? Not so good? Are you optimistic or not so much?
I think I’ll be able to get my schooling done in the next two years. I’m not so sure about university. I’m thinking about going into the Canadian Forces as an aviation mechanic because my paternal grandfather used to fly bomber planes in World War Two and my maternal grandfather helped build the Avro Arrow engine system, he was the chief engineer.
FM: So it’s in your genes?
Kinda, yeah. I think it’s cool. But I’d like to go into physics and astronomy and get a degree in that. Or off to medical school and become a psychiatrist or become a physicist.
FM: Okay, so two more questions, advice questions. What advice would you give your younger self, whether or not that younger self would take that advice, what advice that you think would make this story better or easier or smoother or whatever?
To my younger self? I’d say get out of there as soon as you turned 16. There was one day before I turned 16, I was on a holiday all by myself, paid for all by myself, and I was going home to a birthday because I had to, and I thought to myself I should just spend one night on the street and get it all over with. I’d probably advise myself to go into hospital for a night or something like that. I would have been eligible the next night to go into a shelter. I wish I had known that at the time. I’d done all this planning before and I was still naïve.
FM: Okay. So the last advice question is: What advice would you give to those of us who would wish to be helpful to young people like yourself, what advice that would have made this story unfold better, easier, whatever?
When it comes to the rural environment I lived in, I would really have liked people that could have helped me. Instead the authoritative people shut out those who did try to help me.
FM: Who were the people who tried to help? You haven’t mentioned them.
When I was in math class once I had my worst mental breakdown yet, and the math teacher sent me to the office and he accompanied me, and with my Vice Principal present, he asked me if there were any family problems that were stressing me out, and before I could answer my VP told him that I was autistic. That didn’t help much.
FM: Did your parents think you were autistic?
Yes, they stereotyped me as that.
FM: Okay, so the advice to us would be… to
Basically my advice to you is to change the shelter system up a bit so that the people who are responsible, not into drugs and stuff like that, could have a bit more leeway. Like the shelter that I’m at, I’m referred to and it’s for people to learn how to be on their own. But the shelter I’m hoping for is one where – it would be referral based and not have any substance abuse relations, not accept anyone who currently or has abused drugs, or if they have they’d have to express deep remorse towards it. So that some kids who are entering the shelter system and are responsible don’t have to be exposed to the sex trade or drug dealing or anything like that. I know I would have liked that. Basically, a cleaner one too.
FM: So who is responsible for cleaning in your current place?
Just the residents, but they don’t have to actually clean. You don’t get discharged for it and it gets pretty disgusting in there. Like the appropriate shelter that isn’t like any other shelter, basically a high-quality one. Like I hear Covenant House is high quality but that’s too strict, and it’s a drop-in and emergency shelter and lets prostitutes and drug addicts in; that isn’t helpful for kids like me who want to go to university and don’t want to have anything to do with things that could hinder those plans.
FM: What did you mean that Covenant House is ‘too strict’?
I heard from one person that he’s been discharged eight times. Like if you do one thing wrong, like you always have to have socks on or something. It’s just crazy strict, screwed up strict. Like a nice shelter where you know the kids are responsible and you’re providing shelter with the confidence that these kids would be able to be ethical per se.
FM: Okay. Let me ask: would a more individualized living situation suit you better? Like for example if someone could help you find an affordable room with facilities in a private house or something like that, where you could have more control over things being the way you want them to be. Would that work?
Maybe. But I wouldn’t be able to save for university. When you’re 17 years old, do you really want to be living by yourself? No. Nobody wants to be living by yourself when you’re 17years old. That’s why there’s parents but mine made me miserable to the point where my mental health took precedence over my education.
FM: The CAS system is supposed to be a solution to that kind of problem – parents driving kids crazy – and had you been in it before you turned 16, you might have been supported through to your early 20s. Did you ever think about that route, or did you know about it?
I felt that if I called the CAS my parents – that would make them bad people. And they weren’t really. They were good people but not good for parenting.
FM: Yeah, the CAS may well not have been able to be helpful in that situation, because you’re right, there is the implication that -
FM: Okay, I think that does it for me. Anything else you’d like to add?
Um. No not really. If there is anything, I’d let you know.