Miller is 26 and works in Toronto; I interviewed her in her office. She initially questioned whether she met the criteria of ‘insecurely housed’, but decided she did. She presents as a competent, self-confident young woman who wears her authority comfortably. She speaks quickly and didn’t always wait for me to catch up with her, expanded with some off-the-record details, but eventually reveals a story with what I saw as surprising contradictions, a testament to her resilience and drive. She comes from a challenged but supportive family. She had a serious congenital condition and was a ‘Sick Kids’ kid’. She overcame bullying to become an athlete, a scholar, and the school’s drug dealer. A post-secondary sports scholarship was lost to a car accident injury. She leveraged extended family support, hard work and chutzpah into a college education and has worked her way into and up the shelter system. She plans to return home when she and her partner have jobs they can take with them. She provides a thoughtful and eloquent comparison of rural and urban life, how youth grow to appreciate what they were raised with, and an analysis of rural skills that are an asset in urban life.
FM: Start with telling me a bit about your family of orientation, where you lived, who was in the family, how you made a living, etc...
I grew up in Eastville. I come from two divorced parents, both with prior children. Mom had two daughters, dad had two daughters and two sons. I grew up in a very patriarchal home, very gender-role specific. My mom owned her own [service] business. My father was an insurance broker. I was seven years younger than my closest sibling, so the dynamics of my sibling relationships is off-kilter. My eldest sib is ten years younger than my mom.
FM: So were you raised practically as a single child?
Yes, that being said, my sibs did take a lot of parental roles with me which was helpful to my mom. But my parents divorced when I was eight or nine, so I was raised predominantly in a single parent home. That being said also, my mother suffers from undiagnosed post traumatic stress syndrome, and my dad was a pretty severe abusive alcoholic – towards my mothers and my sisters, but not to me, ever. Everybody but me.
I had a health issue at birth that was not discovered until I was six. I was sick a lot growing up. It almost killed me, and I was the first person to have the procedure done. I was a Sick Kids baby, so that had an effect on me a bit, school-wise.
FM: And you it was a kidney–
I had a double-J pyloplasty, to be specific. Two. I’ve had three major operations and eight to twelve minor ones.
FM: Finished with that when?
Probably around when I was seven or eight but I had to have a lot of follow-up because I was the first person having the procedure. And I still do have follow-ups to this day because I do have a compromised immune system due to my kidney function.
FM: Okay, good, that gives some perspective on health issues, which is a new theme… So, do you want talk about how you thought about leaving home?
I couldn’t wait. I did have – I was ambivalent but my resources were exhausted by the time I left home. I didn’t want to leave my mom.
FM: So when was that?
Ten years ago.
FM: To post sec?
I took a year off from high school, lived between my two sisters who lived in Hamilton. I actually should talk about another health issues. Car accident – flipped my car once, rolled it four times, degenerative disease now in my lower back, compromised a scholarship for rugby. So at that time, university was too expensive for me, from a single parent home. Wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. Took a year off to take a job in the city with family. Found social work. And then I did my two years at [the local college] for Social Service Worker diploma. And those years were difficult due to an abusive relationship.
FM: When you went to [college], did you live in res or stay with family: what were your living arrangements?
About six months after I’d moved up with my family, I moved out on my own for about four months, rented a room. At that time I had a boyfriend and I moved in with him. He was nine years older than me.
FM: And was the abusive partner?
FM: Go back just a bit and talk about the thought process around getting ready to go to school, then the plan needing to change, the impact of yet another round of medicalizing probably – go slo-mo through that time, a bit. I’m thinking you had one plan in place, with a rugby scholarship playing a central role, and then that changed–
So my thought process was: I wrecked my car, you need a car to work in a rural area. At the time my sister was a manager of [a fast food outlet] in the Hamilton area who offered me a job and could drive me to and from work every day. So that’s where I moved to. I did that for a month. Felt even more isolated. At that time I moved to my other sister’s in the city [Hamilton] with transportation available and to find a better job. So there wasn’t much of a thought process, it was kinda rolling with the punches. Taking the opportunities that I had.
And then once I moved in with my other sister, I had a bit more stability and independence but I knew I wanted to go to school. But I still felt really isolated and I knew I needed to find a positive network. I didn’t talk about this but—after my car accident I didn’t want to hang out with my group of friends, I didn’t want to do drugs any more. So being isolated made me want to do more drugs. Didn’t know how to pass the time without them.
FM: Would you go back a bit more to high school – I was imagining an idyllic middle class, good student scenario, but apparently that was not entirely so…
Um, to sum it all up, I developed young. I was bullied by a lot of girls. I was very athletic and had good grades. I just couldn’t find a niche to connect with. School was always important to me. Coming from a single parent home, it was engraved into me if I didn’t get an education I wasn’t going anywhere. I started [developing physically] prior to high school, and high school started in grade 8 for us. So grade 7 was hard for me.
FM: Grade 7 is the last year in Eastville school, so off to Westville for high school?
I had a few friends – I’ve been an athlete my entire life. I’ve been an academic most of my life. But people I hung out with did drugs. I liked partying. That being said, I put my school first. Mind you, I smoked a lot of pot at school. I never did any intoxicants at school, other than marijuana. And I dated older guys, not much older, which got me into more drugs, different types of groups. I had three steady boyfriends throughout all high school. I wasn’t promiscuous which I’m quite proud of, actually.
FM: Why, because it’s common?
No, because people thought I was. It’s the bullying pretty girl thing. Also, that being said, I started to deal drugs. I started dealing drugs in grade 11. I started with just pot, then mushrooms, then Ecstasy. I guess I basically sold it until I moved away.
FM: To whom, kids, just, or more?
No, I wouldn’t sell to kids. Both of my brothers are drug dealers as well, so I’d sell to people who would distribute for me. And to my friends. I almost got caught once in school.
FM: Would the school have been amazed if you’d been caught?
Yeah, that’s basically the only reason why they didn’t. My principal sat me down and said there are rumours of this [me selling drugs], if I check your bag am I going to find anything. I said no so he didn’t do anything, just told me I’m a role model, academically and athletically. I was the captain of all my sports teams, and I was a peer leader in my gym classes. But I had a half-ounce of mushrooms and scales in my bags and I’d just smoked a joint before I went to see him. And I had a separate locker for my drugs. Because they keep track of your lockers, so I grabbed one that didn’t have a lock.
FM: Alright. People see what they want to see?
FM: How much did you mom know or suspect of this?
My mom knew I smoked pot. And she doesn’t know about me dealing. She just thought my boyfriend from BC was sending me free weed.
FM: Did she know your – it would be your half-brothers were dealing?
Yeah. At that time in my life, they’d been incarcerated and been through trials. But she wasn’t with my dad. It was a hard thing for me to go through because they were still my brothers, I was close to them.
FM: But obviously their experience wasn’t a deterrent for you. How were you thinking about that?
I thought I was being a bit more smart. They had been involved with assault charges, thefts, so on and so forth. I’m an academic and an athlete.
FM: Right. So, different. And indeed you did get away with it.
FM: Alrighty, so that gets us to Hamilton in a bit more contextualized way.
That being said, I had part-time jobs since I was 12 so it’s not like that was my only source of income. It was more a social thing. Engagement piece.
FM: Connected to the history of bullying, a bit of I’ll show you?
My aspect when I went to high school was I got an attitude. If you’ve got something to say, say it to my face, and if you can’t, clearly I’m the better person. I’d been through therapy and counseling at this point. I was an athlete. I had a bit of a tough demeanor because I spoke my mind, I didn’t let people put me down any more. I flipped the coin.
FM: How important was the counseling in bringing about that change?
Slightly, not overly. I think I just had a moment with the mom where she said Either you let them or you don’t. Instead of getting sad, I got angry and I stood up.
FM: Was it your mom that suggested therapy?
Yeah, my mom. She’s the one who’d see me crying every day. I never showed [sadness] at school, and if I did it, was aggressively.
FM: And just for the records, what kind of agency offered counseling?
I did one in public school, through the school that my mom requested, and it was Native Beading therapy. My school had a very strong native culture, native teachers. We were close to a reserve. My dad lived on the reserve with his girlfriend of the time. The one [counselor] when I got older, I have no clue.
FM: Okay. So you finished high school well.
Almost honours. 2% under.
FM: And weren’t too badly hurt in the accident.
I did two years of chiropractic therapy.
FM: So let’s go then to Hamilton again. One sister, [fast food manager], another sister – what work there?
[A video company] doing customer service representative.
FM: That’s a very good job for someone your age.
I got that because her brother-in-law was a big office dude.
FM: Were you good at it?
I was okay. I really didn’t like it.
FM: So you said you discovered social work. How did that happen?
Pamphlets. I knew I always wanted to work for people, I knew I wanted to be an advocate of some sort. I wanted to be a guidance counselor at school or gym teacher, but those took university.
FM: And you had the marks for university but not the money? What about borrowing, was that a thought?
Yeah, but I’d have to pay it back. There was nobody in my family with money. And the only money that I had owing to me was back child support that I never received.
FM: From your dad?
FM: And were you the first kid [in your family] to think about going to post-sec?
I was the second. At that time, my one sister had a diploma from college, but my eldest had already become a hair dresser, doing an apprenticeship with [a family member].
FM: Let me just ask whether the school was at you to consider going to university, as a promising student?
Oh yeah, university was the only thing I applied to. I applied to college after my accident. Because if I was living at home, I could have drove back and forth to [university in Middletown], didn’t have to pay rent, have the support of my mom. My loan wouldn’t have to include housing.
FM: Okay, so the accident really put the kibosh on the plan – what had you planned to study at [university]?
FM: Alright. Now we have you in Hamilton, living with an older boyfriend who is abusive, still working at [a video company].
No. I quit [the video company], started working at East Side Marios, wanted to be a bar-tender. I’d actually taken a bar-tending course prior to moving to Hamilton. And from [the video company], I worked briefly at another bar, and ended up a pub, [a sports bar]. I worked there for four years. I also got a job at the Hamilton Police Association bar-tending for their private club as well.
FM: Is this connection or chutzpa?
Connection. The manager of the association was my – became a friend but was a customer I met through [the sports bar].
FM: And the boyfriend is doing what?
Night shift, Candian Tire gas bar. And he was the superintendent of the building we lived in.
FM: How’d you meet him?
Bus stop was outside of his work and I’d wait in there when I was cold.
FM: And you were with him -
Too long. Just over three years.
FM: This might be a bit painful but I would appreciate some details about what you think got you into the relationship, kept you there, and how you levered your way out.
Into the relationship: common interests, music, clothing, drinking. He was funny. Kept me there: my housing – I wouldn’t have been able to afford my own housing. And I was going to school, I could only work part-time. And he had already tried to kill himself once when I tried to leave him in my first semester. And it was extremely distracting so I basically threw myself into working and tried to avoid him at all costs. And our relationship wasn’t sexual at all, so that helped.
FM: So not really a boyfriend.
No. At one point, yes. But no. Convenience.
FM: Lemme see if I understand you -
I was stuck.
FM: And willing to take on a room-mate if that what it took, yeah?
I guess. I really was concerned for his safety and I wasn’t cold-hearted, I wanted him to get help but he never did. I was close with his family, so that put a wrench in some things. And I bought a car so he could go to school and work – he was getting into construction. So how I got out: I’d just finished school, probably about eight months. Had thrown myself into work and connected with some friends from the bar that I’d been working at. Went out and realized that I’d been attracted to people for a long time. So I went to my girlfriend’s house one night and didn’t go home. And he tried to kill himself again, and I had to go to Outreach Teams and police.
FM: But this time you were able to not get sucked back in?
Oh yeah. It had been over for probably about six months in my mind. I was ready.
FM: What part did having a college diploma in hand have to do with being ready to strike out on your own?
A better paying job. Connections. Networks.
FM: Were you working in the field by then?
I had three part-time jobs at that time in the field, and two part-time jobs bar-tending. I really threw myself into work. Because I worked shifts and at the bar, all I did was party and work. I loved it. I could do 16 hours shifts, work, drink: now, can’t do that.
FM: Oh to be young!! What kind of social work were you doing?
I was a shelter worker at a 24-hour shelter for men and women over the age of 21. Very raw environment. High-paced. And I also worked as a client care worker at an alcohol management facility. And I was a youth worker at a youth transitional housing program. All the same agency, different programs. And I was senior relief for all programs.
FM: And how old were you at this point?
19 to 23.
FM: So obviously mature and responsible for your age?
Yes. I was managing one of the bars at this time.
FM: So that was the same skill set and attitude that had shown up at public school as athlete and scholar, just redirected.
FM: Were you still using drugs quite a bit?
I did a bit of cocaine here and there, Ecstasy and G (the date rape drug) and I smoked pot fairly regularly. It’s my leveler. I’ve very pro-pot. It’s a very good harm reduction and medicinal aspect, personally and in some of my community and family.
FM: Okay, so 23, and now you’re 26. Continue the story…
So I left X, the abusive boyfriend. He thankfully left the province. Partied a lot for a good few months. Dated a lot. Connected with old friends from high school. And I connected with a friend from high school with whom I am engaged right now. From there, we dated for a year, did the long distance thing. I’d gotten a contract position doing case management in the shelter and at this time, I’d lived on my own, however, had moved in with a friend with a kid and a baby on the way from her drug-dealer boyfriend. Once I began the case management [job], I moved to my sister’s but she had a vehicle I could use. Although my contract ended Dec 31/2009, we found a place in Toronto in August 2009 and I commuted via transit, however, got a part-time job as an outreach worker in Toronto. I transitioned quickly into a full-time case management position and after a few years became supervisor of numerous programs. That’s where we are today.
FM: Okay. Fascinating story. Where to start… I’m reviewing in my mind the five sectors. The only one we haven’t talked about is involvement with the legal system –
I spent a night in the drunk tank because my abusive boyfriend left me in a bus, passed out. And I was actually, when I was 14, I had somebody try to abduct me, and that was the only other time.
FM: And on that go-round, you were a victim -
Yeah, and he was found and charged.
FM: And that was in Eastville?
FM: I’m forming the impression that Eastville is kinda a wild west town, small but a lotta stuff goes down – this not just from your story, but there’s quite a representation from Eastville in this research to date.
It appears there’s a lot that goes on because it’s in a condensed area. Word gets around quicker. If you look at a geographic area the size of Eastville in the city -- it’s the ratio. Resources are limited. Responses are creative. It is a wild west, but it’s a warm community. I can’t wait to move home. I cannot wait to move home.
FM: Let me pick myself off the floor [hearing that] and explore it a bit.
I am a small town country girl. I like my peace, my quiet. I like knowing my neighbours. I like knowing the people in my community. I like the beauty of nature. I like being able to go for a walk and maybe not see anybody. And I like that I know where I can go to walk when I want to see somebody. It’s more of an effort to have your social outings, so social relationships are more endearing and more effort put forth. Because transportation can be a barrier, and if you want to drink you can’t drive, so you pack a bag for overnight, you prepare for campfires, barbeques, pot lucks. Bring your bathing suit to go swimming, your running shoes to go for a hike up to the falls. Pack a cooler, go for a walk, have drinks.
Me and my friends, we all party with our parents and our parents’ friends and our friends’ parents, then and now. When there is a community event, it’s everybody you know. And you have to learn to deal with the people you don’t like, because you’re going to see them and you need to be respectful. And I guess the part that I like a bit about uncomfortable relationships in a small town is that you don’t normally worry about people getting jumped, unfair fights, weapons. If a fight happens, you either pull people out of the fight or other people get into the fight to stop it.
FM: Okay, so you sounded to me like someone who couldn’t wait to shake the dust and embraced the ‘fast’ party life of the city, and here you are waxing eloquent about the joys of the pastoral life.
Do you want to know why? It’s like the saying If you love it, let it free; if it comes back, it’s meant to be. You need to be away from it to appreciate it. And there’s not too many friends in my life who don’t have the same perspective. We all cannot wait to be under the stars, at a campfire, surrounded by trees and water. In our best up-north clothing, toques – there’s no… like, you’re comfortable. We get dressed up in our own ways up north but we’re not walking with our Gucci purses and stilettos. And it’s family oriented. Our friends bring their kids and we put them to bed and get up early with them. We bring our dogs and everybody embraces it.
FM: So the big question, why are you here, in the Big Smoke?
Money. I go home every weekend. Every weekend, my fiancé – we just built a cottage that will eventually be our home and we go home every weekend to refill the sanity tank, really. He hopes to run his own business that I will assist and I’ll work part-time doing something in this field. My experience in the city will have me ten-fold ahead of their game.
FM: So you think that being raised in the country was an asset or a vulnerability when you moved to the city, or maybe both?
Both. More so an asset.
Simple common humanitarianism. You can go pretty far saying please and thank you and holding the door, remembering we’re all human, being thoughtful, not getting caught up in the rat race. But the city has taught me a lot for sure.
Networking. Although networking in a small town is huge, networking at this capacity is a different story, a different ball-game, actually.
FM: And would you say you know how to network better than a city-raised person, maybe?
Yes. Public relations. PR. It is about who you know, but you’ve got to get to know who you need to know.
FM: Does that go back in some ways to the thing about country life being - I think you said - responses are creative.
FM: By which you mean, what?
We have to be resourceful. We have to be creative. Because simple things, like going around shoveling snow, cutting grass, washing houses, selling drugs – I’m not even joking.
FM: It’s a very interesting perspective. Like having you be the drug dealer was probably a pretty good thing for that town, relative to having somebody else from away deal the drugs. Like you’re trustworthy.
True. I was. There are unwritten rules, and they are simple things, hold the door for the person behind you – here you’re herded like cows and people don’t have the sense of other people as people. I find it interesting how we are surprised when people actually do a good humanitarian act.
FM: So how long do you think it will be, or what do you have to have in place to return to the country?
Just experience and opportunities to build back in the small town, like networking for future employment.
FM: What kind of work, did you say?
He’s a sheet-metal mechanic but he’s getting his gas license so he can do the complete process of HVAC in the house. So he’d do that, I’d run the business, work part-time, raise the kids, which I’m totally okay with. I think raising kids is a good balance with this field, for me.
FM: Okay. I have some finish-up questions. Are we there? Missed anything?
Sure. The only other thing we haven’t really – after I moved to Hamilton, I didn’t use drugs and I gained weight – couldn’t play sports any more – so I became bulimic for about a year. But I managed that on my own. Now living healthy, active. It’s been really difficult to find permanent work. I was very fortunate to have the position I do now with benefits and full-time hours, 9 to 5. And I know I’m fortunate in that way. And if I didn’t have this position, I’d be living more pay-check to pay-check than I am now
FM: Could you afford to live in Toronto without a partner?
Well currently, right now, he pays the mortgage on the cottage and I pay the rent. But that being said, he pays the food, the drink, our travel. It’s poor housing that we live in right now. It’s a basement apartment. I hate it, but fortunately we have good neighbours and that’s a god-send that keeps us stable. That being said, though, having two incomes decreases the barrier of obtaining housing.
FM: Alright. The first finish-up question is… In order to orient the people who will read this story in the way that you intend, to give it shape and focus, what would you say is the most important event in this narrative? Could be something that happened, or something that didn’t happen, an absence.
I think it’s important as employers to give people opportunities, people that you don’t know. Because I was fortunate to have that, in the field. I would say [take] responsibility to your actions, to your decisions, to your situation. You need to take responsibility for everything, you need to own what you do, and negative or positive, you need to use it to make the situation better. I try to make my decisions based on am I going to regret this, and it goes to every aspect. Am I going to regret if I don’t try for this job? Or if I don’t pay my rent? Financial education is extremely important for youth, everywhere financial literacy is something that can make or break somebody’s life. We need to understand our relationship with money. Because I was raised in a single-parent home, I knew the value of a dollar.
FM: And got really good work ethics from a very young age.
Yeah, I didn’t always have the best clothes, the best trips, but if I wanted something, I had to pay for it. Clothes, alcohol, drugs. Mostly clothes and the ability to go out and have dinner with my girlfriends. Because understanding the value of a dollar increases our social encounters. Because you need to work to get money, and money creates your social life, your housing, long-term, short-term goals.
FM: Okay. Next question: The people who will read this story will form an opinion about how it’s going to turn out. What do you think: Do you think this story will unfold for the good? Not so good? Are you optimistic?
You have to always be optimistic. In any situation in life, you can learn something from it. And the ability to learn and create growth and move forward with that, that’s what life is all about. Understanding the ways and the paths of life is one thing, but you need to understand how each outcome can still be positive, and with that understanding it’s important to find the turning point that leads it to the path that is positive for that person. Quality of life for one may not be the same for others, so we need to take into consideration the levels and the different aspects of that.
FM: Okay. And now two advice questions. The first one is: What advice would you give to your younger self, whether or not that younger self would take the advice, what advice that would help this story to unfold better or easier or more smoothly, whatever.
You need to hope for the better for the future, no matter your circumstances. Life can always have trying and difficult times, but strive for the triumphs and the achievements. Small or large.
FM: It’s my impression that that is kinda how you did live your younger life, the way you told the story. But maybe from the inside looking out, it was different?
Life’s always going to be hard, you just have to choose how hard it’s going to be on you. And coming from the hardships I’ve had, they could have been a lot worse. There have been hardships that to this day are difficult to broach, but I know that I have to keep working towards and building upon my achievements.
FM: Alrighty. Last question: What advice would you give to those of us who would be helpful to youth like yourself that would help the story to unfold more positively or easier?
You’ve got to make your mistakes. You really have to make your mistakes and learn how to get up from them. And sometimes those mistakes can help you prevent future poor decision-making.
FM: So are you saying that helpers need to allow young people to fail?
Allow people to have the room to grow. And create their own coping mechanisms and tools, if they can. And recognize when they don’t have the ability to [succeed] and assist them to gain those skills. Yeah.