Suhaima, 20, Ontario
For a long time, I was a kid who didn’t have a place to call home. Because of the unstable nature of my family environment, I was forced to move in and out of a number of cities. My mom and I experienced living in a number of women’s shelters for abused women and children, and sometimes under the roofs of our relatives.
When asked where I was from, I usually couldn’t give someone a solid answer. Should I identify with my cultural background which I barely knew about or experienced? Should I identify with the city I had lived in most recently? Should I identify with where I lived now? This was especially difficult because I was in middle school and I was supposed to be discovering my identity, but it seemed that my identity was incomplete because I had no place to call “home.”
My mother did her best. She had to balance finding work, studying (my mom went back to college), taking care of me and the cultural stigma associated with being divorced twice. In the shelters, I remember mostly eating pizza pops and rock-chocolate (basically chocolate in the shape of rocks). So moving to the house of our relatives on occasion (usually when things got really bad) was like a breath of fresh air for me because of the variety of food I suddenly had access to. I was very happy to be eating food that I recognized and loved. Still, I could see the guilt in my mother’s eyes when we lived under their roof. I think she believed it was a kind of defeat.
There were times where we would move back in with my step-father for a few months, which for me, meant anorexia. I restricted myself to 400 calories a day and I lost weight extremely fast. Eventually I had lost 30 pounds. At this point, my legs would experience excruciating pain at night because of the lack of nutrients. My mother would worry and take me to see doctor after doctor. She would try to convince me to eat. She would tell me to drink a glass of milk in front of her as often as she could. I would water it down till it was only partially milk - just to pretend I was drinking milk, while not consuming too many calories. My mom never found out that the milk was watered down. I suppose I was just an 11-year-old who wanted to control something in her life - even if that was just the food.
The social workers changed when the houses did. Some were good and helpful, some were nonchalant, and others I can barely remember. There were so many of them. Always a new social worker. A timely reminder of our situation. They tried to help but nothing seemed to be changing. I found myself stuck in the same situations no matter where I went. I was bullied. I was anorexic. I was a girl with a history of being abused.
Middle school is a tough time for anyone, but having to move constantly and make new friends and connections each time made everything much worse for me. I was constantly bullied and told that I didn’t belong - I was always the “new girl.” I never had the same group of friends for more than a few months, while most of other girls had grown up together. I envied them so much - they had no idea what I would give to belong to a group, to have friends. While I drank my watered-down milk, they could drink whole milk. They could even drink chocolate milk. They allowed themselves to. They were happy.
I didn’t enjoy being at school but I also didn’t enjoy going home from school either. It meant going home to my abusive step-father or going home and watching my mother look defeated.
A few years later, I eventually decided to stick with the identity of “the smart girl.” This meant that I could spend my time doing homework or writing poetry - perhaps the only things that kept me sane.
This smart girl identity backfired - hard - in middle school. Nicknames like “nerd” and “teacher’s pet” followed me everywhere. I was always the girl who was too skinny, too nerdy, too new - too imperfect. This meant I got acorns thrown at me during recess. That I would have definitely someone kick my chair at least once a day. That someone threatened to throw me in the school dumpster. That a girl knocked me down in the hallway and stepped on my face. That someone would replace all of the tags on my Facebook pictures with the word “ugly.” Yet I stuck with that identity because I needed it. But more than anything, I needed it outside of school - to distract me if nothing else.
This identity started to slip when we could no longer afford an internet connection. I started getting C’s on history papers that everyone else got A’s on. The milk I drank slowly became even more watery, until it was just partly cloudy water - I needed to hang onto something, even if that something was anorexia.
One day I broke down and cried in class. I told my teachers that I was crying because I didn’t have an internet connection. In reality I was crying about everything that had led to losing the internet connection - witnessing domestic violence on a daily basis, not having an identity or a place to call home and forcing myself to neurotically control my body weight.
At times my mother and I lived with my step-family: my four step-siblings and my step-father. The seven of us barely squeezed into a tiny basement that we called home at the time. Our car was an old Rogers van painted over in red. If the van was in the driveway, it meant that my step-father would be home.
I knew that the Rogers van in the parking space meant my mom would get hurt. I knew that the Rogers van meant I couldn’t brush my teeth in a certain way, or lean against the wall a certain way, or listen to music, or speak my own language or call my mother “mom” (because I had to pretend she was my “aunt” so that my step-siblings didn’t feel excluded). The Rogers van was a symbol of defeat. It was a symbol that meant watered down milk. It was a symbol that meant I would cry myself to sleep for years.
I would practice saying the word “mommy” at night. I would call my mother “mom” whenever my step-father wasn’t around.
One day at a time, I got through it. Despite everything, I had a passion for learning and I needed my “smart girl” identity to pull me out of my situation - education motivated me more than anything. When my step father and mom finally got divorced, I was elated. I was so much happier, I gained weight, and I leveraged my “smart girl” identity to become one of the top students at my high school, graduating with numerous awards including the Ideal Graduate Recognition, and later started school at Western University in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
But that wouldn’t be for 7 years. For 7 more years I would have to deal with the Rogers van, the shelters, the basement, the name-calling, and drinking watered down milk.