Former client launches blog

One of our past clients has launched her own blog.

I had the pleasure of working with this young woman on some media stories when she was with us a couple years ago.  She has written an amazing piece chronciling her journey through Covenant House and her incredible achievement of overcoming addictions and an eating disorder.  Her testimony is posted below as well as on her blog.

My journey at Covenant House began shortly after I graduated high school. Years of an acute eating disorder, inconclusive mental health diagnoses, and chronic substance abuse had resulted in several failed rehabilitation attempts and involuntary commitments to psychiatric wards. My rapidly deteriorating mental and emotional health had done nothing to deter my self-destructive behaviour, and by the time I was nineteen years of age I had proven to my parents – and myself – that I was incapable of being a productive, contributing member of either my family or society. My parents presented me with an ultimatum: seek further professional help, or leave their home until I got well. Daunted by the idea of entering yet another treatment center, I decided that a less painful alternative was to resign myself, at least temporarily, to a life on the streets. Thus began my voyage into the previously unknown realms of the Downtown Eastside and homelessness. My status as a Covenant House client lasted for the better part of two and a half years, during which time I spent brief stints of a few consecutive days or weeks in the emergency shelter. I also lived in the organization’s Rights Of Passage program for over a year.

One of our past clients has launched her own blog.

I had the pleasure of working with this young woman on some media stories when she was with us a couple years ago.  She has written an amazing piece chronciling her journey through Covenant House and her incredible achievement of overcoming addictions and an eating disorder.  Her testimony is posted below as well as on her blog.

My journey at Covenant House began shortly after I graduated high school. Years of an acute eating disorder, inconclusive mental health diagnoses, and chronic substance abuse had resulted in several failed rehabilitation attempts and involuntary commitments to psychiatric wards. My rapidly deteriorating mental and emotional health had done nothing to deter my self-destructive behaviour, and by the time I was nineteen years of age I had proven to my parents – and myself – that I was incapable of being a productive, contributing member of either my family or society. My parents presented me with an ultimatum: seek further professional help, or leave their home until I got well. Daunted by the idea of entering yet another treatment center, I decided that a less painful alternative was to resign myself, at least temporarily, to a life on the streets. Thus began my voyage into the previously unknown realms of the Downtown Eastside and homelessness. My status as a Covenant House client lasted for the better part of two and a half years, during which time I spent brief stints of a few consecutive days or weeks in the emergency shelter. I also lived in the organization’s Rights Of Passage program for over a year.

Being introduced to the Covenant House staff and going through the intake procedure was surreal, but it wasn’t long before my initial dismay was replaced by excitement. I remember entering the common room for the first time, and being exhilarated by the feeling of sensory overload. Covenant House was home to a veritable motley crew – a diverse assemblage of twenty-something’s who were draped across the space’s well-used couches, propped upwards in its wooden chairs, or sitting cross-legged on the floor. The television was on, but its sound was drowned out by the raucous laughter that filled the room. Some of the youth  were situated around a circular table, in the midst of a heated card game, while others sat alone, snacking from the over flowing fruit platters that were nestled in a corner. There were a few who, like me, merely observed. In taking everything in, it dawned on me that I had become totally anonymous, indiscernible from the other troubled souls who were seeking refuge in the form of a warm bed and temporary companionship. Despite the heavy dosage of psychotropic drugs that were coursing through my system, the dreamlike haze that I had been in since leaving the hospital began to lift. I vividly recall understanding that something significant was happening. I had finally accomplished precisely what part of me had been trying to do for years: I could disappear now. The realization that I was utterly alone would eventually fill me with a sinking sense of despair and an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Initially, though, I relished in the idea of obscurity. It was thrilling to think that my behaviour would be unmonitored, and that nobody expected anything of me. I didn’t have the watchful eyes of my family members or friends auditing my every move, and thus I deduced that I could finally shirk the troubling sense of responsibility I had always felt for my illness and dive head-first into self-destruction.

I fully embraced the role of a street kid, and I played my part well. Initially I didn’t try to disguise how sick I was, because I assumed that my behaviour in the context of Covenant House’s environment was expected. I quickly realized, however, that staying in the shelter wasn’t quite the free ride that I had anticipated. After returning drunk several times in succession, staff members began to implement the organizations ‘No Tolerance’ policy. Often, I was allowed to stay for the evening in order to ensure that I would have a safe environment in which to sober up in, but was forced to leave in the morning after a compassionate reminder that slowly killing myself wasn’t tolerated.

 The mandatory routine at Covenant House facilitates an environment that is flexible while still being explicitly structured. My psychological and emotional well-being varied drastically in the two years I spent at the shelter and in ROP. There were times when I was more than capable of adhering to a rigid itinerary and others when my mental and physical health were so fragile that I needed assistance getting out of bed in the morning. My fluctuating stability was assessed on an ongoing basis, and the expectations that the staff had of me varied accordingly. Even on the many occasions where I was belligerent, condescending, or incapacitated by my addictions, the staff never treated me in a manner that compromised my basic human dignity. They were loving, compassionate, and consistently reminded me that they had not given up on me. The air of resignation, both among staff members and clientele, which seems to permeate Vancouver’s other emergency shelters was never apparent at Covenant House. The staff, while always understanding and empathetic, took every opportunity to remind me that regardless of my temporary circumstances I was not meant to live a life of destitution and despair.  

There were times throughout my stay at Covenant House where I did do relatively well: I managed to go just over a year without drinking, completed a semester at a nearby university, and established relationships with both shelter staff and the organization’s mental health team. Because of my inability to give up certain components of my addiction, however, the external progress I was making was ultimately thwarted by the inner demons that continued to torment me. I relapsed shortly after celebrating twelve months of sobriety, and ultimately the staff made what was I’m sure an incredibly difficult decision – they closed Covenant House’s doors on me. That is not to say they gave up on me, although that is admittedly how I felt at the time. Conversations that I have had with staff members since, as well as the clarity that I have gained through my own sobriety, have allowed me to understand why the decision was made. I had reached a point where I needed help that was far more intensive than Covenant House was equipped to give me. I had proven that I needed to completely overhaul my attitudes, behaviours, and life’s circumstances, which is something that I had been unable to do while still residing at Covenant House.

Although I was exceedingly resentful at the time, I now have enough insight to understand and appreciate what I’m sure was an extremely distressing choice. The staff members had no idea what would become of me, but they knew that giving me endless opportunities for redemption was becoming more detrimental than helpful. Throughout my ordeal I had retained a tiny semblance of sanity, and the idea of living on the street without Covenant House as a safe haven when I needed a break from my addictions was terrifying. Because of this, I begrudgingly accepted my parents’ desperate offer to send me treatment one last time. Initially I had little desire to be sober, and it was often the knowledge that I had nowhere left to go that prevented me from walking out of rehab and back to a life on the streets. A year and a half later, I am eternally grateful for the staff members who implemented the decision to prevent me from returning. Towards the end of my active addiction, Covenant House had become an institution that I relied on for an artificial sense of security – it enabled me to avoid addressing the fact that I was dying. Not having it to fall back on provided the incentive I needed to honestly admit to myself how sick I truly was. When I was at last able to do this, I finally become willing to accept help.

I discuss my departure from Covenant House because I feel it exemplifies the overarching attitude that pervades all of the shelter’s staff: they are consistently willing to surpass the expectations of their job descriptions, and to entertain choices that they know will be met with heavy resistance and potential abuse.

I believe it is both the individualization of care and the staff’s adamant refusal to give up on anyone that differentiates Covenant House from other shelters. The employees’ watchful gaze provided me with a modicum of accountability that, while at times infuriating, ultimately saved me. To an outsider, Covenant House’s rules seem simple: get out of bed in the morning. Show up at night. Try not to or get drunk, high, or arrested in between. But it was these basic expectations, which frequently proved to be excruciatingly difficult, that prevented me from completely succumbing to the allure of a street-entrenched lifestyle. Although my actions were those of an extremely sick person, Covenant House’s employees never lost sight my inherent goodness. My talents and dreams were cultivated, even in those times that my future appeared to be overwhelmingly bleak. I was constantly reminded of my potential, while simultaneously being cautioned that any hope I had for a better life was completely dependent on the positive changes I was willing to make in the moment. The staff members foster a sense of confidence within an individual, while managing to avoid the trap of becoming overly idealistic. It is clear that they take their positions of authority seriously, but they refrain from being condescending or abusing their power. It was the exceptional quality of care and unfailing professionalism of Covenant House’s staff members that facilitated my commitment to a complete lifestyle change. Without them, I honestly don’t know where I would be today.