This piece was one of the most talked-about works at the Youth Art Show last year. Titled Yin and Yang, its graceful fish and pale colours invoke a sense of calm, and incredible artistic talent is clearly on display. Everything about it seems so effortless, but for its artist and former YESS youth, J.L, the journey to this tranquil place was a long one of perseverance, focus, and patience.
“In grade 10 I started to feel a lot of depression, so I stopped going to school,” says J.L. “My mom thought I was lazy… I was kicked out of my home.”
After staying at friends’ houses for a while, J.L. found her way to the YESS Nexus shelter. Without school or a stable place to stay during the day, J.L. fell in with a rough crowd. She had already been a cutter for most of her life, and her life became a spiral of cutting and drinking to cope with her depression and loneliness.
Through it all, J.L. still had a goal to continue her education and was admitted to Graham’s Place, one of our long-term residences. She completed her grade 11 coursework, but still struggled with addiction.
“All of the staff at YESS would always try to get me to make better choices. They would encourage me to work on my art and would try to suggest treatment and stuff like that. Even though I had a bed, I was always choosing to sleep in the River Valley… It can be super tough to make good choices.”
J.L. moved to our other residential program, Shanoa’s Place, in the west end to help empower her to break some of her negative cycles. She continued school through the Boyle Street Charter School and completed her high school diploma, but she knew she had more work to do before she could look to a brighter future.
“I started drinking again… Changes don’t happen overnight,” says J.L. “It was bad because I was drinking in residence. I kept falling off. I left the program.”
J.L. tried returning home, but the addiction and mental health issues among her family members made it difficult for J.L. to overcome her own obstacles.
“I knew I needed to put the effort in myself,” says J.L. “So I started staying at shelter again.”
J.L.’s struggle with addiction came to a terrifying head when she was on a binge one night and was badly beaten up. Her worst injury was her leg, which she tried to treat herself with a makeshift splint. She continued to walk on it for a day before seeing a doctor, and found out that her leg was actually broken. J.L. needed four surgeries where screws were put in her leg, followed by six months of physiotherapy and bedrest.
“This incident really sparked me to wake up and start taking care of my body,” says J.L. “Ever since then I haven’t touched drugs. Every time I think about it I feel my leg and I remember to take good care of my body.”
Once she had recovered physically, J.L. turned her sights back on her goals for her independence. She applied to the Housing First program for adults and to a post-secondary social work program—and she was accepted into both!
J.L. worked so hard on her goals for her education and a brighter future. What advice would she give to someone facing similar obstacles?
“I would say it takes a long time to learn what you know now and it takes a long time to unlearn it. I would say there are people you don’t even know who care about you. I would say that you matter. I would that who you surround yourself with makes all the difference, and that could mean you surround yourself with hardly anyone for a while, only with positive people you can find and connect with.”
J.L.’s future is so bright, and she has the drive and passion she needs to make it reality. Though her focus is forward, J.L. has many positive memories from her time at YESS.
“They helped me with every single thing. They were my support. They gave me the energy and the courage to make better choices. They encouraged me. At the time I thought all the things they wanted me to do were so small, but all those little choices were so good for me.”
Like her artistic skills, J.L.’s path to health and happiness took a lot of practice, focus, and bravery—one good decision after another. Her Yin and Yang fish prove that there is hard work beneath even the calmest surface.
Congratulations, J.L., on everything you’ve achieved so far. We know that the skills you’ve learned to become healthy and independent will serve you well in your goals and dreams for the future.