Gone Girl: I was a private school kid from Rosedale—until I ended up on the street

Gone Girl: I was a private school kid from Rosedale—until I ended up on the street

She had loving parents and all the opportunities and privileges in the world. Then she discovered drugs

Gone Girl: Emily Wright
The author in kindergarten, in her Havergal uniform (Image: courtesy of Emily Wright)

My parents gave me a great chance at life. I grew up in a three-bedroom house in Lawrence Park, where I spent weekends riding my bike and making mud pies with my younger brother. At Christmas, my parents took us on vacations to Hawaii and London and Kenya. In the summers, we rented a cottage in Muskoka, where we built teepees and chased frogs. One year, knowing how much I loved acting and tap dancing, my parents sent me to an elite arts camp in the Catskills.

In 1992, when I was seven, we moved to a sprawling Edwardian house in Rosedale, effectively upgrading from middle class to nouveau riche. My father had risen from a working-class childhood in Montreal to the upper echelons of Bay Street finance. The new house was his prize for all he’d accomplished, a way to show the world what he could do for his family. Growing up, I was provided with unconditional love and support. My mother made a point of encouraging my artistic side, making me costumes for dance recitals and driving me to extracurricular activities.

My home life was as idyllic as a ’50s sitcom, but school was torture. In Grade 1, my parents had enrolled me at Branksome Hall, the private girls’ school in midtown. From the moment I arrived, I was constantly, cruelly bullied. Every day at recess, kids would steal my boots, stuff them with snow and hide them in the playground. I’d run around in my green stockings searching for them while the teachers rang the bell and hollered at me to get in line.

At Branksome, a school known for its academic rigour, I struggled with my studies. (I had a learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until I was 16.) I was also a deeply sensitive and trusting child—I expressed my feelings, which only made me more vulnerable. When my mom confronted my teachers about the bullying, they’d tell her I was being too touchy, that I needed to pull up my socks and deal with it. I made a few friends in my neighbourhood—kids I would play with on weekends and after school—but I was always worried they’d discover whatever my classmates hated about me and disappear. Over the years, I developed a chameleonic tendency to change my personality for whomever I was with—a dangerous pattern that followed me into adulthood.

I switched schools seven times in the next decade. At most places the bullying intensified, chipping away at my self-esteem. In Grade 7, I landed at the co-ed private school Montcrest, where the kids called me fat and scribbled BITCH in my notebooks. To fill my friendship void, I became addicted to Yahoo chat rooms—primitive, unfiltered oceans of lonely teens searching for a connection. In Grade 8, I became involved with a handsome lacrosse player who lived in Mississauga. After chatting for a few months, we started dating in real life. I was 14; he was 17. That summer, he came up to my cottage for a weekend, where we made out in the bunkie. Before I knew what was happening, we were having sex. I didn’t intend to lose my virginity that night, but I don’t remember saying no. The next morning, he went back to Toronto, and I never heard from him again. I emailed and called him every day, but never got an answer.

A few months later, I started dating a new guy who was a couple of grades ahead of me. We were fooling around behind school one day when he suddenly pinned me to the ground and raped me. When I arrived at school the next day, he told everyone I’d had sex with him. The girls hissed “slut” as I walked down the hall. I started to believe them. I didn’t tell my parents what had happened, but my behaviour had them worried. “I feel like I’m losing you,” my mom kept telling me.

And she was. I barely went to school for the rest of the year, partly out of mortification, partly due to the sudden, severe migraine headaches I’d begun experiencing. My mom and dad took me to every neurologist in the city, but nothing came of it. I managed to pass Grade 9 through frantic cramming and sheer luck.

I switched schools once more in Grade 10, this time enrolling in Rosedale Heights School for the Arts, which my parents hoped would foster my interest in dance, music and theatre. The school was in Rosedale, but I was the only kid from the neighbourhood who attended—most Rosedale kids went to private school. My classmates lived in St. James Town, Regent Park and Cabbagetown. I went to parties, smoked a few joints and surreptitiously sipped vodka from a water bottle on the subway. I coloured my blonde hair with Crayola markers and dressed in baggy sports jerseys. I’d even cautiously begun making friends, gravitating toward the potheads. They liked me and accepted me—though whether it was for me or my parents’ money, I wasn’t sure.

Around Christmastime, I hosted my first house party, what I’d innocently hoped would be a mellow hangout with 20 or so kids. My parents were so thrilled I had people to invite over, they went up to their room to give us space, checking in occasionally. A couple of hours into the party, someone passed around some ecstasy tablets. After a bit of goading, I swallowed a pill. Within five minutes, my face heated up. My spine tingled. I remember slowly rubbing my hands up and down the textured fabric of my parents’ couch and thinking, This feels amazing. Soon, people I didn’t know started to arrive; word had gotten out that I was having a party at my house in Rosedale. Things flew out of control, but I was too high to care. Everything made me happy. Nobody could hurt me that night.

The next morning, the house was trashed and someone had keyed my parents’ cars. My so-called friends had also stolen my family’s Christmas gifts from under the tree. They took a watch, some jewellery, a bronze statue, a CD player—anything they thought might be valuable. My parents weren’t mad at me, just disappointed; after all, I was a good kid. I’d never done anything like this before. That day, my mom called the school principal to tell him what had happened. “Your daughter’s hanging out with dangerous people,” he told her. She urged me to break ties with them, but I ignored her warnings. That first time on ecstasy had made me feel at peace, something I hadn’t experienced in years. I was desperate for more.

I started skipping class regularly to get high.

My friends gave me my first few hits, but eventually I had to pay for it myself. At the time, ecstasy was selling for $20 a hit. My dad carried large sums of cash in his wallet, so I’d pinch a hundred bucks here and there to support my habit. After a few months, I was stealing cash from my parents’ safe, and they’d begun to clue in. They demanded to know if I was on drugs.

Meanwhile, I was getting high every day. I’d snort ecstasy off my French textbook in class, then drink alcohol at night to come down from the high. In the morning, I’d crush Ritalin tablets and inhale them to wake myself up (some of my school friends had prescriptions). Every time I came down from a high, my jaw ached and my teeth clenched. I couldn’t eat anything because the amphetamines had burned canker sores into my gums; I was living on a diet of scrambled eggs and rice. I knew my habit was dangerous, but the benefits seemed to outweigh the risks. I was popular. I was tough. The drugs made me feel like I was in a position of power—for once, I could be the bully and not the bullied. By February, my parents were certain something was going on, though I kept denying it. My dad was distressed but wanted to wait it out in case it was a phase. My mom was more proactive: she set me up with a youth counsellor, with doctors, with therapists, hoping someone would get through to me.

In May 2001, they decided to send me for a month of rehab at the Caron Treatment Center in rural Pennsylvania. The facility was perched on a mountaintop and resembled a yoga retreat more than a hospital, with a gym and scenic nature trail. I was a wreck for the first few days. I cried so much my eyes crusted over. I called my parents, begging them to bring me home, but they refused. By the end of my detox, I was ready to get back to my life and resolved to stay clean.

Back at Rosedale for Grade 11, I started hanging out with a wholesome group of kids who’d spend their weekends seeing movies and shopping rather than snorting lines and binge drinking. My parents, who’d always been so trusting, had become wary and overprotective. My dad locked up his briefcase and wallet in case I started stealing again. They questioned me frequently, checking on where I was going and who I’d be with. I made contracts with them, promising I wouldn’t get in touch with my old friends and that I’d call every few hours, or else I’d have to return to rehab.

They said they forgave me, but I never quite believed them. The rest of my time was spent with addictions counsellors, psychiatrists and 12-step Narcotics Anonymous meetings that I attended every day. I was constantly fighting the temptation to get high again. I wondered whether I could just do it one more time without any consequences.

I’d been sober about 10 months when I started hanging out with one classmate and her hard-partying friends from other schools. I dressed like her in oversized jerseys and gangsterwear, our hair in cornrows. One day, I followed her to another school to meet some of her friends. As we approached the building, a group of girls surrounded us, pulled metal pipes out of their sweatpants and started beating my friend until she was bloody and bruised. In the fracas, I managed to pull her out of the crowd and drag her to a nearby store, where we called the police and hid until they arrived.

Gone Girl: Emily Wright
From left: At age seven, at home in Lawrence Park; At age 10, after moving to a sprawling house in Rosedale; At age 15, the year she started taking drugs (Images: courtesy of Emily Wright)

Even though I hadn’t been the target, the cops thought I’d be safer if I switched schools, so my parents transferred me to Northern Secondary near Mount Pleasant and Eglinton. There, I reunited with one of the Rosedale girls who’d introduced me to ecstasy. One day, amid the stress of the police case and the anxiety of switching schools, I smoked a joint. Within days, I was blowing lines of ecstasy, then cocaine. I’d buy an eight ball, three and a half grams, for $250, thinking it would last all week, then go through it all in a day. The more I had, the more I did.

Ecstasy relaxed me, but coke made me angry and restless. I stopped coming home at night and got suspended for fighting at school with a girl who thought I’d stolen her boyfriend. I had constant nosebleeds and chronic sinus infections; I used to run to Shoppers Drug Mart and load up on decongestants so I could get more drugs up my nose. If that didn’t work, I’d roll up some coke in a Zig-Zag and swallow it, just so I could get something, anything, in my body.

Soon, I started dating my dealer, a 20-year-old guy who had me sell coke for him at school. I fell hard for the bad boy ­attitude: he protected me, defended me and got me high. When he got angry, his pupils dilated, his voice thundered and he bulged out like the Hulk. When I didn’t sell enough drugs for him, he’d play Russian roulette with a handgun, screaming at me to sit still as he pulled the trigger. I was scared, but even more terrified of what would happen if I spoke up. I figured I was getting what I deserved. If he killed me, that would be my punishment.

Within a month of my relapse, my parents sent me back to rehab, where I was able to detox and break away from my boyfriend’s clutches. I spent the next chunk of my life on a cross-country tour of American treatment centres. First, I stayed at Sierra Tucson in the foothills of Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains, an addiction centre slash luxury ranch equipped with horses and tennis courts. A few months later, I was transferred to the Life Healing Center in Santa Fe, where I was instructed to carry around a doll that represented my inner child.

When I went home for Christmas, I immediately relapsed and ended up at a psychiatric hospital in Texas, where my withdrawal caused me to hallucinate. The doctors there misdiagnosed me with schizophrenia and put me on a cocktail of 27 medications, including Clorazil and Risperdal. I couldn’t use the washroom, dress myself or wash myself. My hands were constantly shaking. I had to drink Ensure because I was unable to eat. When I called my parents, I couldn’t form words—I just moaned and drooled. Worse still, I was surrounded by people who’d been institutionalized for decades. I became consumed with the fear that I’d be there forever. Eventually, my parents realized I was overmedicated and pulled me out. From there, I was off to the Austin Riggs Center in ­Massachusetts, then a psychiatric ward in Salt Lake City, then Silver Hill Hospital, a prestigious ­Connecticut rehab that lists Mariah Carey, Billy Joel, Liza Minnelli and Nick Nolte among its clients. By the time I got to Silver Hill—my 12th facility in three years—I was nearing my 18th birthday. I was exhausted and bored and eager to return to the real world. My doctors and family decided it was time to bring me back to Toronto so I could learn how to live my life.

But my parents weren’t prepared to have me move back home—my little brother was still in high school, and they worried that I’d be a bad influence on him. They found me a place in a downtown sober living centre that tested our urine regularly to make sure we stayed clean. For a while, I thrived. I learned how to make my bed, cook on a budget and do my own laundry. I tentatively began to rebuild my relationships with my parents, who were drained emotionally and financially from my three-year drug habit, and with my brother, who felt betrayed by my behaviour.

About a month into my stay at the sober house, I befriended my roommate, a recovering crack addict in her 20s, and started hanging out with her and her boyfriend, as well as her boyfriend’s brother, whom I started dating. The four of us occasionally smoked pot. When the sober house management found out, I was asked to leave. My parents, still refusing to let me come home, rented me a hotel room for a few nights while they looked for my next rehab centre. I was angry—at the sober house for kicking me out, and at my parents for turning me away. Despite all the years of treatment, the dozens of doctors and therapists who’d tried to get me to take responsibility for my actions, I couldn’t live up to the zero-tolerance rhetoric of recovery. The minute I left the sober house, I knew a full relapse was inevitable. I started charging cigarettes to my parents’ credit card and got high in the hotel room. After a few days, my parents decided enough was enough. They told me I couldn’t come home if I continued to do drugs. They kicked me out of the hotel, my only possessions a phone, an iPod and the clothes I could fit in a backpack. I was on my own.

The first night I was homeless, a warm evening in May 2004, I slept on a piece of cardboard outside College Park. Every time I dozed off that night, I’d wake up with a start, disoriented and scared for my safety. At around 2 a.m., a cop poked me awake and told me I couldn’t sleep there. I had no idea where to go; he didn’t tell me there was a shelter a couple of blocks away. This was the first time I’d experienced real hunger. I didn’t know where to get food. I didn’t know you could walk into a ­McDonald’s or Starbucks and ask for a cup of water. I wandered west to city hall, where a group of men told me I was on their block and ordered me to clear out.

The next day, I called my sober house friend and met up with her and a few of her friends who lived on the street. They told me about the emergency shelters—places like Covenant House where I could get a bed for the night and TTC fare. They took me to the Salvation Army van in Moss Park, which gave out food and bandages. That first day, as I stood in line at the van for a meal, someone offered to hold my backpack. When I turned around, he was gone, along with all my stuff.

Over the next few weeks, I learned how to fend for myself. I hung around a food truck at city hall, where the cooks gave me leftover burgers when they closed up at the end of the night. During the day, I taught myself how to panhandle. Getting in people’s faces didn’t work; instead, I made more money sitting on the ground, so I was beneath the ­passersby. If I wanted something, I had to lower myself. I kept coming back to the same place I’d spent my first night, just outside College Park. Staying in the same spot meant the daily commuters got used to me and started giving me more money. I tried to call my parents from a shelter every few days to check in; occasionally, they’d drive down and give me food.

One of my regular visitors on the street was a drug dealer. He’d stop by every day and hand me a few bucks. Better yet, sometimes he’d bring a hit of coke or a joint. At that point, I was doing whatever drugs I could find—acid, ketamine, crushed prescription pills. A few weeks after I met him, he gave me my first hit of crack cocaine. In high school, I’d avoided crack. Now, I was poor and homeless, and not above anything.

Crack was the most intense high I’d ever experienced. Unlike coke, which took about five minutes before you felt it drip down your throat, crack was instantaneous. In ­Chinatown, I bought some herbal remedy in a glass bottle, broke off the top and made a pipe. Crack quickly became my drug of choice—every time I made $5 panhandling, I’d buy a hit. It made me feel invincible. Some days I’d walk 30 blocks with worn-through shoes and blisters on my feet, and I wouldn’t feel any pain. I’d congregate with other street kids—in College Park, in alleyways on Gerrard, on the Ryerson campus—and share what we had. I knew that as long as I had my next high, I’d be okay.

One day, the dealer told me I had to work for him. He’d bring me johns and keep me protected. After my first client, I was disgusted and ashamed and terrified, but at the same time, I thought, “That was so easy.” I took the money and knew what I would do with it.

Three months later, the dealer was arrested. I was relieved to be out of his grasp but needed to continue sex work to pay for my drugs. Most of the crack addicts I knew, male and female, were selling their bodies. It was easy to find clients: other homeless people around College Park would stop me on the street and say, “Hey, I know a guy who needs services, are you interested?” I was lucky that most of the men treated me well, but I felt dead inside.

I’d been homeless for several months when I met three guys in their 30s who, it turns out, had been dealing most of the drugs I’d been buying. “The boys,” as I came to call them, took me under their wing and offered me a job—I’d move crack for them, and they’d give me a hit whenever I needed it. As a woman, I was less likely to be searched by the cops. They’d leave a package of drugs in a park by a specific tree, and I’d hide it under my clothes.

The boys were the kindest people I met while I was homeless. They treated me like their younger sister, insisting over and over that I needed to find a way off the street. “This isn’t the life you’re meant to be living,” they kept saying. They were the ones who told me about a place called Eva’s Phoenix—a youth shelter that helps street kids transition out of homelessness. They convinced me to apply, and within a few months, I was accepted.

In 2004 Eva’s occupied a former fire vehicle maintenance garage in Liberty Village, divided into 10 apartments that housed five kids each. I had my own bedroom with a lock and key, but we shared a kitchen, bathroom and living area. Unlike places I’d attended in high school, Eva’s Phoenix wasn’t rehab. It wasn’t a therapy centre. No one forced me to talk about my feelings or quit drugs—they left those decisions to me. The only rules were that we couldn’t bring drugs or alcohol onto the property, and we had to call if we were going to be out for the night. For the first few weeks, I went through the motions of my old lifestyle. I kept to myself, shunning the gestures of friendship from my roommates. I refused to open up to the staff. And I continued carrying drugs for the boys and smoking crack. The only difference was that I had a bed waiting for me at the end of the night. I was allowed to stay for a full year and was assigned a counsellor in her 20s named Audrey. She was kind and loving, and she seemed to understand me.

One night, a group of homeless addicts stopped me on the street. They demanded I hand over whatever cash and crack I had on me, and then beat me to the ground, kicking me in the head and stomach until I was barely conscious. When I got my bearings, I limped back to the boys’ place: I had to face them, and tell them what had happened to their drugs and $500. I was terrified. To my amazement, they weren’t angry. They handed me a $100 bill and instructed me to go back to Eva’s and talk to the staff. In the cab, I snapped. It finally hit me: I couldn’t do it anymore. After all those years and all those rehabs, it took being beaten and robbed for me to reach my breaking point. I never touched drugs again.

The next few months were the most rigorous and remarkable of my life. Deciding to quit crack was the easy part; sticking to it took a supernatural willpower. I spent more days than I can count holed up in my room, crying. Whenever I felt depressed, no matter what time of day or night, there was an Eva’s staff member on site to talk me through it.

Slowly, I began to connect with the people around me. My housemates were all kids between the ages of 16 and 24. Many had succumbed to drugs, like me. Others had been abused by their families and had run away from home. Some had just been homeless because they couldn’t pay their bills. A few of the people at Eva’s had, like me, come from wealthy families. Seeing them thrive gave me hope. I began opening up to the staffers and my roommates about my story, and started to feel like I had a place in the world again—that if I died the next day, someone would care.

I also began reconnecting with my parents. They visited me at Eva’s, and took me out for lunch or dinner down the street. They bought me a phone to keep in touch, and a Metropass. By December, our relationship was solid enough that they invited me home for Christmas dinner. After we finished, my mom and I packed up a leftover ham, potatoes, vegetables and pie, and brought them down to the shelter so I could share them with the residents—my other family.

My parents finally, cautiously, began to have faith that I wasn’t going to die. Cutting me off had been their last resort, their final hope that I’d figure it out on my own. Thankfully, they were right.

About six weeks into my stay at Eva’s, I applied for the shelter’s employment and life skills program. We learned how to budget, how to open a bank account, how to pay bills and save money. We performed mock job interviews and worked on our resumés. They even gave us second-hand clothes so we’d have something appropriate to wear to our interviews. Every aptitude test told me the same thing: that I should work with kids. The more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it.

Gone Girl: Emily Wright
At age 29, recovered and working as a youth advocate (Image: courtesy of Emily Wright)

The final component of the program was a paid co-op. I worked for the next four months in a child-care facility at the Yonge Street Mission at Parliament and Gerrard, earning minimum wage. I loved learning the mechanics of education—how kids absorb knowledge, how their brains develop, how they respond to sights and sounds. Day by day, it became easier to get out of bed. For the first time, I was earning my keep. I put 30 per cent of each paycheque into a savings account, so I’d be prepared for rent expenses once I left the shelter.

The people at Eva’s helped me learn that I was worth something. That I could live in the world. There, I discovered that I am a great negotiator, that I am passionate and loving, and that I could escape homelessness through hard work. Audrey helped me realize I was capable of achieving what I wanted. When it came time to leave Eva’s in the summer of 2005, I was devastated but hopeful. My continuing struggles with anxiety and depression made me eligible for disability pay, so I got an apartment at Bathurst and St. Clair—a streetcar ride away from my parents’ house—and signed up at an alternative school, where I spent the next two years finishing off my 10 remaining high school credits. My life had a glimmer of hope. In August 2007, at age 22, I finally graduated high school, and went on to study early childhood education at George Brown and Ryerson. I graduated both programs with honours and won two awards. I’d repaired my relationship with my parents, returning to a place of trust and respect—they’d even paid for my education. And I’d found love: soon after starting college, I reconnected with Eric, a man I’d known at Eva’s Phoenix. We started dating, fell in love and moved in together.

In 2011, I read in the Star that Eva’s Phoenix was in danger of shutting down: the city had been lending them their land and wanted it back for condo developments in Liberty Village. It had been years since I’d talked to anyone at Eva’s, but the news shattered me. Eva’s Phoenix had saved my life—I needed to do something. I briskly got to work, starting an online petition and creating a Facebook group to protest the closing. Within months, I found myself at city hall, making a deputation to a committee, along with former and current residents of Eva’s Phoenix. The motion passed—even Doug Ford signed off on our cause—and the city agreed to give Eva’s $5 million to fund a new location. That day, as I was leaving city hall, councillor Mike Layton handed me a pen. “Hope to see you here more,” he said. And he did—advocacy became my new addiction. Soon, I was speaking to members of parliament and community groups, arguing for more homeless shelters and more youth programs, and slowly revealing my own story in the process. I even completed internships with the former TTC chair Karen Stintz and MPP Peter Tabuns. Every March, I participate in the Walk for Homeless Youth, a fund­raiser run by the Floyd Honey Foundation for Eva’s Phoenix. I give talks at UCC, Sterling Hall and even Branksome, my old battleground, about homelessness and bullying. Their students can’t believe a Branksome girl ended up on the street. As an early childhood educator, I can help kids like me—those who suffered from learning disabilities, bullying, low self-esteem. As a public advocate and speaker, I contribute on a larger level.

Last year, I began teaching full-day kindergarten at a downtown Toronto school. I also got engaged; Eric and I are saving money for a wedding. My relationship with my family is stronger than ever—they finally trust me again. More importantly, they respect me. Through hard work and perseverance, I have been able to create a life I can be proud of.

I spent a decade shuttling between schools, rehab centres, hospitals, park benches and shelters, alienated from my family and unsure of where I belonged. After all that, it’s good to be home.