I am proud of Cen, who is a part of our Mpact family, for releasing her powerful story. She has overcome much. May her words give encouragement for others going through similar to know that you can make it through like she did. She writes:
I was in Social Studies class, staring straight ahead at the whiteboard, trying to ignore my surroundings and focus on what the teacher was saying. “Ugly, you’re so fucking ugly.” It was the incessant whispering from Aaron, a classmate a few seats away from me. “Ugly,” he kept whispering, his eyes boring into me and an arrogant smirk on his face. “Ugly, ugly, ugly!” For the first time all school year, something inside me snapped.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut the fuck up!” I screamed. The classroom went silent and then, he laughed. “Shut up!” I picked up my chair and threw it at him. He dodged it. The room burst into fits of laughter and the teacher dismissed me to the office.
“What a freak.”
“Spazz needs to chill out.”
I walked out alone, my head hanging in humiliation as my peers called me names and laughed and laughed and laughed…
I had a pretty normal upbringing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. If what you call a “normal” childhood includes growing up in the ghetto with a mother who has a mental disorder, a cousin who once molested me, and a sister who got pregnant at 16 years of age, making me an aunt at 9 years old, then yes, my life was pretty ordinary. My father worked hard for my three siblings and I. We took camping trips, I biked around the neighbourhood with my friends, and my favourite hobby was reading.
Junior High was when things changed. It meant leaving your old elementary school behind and going to a brand new school, with new people, and new teachers, and new classrooms. I was excited to make new friends and nervous about being in a new environment. The girls wore make-up – lots of make-up! – and tight clothes. I wore sneakers, baggy jeans, and a sweater. I had no idea I had to try so hard just for school. The boys would only talk to you if they found you attractive and, because I didn’t meet the criteria, I was totally ignored. My best friends in elementary suddenly became strangers. They found their own clique to hang out with, make-up and tight clothing included. I quickly became an outcast. There were the “cool” girls, the pretty girls, who would taunt me in the hallways, calling me ugly and telling me to wash my face because of my acne. I ate lunch by myself in a bathroom stall and sat at the back of the classroom alone.
At home, it wasn’t any better. My Mom would look disapprovingly at my acne, saying things like, “Ceniza, your face is so dirty looking. Your teeth are ugly, and your eyes look crooked. You’re not as pretty as your sisters.” Don’t get me wrong, my Mom was a good mother. She worked hard to give us a better future, we always had fresh clothes, hot meals on the table, our lunches packed, beds cleaned, and the house neat and tidy. But, she was never there emotionally. To this day, I can count on one hand how many times she’s hugged me and told me she loves me. Maybe her way of showing love is different, that her mental disorder prevents her from being an affectionate mother. However, it caused me great pain to be bullied not only at school but also verbally abused at home too.
I was singled out and I became depressed, crying almost every night. “You’re the ugliest girl in the world,” a boy at school said to me one day. “You’re such a loner. Ew, go hang out in the bathroom stall!” a girl added. At home, my Mom would greet me with, “Why do you always have a frown on your face? You’re such an embarrassment when my friends see you! Look at your sisters, they’re always smiling. But you… you’re so worthless to me. You’re so useless, despicable.” One day, I made the mistake of talking back to her. She threw a chair at me, told my Dad, and he slapped me twice across the face.
During this low time in my life, I attempted suicide twice. The second time, I called Kids Help Phone just so I can have a stranger tell me that I’m worth it. The one thought that kept me going was being with my ‘Nanay’, which is Tagalog for Mother. In the Philippines, I was raised by my Aunt who took care of me like I was her own daughter. She hugged me, kissed me, tucked me into bed, read to me, and held me until I would fall asleep. I loved her so much. To me, she is my real mother. However, we were separated when my family moved to Canada and my other Mom took me with them. I made it my goal that, when I turned 18 years old, I would work and save up enough money to sponsor my Nanay here to Canada so that we could be together again.
Junior high went by in a blur. By the end of it, I had made some friends… with the wrong crowd. The summer before high school started, I dyed my hair blonde, began to wear make-up, wore tighter clothes, took up smoking, and partied at an all-ages club every Friday. On the first day of high school, I was unrecognizable. I walked up the stairs of my new school and the harsh comments were replaced with, “Damn, Ceniza.” And, “Whoah, you got hotter over the summer.” The newfound attention was addicting.
I attended an inner city school where the influence was terrible. During my first year of high school, I started dating a drug dealer, my friends and I smuggled alcohol into our lockers, I skipped 75% of my classes, and I was on the verge of getting expelled. At one point, my favourite pastime with friends was stealing cars. One day, my friend was on his way to pick me up in one of the stolen vehicles. He was drunk, and he crashed into a tree. That night, they amputated his leg and his dreams of playing college basketball ended. Things at home weren’t any better. In junior high, my Mom gave me loads of negative attention, but in high school when I rebelled, she completely ignored and disregarded me. She called me a disappointment and that she didn’t know what she did to deserve a daughter like me.
During spring break, I went to Edmonton with my sister Christine to visit our sister Bernadeth, her three kids, and her husband. We went to Jasper where I saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time in my life. We went shopping, went to the zoo, stayed up all night talking, and had sister bonding time. Bernadeth asked me how I was doing, and told me that the entire family was concerned about me. She told me that I’m better than the life I was leading, and that I needed to smarten up or else she would force me to move to Edmonton with her so that I could focus on school and make better friends. During that trip, I had some time away from my friends back home and time to think about my life. To know that my family cared meant the world to me and I decided to make some changes.
When I arrived back in Winnipeg, I immediately ditched my friends and broke up with my boyfriend, It wasn’t easy. I was scared of being alone again, and my “friends” threatened to beat me up for thinking that I was better than them. I didn’t think I was better than them, I just knew I deserved a better life than the one I had chosen. I started attending all of my classes and worked hard to pass my first year of high school. I started seeing a counsellor, who challenged me with extracurricular activities and signed me up for dance the following school year. Back then, I had no idea how much dance would be such a big part of my life, well into my 20’s. I was a loner again, but I liked it. It was for the better, and it felt right. It was all because of my sister’s encouraging words that made all the difference in my life.
That summer, I got a job and spent most of my time with family and also at home reading a ton of books and writing. I was content and, for the first time in a long time, my Mom was happy with me. Then one day, while out getting dessert with a friend, I got a phone call that changed everything. My sister Bernadeth was involved in a car accident and she was admitted into emergency for head trauma. I immediately went home, where my Mom was tearfully packing her bags to take the next flight Edmonton. I waited all night with my Dad and my sister, praying like I’ve never prayed before. I’ll never forget the moment my Dad answered the phone, optimistically at first, and then he went silent and fell to his knees. My sister, my saving grace, was gone.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse from there, just a few months later, my Nanay passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. The grief was overwhelming and I felt the black cloud over my head once again. I was at a new low, but this time, it was different. Instead of going into depression, I knew I had to keep going and be strong, not only for myself, but for my family. I wasn’t going back to my old life again and let my sister’s words fall on deaf ears. I would make her proud.
At some of the most difficult times in my life, I had two things. God and dance. With God, I found strength and purpose. With dance, I found belonging and acceptance. To this day, both have been positive influences in my life. Both have kept me going. Life hasn’t been easy. In fact, I can’t pinpoint a time where it has been easy at all. However, the point of life is not that it should be easy, but that we persevere and find enlightenment through our darkest moments, so that we can be a voice in the world to people who are going through their own difficult journeys.
At 26 years old, I’m finally beginning to accept my Mom’s mental disorder, and forgive her for the years of verbal abuse. This is my biggest scar that has yet to fully heal. I miss my sister and my Nanay everyday, but the most important lesson that I’ve learned through the most difficult of times is to keep your head up and trust that this is all part of a bigger purpose
Resiliency to overcome. This is the theme of Mpact’s show this year at the Martha Cohen June 11-13. You can find out more or purchase tickets here.