For Maddie, Sheena’s Place was a critical support network in an unfamiliar city. This is her story.
“It was the first mental health thing I actually showed up for.” Madeleine Cho, Maddie to her friends, says Sheena’s Place was there for her when nobody else was. The 18-year-old was all alone in Toronto after making the big move across the country from Vancouver when she found herself in a mental health crisis and didn’t know where to turn.
A varsity field hockey player, Maddie moved to Toronto to pursue her athletic goals and study kinesiology. It was when she was sidelined with injuries that things fell apart.
“Normally, I didn’t worry about a number on the scale – I mean, weight wasn’t my concern – but when I was injured, it became a focus as it gave me something I could control.”
Maddie eventually went to Toronto General Hospital’s (TGH) daytreatment program for eating disorders, but only because “Sheena’s Place supported me through all of the lead up” she says. Two weeks into her TGH treatment she was in a major car crash and was admitted to hospital for 11 days with serious injuries. She returned to TGH and finished the program, but during her first week back at university, posttraumatic stress hit her hard and she had to drop out of school. “The anxiety came right at me like I came at that tree in my car.”
Maddie had to withdraw from classes at university, which in turn meant she had to drop sports too, because she no longer had academic eligibility. “That’s when I lost everything,” she says. “I lost both communities I flew across the country for – university and sports. If I didn’t have the friendships I made in group at Sheena’s Place I would’ve had no one, no one to support me. You could say they kept me alive. It’s not just support – it’s understanding.”
Six years later and Maddie credits Sheena’s Place with helping bring her back to the better place she is in now: back in class and back in sports. And working as a youth mental health advocate.
Her first impression when she got up the courage to walk through that door was how accessible Sheena’s Place was. “First, it’s free – that’s number one. Second, you don’t need a diagnosis. At Sheena’s Place they purposefully say ‘disordered eating’ – there’s that missing piece where [for other eating disorder services] you would need that diagnosis – so I’m really grateful for that. And everyone is really friendly, especially at the front desk. That first impression, for me, was great.”
But she says it’s the group work that really makes all the difference when you are in recovery for an eating disorder.
“After my first group, when we weren’t even talking about our challenges, just knowing we had shared that space and they knew what was going on meant I didn’t have to worry about slipping up,” she says. “It’s the normalcy of that kind of conversation and those kind of interactions…they make all the difference.”
Maddie says another reason why Sheena’s Place is so important is because when someone walks out of treatment they aren’t cured: “Sheena’s Place bridges those gaps and breaks down the barriers. Developing groups that fit the needs of people is
something that Sheena’s Place continues to achieve.”
She points to the Binge Eating Disorder (BED) group. “None of the hospitals or programs treat Binge Eating Disorder that I know of, so the BED group is so important.” Prevalent statistics show that BED is the most common eating disorder, yet most hospitals don’t offer targeted treatment.
“Sheena’s Place is expanding programming now with a trans group and the satellite groups and more. If I look at all the different groups and programs here, it would be hard to find a person who wouldn’t fit or find a group here.” That said, Maddie acknowledges that there are still barriers for some people and she would like to see one specific new group added
to the Sheena’s Place program roster.
“I want something for in-recovery competitive athletes. There is definitely a lack of resources for people like this, like me.” Maddie points to Canadian Olympic diver Francois Imbeau-Dulac who just came out about his experiences with disordered eating, adding that she believes it is possible to maintain recovery and continue playing competitive sports.
She says with all the university varsity teams and national athletes, there are potentially so many people who might benefit from a program like this, “and there’s nothing like that out there right now.”
Due to requests from service users like Maddie, Sheena’s Place is planning on piloting a new group called Examining Exercise.