Ask the former teenage runaway

I was reading the Sweetie, I love you but your daughter scares me thread, and was struck by the following post:

I didn’t want to hijack the thread, but I was a problem teen - an extreme problem teen. Drugs, booze, running away, living on the streets - you name it - I did it or saw it done. And my sample base is not small, I think most problem kids.

This is the short version of my story.

I had problems with my step-father when I lived with my mom, he was an angry, authoritarian, and abusive man, and my mom in her own emotional insecurity allowed the beatings because she had grown up with beatings herself. When I was 15, I moved into my dad’s place - despite my mom’s emotional and physical blackmail to stay (I took six months to move enough stuff to my dad’s place bit by bit, because my mom had always told me that if I left, I couldn’t take anything with me).

After moving into my dad’s I started on a path to trouble. At first I would only run away for weekends, and skip school, but then would disappear for weeks on end and had dropped out of school. I’d stay with friends, stayed in abandoned buildings, I would hitch-hike across the country, even lived in a youth shelter for a little while. I would go out to night clubs and bars, I did drugs. I would panhandle or read tarot cards to survive, and occasionally I’d come back home to my dad’s and stay for a while - I was creating a literal hell for my dad. He was being pressured to take a tough love approach from some family, but he never did, so when I wanted to, I could come home.

I am very glad my father let me come home, and didn’t take a tough love approach, I think if I had been kicked out, or institutionalized in some sort of rehab facility - that I would have taken to the streets full time, the other kids were family to me at that time, and it would have not been hard emotionally to leave my dad’s for good. Luckily I never had to make that choice.

When I was 18, I moved back home for a while, even making peace with my mom and living with her and my step father for a bit too.

I got a job waiting tables when I was almost 19, and worked that job for over 3 years - I no longer touched any drugs except the occasional joint. At 22 went back to get my high school, and within 1.5 years I had finished 2.5 years of high school while working part time. Eventually I went to college, and got a career.

I still would fall back on my dad’s door step from time to time when I was in my 20’s, and occasionally fall into small spells of acting out. Emotionally I’d say it took a long time to grow up, it really wasn’t until I was about 31 when I lived alone for a year that I really straightened up. Many of my friends had to grow up faster, they had kids to take care of.

I am glad for my life now (and glad I was never knocked up), even though I still am not good with money, and I like to go out and drink a bit more than I should - but I do not engage in any self destructive behaviors, and I have never been addicted to anything worse than nicotine and caffeine. Most people seeing me would never guess that when I was a teenager, I was a little mohawked street kid punk rocker who once squatted in abandoned buildings.

A few years ago, through the internet I had started a web site and because the punk kid street scene across Canada is so inter-connected I got to find out how EVERYONE is - some people didn’t survive - but the over-whelming majority did, and quite a large number of old friends and acquaintances are doing very well.

In a way it reminds me of the last chapter in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex grows out of the bad behavior on his own. That chapter is left out of some editions of the book, and out of the movie - maybe because people don’t want to believe it - and maybe because people prefer not to believe it.

Anyway - ask away if you have any questions regarding that life, or the transition from that life to how I live now.

Did you have any particularly scary experiences from your time being out on the streets that you would want to share? Any really fun ones?

I have to say that’s totally awesome, and totally believable. I think it’s not uncommon at all for people to participate in self-destructive behaviors. I could say the same for myself, although I never started until I was about 20, and certainly not to the “living on the streets” level, but I’ve certainly forgone a more productive life to have fun, simply put. I’ve got my own vices as well, and I can easily see how one could go that way.

I suppose that most people would actually come back around as long as they weren’t severely screwed up with drugs and such. It takes a lot of willpower to get off of the more seriously life-destroying ones.

I’d say quite a few of both.

There was a guy who was quite insistent that my girl friend and I come with him to Chilliwack.

Then another time, two pill popping truck drivers in one trip - the first leg - he picks us up right inside the Vancouver city limits, but won’t be driving till the next morning so he brings my traveling partner and I to his place right outside town & feeds us booze and drugs. My friend (a male and I crashed together - very close) I was afraid he’d do something to us - but he didn’t. Our next ride was also a pill popping and drinking nut case, I was suprised we didn’t swerve into invisible traffic and die. He brought us to his wife and his place to crash right outside Calgary eventually for a ham dinner and a place to stay - and she made us a huge breakfast the next morning too. They were nice people, albeit - he drove drugged and drunk.

Living in a squat in Vancouver, skinheads had moved in, and we weren’t sure if they were the racist kind, or just the regular kind, none the less they were violent, so we found a different squat where in a friend of mine found in the basement cases of Matues Rose wine - and we had a great party.

A trip to Lethbridge Alberta where thanks to kids in that town, who worked at McDonalds and the Monopoly game we never went hungry for even part of a day.

Watching one guy being beaten up with 2 by 4’s by two people for sleeping with one of the guys girlfriends.

Being cornered by 8 skinheads and harassed when suddenly older bigger punks showed up enmass to rescue us.

Pimps following young girls, and some friends who were abducted (but got away).

Asian gangs in Vancouver looked like they were following us, and having to split up as were made it back to the squat slowly, so they didn’t attack the squat while we slept.

Times when my friends seemed closer than family, and we would talk about our lives and pain, and sleep almost in a ball - all together - almost like rats.

Times where I felt very alone, coming back from a shelter where I had showered and did laundry, to a kid who had either fallen or jumped off the roof of the building, and police around the building. Never did find out the true story, but ended up sleeping in a park with 5 friends. One friend woke up very sick, with bronchitis, and I walked her to the hospital - everyone else was sick too at the time - and I couldn’t just abandon her, some of our friends were very selfish that day, and I shouldered bringing her upon myself - and lost a lot of respect for some of the people I had called friends. Later, I found everyone was still in such shock, and all so sick themselves they just couldn’t care for anyone but themselves that day.

The kindness and cruelty of strangers would always amaze me - and sometimes thinking back the most amazing thing is that we were all kids, acting like kids quite often with petty little rivalry’s, dating each other, inner cliques, and outsiders - much like high school - yet we were living the way we did.

I had friends who got far more into drugs than I did (heroin & cocaine/crack), I was lucky I was a dabbler. The friends who were into the bad drugs as teens - all but one had now cleaned up. People I met later who got into drugs in their 20’s and 30’s and had a stable life before drugs - lots of those people are still messed up or passed away.

If you were away from your abusive stepfather and living with your dad then why did you keep running away?

I’ve tried therapy to figure that one out, I’ve looked deep into myself, and tried and tried - to be honest I still don’t know.
The best I can come up with was that I wanted to escape from everything. Sometimes I would just get bored, and decide to go to Edmonton (3 hours away from Calgary on the highway) alone. There wasn’t really any reason, it just seemed at the time that I was very bored, depressed, and wanted to be elsewhere.

I decided to do a journal on this last night, and I think I know what it is. I didn’t run away until I moved into my dad’s - and in a matter of 5 months of living there I went from a normal high school kid to utterly wild. Much of it was acting out emotionally, but when it came to running away and hitch-hiking - that was almost an addiction. The freedom I felt when I took to the road was the antithesis of the oppression under my mom’s roof. It felt good to be free, and the depression didn’t settle in as it did when I was at my dad’s home.

Funny, answering this question also helped me realize why I am now so uptight when I travel (fear of the temptations to run off).

Interesting. Have you ever been diagnosed with clinical depression?

I am not sure, I was put on anti-depressants for depression after talking with a family doctor about the length of a depressive spell I went through about 10 years ago, but I realized that my issues were emotional and not chemical, and decided to start confronting some of them - since then I have had blue days, and bright days and no long term spells of depression. I would say I am more or less normal when it comes to my emotional well being now - what ever normal is…

Do you think it was your father’s responsibility to keep taking you back, etc.? Do you think if he hadn’t you’d’ve been forced to come to grips with your behaviour/lifestyle earlier? Frankly, I wouldn’t’ve done it if I’d been him.


I can understand how some people may not agree with my dad having taken me back, but from my perspective I think it was the best choice in my case. Perhaps it would work for some kids to take a tough love approach, but my dad supporting me kept me somewhat grounded and gave me a shore to come to port in when I felt I needed it. I think his support kept me out of some of the more extreme trouble many of my friends got into - and I escaped more danger than some of them did as well. Another aspect of having a home to go to, is I still knew what was normal, I have seen some people I know who became desensitized to the violence and chaos.

Because I thought of my friends as family and would have had no physical or psychological problem taking up that lifestyle full time instead of part time. I don’t think that I would have straightened up sooner because I would have been in deeper. In fact having seen some of my friends who were kicked out or estranged from family in other ways, I think I would have had a harder time coming back to normalcy due to how much deeper I would have been in that life. Many of my friends were living in punk houses with 20 other people still in their 20’s, doing drugs, partying, on welfare, and still not together. In reflection it seems the deeper someone was in that life, the harder it was for them to get out, and had my dad made that choice, he’d just be throwing me in the pool.

I’ve never been close to most of my family (the opposite) and although I wasn’t as. . . adventurous. . . a teen as you, I was pretty messed up, and man, I understand this sentiment. Finding tribe was the only thing that kept me sane.

I think for almost all teens - friendships are their world, but even more so if you have problems at home. I’m still friends with quite a few of my old friends too - we grew up together and shared so much.

Maybe I’m missing something here, I’m really not trying to be an ass, but it sounds like you were happy to go out and be as irresponsible as you pleased as long as you didn’t have to deal with the consequences of ‘tough love’.

I hear about your mom and step father, I hear that Dad’s house was a port in the storm (admittedly, of your own creation, since Dad’s house had normalcy), I hear that it would not have been emotionally hard to be separated from him. But I don’t hear what the effects of your actions were on your Dad. How is your relationship with your Dad now as compared to then?

What would be your advice to parents be who have children who are doing as you did?

Would you take your own advice if you were a parent?

I think its easy to say that tough love would have made a person fall deeper into the hole. You are lucky you had the father you did, and that you were (it seems) an only child. I think if there were other kids in the picture to be influenced, tough love definitely would have come into play.

But then I’m a grumpy old parent. get off my lawn!!

What will you do when your daughter runs away? Did you ever call to let your father know you were alive, or did he just have to deal with it?

See, I never could have done the things that you did, because I have always known that there would be a future. And in the future I would need to have a job and responsibilities. Not finishing high school, and living on the streets, is no way to plan for the future. Didn’t the thought of growing up and having a life enter into your brain as you shirked all responsibilities to live on the street?

Whew! This one may be a long reply but both of these can be answered at once.

First of all - a teenager is still a child, and the choices made by immature, hormone addled brains are not always good choices. A child with emotional issues stemming from abuse will make even worse choices. I also think what works for one child may not work for another.

Also too, I would never presume to give advice to a parent of a bad teen, because every teen is different. I don’t have kids, but I have two nieces, and I think if either of them were having problems and my sister could not deal with it - I would like to be there for them - even just as a pad to crash at.

The closest to advice I would give is to seriously consider the emotional issues of the kid, their personality, and the risks involved in either kicking out a child or institutionalizing the child. What my dad took was a middle road between accepting but not condoning my lifestyle. He never gave any pretense he approved, and he did not give up, he did not enable my lifestyle, and he still imposed rules which I could follow and help stabilize me and was always there as an ear to listen, he treated me as if I was responsible for my own mistakes and decisions, and when I did get in trouble I had to deal with it myself. But through it all, he would emotional support me, and give me a place to sleep.

Personally I think my dad made the right choice in my case. But as I see it, my dad could have kicked me out and not heard from me for months, or he could be there for me, and provide a safe haven for when I did come home. I felt I was completely cut off from my mom, she had chosen the BEAST over me, and all the family I had in the world was my dad. My sister stayed at my mom’s and because I hated my mom, my little sister was angry at me. I rarely saw my sister because she only came over on weekends and on weekends I was almost never home I never saw her.

Sending a kid away to some sort of institution could help in some cases too, I tried that too. When I was 16, I moved into a youth shelter in Edmonton for two months. I didn’t want to be at home and I didn’t want to cause my dad pain anymore, but I wanted to be somewhere safe. A youth shelter is an institution with an institutional level of support for troubled kids. They try, but when someone’s needs are emotional, an institution is not the best place. Many of the kids although they live there and have to follow the rules in order to stay become more crafty at circumventing the rules. Kids in youth shelters (or for that matter, youth prisons, rehab facilities, or group homes) aren’t there because they are from happy homes. I came back home after a while.

I never have been much of a follower, many of my friends got much further into drugs, but if I tried something and I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it again - and peer pressure wasn’t an issue in either the shelter, or in my social group, but for a kid who is a follower I personally think an institution could expose a child to a worse element and they could learn to be better and sneakier at getting into trouble, and that is a risk one would have to take. I am sure that you’ve heard the saying that quite often the only thing criminals learn from going to jail, is how to be better criminals. From my experience and some of my friends - institutions of any sort, if a kid goes unwillingly could do the same thing.

My case was different, I went by choice, but even with weekly counseling sessions, group sessions, social workers, and the staff at the shelter, but still being a kid, what I wanted is to be loved - and there was no love in that place.

My dad tried hard to keep me together, and keep me from running away - and strangely enough there were some rules I didn’t break even through my roughest times, I never stole from my dad, I never left without telling him I was leaving, I called him frequently, and I never left the house messy (okay - a left a mess a few times). I didn’t get money from my dad - but if I needed clothing, he’d buy it for me. He took care of the basic needs, a roof over my had, some food to eat when I was home, and most importantly love. I would call once a week when I was gone, and I’d let my dad know I was okay. I had friends from worse circumstances who couldn’t go home, and more than once I would ask my dad if it was okay if I brought a friend to stay, which he would allow. When my sister would stay, I also would be on my best behavior, and I never encouraged her to smoke or do drugs, in fact if she would have asked - I would have never allowed her. Although my sister hated me, I loved her very much, and was very protective of her.

Three times I started grade 11, and tried to be “good”, my dad had told me more than once that I either would have to go to school, or get a job. I had even taken jobs phone soliciting and tried to be a good kid for my dad, but then an emotional storm would happen, and I would leave again. I sincerely didn’t want to hurt my dad - I loved my dad very much, but I know I hurt him. I wasn’t thinking most of the time, just reacting to my emotions. It was as if we had built a truce, where as long as he knew where I was, and as long as I followed those simple rules even though I was still running away and causing trouble, I could still come home when I wanted to.

It probably would have been easier for my dad in some ways to just say “don’t come home”, but I don’t think that would have been the right choice for quite a few reasons:

1.) I was already emotionally rejected by my mom in my opinion, and that would have been yet another rejection and would have caused more damage to me emotionally.

2.) I considered myself to be self reliant, and capable of taking care of myself despite my emotional immaturity and therefore would have simply been gone.

3.) I considered my friends to be a family and that social group would have become my sole support network, and I would have not had the grounding that even one loving parent can give - I would have had advice instead of from a mature parent from other emotionally damaged kids.

4 a.) There is a kind of psychosis that develops on the streets because you are separated from society. You are apart from the rest of the world, and the more you acclimate to it the less you feel - the violence is both a symptom and a cause of this. You become desensitized to the rules of society, to crime, to violence, to drug use, and become bit by bit trapped in that life because you don’t feel like you are part of the real world. My dad kept one of my feet firmly planted in the real world, and even so it took me years to come back and to accept and work within society at large in a productive manner without resenting and hating society.

4 b.) The issues which have taken the longest for me to deal with stem from the street psychosis - I was already somewhat emotionally fractured from the abuse at my mom’s place and I also was a nerdy introverted kid who didn’t fit in throughout my years at school - so I definitely felt separated from the mainstream to start with, and the more time I spent away from society in general the worse those feelings got towards the world. With one foot still in the real world, I got out at 19. Many of my friends took until their mid twenties.

5.) From my dad’s perspective, knowing where I was, and trying in his own way to impose some order gave him a sense that he was still trying, and he hadn’t given up hope. My dads perspective was that inside I was a good kid who wanted to make the moral choices - but I was behaving in a very self destructive manner.

I respect my dad, and have always respected my dad. I regret what I put him through. My dad is a very strong person for putting up with what he did, and what he did was nothing short of a miracle. I don’t expect nor ever dream that every parent could be a strong as he was in handling the chaos I brought him - and I admire my dad deeply for this.

My dad and I are close now and always have been. I have apologized for the pain I caused my dad as well, and my dad and I have talked quite a bit, in fact I will probably send him a large portion what I have just wrote here.

Of course I already thought I was grown up - doesn’t every teenager? Many of us joked that we’d never make it was 25, we knew we we in bad circumstances, and that we couldn’t live this life because if we lived it too long it could kill us. We’d speak of dreams, and what we wanted to do in the future quite often.

Although it seems that the lifestyle I lived was shirking all responsibilities, there were certain responsibilities within the group. At times much younger kids, as young as 11 would wind up on the streets, and we needed to protect these kids from everything from pimps, to skinheads. One trip I took was exactly that. A family friend’s daughter had ran away (she was a very tall pretty 12 year old when I was 16). Her parents were getting divorced and she did not want to live with her mom so she ran away (Just as an aside - I was not a bad influence here although her parents knew about me, but she didn’t know about my running away). I was home at the time, and my dad asked me if I could find her. I did, she was with pimps and whores in a cafe, and they were trying to pull her in. I told her to go to a friend of mine’s place - and told my dad where she was. Her mom came to get her, but she was gone again by nightfall, but luckily avoiding the cafe, instead hanging out at the arcade. The next morning at the arcade I ask her where she wanted to be, and told her some of what the hell of the life on the streets was - what I told her scared her. She decided she wanted to go to Vancouver and live with her dad. A friend of mine and a friend she met at the arcade all took the the road that afternoon, I called my dad and let him know I was leaving and she was too, within 14 hours we were in Vancouver - she called her dad and moved in and became a very good kid.

Quite often we were running away in hope that we could escape our problems, and the new city, or the next trip is where we’d find a “life” and get out. It wasn’t, it was yet another abandoned warehouse, or a burnt out house, or a boarded up building. Or the strangest of all when we lived in an abandoned crematorium in Calgary. None of those were places where we could get out.

And of course thought I was smart enough to do all that another time. I was an exceptional student, very bright, and I still kept my dreams, and shared my dreams.

Many friends got out when they got pregnant, and because of this they were emancipated from their parents if they were under 18. They got into the welfare system, and could live on their own and go back to school and get paid for it. Most of the boys didn’t get out until they were 18 and could go on welfare themselves.

From being granted independence from their families through the welfare system - they were then given the chance to grow again.

For me, I also needed that independence. As friends got homes, I wanted one too, but I didn’t want the welfare system’s baggage and paternal and patronizing attitude, so I got work.

Much of my life right now stems from my dreams. I went back to school at 22 when I felt I was ready for the responsibility - and afterwards went to college, and now I am working doing what I have wanted to do since I was 11 years old.

FWIW a friend and I have discussed our late childhoods, and they’re pretty similar (we met as adults). He left home at the age of 14, and I left at 16. We stayed various places, worked, did school, and so forth. Now we’re 50. We never did go back. My father was dead and my mother moved away when I was 19 anyway. We both have professional careers. I haven’t heard from any family in decades. He stayed in touch with brothers but not parents and still has a brother somewhere. I don’t think there’s any parents left but am not sure on either his account or mine. I feel somewhat guilty and selfish about getting out and think maybe he does too somehow. I am pretty impressed, though, that he did it at 14, because every year counts for a lot at that age.

Lexi, it sounds as though you’ve done well. Congratulations.