Today we raise our fists high and put our hands together in celebration of our Feature Girl Warrior, loving and devoted mother of three beautiful children, Jennifer Duchesne. In our interview together, Jennifer gives us an intimate look at her life, the struggles and heartbreak, the sorrow and joy, the triumphs, and ultimate victory. With raw honesty and vulnerability, Jennifer opens her heart and shares her most harrowing experiences, that she not only endured but overcame, with the intention of helping other women who find themselves in similar situations. May her profound, and often shocking, story act as a guiding light, a wayfinder, a beacon of hope, inspiration, and optimism. There is a way out. There is a purpose for every life. There is a reason we are here. Jennifer found hers in motherhood. As Jennifer poignantly and unapologetically explains, “I simply keep going because there are three people in this world that rely on me no matter their ages, location, or status there will never be a time in my life where I am not being the most important person I can be. A mother.” And to that, we say Amen, Hallelujah, YES!
What makes you a Girl Warrior?
My refusal to quit. All my life I have been faced with life-changing events that should have stopped me in my tracks. I should have become a statistic of what happens to children who are raised in foster care or of children who were raised in sexual violence and physical abuse and even the statistics that come with teenage pregnancy. Through my 48 years I have been faced with unspeakable trauma, I always knew that I deserved more. I took the pain that was my childhood and eventually the pain in my adulthood and chose to find the positive in every event, every moment of my life that made me who I am today. It took years for me to realize that a tragic upbringing doesn’t create a tragic existence. Once I took a long look at the path I chose for my life and future I see that I did the one thing no one in my family had done before, I broke the cycle. Even at 16 years of age, I knew my life was not like others and that what was happening to me shouldn’t be. I longed for love, acceptance, and acknowledgement. Little did I know at the time I would achieve all the wonderful things I longed for, it just took awhile for me to see that I had to first love myself, to accept my past as it was never my fault and to acknowledge that I am absolutely worth more. My past may be as painful as it is however it helped create the Girl Warrior I am today and for that I am grateful.
What’s your earliest childhood memory?
My earliest memories are while I was still living with my mother. I can recall the pink and white trim of the house and the gravel hill it was on with the local high school off in the distance. I can remember riding my tricycle on the same hill even after taking a spill forward and splitting my tongue wide open. I remember stepping on the hornets’ nest and running down the hill being chased by a swarm and the neighborhood parents beating me as best they could for the hornets to stop stinging me. I remember the old man down the street who took me into his home and raped me. I remember a lot of pain with that house. A lot of violence. I remember plates of food being thrown at the walls and shattering everywhere, I remember the constant screaming between my mother and her partner, the daily beatings or humiliation, the loud parties with alcohol and drugs, but I remember the smell of my older “stepbrothers” bedroom the most. I recall the feelings I had when he was around me and how uncomfortable I was with him. The smell in his bedroom was vile, and I couldn’t understand why, I at the age of 3 or 4 was fully potty trained, and yet he at 8 was still wearing diapers. It wasn’t until I was an adult and applied for the Freedom of Information act on my paperwork during my time as a ward of the courts and learned this dear 8-year-old boy was so badly abused, he no longer could control his own bowels. And I remember the day social services and the RCMP showed up at that little pink and white house to permanently remove me and that little boy from that house to never return. I remember packing up my little suitcase that came with me everywhere any time I had to go into another foster home temporarily. I remember this time feeling different as the police had never come to the house before, and I remember being in the back of the police car as we drove away.
What did you learn about families during the time you spent at your friend’s house when you were 16?
That families laugh. They love. They support and do not mock. I was taken aback at the continuous support for every member in the home. There was no violence, no constant belittling or name calling and never fear. When the daughter went to bed at night there was no fear of who would sneak into her room, no fear of being threatened with being kicked out and end up the streets. Families didn’t neglect or punish for simply being a child. Only comfort. Love. Support. I never heard the parents speak negatively to a child in their home or within the community. The way they acted behind closed doors was how they acted in public. There was no mask, no hiding, no lies. Just family. I was in complete shock that they even took me in. Sure, they knew me as one of their daughter’s friends, but not well. I was after all the new kid. But they opened their doors, their hearts, and their lives to provide a broken girl a safe place to lay their head at night. It was the first time in my entire life that I actually felt welcome and no longer a hindrance or a paycheck (I was reminded constantly by my grandmother throughout my childhood that I was merely a paycheck to my grandparents). And while my friend’s parents couldn’t fully understand the severity of the violence I was having to put up with at home, they showed me that I was NOT the person my family was making me out to be. I was not the nuisance I seriously was led to believe I was, but a broken child screaming for positive love. In the short time I was in my friend’s house, I witnessed for the first time what it was like to not live in fear.
You were diagnosed with both dyslexia and dyscalculia. What is the difference between these two learning disorders? How did you overcome the challenges they presented?
Dyslexia is a learning disability that impairs reading ability. Dyscalculia makes math difficult. A learning difference that mainly involves difficulty with reading. Dyslexia can affect writing and spelling, too. It can also impact math. A learning difference that causes trouble with making sense of numbers and math concepts. Together, they can make learning and comprehension next to impossible. Especially when you do not have positive reinforcements at home helping you. I was formally diagnosed in grade 6 and placed in assisted learning classes instead of taking French with the rest of my classmates. I continued to struggle for years and came close to failing my grades every year. In grade 7 we had a free block in the library one day and we were told to pick out a novel, our choice. I had never been interested in reading as I struggled to make sense of the words jumping around the page but the opportunity to read my own pick was just too exciting to pass on when I came across biographies and thrillers. Finally having the opportunity to read books that interested me that were not part educational requirements allowed me to take my time, to read one chapter 5 times if I had too. Plus, I also found that if I had my nose in a novel at home not only would my imagination take me away from the hell within my home, but it appeared to somehow ease the abuse at other hands. While I read, no one bothered me at home. No one interrupted. If the weather was nice, I would leave the house first thing in the morning, climb the highest of trees with my book, a juice box and a couple of cookies and stay up there all day if I could, just reading. Reading became my escape. In time it became a fascination with justice. Looking for novels that shared stories of crime, pain and tragedy that had powerful outcomes of justice, care, and love. I found these stories not just page turning but relatable and inspirational. It meant that there were others in this world going through their own pain, their own horrors and had successfully fought back and won! They were triumphant at proving they had done nothing wrong to warrant the actions of others. I learned so much about human emotions, right from wrong and determination. I knew that if all these people in these stories had faced such difficult times in their lives as I had, then maybe I could come back from this life. Maybe I too can fight the system, fight for myself, and if they were not providing me with empowering factoids to help me obtain strength then they simply pulled me away from my current surroundings and into another world. I could get lost in the written world to allow for the stressors of everyday life to simply take a back seat for the time being. Reading has become a therapy.
What was the first novel that you picked up and were determined to read and comprehend? Why that book?
To be honest, I actually have no recollection of the title or author of my first novel. I do know it was a thriller/horror and even though the book was meant for my age demographic I felt like I was sneaking the book as I was not allowed to watch horror movies at home so somehow in my mind, I thought me reading this kind of book was going against every rule at home. Silly, I know but in the mind of a child, it made perfect sense to defy by knowledge. So, while my initial attitude towards reading may have been out of defiance, I eventually realized that I was getting sucked into a world that was not my own. A world where anything could happen. Where children were heard. Where they fought crime, traveled, had true friendships, and even experienced young love. The people in the novels had the lives I dreamed of. Whether it be the freedom to be their own person or the freedom to simply be for no reason. The written word took me away from the pain of my every day. And then I began reading biographies and my love for reading reached new bounds. They were not biographies about the good in people, but the bad. I wanted to read stories about others who also had lives that caused them continuous pain and agony but had fought and found a way to come out of their personal turmoil with great strength and determination. Other women who were faced with tragedy, violence, homelessness, poverty, and all things that were meant to destroy and break these women instead made them stronger and fearless. Woman who fought back at the system, broke the cycle of violence, used their voice, and stood up for what was right. These woman in these books gave me hope. These books showed me that I too could be something more than my foster home led me to believe. No matter what the horrors these women in the books wrote about, what they had to endure to achieve fulfillment and calm gave me hope that the pain I was living every day was only temporary. That I too could fight back and make my own path, my own future. Books brought me my freedom to know I deserved better and a chance to disappear into a world that was not my own.
How did giving birth to your first child change you and transform your life?
Growing up I can honestly admit that I did not have unconditional love and support. I was surrounded by violence; I was condemned for being my mother’s daughter. I had no basis to compare motherhood, no support to prepare me for the challenges ahead and zero guidance. Becoming a mother opened my world and transformed my broken and damaged heart into an over abundance of love for another human being. I stopped focusing so much on my personal pain and begun focusing my attention on the life of this child who needed me, who relied on me. I was all she had, and she was all I had. My heart swelled like it had never done before, I looked at this tiny little human I had grown within me and was amazed that I was about to embark on a life that I had no healthy examples to start me off on the correct foot. And while I was terrified, I was also determined to do right by this little human who didn’t have their own voice to protect them. I had to be that voice for her. To listen to her needs and make healthy choices to aid in her emotional and physical health. I took all the negativity I had growing up and flipped it to create the best life that I could possibly create with what I had around me. I will never be the type of person who promotes teen pregnancy, it’s a difficult path regardless of your support system. For me though, giving birth transformed my life so much that it is safe to say it saved my life. For the first time in my short 16 years, I had something to live and fight for. I finally understood what unconditional love was and how freaking amazing it felt. I was broken, smoking, drinking, skipping school, getting into trouble, breaking curfew or just not returning to the group home and had even started dabbling in hard drugs. Then I found out I was going to be a mother and without a second thought I gave up smoking, drinking and the drugs. I moved into a home for pregnant teens and enrolled into a school for pregnant teens to give me some kind of guidance. I honestly had no idea what I was doing, I just knew that one day my children would all be adults and when they look back at their lives growing up I never wanted my children to look back with pain in their hearts and have questions with no answers, but to look back and see that while there will always be struggles along the way and that I absolutely made mistakes too, the love I have for them will never be doubted. A transformation from broken and unloved to being complete can forever change who you thought you were and transform your entire life for the better.
What happened that forced you to withdraw from hair dressing school a month before graduation?
It was during the time when my son was at his sickest. After staying at Children’s Hospital for a month the doctors sent him home with me. They had hoped his new heart medication would start showing the side effects of the dosage while he was still admitted into the hospital as he was on an adult dosage at only 2 years old and there was fear his body would struggle. And it did. For the next 6 weeks he was violently ill while his body adjusted. Once his body adjusted, I was hoping to head back to school however it was put aside again as my son was still having numerous attacks that required hospital care. In the first year on average, I was having to take my son to the ER three to four times a week. This went on for about a year. During the year I started going to parent support groups for other moms with kids who also had heart disease and learned valuable tricks to cut back on hospital visits. For the next 2 plus years I was taking my son back and forth to Children’s Hospital in Vancouver for regular appointments with his cardiologist while still attending specialist appointments at home. During all this he also had to have surgery to remove a cancerous mole on his head which caused him to have a minor setback in his heart health recovery. By the time my son was strong enough again to be in a daycare it had been almost 3 years since I left hair dressing school. The school only held your placement for one year, after that I would have to begin from day one again and I strongly felt it was a sign to say goodbye to that dream and realize that throughout this difficult time with my son I had come to learn an appreciation for the healthcare system. My appreciation began by simply donating blood regularly. Then by fundraising for hospitals. I found myself doing as much research as I could about medical topics and looking for areas I could help.
Why did you switch gears and go to school to become a Medical Office Assistant instead of returning to your childhood dream of becoming a hairdresser?
Even with my newfound interest in the medical profession I knew being a nurse, a doctor or anything working hands on with patients wasn’t for me, as for years I was far too shy to speak to many people that I didn’t know or feel safe with. However, I connected with the administration side of medical where again, I can read and do research while still getting the opportunity to work with the public, thanks to finally getting over the shyness of life.
What was the pivotal surgery in 2020 that changed your whole life?
I have Pheochromocytoma. They figured the tumor was growing in my adrenal gland for over 20 years, causing complete hormonal chaos in my body. Pheochromoocytoma causes the body to produce too much hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. Because my tumor was growing infused with the adrenal gland, I had to have the whole gland removed. After 20+ years of struggling with debilitating anxiety, lifelong tremors and heart palpitations I had it removed to experience my very last anxiety attack two days after surgery and haven’t had one since. My moods improved as well as my overall health. I no longer wake up daily feeling forever sick, always nauseous, clammy and shaky to living calmly, anxiety free. Until I had the tumor removed, I was unaware how much of my every day this condition effected. It had consumed my whole life and I had no idea. I had simply chalked it up to my struggling mental health issues with Complex-PTSD.
Are you able to forgive the people who hurt you, especially your mother?
I am a true believer that forgiveness is earned by behaviour. I have forgiven many people in my life over the years just as I too have been forgiven for my wrong doings. My mother however lost the right to forgiveness when she chose not to protect one of my children. I forgave her my entire life growing up out of desire to have a mother’s love. She continually chose the men in her life over me and yet I still did everything I could for years for her to love me like a mother should love their child. I so badly wanted her to be the mother I had hoped she would be and yet time and time again I allowed her to treat me like a complete burden riddled with negativity, abuse, and neglect simply because she was for a moment, present. Then one day I saw what she had done to me my entire life happening to one of my children and putting them directly in harms way. That was all it took for me to say, no more. Growing up I needed a voice. A voice from an adult who would step up and protect my very being. No one ever did that for me, even when I asked. My child never had to ask me to protect them because I was that voice for them. I have done everything I can since becoming a mother to make sure my children would never have to face life alone like I did.
What would you say to your younger Girl Warrior?
This one is difficult to answer as I feel there are many things that I could have potentially said to my younger self that could have changed the course of my life, my reactions, emotions or simply who I am as a person. And while I can honestly say having someone come to a younger me with words of inspirational wisdom could have changed my entire existence, I am who I am today without a Girl Warrior to look up to during my younger years as it took me a long time to see that what I needed was me. I value my path through all the pain, violence and tears that happened as it has allowed me to learn, grow from the agony that I was surrounded in and direct that pain into some good. I needed that heartbreaking pain known as my childhood to become a whole human. While I do believe it is our job as woman to continue to inspire our future Girl Warriors, never forget to be your own first and foremost. It saved my life.
What would you say to future Girl Warriors looking for inspiration?
Inspiration is within you. While I could go into the old clichés of inspirational quotes and activities that could potentially turn one into a warrior, the truth is, as woman we are so very blessed to already be a warrior within, we just have to find a way to set her free. Every day wake up and begin a new chapter. Be the person you wish you had. Be present. Be honest to not just others but to yourself first and no matter what anyone says, you must never forget to put yourself first. You are no good to anyone if you do not focus on the quality of self-care. For too long I searched for the warrior to come along and guide me, having no idea that the warrior within was just waiting for me to have the strength to see I was the inspiration the whole time.
Who is/are your Girl Warrior hero(s) and why?
My Girl Warrior is not just one, but four.
My first-born daughter for continually fighting for her dreams even when knocked down. I have never witnessed a strength or determination than I have in this girl. She made a young, immature teenager grow up and face the reality of responsibility with the personality of care, compassion and endless support while perfecting her smart-ass responses, her wit, and her hilarious sarcasm. She looks at life with a questionable reaction on her face and a little pause before charging forward to obtain all that her heart has ever dreamed of. I have witnessed this girl be faced with life’s hardships time and time again and without a second thought she gets back up, dusts herself off and keeps going. It is no surprise that she continues to succeed.
My youngest daughter who continues to love despite her own heartbreak. Even when her own heart may be hurting, she will find a way to bring warmth and love to yours. A gentle kindness unlike all others for sincerity, truthfulness, and humor.
My foster sister for showing me that you fight for the ones you love. You stand up for one another when they cannot stand up for themselves. Without even trying, she brought me to life and opened my entire world to the possibility that even I could be worth the love.
My best friend for proving you can find laughter within pain. Humor in your life and family in friendship.
There is a Girl Warrior in all of us, however some of us are just unaware it is there. I am blessed to have these four girl warriors in my life. Thanks to their never-ending support, I too became a warrior.
Blue Sky it. No boundaries here, just limitless opportunities. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Traveling the world. I have yet to leave Canada in any capacity. My children are now adults and living their own lives which allows me the time and the freedom to spread my wings and see where my life will take me. Having the opportunity to see the natural wonders of the world from backpacking in Thailand, to taking in the gloriousness of the Grand Canyon to the safari in Africa where the rhino runs free. I want to witness different cultures, natural and man-made world structures like the pyramids or the Maya civilization. See the world in all its glory instead of watching it on the small screen.
What is it about Rhinos that you like so much? Would you call them your Spirit Animal?
They are powerful and full of strength even though they are continually threatened. Rhinos are a symbol of hope as they continue to exist while representing security, rootedness, and stability. They have a colossal spiritual energy, including freedom for embracing the unconventional and alacrity. Some believe that rhinos are full of force and brutality when in reality they are extremely gentle, loving and deeply protective of their young. The “Rhino Mentality” is about developing your emotional, mental, and spiritual strengths so that no matter what is faced in life, you will be able to find a way to cope without causing harm to yourself or others. There are so many attributes that the rhino beholds that I wholeheartedly feel within me as a woman and a mother. While I do not believe rhinos are my spirit animal, I do feel a substantial connection to a creature who for generations have fought and continue to fight on the edge of extinction to simply, be. They protect their young at all costs even throwing themselves into the line of fire to allow their young to survive and grow. I am strong and not afraid of obstacles with my thick skin, my power, and my ability to continue looking for peace.
Describe yourself in five words.
Resilient, Passionate, Courageous, Optimistic, Persistent