Rosewood House is transitional housing for people with mental illness and often drug addiction. Residents attend an hour of group therapy each day, which addresses a variety of issues from anxiety and self-harm reduction to budgeting and healthy eating. The residents, usually around 15 at a time, have chores assigned weekly, their food and medication prepared for them, and a nightly curfew.
But beyond the day-to-day activities, Rosewood House is a place of struggle, strength and positive change.
Abby Cardenas, 25, is in her first semester at Laurier Brantford, studying law and society part-time.
She has lived at Rosewood House, located at 42 Nelson St., for seven months. In order to live at Rosewood, which is staffed by trained professionals 24/7, one must be diagnosed with a mental illness, be on Ontario Works social assistance, and are often put on a waiting list.
Cardenas, who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, loves the care that is provided at Rosewood. Regular drug testing, addictions counselling, one-on-one therapy and dialectical behavior therapy are just a few of the resources available.
“There are times where it’s calm and peaceful and then there are times where it’s high-intensity,” Cardenas said.
Over the months spent there, Cardenas has formed strong relationships with her housemates.
“I love the people I live with, mainly because I have a lot of patience for them and I understand them and where they are coming from,” she said.
Despite the extra care provided to residents, the home is just like any other. The residents, many of them now close friends, enjoy hanging out together, talking and laughing.
“For Christmas time, the staff didn’t want to decorate for whatever reason … so I went inside the closet and I took out all of the decorations and decorated the whole place,” Cardenas said, eyes lighting up at the memory. She then gushed about the “Family Photo Area” she created for her housemates to ignite their holiday spirit.
Cardenas, poised, pensive and clever, has been through more than most can imagine: years of incessant emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse.
At one point, Cardenas had what she thought was a charming, loving boyfriend. But this master manipulator soon became her abusive pimp, forcing her into a life of stripping. She was hospitalized many times during this time of her life in Mississauga.
“He set the dogs on me. We had three pit bulls, so they tore my flesh,” she said, her hands grazing over the scars on her shoulder blades.
Cardenas was an atheist and had been all of her life, yet she knows that God was the one who saved her.
“I was in [that lifestyle] for five years and finally I just said, ‘God: I don’t know if you exist or not but if you do, you need to save me from this Hell because I don’t know how to get out,’” she said. “And two weeks later, I was out.”
After a failed suicide attempt following a beating, her pimp’s drug dealer rescued her from the bathroom floor and told her she could not go back.
With the dealer gone to visit his family for Easter weekend, she had nowhere to go. She went for a walk and stumbled upon Trinity Anglican Church with a sign advertising the Good Friday service. She read the phrase “God is Here” and walked in and heard the Easter story for the first time.
“The thing that really pierced me so bad was when they said that they beat [Jesus] … and it started to make me angry because my pimp used to tell me every time he beat me, ‘You deserve it, you did something wrong.’ But He, Jesus, didn’t do anything wrong.”
She felt an immediate connection to Jesus in that moment. After listening to the next sermon on Easter Sunday she began bawling at the overwhelming feeling that God loved her; she had never felt loved before that moment. After rushing up to the rector, the preacher, and telling him her life story, he invited her to live with him and his family. Just like that—she was safe and loved.
“They didn’t ask me for a penny. They let me live in their home. They let me have dinner with their children at the dinner table with them and I had never felt that before,” she said. She cried right then and there.
“I was starting to see… consciousness kicked in and you’re aware of good,” she said. “It’s a whole other world.”
Since that life-changing Easter weekend nearly three years ago, Cardenas lived with her rector up until he and his family moved out of Canada a few months ago. She moved into Rosewood House this past August to ensure she receives the care she needs to stay strong and continue down her path. She takes full advantage of all of the resources the home provides her, takes care of her body, and speaks with her rector, now overseas, regularly.
“He tells me all of the time, ‘Abby, I love you. I am so proud of you, just keep going,’” she said.
Cardenas is now a conscientious Laurier student who is focused on herself, in the best way possible. She is choosing to stay away from relationships for now but she feels unconditionally loved all of the time which is marked by the cursive “Jesus” tattoo on her ring finger. Cardenas also works at a legal firm downtown Brantford. After Cardenas graduates Laurier, she wants to go on to law school, and one day become a judge.
The residents of Rosewood House sometimes experience stigma. But next time you hear snippets of one’s past, or their diagnosis, or of someone’s personal struggles, remember that there is a reason, there is a story. And, without a doubt, there is a reason Abby Cardenas stands where she is today—whether you believe in God or not, walking into that church service that day changed her life. There is no doubt the unwavering strength that can be seen in her eyes had something to do with it too.