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  • Writer's pictureOlive Von Topp

Why I Became an Empowerment Coach

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Just before the pandemic, I was at a party with old friends and one of them commented that none of us were doing what we wanted to be doing when we grew up. I made a joke that I actually was, because I had always wanted to be a slut. Jokes aside, it got me thinking. In many ways, I AM doing what young me wanted to be doing when she grew up. And not just the slut part.

When I was younger, I was certain of two things I wanted out of life. One, I wanted to help people. Two, I wanted twins. Well, one of those things is still true.

Fast forward twenty-something years and here I am, an empowerment coach and burlesque performer. This may not look like every 9 year old’s dream, but as I take stock of everything I am doing in my life right now, I realize that my childhood wishes are being fulfilled. It just wasn’t a straight, obvious line to get here.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the humanness of storytelling; how ingrained in us it is; how it connects us all. And while I do a lot of story-telling in burlesque, there is one story I haven’t really told: my own. Recently, I was told by a healer that I needed to tell my story; that was how I was going to help others and help myself.

I have always found it challenging to talk about myself, but lately have really been realizing the importance of storytelling and how integral it is to our healing. So, in an attempt to be vulnerable and heal, here it is. Or at least bits of it.

Rewind back to baby Olive.

I was, I am told, a gentle kid. Sensitive. Particularly to other’s suffering. My mother used to have to screen every movie, even the kids’ movies, because most would inevitably result in tears and/or nightmares (which would repeatedly cause me to wake up my parents for months after watching). I am still like this. Not that I wake up my parents, but I do still have nightmares when I watch something intense. If there is suffering in it, I am often affected for weeks (sometimes months or years). I am just “too” sensitive.

I have realised the extreme toll, sometimes even physical, that other’s suffering has on me. But this took years to realize. We will get to that in a minute.

Along with being incredibly sensitive, I was very sensual. I know this sounds odd, but those of you who were too know what I am talking about. I was fascinated by all things sexual. I loved vampy characters, loved sexy scenes in movies. I wanted to wear revealing clothes, and could not wait until I got breasts! Little did I know, life has a funny sense of humour and they would not come for a very, very long time and even then, would be… on the modest side.

My mother and I had many an argument over my clothing choices being too “adult”. I vividly remember getting my first bikini. I was probably 8. I had begged my mother for it. It was a speckled neon bikini at Zellers (For you youngins, this was a Canadian department store) and I wanted it BADLY. It was a real bikini! It even had little "pockets" for your boobs (which of course I did not have).

When my mother surprised me with the bikini as an end of school gift, I thought I would die from happiness. I wore it everywhere; every chance I could. I wore it until it got so thin, it was see through and droopy. I remember parading around in front of some neighbour boys at the cottage we rented that summer and just how powerful I felt. Like most young girls, I learned to equate sex appeal with power.

Not surprisingly, I also loved attention. My schoolbook had a section every year that said “When I grow up I want to be ______”. My answers oscillated year after year between actor, dancer, model, singer, and sometimes teacher. I think one year it said artist. Not that I was particularly good at any of those things, but I loved being on stage and in front of people. I loved dance. Like LOVED it. A love that continues to this day. Leo much?

Dance has always been healing for me; an escape, a release. It is meditative, powerful, transformational. I didn’t take a single dance class in my childhood. I was already in gymnastics, and we couldn’t afford both. However, I spent much of my free time dancing in my room or in our living room, with my mom, or with friends. There are a number of truly embarrassing choreographies I came up with and performed in front of family, or friends, or classmates. I do remember one particularly embarrassing choreo I did for the grade 3 talent show, in which I did a lot of back somersaults and literally picked up a hammer to MC Hammer’s “Pick Up the Hammer”. I am so grateful that smart phones weren’t a thing then, and as far as I know, there is no evidence.

Why am I telling you all these embarrassing stories about myself?

One, so you feel better about your childhood, and two, to give background into how I got to where I am. As I write this, my life path seems obvious. But for the longest time, it wasn't and I had no idea I would get to where I am today.

While I had confidence, and passion, there was also darkness in my life. My eldest brother Morgan battled depression, which started around the time I was 7 and he was 12.

I watched for years as Morgan struggled with mental health and addiction.

These struggles played out in all kinds of ways, causing immense stress on him and my family. He had trouble in school (despite being incredibly gifted), trouble with the law, problematic relationships, suicidal attempts, hospitalizations.

Through this time, I learned a lot about the shortcomings of our mental health care system and stigma against those who struggle with mental health. There was a lot of stress, anger, and heartache for those years. There was also a lot of joy, laughter, and celebration. Morgan, more than anyone I have ever known, was really able to live in the moment. To appreciate small things and experience joy. He showed me the magic of waking up early to watch the sunrise on the roof of our house. The simple pleasure in a juicy piece of fruit. Or the beauty in the melancholy melody of a song.

Morgan had a way of connecting with people, especially people who society had marginalized. He listened. Without judgment. His place was always full of interesting characters and lively debates about politics and philosophy. He taught me about gratitude, about being present, about critical thinking, about listening to and not judging others.

Eventually, when I was 20, Morgan was successful in taking his own life. And in taking a piece of mine in the process.

At the same time, I was entering into a new relationship with someone with some pretty severe mental health challenges of his own. Though I wasn’t really aware of the depths of his darkness at first.

In the beginning, it was passionate and exciting, but soon our relationship became co-dependent and eventually very unhealthy. I supported him. I tried to help him improve his mental health. I tried to save him in ways that I couldn’t save my brother. It was an intense relationship. Tumultuous. Unstable. Albeit loving, and sometimes beautiful.

In the process of developing this relationship, I lost myself. Like, really lost myself. I mean, I did "normal" things: I committed myself to school and my partner. I saw friends and had two jobs. I did some fun things. I even went on a solo trip to South America, partly in an attempt to find myself, but mostly just to escape. But this didn’t lead me to any lasting answers. I was a shell of who I was. I was so consumed with other’s needs that I couldn’t even identify my own.

I questioned my rationale for everything, wondering if I "had a right" to feel the way I did.

Maybe I WAS crazy. A thought that only years of being gaslighted can produce.

Often, it was just easier to keep my own feelings quiet than it was to bring them up, which would almost always end in an argument.

I knew I needed to leave the relationship but was really scared about what would happen to my partner if I left. Sometimes it felt like him or me. And eventually, finally, after 8 and a half years, I chose myself.

Truthfully, that is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Around the same time I left my unhealthy relationship, I finished my Master’s degree and began working in the HIV and sexual health sector. And I fucking loved it. Talking about sex for my job was, in many ways, a dream come true.

Given my close relationship to it, I had never wanted to work in mental health and addiction. But you know what? It turns up everywhere and I guess you do what you are good at, so after a few years I took a job working as a support worker for people facing barriers to healthcare. A lot of my clients had substance use issues, but pretty much all of them faced mental health challenges. I liked the work a lot. It was challenging but rewarding. The clients were incredible, and taught me so much about resilience. However, not surprisingly, the role could also be really triggering.

After a few years, my own health began to decline (not unrelated to experiencing or “holding” other people’s suffering). I had a lot of GI and chronic pain issues that flared up quite badly, to the point where I could barely work.

So, after much deliberation, I left.

I chose myself again.

I took a leave and started doing some real work on personal healing. Tough work. Looking at patterns, at my relationship with myself, my boundaries, at how my thoughts were creating my feelings (and therefore actions and outcomes). I began unlearning a lot of the negative things I had been programmed to believe about myself and about the things I “should” be doing with my life. For the first time in a long time, I began thinking about what I truly wanted out of my life. And believing that it was possible.

During those years after ending my relationship, I also began burlesque. In many ways, it was something I had always wanted to do. Burlesque combines my love of dance, theatre, humour, storytelling, and sensuality. I remember when I finally figured out it had a name,

I was like, "That!! That is the thing I have been wanting for so long!"

At the time, there wasn't a lot of burlesque in my local area. I remember telling my ex before I started, “I think if I want to do burlesque here, I need to produce my own shows”. So, after 9 months or so of performing solos at a local DJ burlesque night that had recently started here in Guelph, I joined forces with two other burlesque gals from Guelph and we formed a troupe called The Femmes Rebelles. We started producing shows when those DJ nights ended and haven't looked back since.

Burlesque connected me to a piece of myself that had been forgotten.

A few years ago we started teaching burlesque classes. I even started teaching private burlesque lessons. I also started another business with my best friend wherein we taught "sexy" dance workshops for women’s parties, though eventually we disbanded when other priorities started to become more time-consuming.

When I started teaching, I began to realize that most people didn’t find their way to burlesque simply because they wanted to learn the dance moves. They wanted something more. They wanted to gain confidence. Feel sexy. Have permission to explore a side of themselves they don’t usually explore. Unlearn shame. Challenge themselves. Burlesque was just a great vehicle for these learnings.

So two years ago when I decided to quit support work, it began to click. Slowly. Very slowly (and not without a lot of tears at first). I could use my life experience, my training in mental health work and teaching background (which I haven’t really touched on) as well as my burlesque experience to help people! I could use the tools I had to help folks gain confidence and re-establish a more loving relationship with themselves, so that they could start living the life they wanted.

I could help empower people!

And I could do it in a way that was both authentic and healthy for me.

So after this exciting revelation, I went and completed my coaching training and then “officially” started my Empowerment Coaching business. Under the Empowerment umbrella, I added more complementary services: producing (and facilitating) sex and pleasure workshops, giving talks or speaks, one-on-one coaching sessions, along with facilitating seduction workshops for parties and events, and private burlesque lessons. Soon I will be adding group coaching courses.

All of a sudden, everything just started to make sense. All the things I had been working towards, all the years of struggle and pain, my own personal work and growth, my work in mental and sexual health, my love of dance (and acting and teaching and comedy), and my fascination with all things sexual, they all came together to feed this new path I had discovered. It just made sense. Finally.

It is slow-going, and a hell of a lot of work. I still have to work a part time “muggle job” to support myself. Some days I want to give up. It would be so much easier to work a 9-5 in many ways. Except it wouldn’t.

I have grown so much over the last few years and have done a lot of personal and healing work. It has been so delightful to be able to help others do the same. I love working for myself, creating and inspiring, and being inspired. But what I love even more is the fact that I get to help people, which is all I ever wanted (that and the twins).

I get to hold space for people to explore sides of themselves that previously, they haven’t been able to. I get to listen, to reflect back, and gently push people to challenge themselves and their thinking. I get to help people move closer to their dreams. I get to watch them explore. And grow. And blossom. I get to help people fall in love with themselves. It is the most rewarding experience. And I feel so very lucky. Lucky to have experienced everything that got me here. At the risk of sounding cheesy (maybe a bit too late), I know it is only just beginning, and I’m excited to see where this takes me.

This past winter, I taught a workshop called “Stripping for the Bedroom”. It was a lot of fun. It was full of touchy, feely, vulnerability, which I love, but also so much laughter, courage, and playfulness. And as I looked out at the studio full of half naked adults laughing and feeling comfortable enough to embrace their bodies and sensuality in the company of strangers, I thought, goddamn, 9-year-old me would be so proud.


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