• Olive 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.