It’s the first thing you notice when you walk into Charlene Renaud’s open-concept house: a giant seven-foot-tall piñata doll standing on the left wall of the kitchen. A small replica of the doll lies on a nearby kitchen table. Smiling, Renaud unzips the front of the smaller doll and pulls out a brown ball. She laughs, her eyes sparkling because of the humour inherent in the symbolism.
“This is the poop ball. This is the toxic stuffing we all have to deal with if we’re going to have physical and mental health,” she says, her tone becoming more serious. “Even though there is a lot of good stuff inside us, all the bad stuff we put inside will only get worse if we don’t take it out, look at it for what it is, and get rid of it.”
As I sit across from Renaud in her home in Chatham, Ontario, it is hard to believe that this optimistic, passionate, happy, charming woman led a life so destructive it helped create the Piñata Theory.
Renaud grew up on a farm in rural Comber, Ontario, with her parents and five siblings. While farm life was hard and she had chores like most farm children, she revelled in being able to be outside in nature and doing things children love—like wearing rubber boots and jumping in muddy ditches. She loved to sing and would often stand on a farm wagon with her cousin Rochelle, each holding a cob of corn and pretending to entertain the masses. Years later, a friend would arrange for her to sing the Canadian and American national anthems at Comerica Park in Detroit.
That picture, however, contrasted sharply with the pain of living with an alcoholic father. She calls alcoholism a family affair because of the grim and often lifelong effects it has on everyone. For Renaud, it created the illusion that consuming alcohol in destructive quantities was normal, what everyone did. That belief and its resultant behaviour shaped the next several decades of her life.
Her father often had friends in the house who would drink to get blind drunk. He thought it funny to ridicule his youngest daughter in front of his drunken guests, chipping further away at her self-worth. While her father worked hard to provide for his large family, Renaud laments never knowing what it was like to have a parent who tucked her into bed or read her a bedtime story. Life wasn’t always easy for Renaud’s mother, but she stayed in the marriage and worked to make it better. In later years Renaud says she and her father have reconciled and have forged a respectful relationship. She also said her father has worked hard over many years to be a contributing member of the community.
“They did the best with what they knew and tried their best,” she said.
Being the youngest of six and growing up in an alcoholic home, she experienced fear, dysfunction, drama, insecurity, and uncertainty. Some of her older siblings would hurt her mentally and physically and their mean games set a foundation of insecurity at a very early age. During her teen years she became anorexic, believing a skinny body would make people love her. She began drinking and using drugs.
Deciding she wanted to become a police officer, she enrolled in the Police Foundations program at St. Clair College, where she excelled. Over the next several years Renaud worked in security and tried many times to join the Chatham police force, without success. In 1994 she went to work with the Ontario Provincial Police as a dispatcher. Today, she works as a special constable dealing with prisoners in the court system and says it gives her important insights into human behaviour.
“I don’t think I really understood the extent of human suffering until I began working with prisoners,” she said. “Although I wanted to be in policing, I knew it wasn’t the best fit for me, for my personality and talents. I wanted to sing and I am more creative. I like to organize events and do public speaking.”
When Renaud was in her twenties, a therapist suggested she join Al-Anon, but she never saw herself as an addict and refused the help. It’s a decision she regrets, later realizing it might have helped her avoid some of the disastrous relationships that ultimately caused her pain and humiliation.
Despite the troubles of her young life, Renaud says she was always a giver and the kind of person who looked for people to fix. Unfortunately, Renaud was to find that some broken people are unfixable, and by attempting to help them, she would only bring great misery into her own life.
During her twenties she married and divorced twice and had two children. Her third attempt at being happily married turned into a nightmare.
She calls him Jack. They began dating, and when she visited his house for the first time she was alternately saddened and revolted by the filthy and cluttered state of the place. It reminded her of the TV show Hoarders, especially when she had to use a shovel to get rid of dirt off the floors, including dog feces. Walls were smashed and there was junk everywhere. Most women would have run for the exit, but Renaud embraced this difficult situation as an emotional challenge.
Then there were the attitudes of his three children. Renaud says they were “tough nuts to crack” but she felt sorry for them because they had lost their mother. Someone, Renaud does not know who, had spray-painted the words slut, kill, and whore on the bedroom door of his nine-year-old daughter, and there were what looked like big claw marks scratched down the length of the door. The other two girls were 11 and 13 when Renaud first met him. Trying to help them, she writes in her book, was like taming feral cats.
“They were manipulative, dishonest, and mean, but you can imagine how they were living in an abusive, dysfunctional home with a dysfunctional parent who is a liar and abuser,” said Renaud. “I thought I could save them all and that would really make Jack appreciate me.”
Once her own children—Lisa and Jordan—left home, she felt alone and trapped with Jack and his children, all of whom now scared her. Renaud broke up with Jack several times before ultimately marrying him, and it was always due to the lack of parenting he gave his children, allowing them to grow more out of control as time went by. Their abusive behaviour towards her increased as they tormented and terrorized her on a daily basis. “It was like a horror movie,” she said.
The abuse continued and in early 2012, she says her life ground to a halt—the fixer needed fixing. She began unravelling mentally and physically. Stress had brought on fibromyalgia and she lived in constant pain, walking like a frail, old woman. Still, she hung in. Mainly, she admits, because she did not want the embarrassment of another failed marriage.
Renaud said she finally admitted that this time she had nothing left. She went into survival mode and began lashing out. She said in her mind, she knew if she did not escape, she could die. She suffered what the doctor called a psychogenic stress reaction that led to a complete mental breakdown. To compound the situation, Jack, a lawyer, filed a domestic complaint against her. Police led her away from their home in handcuffs.
“I was well known in the community, I was involved with many charities and this was a complete humiliation,” said Renaud. “The arrest was a terrible shock to everyone who knows me. I have a reputation for helping others, not ever hurting anyone.”
Her family doctor sent her to a psychiatrist and a psychologist—both of whom found her to be a high-functioning and intellectual woman and wrote letters of support to the court on her behalf. But, all of their efforts could not halt the devastation the abuse had caused.
“I was completely broken. I had invested $200,000 in our new home, which was half the purchase price, and I was kicked out, so I went to live with my mom and dad,” said Renaud. “I lost 30 pounds and was in a complete meltdown. The therapy that made a difference was from my psychologist. He said, ‘You’re addicted to fixing people and you let people use you like a doormat.’ It took about eight to ten months but eventually I could see my unhealthy stuffing and I wanted to change it.”
She began to heal. Just when she thought she had her life together, in walked the person she thought was an angel sent by God to reward her for all the pain she had endured. This sweet-talking, caring, apparently selfless man ticked all the boxes and Renaud thought this was her nirvana. He had overcome a life of drugs and alcohol and crime to become a “beacon of hope” on the First Nations reserve where he lived and was a drug counsellor. Her family and friends agreed that she had found her perfect guy.
She was soon to learn, however, that James (not his real name) was seeing other women. In fact, he had been seeing several during the more than two years they were together.
As the lies and deceit unravelled, the shocked Renaud confronted him, asking for an explanation. He coldly told her he did not want to be committed. He had changed his addiction from substance abuse to uncontrollable sexual urges. Renaud believes the trauma he suffered as a child shaped a man who needed help but who would likely never change.
During the years she struggled to get her life together and better understand herself, Renaud grew more spiritual. Her book, The Piñata Theory: What’s in Your Stuffing?, happened completely by happenstance. During a conversation with her friend Tracy Lamourie, a marketing director, she told Tracy she had learned valuable insight into her life because of the hell she had been through. She described it as bursting open her subconscious, like bursting open a piñata. The Piñata Theory was born.
Renaud believes that changing the bad stuffing inside can change a person’s life and lead to better mental health. To illustrate her stuffing theory, she created a unique piñata doll that has metaphoric small, colourful balls of “stuff” wedged inside its zippered belly, just bursting to be released and dealt with. Human-made stuffing, she says, develops from cultural beliefs, community influences, oppression, racism, abuse, addiction, trauma, religion, family dynamics, and education.
In her book she relates many unusual experiences one could call supernatural. “I was never afraid of these experiences because I believed in God and that our actions are best rewarded when we serve God, humanity, and our spirit,” Renaud said. “The rough patches I had were my wake-up call. It is so important to ask for help because deep as the hole you are in may seem, there is always hope. There is still too much of a stigma around mental illness and sexual abuse.”
Dr. Rizwan Rafiq agrees. He was so impressed with the way she presented the messages in her book he invited her to present at grand rounds with other doctors at Chatham-Kent Health Alliance.
“What is most impressive is that she uses what she has been through to show that no matter how tragic or toxic your life is, you can come out the other end much stronger,” said Rafiq. “After 25 years in practice I have observed that with mental illness, if you dig down, you will often find sexual abuse. Evidence-based research shows us that 50% of bipolar victims have been sexually abused.”
As much as The Piñata Theory was written for adults, Renaud’s mission in life is to help children. She is close to her own children—Lisa, 30, is married and working as a chiropractor overseas. Jordan, 29, is a singer-songwriter who became addicted to Percocet after a sports injury, but has been in recovery for three years.
Renaud has also been deeply affected by the plight of indigenous children in Canada and is working with indigenous educators to use the messages in her children’s book, Precious Piñata, to “empower, protect, and educate” young children in order to help keep them safe.
Renaud takes the seven-foot piñata mascot with her to places like Windsor’s Devonshire Mall and Indigo bookstores when she’s speaking on the Piñata Theory. Renaud uses the small doll when talking to children. Preventing childhood adversity and the abuse of children, particularly what she describes as the epidemic of sexual abuse, is becoming her avowed global mission. Her passion in life is to help humans of all ages take a close look at the good and bad stuffing inside them, and then find ways to grow the good and kick out the bad.
Rafiq says the work Renaud is doing with children and the messages in Precious Piñata are critical because there is not enough emphasis on prevention.
“No one has equipping young people with the tools they need to deal with abuse, whether it is bullying or sexual abuse,” said Rafiq. “They put a lid on talking and by the time they get help they are disengaged and suffering. Charlene’s book puts more tools in the kit to help them learn prevention skills. I would recommend it and hope it would be in libraries and accessible for all families.”
Parents who have the book are also impressed with its message and interactivity. Kristen Banfield works in Children’s Services and has two daughters—Mackenzie, 13, and Lyndsay, 9.
“This is a fantastic resource for parents and children. Lyndsay is in the age range it is written for, but I find my 13-year-old also finds it has useful information,” said Banfield. “I admire Charlene for making an engagement tool with the book and the doll with the stuffing balls because so many children and adults have different learning styles. This answers all of them. This book is user-friendly even for children who don’t have a parent who can read it with them. It’s a beautiful book and Charlene has a genuine calling. She has created something people can truly benefit from.”
So passionate is Renaud about her mission to change the narrative on mental health, she is taking an early retirement in order to focus solely on getting the prevention and coping message out on a global scale.
“This is where God wants me to be. Knowing that 95% of child abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, and one in three are girls and one in six are boys, I have to help fix that,” said Renaud. “And I want to make sure kids understand that ‘don’t tell’ means to tell everyone.”