An Anonymous #MadCovidDiaries 29.01.2021
(Content warning: mentions CSA, rape, homelessness, suicide attempts, self-harm).
The isolation from the pandemic almost makes me miss sleeping on the streets – I know that is something most people will find really hard to understand.
I think I’ve felt lonely for my whole life. As a child I was withdrawn, quiet, so acutely sensitive and frightened that I didn’t know how to make friends. I was always invisible, always on the edge of things. I remember being 8 years old and Donna, a girl in my class invited the whole class to her birthday party except for me. I don’t know if she intentionally decided to leave me out, or whether she just forgot that I was there, but I remember the pain of listening to all the other children excited about the party and the feeling of deep shame knowing I was the only child who hadn’t been invited. I couldn’t go home and share that pain with my mum, most children would maybe seek comfort from a parent, but my mum was so mentally unwell herself, I couldn’t be upset as a child.
I was adult before my time, in so many ways. Most of those ways were deeply secret and so shameful I didn’t have words for them. I knew something was wrong, suffocating, but I couldn’t name it, I didn’t have the language to tell anyone. Then my dad died.
The year after my dad died, I became selectively mute. I remember other children in my class saying, “she doesn’t talk to teachers”. I became an expert at being invisible, to the point that sometimes I think I actually believed I wasn’t really there. I was diagnosed as autistic, but beyond a diagnosis nothing more was said.
When I was 13 the shame started to make sense and I started to understand what sexual abuse was. It was a shocking realisation what my father had done to me, and I started to cut my arms and try and starve away the pain.
I left home at 15 and ended up on the streets in Brighton. A man picked me up on the beach and said I could stay with him in one of the squatted beach huts. We climbed through a broken window and he started to touch me. I disappeared inside myself. The next squat I stayed in, it was more of the same. I was voiceless and I didn’t know how to say no.
One night I couldn’t take it anymore, and I jumped the train to London. I spent most my time on the streets in the West End, with intermittent stays in hostels, squats and supported housing.
That time on the streets is so mixed up. On the streets I felt accepted, part of a community, I made friends for the first time. There were days that were fun, begging in the West End, making cardboard shelters on the steps, watching people on Oxford Street. I sold the Big Issue. I went to squat parties in warehouses along the canal in Hackney, it was colourful, it was fun. There was a feeling on the streets that I could be myself, something about sitting there begging, everyone knew my situation, I didn’t have to pretend. People saw my sleeping bag, knew I was homeless. Some people were awful, other people were kind.
I feel nostalgia for the colourful times, punk music, the squat parties, the feeling of freedom, the sleeping outside. But behind that nostalgia is also so much pain, as a young girl on the streets I was raped so many times. The trauma I experienced on the streets was extreme.
I’d go into hostels and be so frightened, I’d be back outside again within a few weeks. I couldn’t stay indoors, I felt trapped, claustrophobic, they weren’t safe places. I felt safer outside, I needed to be able to run, to leave when necessary. I couldn’t do that behind closed doors.
When I got my council flat that’s when the loneliness really hit me and a few months into being housed I had a breakdown. On the streets it was just survival, every day was just surviving, and in my flat I was in this empty space and alone with my thoughts. I started having flashbacks and horrible dissociative episodes where I’d wake up outside with no memory of how I got there. Mental health services took my autism diagnosis away and told me I had Borderline Personality Disorder. They were saying something was wrong with the very core of me and that label did so much damage, was so re-traumatising.
I feel like I’ve lost the last ten years to mental illness. I had my flat, a home for the first time, but I was so dissociated, so fragmented, I just remember it in bits. Ten whole years of my life, just in fragmented, scattered pieces. I read my medical records and from them I know I was in hospital or crisis houses 45 times, but although I know the facts, they feel distant from me, like it didn’t really happen. I attempted suicide many times and nearly died many times. I got told I had BPD, then Psychosis, then Dissociative Identity Disorder, then autism again, but no one asked me what I thought was wrong. It was one label after another, but of course the personality disorder label was the one that stuck the most and prevented me from getting any meaningful help. On the streets I was told I was an “entrenched rough sleeper” and in mental health services I was told I was a “revolving door patient” – why does anyone think telling these things to someone in distress will help?
Then one day I woke up (from a dissociated state). That is literally how it feels, like for ten years I’d been in a dream, nothing was real and suddenly things started to feel real again. It was disorientating, I woke up and I was in my forties, with a deep sense of grief for all those years lost to mental illness, fragmented years which I only remember in bits. I woke up in an adult body and yet have never had the opportunity to be a child, or a teenager, or to grow up.
The things I’ve experienced are so far from the norm. I don’t know anyone else who spent fourteen years homeless, or lost another ten years of their life, into shattered fragmented pieces. I woke up just before the pandemic started and started trying to build a life for myself, making my flat feel like a home, going back to college, finding a private trauma therapist, completely distancing myself from the damaging mental health system. But since Covid, it all stopped, all my face to face contact with people stopped and being online, on zoom, feels like things are just fragmented and unreal again.
So, here I am alone with my thoughts, my memories in pieces and in a kind of limbo. Not so unwell that it’s as dissociated and fragmented as before, but not well either. I feel a sense of longing to start again, to be that 15 year old girl running away from home for the first time and finding herself in London on the streets. I wish I could start again from there and make things better.
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