1999 was my year down in Bristol, when I was on the streets. I’d started using heroin aged 21 in London. Age 23 I went into a rehab in Wiltshire then another in Bristol and I loved it. Loved being in Bristol, loved being in the ‘clean and sober’ movement. But I had this self-sabotage thing just before I was about to complete rehab that made me drink and get chucked out. They found me supported accommodation so I moved into that. But within a week I was using again.
Pretty soon I got into sex work. I can’t remember how, I’d never done that before. Maybe through someone I knew? But I’d regularly use the van and get the Ugly Mugs information and things like that. That was basically my life for the next year.
Working the streets is very dangerous and I had a couple of incidents that were really horrible. And as well as assaults there was always the thing of being robbed or not being paid. At times there was camaraderie but mostly I remember the loneliness of it – literally standing on a street corner. You were always having to watch out, not knowing what encounters you’d have. You get to the point where you just want the money score so much that you don’t even consider the danger – it just goes with the territory.
On the streets there’s a heightened sense of being on your guard. But I always remember the van feeling safe. You could let your defences down, you didn’t have to prove yourself or pretend to be something, you could just be whatever. You could just sit there, have random chats. Getting a cup of tea was just huge, knowing it came from someone who cared. It meant a lot more than just a hot drink.
I don’t know if this is one reason I’ve managed to get clean or not – I did not have a childhood full of trauma. It wasn’t amazing but there was no abuse or neglect, nothing I went through as a child would count as trauma. I did start to get mental health problems at the age of 19 and was diagnosed with depression.
The reason I started taking heroin was cause it worked better than Prozac. I’d been on anti-depressants for a couple of years, I got introduced to heroin and I was like “Wow. This is what anti-depressants should do – make me feel good.” So my route into drugs was through depression and low self-esteem. But I know that most women do come from a background of really shit life experiences and then to escape that is quite hard. My story may not be that representative of many women that One25 works with. But in a sense it could happen to anyone – it could happen to your daughter.
I remember one time my mum came down to Bristol for my birthday – she came down with a cake and a present and everything. Literally the first thing I asked her for was money to score. And then when she was driving back to London I asked her to drop me off at… you know, she knew what I was going to do. I think it was then that I thought it’s just pretty shit isn’t it? The thought of causing pain to other people I guess was in a way a bit bigger than the pain caused to myself. When you’re using that’s it, that’s all you think about and that’s just what you’re doing. I was lucky enough to have family and friends that cared about me and for whom that world was completely strange.
I went into detox again on the day of the eclipse, did two weeks and started using straight again. I’d been arrested a few times for sex work but I always managed to get away with a caution. So I got to the November and I’d just had enough. I thought “I can’t do this anymore”. So I rang my mum up, came back to London and accessed the drugs service I’d used previously and they got me into rehab again the next year.
Small, local charities are just so brilliant cause they know their people so well. Some people can get frustrated about not seeing a change in a person. But it took me over 20 years to get to the point I’m at now. Don’t think each step isn’t part of a journey. Every interaction, everything that happens for an individual goes in somewhere. And yes, they might not be ready to put down drugs right now or stop self-harming now or whatever – but it all goes in at some point. I’m grateful for every single intervention I’ve had as a part of that journey.
For me it’s been a long, slow road to get the point where I can say that I’m happy in myself, that I’m happy in my own skin and I accept myself and love myself and care about myself and want to do what’s best for me… but it’s taken shit loads of years to get there. And this is very much the One25 thing about care and compassion – it’s about having people or agencies with care and compassion and you get to a point of thinking ‘well, maybe I am worth caring about’.
One25 just have to keep being there and if it feels like someone isn’t moving out of that place, just keep being there. Even if you think someone is completely lost. In recovery you meet people who have been through the most awful childhood experiences, adult experiences, and you think ‘How on Earth are you still alive? And you’re now sober!’
I remember when I first went to Bristol before I relapsed, we used to go to ‘clean and sober’ raves, dancing without any drink or drugs, and it was brilliant, it was such good fun. You’d get so into it and it’s all about the music and friends and people around you who are feeling that – there’s no better feeling.
When you first start trying to get your life together you think ‘Well, what can I do?’ There’s a lack of confidence and there’s fear of being judged for accessing help. But when you’re surrounded by people you feel connected to and in that space where you’re held and feeling you can let yourself go, that feeling is amazing.
After leaving Bristol I did 6 weeks at my initial rehab placement and then another 6 months at a secondary placement. Then I came out of that and worked for three months in Chile as part of a youth development programme. When I came back, I applied for university, did an access course cause I didn’t have A-levels or anything and got my degree. I decided I wanted to stay in academia so I did a Masters and even started a PhD. As part of that I spent three months in Vancouver doing research on reproductive decision making amongst injecting drug-users. It was just such an eye-opening experience.
After that I got a job with an alcohol charity and worked in that field for the next few years. Then I worked in research and policy in the charity sector until last year when I trained to be an education mental health practitioner. We’re a team that goes into schools and works with young people with early signs of depression and anxiety. I’ve always felt a certain understanding and connection with people that have struggled with whatever issue, with people who don’t like themselves. That’s what I do now but when I first got clean I wanted to work in counselling. I’m still hoping to do a counselling qualification. I want to work with women with multiple traumas and substance misuse, exactly like those One25 works with.
Another huge part of my story is the fact that I’m only 6 months sober. Certainly, over the past 20 years my mental health has never been as bad as it was before rehab. But, you know, I’ve struggled and had issues and stuff like that. Gradually over time I’ve come to like myself and accept myself a lot, lot more… mostly though learning self-compassion. My alcohol use was all outwardly very respectable but I was drinking to self-medicate. Realising that was what got me looking up One25 again on social media. It really made me remember how I felt then: the importance of being accepted, of not being judged. For everybody, whoever you are, I believe that that kind of validation – that acceptance, that not being judged, that compassion – is the way to healing.
That’s the most important thing: helping someone develop a sense of self where they care about themselves, where they know people care about them, where they’re heard. If you’ve never cared for yourself, you do need to be shown it. And it can be difficult to receive that and can take some time to get the point of valuing yourself. But it’s the key.
This could happen to anybody. Every woman out there should be seen as a person. These are not just people who are different to you or different to your family. Trauma or difficult experiences are at the root of so much in society and we need more caring, compassionate services than there are. And just cause someone doesn’t show a change in 6 months or however long, that doesn’t mean it’s not working.
Even if you’re so far into it that you can’t see that that could ever happen. Just hang on in there and accept all that’s offered to you. It doesn’t always have to be like this.