Name changed to protect identity.
Sarah’s story was not an easy one to tell. She has suffered through experiences that would, understandably leave most sufferers, angry, violent and jaded. Betrayal and abandonment from figures in her life that should have been offering guidance, protection and love could have led her to believe the world is a hateful place and contribute to that by adding bile and vitriol to it.
However, Sarah is none of those things. She is a survivor.
Before the age of 8 she remembers her childhood fondly. She describes it as happy with no domestic violence or substance abuse. She grew up happily with her mother, father and two younger brothers.
“We used to go on adventures, come home from school on a Friday get the car packed up and go camping. My childhood was spent swimming in rivers climbing trees.”
“The most traumatic thing that happened to me was my bike got nicked but I even got that back a few years later.”
Although Sarah’s father was often out of work, she felt he always did his duty as a provider. They were not wealthy, but they had enough and were happy. Sarah’s happy childhood was challenged by her father leaving her mother for her mother’s friend. Although it is commonplace now, divorce and parental separation is an Adverse Childhood Experience. Not understanding fully what is happening can lead to self-blaming and the guilt and shame can snowball into self-destructive tendencies.
‘I was always quite upset because I was never asked who I wanted to live with, and I would have gone to live with my father, I’ve found out since that my father didn’t want me.’
Rejection from her father was not just experienced by Sarah, she remembers a visit to her father with her brothers where he was overheard saying ‘I suppose we have to feed them then.’
Sarah’s tumultuous relationship with her mother added to the strain on both relationships with her parents. Constant arguing with her mother led to rejection from her father when she asked to visit. Sarah’s strained relationship with her mother was sparked when her paternal grandfather sexually assaulted her at the age of thirteen which when she told her mother she was ignored.
Sexual abuse is often hidden, even when reported to a parent or carer. Unfortunately, this is not the last time Sarah was subjected to this abuse. While living by herself in a caravan at the age of 16 she suffered a complete lack of privacy and respect from her landlord, who would frequently let himself in early morning and rifle through her private belongings and make inappropriate sexual remarks.
The volatile relationship with her mother hit a peak when Sarah was told to leave and live with her father. However, after a visit to see a friend and missing the last bus home, she was abandoned and ignored by both parents. This was how Sarah at the age of 15 began living on the streets. Arguments between parents and children happen, last busses are missed. Rarely are 15-year-old children forced to fend for themselves on the streets as a result of both.
Throughout the next two years, Sarah drifted from rough sleeping, staying with friends, attempted reconciliation with her parents, temporary housing and bail hostels. This culminated when she was 17 after a fight lead to her being incarcerated for six months.
“It’s quite scary to a young lass that doesn’t know ‘owt.”
Sarah had been forced into a defensive mindset, through her years of rejection and lack of protection given to her. While in prison she developed a love of reading and writing short stories. She became even more hardened and defensive. After leaving prison, she managed to get a job at a local nightclub, dealing with her traumas by trying to enjoy herself as much as possible. However, her prison sentence was used by her co-workers to torment her.
‘They used to say, we know all about you jail-bird’
Just as homeless people face stigmas ex-offenders face them too. In Sarah’s case a mistake she made when she was 17 was held over her for the rest of her life. So much so that she threw away the short stories she had written while in prison for fear of her children finding out her past.
When Sarah first met her husband there were no signs of the future pain he would cause her and her children.
‘I didn’t know him, but I knew his family. I thought he was alright, nice guy, nobody ever said any different. Then it just happens gradually.’
The first instance of violence she can remember was after he had been drinking with his family and came home late to his dinner being overcooked physically assaulted Sarah.
‘He gave me a slap for it, and you know when you’re just so stunned.’
As with many other abusers, Sarah’s husband apologised, swore it wouldn’t happen again, claimed he didn’t know what came over him. However, a few months later the violence was repeated. The physical abuse was supported by mental degradation ‘no one will ever want you, no one will ever have you, look at you you’re a right state, you’ve been in prison, no one will want a jail bird like you. ’Like many survivors of trauma Sarah believed the apologies and hoped it would get better.
Sarah was 5 months pregnant when they got married. Two weeks after marrying her partner she went for a check-up and learnt that her baby had a serious birth defect in which they are born without a part of the skull. The heart-breaking reality of this meant that they could either continue with the pregnancy and the baby would die within a few days or terminate the pregnancy.
‘I can take a lot, but I couldn’t take that.’
Coming to the decision to terminate the pregnancy should have been met with compassion and empathy Sarah deserved. However, she was accused of murdering the child and blamed for the birth defect.
‘He kept shouting you killed my boy’
Sarah’s husband mental and physically tortured her for many years, physical violence, rape and psychological abuse were commonplace. It is not possible to do the amount of damage done justice. This abuse lasted until Sarah finally managed to break free from the cycle with her children.
Her husband is currently in prison after being convicted of stabbing his partner. There may be a time when Sarah has to face this man again but when she does, she feels she will be ready.
Sarah’s story has a good ending. In fact, most of these stories do. The trauma hasn’t been forgotten and it has a lasting impact but, with help and support, most of us do more than just survive. That’s true for Sarah who has built a new life with some precious and dependable friends and the love of her immediate and wider family.
She works for the Archer Project, supporting people who come to use the centre and she uses her experience of being put down, belittled, rejected and abused to empathise with and support people who have had or continue to experience similar situations.