Sometimes people ask me why I didn’t run away when I was a teenager. I guess to the outside world this seems the most obvious thing to do – why would anyone in their right mind choose to stay in that abusive situation? Unfortunately it’s far more complicated than that, as I learned by my two short stints on the street.
Ultimately, life with my abusers meant a warm home, clothes, food, a bath, a toilet, sanitary towels, hairbrush, medicine, dangers that I least knew about, and a bed. Running away didn’t just mean running away from abuse. It meant running away from luxury too.
The first time I ended up homeless was by choice. I just ran for it, out of the front door. After this the door was fitted with an alarm system, so if it was ever opened a loud alarm would ring through the house. If that didn’t make escape hard, the keys were also hidden, and the door always locked. So escape became impossible. But, before that, I ran out of that house by choice. I was thirteen. I’d had enough. It was runaway, or suicide. I opted for the first. I knew suicide was just a wish for escape, not actually death, and if running away granted me the same outcome, but with life, then that was clearly the better route.
I remember, firstly, the thirst. Yes it was cold, yes I was hungry, yes I was lonely, but all of that was manageable. But to be so thirsty was insanely difficult. I wasn’t old enough to casually wander in a passing pub and request a glass of tap water without someone suspecting there was a problem. I’d been brought up to strongly believe the police and all authorities were evil and worse than my family. I therefore avoided them like the plague. I had no money. I couldn’t ask for water. I couldn’t beg, because people saw I was a child…most then quickly walked away, not wanting to get involved in something where they clearly now had a responsibility unlike when they see other homeless people… but the occasional person couldn’t walk away. I rarely made eye contact but if someone paused in front of me, I’d glance up, terrified it was my family. But it was a stranger, and I could see the fear and responsibility in their eyes. Their sense of moral duty was tangible. I’d watch them glance around at the people just walking past me, see their look of bewilderment as they processed I was a homeless child and ignored, and then they’d gently (always so gently) ask me my three most dreaded questions: “what is your name?” “what is your address?” “where are your parents?”
I never answered. I remained firmly mute and just stared at them. I didn’t feel like the child they clearly saw. Thirteen to me was like an adult. I didn’t need them. Unless they had water. But even then, I’d resolved the thirst issue by being grateful for british weather and spending nights by drainpipes. There’s always some water.
Then they’d get their phone out (if they had one – most people did at this point), or say they needed to get help. At either of these, I’d come alive, terrified they were going to call the ‘authorities’ and I’d be in terrible danger. I’d kick them, jump up, stamp on their foot, and run away from them – leaving them stunned I expect at my sudden outburst of energy. I’d run and run and find somewhere else to hide, and curse the stranger for ruining my calm day.
I knew I wouldn’t have been reported missing, it was the holidays so I wouldn’t be missed at school, and I took comfort in being left alone. I wasn’t raped for over a week. It was bliss.
But I was filthy. And it was scary. And I missed my siblings and had to face facts: I couldn’t pretend to be older than I was, I couldn’t get a job, I had no money, I was living off of rubbish from bins outside the local chinese takeaway, it was cold, I was now on my period and felt frankly disgusting and knew I was at risk of infection if I didn’t find a way to get clean, I felt ill, it was only a matter of time before I was caught up by some authority person, and I missed home. I also missed my toothbrush. I’d taken to ‘brushing’ my teeth by scraping my teeth with my nails, but it was vile. I felt so dirty. I’d had a lifetime of being called filthy dirt, and now I was truly living up to that name.
So I went home. I knocked on the door and waited for the “ha, I knew it” expression from my grandparents. But they didn’t even grant me that. They looked almost disappointed. My grandad later said, “I thought you were gone for good” in a tone of bitterness. Maybe I should have rotted on the streets instead.
They opened the door and just let me walk in, my greeting: “the kitchen floor needs a good scrub once you’ve got that stink off of you.” That was my welcome home. I’d only been gone 9 days but there was no “where have you been? Are you okay?” nothing. I wasn’t expecting it either. It’s only now, looking back, that I can feel that rejection, can realise and see the absent care. I shuffled into the clean house, shivering, already grateful for the central heating that I could feel had warmed up the air. I took of my dirty shoes. She threw them outside. “Don’t bother walking through the house with that trash on.” So I peeled off my clothes, which stank of stale sweat, now dried blood from my period, dirt, grime, old Chinese from the bins, and dog sh*t I’d accidentally lay in a few nights before. I had no energy to feel embarrassed. Frankly they’d seen me in worse states. I was just grateful to have the itchy smelly things off of me. I took them off, left them in a pile by the front door, and whispered, “can I get a shower?” I was allowed, probably more for their sake than mine (I stank), so I shuffled to the bathroom, staring at my feet, at my dirty toes.
The shower was the most amazing thing. But I remember being amazed at how scrawny I’d become, to say I’d only been gone just over a week. I had lost weight – not loads, but enough to look just a bit ill. I had dark circles under my eyes from the sleepless cold nights, and my neck, face and arms were a strange colour – tinged slightly by the grime. After my shower I looked a normal colour again. The shower was warm, I swallowed gulpfuls of the water, watched the dirty water swirl around my feet before disappearing down the plughole, watched the grey teardrops of dirt fall down my body. Not for the first time, I wished I was the water, disappearing down the plughole, gone forever.
The second time was two years later, aged 15. This time less by choice. From the age of 14 onwards my grandmother intermittently insisted I ‘got a job’ and earned money. Fine. Except she wanted the money. And the amount she wanted was far more than I could gain by a normal part-time job – and I got one of them when I was 16 too, to try and take some of the pressure off (and at least get me out of the house).
Insisting on money, and threatening me with all sorts if I didn’t bring it her, I took to going out a few nights a week. I quickly learned the ‘code’ of prostitution, and I’ve done enough blog posts on this site about selling myself for sex. This period was mostly done under pressure from home. But, as you may have read on this blog, I’ve ended up doing it much more recently too. The most recent being only 2 years ago. When your whole life has been based upon your body being abused, it’s hard to get out of the mindset that you’re only ‘worth’ something if giving your body to someone else. I was only ever called a good girl when submissive, and all children look for praise and learn from that praise to establish what they are worth, and what makes adults happy, and what makes them valued. In times of extreme stress, or extreme low self-esteem, this mindset (which never leaves me, but is mostly a niggling voice I can push away) comes back in full force. 2 years ago I was out almost every night for about 3 weeks. I remembered the ‘code’, though by this stage had learned the new ‘accent’ to this code seeing as I was in a different city. Sometimes I travelled outside of the city. It was sometimes in cars, hotel rooms, flats, back alleys, you name it. I found it hard in the men’s actual houses, sometimes with photos of them and their apparent partner on the bedside table. I felt extremely guilty. I’d put the photo down, so I couldn’t see the woman’s face. At the time I told myself I was consenting. But in reality, I wasn’t. I was very damaged and vulnerable, and the men could clearly see that. I ended up taking all sorts of sh*t just to get me through each night, and waited for the praise. The praise kept me going. The praise from the men established my feelings of worth. But if there was no praise, it broke me. And every morning, after the horrible night, I’d wake up and feel awful. But then crave them again, and their drugs, to send me back into oblivion.
Thankfully my friends, the quiet heroes who’ve stood by me for the last 4 years, didn’t turn their back on me, and didn’t judge me even though I believed they should. They helped me to break away, and then held me and comforted me with the cold turkey withdrawal from the crap I’d been taking. It was very hard, and I felt so ill and also so awful in myself, but their consistent care of me, despite me self-harming (well that’s what it was) in such a destructive way, was another stepping stone in me realising I was worth more than someone’s sex toy…
Anyway, I’m drifting…
15. This time I was selling myself not by choice. And this was the only time in my life where I took the money (even 2 years ago, I refused money. I was not interested in money. Feeling worth something was payment enough) But at one point I ended up homeless for a period of weeks. Mostly be choice, but forced by having gone out for most nights a week and feeling wretched.
Remembering the issues of last time, I packed a water bottle, towels, a toothbrush, some change, and a very warm fleece. This made the practical issues easier to manage at least, and not looking quite so much like a child, the rest of the world stepped around me and ignored me. I was a piece of dirt leaning against a wall, and even someone making eye contact with me was more than I was worth.
(Ask yourself this, how many times have you walked past a homeless person and pretended they didn’t exist? Have you ever thought about what landed them there? At what point did they become sub-human and not deserving of your compassion? What if it was me you’d walked past, would you suddenly care?)
Cafes became my favourite place. I’d nip in, sit at a table, pretend to look at the menu, and when nobody was looking I’d sneak the sachets of ketchup and mayo under my top, then leave. I’d suck the contents of them during the day, and felt much better.
It was still scary though, and depressing. I was incredibly depressed. And then a man, who looked nice enough, saw me and took me under his wing. Said all the right things, gave me food and water, said I could stay at his if I just cleaned up and paid the rent that way. Desperate for somewhere warm to stay, with food, and human company, I went with him. Once the holidays were over, I even went into school. I wasn’t as clean as normal, but my grandmother had met me in town with my uniform (and no words spoken), and therefore I could pretend everything was okay.
Rent quickly became sex though. But he was mostly gentle. I had no feelings for him but he kept me safe. It never occurred to me he was taking advantage of a homeless, vulnerable teenager. I’d known only abuse and terror. I didn’t feel scared of him and I was so used to feeling degraded that it didn’t feel wrong. I’d been raped my whole life, what difference did this make, if it provided me a safe shelter?
Gradually though his demands increased, and I couldn’t do right no matter how hard I tried, and he grew violent. And more violent. I barely spoke, let alone cry out or make a sound. I’d hit such a rock bottom, felt I deserved everything that was thrown at me – why else would I keep being beaten up by people if there wasn’t something wrong with me? He only ever calmed down if I lured him into bed and soothed him with sex. It again left me feeling degraded and worth nothing more than an objectified sex tool, but it made no difference. This was my life. It was all I knew. I took a strange level of comfort in it.
I missed my siblings though, and left him. I reasoned that if I was going to be someone’s punchbag and sex toy, I might as well be that in my own home.
Again I was greeted at the door with indifference, and later at the dinner table – “I knew you’d come crawling back eventually, you dirty slag. You whore.”
My siblings were happy to see me though, and that made it worthwhile.
I stayed at home after that, other than occasional searching of the streets at night for someone to send me to oblivion and reduce me to nothingness.
When you’re terrified of the authorities, and a child, what choice do you have but to stay in the abusive home?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, you can’t hate the people who keep you alive….even if they’re keeping you alive just to kill your spirit slowly…
Never think if a child hasn’t ran away that their homelife must be okay, or at least not “bad enough” to justify intervention.
It may just be that homelife at least provides food and shelter, and that means the child can at least survive the beatings and the rape…