Sarah's Story: Mental Health, Stigma & Addiction
It started when I was 18-months-old. Apparently I bit my dad on his foot and he kicked me across the room into the radiator. Of course, I don’t remember this, but I do remember most of what came after.
As a child I was referred to as "parasite," or "girl." I did not have a name. I was rarely bathed and often went six weeks without a bath until I became old enough to bathe myself. You see this is the issue with having an alcoholic father. They tend to be pretty shit at being nice or even managing to ensure that a child is fed.
I was beaten from the age of 18-months-old up until the age of 17. I was kicked out of my home at 18 because this was a decently acceptable thing to do even though I had tried to escape multiple times. My father was a youth worker so God forbid he should be seen as a bad person.
Social services visited us weekly and told me how lucky I was to have my Dad. They didn’t realise that after a busy evening saving underprivileged kids he would come home, drag me out of bed and hold me up against the dining room wall, screaming in my face, punching me, kicking me and telling me how I was a useless, fat, ugly, stupid cunt who could never be loved by anyone.
In many respects it was not the beatings. Hit me and I’ll fucking kill you. Just please don’t call me names. I’m not useless, I am ugly, yes, and I am fat. I’m not stupid, though!
When I was five my Dad went to college. He made a friend who also wanted to be my friend. However, this was not ice creams and walks in the park. He wanted us to be "special friends." The only things I can really remember about our friendship is the dining room window at my home and the way the sun shone through the net curtains. I can remember walking into rooms and walking out.
My body remembers, though. I feel fingernails scraping around inside me, I get intense lower abdominal cramps when sexually aroused and I dissociate during sex. My husband, whom I love with all my heart, becomes a black shadow on top of me. I feel friction and fear. It fucks me off that I’ve finally met someone nice and I can’t cope with it. I apologise, I digressed.
When I was 12 I tried cannabis; by the time I was 14 I was on crack, smack, amphetamines, LSD, alcohol, prescription drugs. How did I pay for all this I hear you asking? Use your fucking imagination is my response. I couldn’t cope, I couldn’t live. I tried to commit suicide when I was 14-years-old. I used a safety razor, though. I couldn’t even get that right. However, I did learn that the feeling of blood dripping down my arm was enough to make me feel human.
When feeling human became too much then heroin generally was most helpful in dealing with it. I remember cutting my wrists for over a year, scar upon scar, wound upon wound for over a year before my Dad found out. It was stupid really, we were sat in a pub beer garden, I reached for my soft drink and the three tops I wore to cover it slipped up my arm. The massive purple welts and vivid red scabs were on display. I had over 15 cuts on each wrist criss-crossed over each other. Being ambidextrous makes self harm a bit easier in terms of the parts of the body one can cut with ease.
He blamed me, he beat me and accused me of ruining our happy family home. Yeah, that was the response. Not, "Oh my God, look at what I’ve made my daughter feel," just blame and violence. He wanted to section me but I think he realised that if I went to hospital I might let the cat out of the bag.
I was banned from going to the doctors alone. They removed all knives from my reach. However, I learnt that by snapping a plastic fork the shards are sharp enough. I learnt recently that I have self harmed for as long as I can remember. I did not realise that drinking gulps of vinegar as a five year old for the pain it caused was abnormal, nor did I equate grating my fingers on the nutmeg section of the cheesegrater from the age of eight to 14 with self harm.
Turns out I must have wanted to hurt myself from a young age. I do not self harm now though. Even though sometimes I sit staring at a knife and crying I refuse to punish myself for things that were not my fault.
I would love to give you more gory details but the truth is that I can’t. In 18 years of therapy I still can’t deal with what happened, that I am just another clichéd story of abuse, rape and weakness. I can tell you this, though; I am one strong bitch. I survived abuse in one form or another for the first 26 years of my life. I have been attacked by partners in some very sadistic ways, I have been raped, I have survived and I continue to breathe against all the odds. However, I did not do this alone; I have used drugs now for 22 years.
I feel no shame for this. I did at first, you know the whole "getting clean" thing. Well, yes please! After everything I have gone through I feel dirty as hell. Thanks to NA [Narcotics Anonymous] that was reinforced by the language used -- apparently drug use makes a person dirty. I call it trying to fucking survive another day without succumbing to the urge to just end it all.
I came off heroin when I was 20-years-old after an overdose. I realised when I was dying that I did not want to die. Bit ironic really. When I got "clean" I was twice as fucked up due to prostitution and all the other nasties that go with trying to support such a habit. As well as all the other drugs I liked too and still miss.
You see, it is difficult to support a habit for an illegal drug if you don’t wish to rob people. As a woman the career choice is quite simple. However, it angers me that the state so blatantly failed me and then proceeds to punish me in my adult life for failing to cope. I mean, come on! Do you really think that a person just takes heroin because they are bored? OK, I will admit maybe a couple of times but in all reality a person has to be a bit messed up to knowingly take a drug that will fuck them up. It’s not like you miss your bus one day and think "ah fuck it I’ll go on gear."
I knew the score. I saw the posters, I read the leaflets. But what do you do if you have extreme pain? You take diamorphine. Pain is not just physical. Emotional pain and grief and anger? There isn’t a vocabulary to describe them, there are no words. Just guttural noises from deep within that emerge when the memories hit and you find yourself back in it again. You feel every punch and when you aren’t in it you are waiting, endlessly on edge. Fuck me, eight years out and all I do is wait for it to happen again.
So yes, heroin is illegal, heroin users are dirty smackheads blah blah fucking blah. But maybe heroin users are trying to get by, trying to survive because of pain without words. What does the rest of society do? Pile on stigma like bricks in a game of jenga then wonder why people fall so spectacularly into a pit with little to no ladders to climb out.
As for me now? After several relapses on other drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine I finally decided that actually I wanted to try something new and gave them up (apart from cannabis but give me a mo). In 2008 I enrolled on a college course. That’s where I found out I was not thick.
I’m still in education and doing well, I receive praise which is hard. It physically hurts. I appear to have cognitive dissonance with regard to compliments but I am working on it. My head is usually a mess and I have to spend twice as long to do my work but the point is that I do it. I am getting there now and feel that there is hope.
I felt the emotion of love the other day for the first time in my life. Actually felt it. It is, to be honest, a little nauseating, but also warm and tearful in a good way. Thanks to my husband I know what it is to feel happy. It is a little like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. Once an emotion is felt it is easier to find again. It is nice to now be able to feel something other than fear and intense rage. I’m still irrationally waiting for someone to attack me. I am seeing the humour now, though -- it's almost like I believe there might be a secret attacker behind the toaster or something. Laughter is good.
I still use cannabis for PTSD and Bipolar Disorder alongside Dissociative Disorders. I hate to break it to you if you are still reading at this point but I was mentally ill from a young age. Cannabis did not cause the issues I face. It took me 10 years of arguing before a doctor wrote the magical words "used drugs to self medicate pre- existing mental health issues." So yes, my drug use is a symptom as are my mental health issues.
People say heroin use is a choice. Sometimes there are only bad choices all of which will lead to pain. How we deal with pain is subjective. There is no better or worse way, they are merely "different." I made my choice, but I have no regrets about that. Why? Because I am alive.