Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.
An honest account of my experience of the UK care system:
I remember the first time I had ever been outside of social services. I was around seven years old and my mum shoved me into her car before driving to the local social service offices which were located in an old Victorian school building at the end of our road. She was crying hysterically and demanded that I went inside to tell them what my dad had done. I sat there wild eyed and still, too terrified to move. The year previously, the mum of a girl in my class at school had got mixed up with some yardies from the estate and was caught at the airport bringing drugs back into the UK. My classmate and her siblings were subsequently removed from their mothers care and since we were only children and didn’t really understand the gravity of their mums actions we naively demonised social services for taking away our friends. Why my mum had driven to social services I just couldn’t understand, these were the very people who everyone despised, who split up families and I was petrified that if I got out of the car I would be taken away. I had never seen my mum acting so irrational before and although in pain I sat fearful and silent whilst my mum hit the steering wheel repeatedly before eventually turning the car around and heading back home. It is only in hindsight that I have come to understand that this particular event was one of my mum’s many cries for help, and the sheer panic in her eyes on that day plagues my memories.
We lived on one of the notorious ‘five Peckham estates’ in South-East London made up of the Sumner; the Willowbrook; the Camden; Gloucester Grove and the North Peckham. Our home was a three-bedroom council maisonette on a part of the estate called Shurland Gardens, opposite what had once been a canal but was filled in and transformed into a nature reserve walkway many years before. Our side of Peckham was a deprived social housing community with never ending intertwined high rises, even higher unemployment rates, ever increasing rates of crime and very little prospects for those who resided there. From the outside looking in, it would have been the last place on earth anyone would want to live, let alone raise children, however for those who lived there it was a welcoming and friendly neighbourhood where everyone knew their neighbours and helped one another out.
My parents who were not yet thirty had six children; three boys and three girls. My dad was from a big family himself, one of ten children. He was a clever man, in fact at school, his teachers recognising that he was gifted and so far ahead of his peers sent him to have his IQ tested. The results were the talk of the family, his IQ surpassed one-hundred-and-forty which was the bench mark for those considered to be geniuses. Sadly or stupidly depending on your perspective, as intelligent as he was, after falling in with the wrong crowd he left school at fourteen with no qualifications and a one way ticket to prison. As you’d expect, the years that followed were no walk in the park, my dad got mixed up in everything he shouldn’t have and built himself quite the reputation both on the streets and within the local nick. But that was all to change when my mum fell pregnant with my elder sister and told him he would need to grow up and get a real job if they were going to make a go of things. He quickly found work and the positions were plenty; a scaffolder, electrician, painter and decorator etc.. he was not fussy, and as the mouths to feed multiplied, he found himself in one undesirable position after the next, jobs well beneath his capability and a complete waste of his exceptional intelligence.
My mum, who I don’t remember very much though I was nine when she died (a result of repressed traumatic memories from my childhood I believe) was the eldest of three siblings. She was a beautiful woman with a million freckles, one for every good deed she had ever done. She was a born giver, or perhaps it was simply a characteristic she had acquired by looking after her siblings growing up? Either way, she didn’t just love to help, she lived to help and there was no one who was unworthy of her support. She extended herself to all and I remember that we could not go out anywhere without her stopping along the way to chat for ten minutes to someone she had bumped into; her heart was truly golden and she had many friends. Having said that, what many would agree was her biggest attribute was also her biggest flaw, she was a compulsive care giver and like many people who thrive off of helping others she was not very good at helping herself. I would love to be able to write that she liked to read or listen to music, draw, bake, sing or any number of things but the truth is I don’t know. I have asked people who knew her many times about my mum and their response is always the same “she loved her children, you were her life”. I do not disagree, if I remember anything at all, I remember my mothers love.
Generally my parents were both decent well liked people, slightly rough around the edges and not without fault, however their dedication to persevere and give us children a well rounded upbringing was unmatched. They would have made a good team in different circumstances and it is fair to say that for the most part our house was a happy if somewhat dysfunctional home. Sure we had been exposed to arguments, violence, harsh discipline and the occasional visit from the local police if my dad had been up to no good but in equal measures we had experienced love, affection and countless happy memories. My parents had done their best and despite their volatile relationship and shortcomings, they were good parents and cared deeply for us children.
Despite this, if truth be told my parents had no business having six of us children, especially within the short time span of seven years. Their own childhood traumas were yet to be resolved and diving straight into parenthood (on such an extreme scale at that) was somewhat blind and unwise. My mother in particular was witness to horrific domestic violence between her own parents as a child and as a result was burdened with a lot of responsibility for her younger siblings. My nan, who had found comfort in alcohol after suffering prolonged abuse and extreme violence at the hands of my grandfather relied heavily and inappropriately on the support of my mum. As you might expect, this parentification was incredibly damaging to my mums development and in theory is most likely the cause of her extreme (and often destructive) selflessness. As for my dad, who was one of the middle children of a few too many; he had also experienced a troubled childhood although his early years had been a lot less chaotic than my mothers since he lived in a two parent home with what appeared to be reasonably competent and hard working parents. In reality, his parents though present were largely absent due their long working hours and were terribly emotionally and psychologically unavailable to their children. This meant that the parenting responsibilities of the youngest children were taken over by the oldest, some of whom were quite a few years older than my dad. In effect, my grandparents deficiencies in parenting had a huge impact on my dads developmental needs and quite certainly led to the onset of his psychological difficulties.
In light of the above, I do totally understand why the answer to my parents dysfunctional childhoods and hunger for love was to create their own perfect little secure and happy family, however, in truth they were ill equipped for the journey and as the pressure and demands of life and six children grew, they became overworked and as a result, completely overwhelmed.
On that particular day (prior to my mums manic drive to social services) I had been playing outside in the igloo’s, which was a stone tunnelled play area in the middle of the estate with my siblings and some of the other children from the neighbourhood when Sophie (this was not her name but for the purpose of the blog, we will call her Sophie) came running towards the igloo’s yelling that our dad had said we needed to go home for dinner. Sophie was one of our neighbours, she was an overweight girl who always wore ill fitting clothes, she had dishwater blonde hair, a filthy mouth (quite literally, she swore like a sailor) and a real mean streak. Her mean-spirited nature caused her to frequently fall out with the other children, usually because she called us racist or unkind names whenever she didn’t get her own way.
On hearing that dinner was ready the boys sprinted off ahead of us, and as my sister and I went to follow behind, Sophie pulled me aside and whispered that she had lied, my dad did not really call us in for dinner after all. She asked me if I wanted to come with her as her mums friends dog was having puppies and she was on her way to check them out. Of course I wanted to see the puppies so I called out to my sister who had started to skip in the direction of home that I would catch up and off we went. The flat was on the other side of the estate only a couple of minutes away and when we arrived Sophie impatiently thumped on the door. When the door swung open we were greeted by a unkempt man straight out of Oliver Twist with overgrown greasy hair and a long, thin unshaven face. The dog, who was equally as dishevelled as it’s owner was trying to squirm out from between his legs until the man kicked it swearing loudly. The man looked to me like the drug addicts we had been warned to stay away from and I thought to myself that if my dad knew where I was I would be in big, big trouble. I watched for a moment whilst Sophie bent down to pet the dog who had nervously retreated into the corner and announced that I needed to go home. Sophie, for once in what was possibly her entire existence and clearly frightened by the mans ill treatment of his dog did not detest and quickly turning on our heels we ran back towards our side of the estate.
Sophie lived a few doors down from our house with her nan, her brother and her teenage sister who had recently given birth to a little girl fathered by a young black guy who lived in one of the flats above ours. I remember that the baby was talk of the estate for a little while, as she was mixed race and Sophie’s family were known and vocal racists. That’s the thing about living on an estate, your business very rarely remained your own.
Arriving back to our block Sophie and I decided to play pretend mums and babies. The game was a favourite amongst the little girls who lived in our estate and we would alternate between playing make believe mums and make believe teachers on a daily basis. When I look back our choice of past time was quite telling of our working class environments. The only influential women in our lives at the time were either our mums or the teachers at school and we would spend hours mimicking them. I remember thinking for a long time that my future in the world would be limited to filling either one of those roles, since the only other option was to become a Spice Girl and unfortunately I could not sing to save my life.
Anyhow, I loved playing mums, I was a mini mum at home anyway and enjoyed helping my own mum with my youngest siblings as much as possible. My little sister who had been born when I was six was my very own real life baby (as well as her twin brother) and she was permanently stuck to my hip. I learnt to change their bums and feed them before I was seven and my mum who was extremely unwell at the time after suffering severe blood loss during their birth was happy to let me be so involved.
Sophie had prepped a sleeping area with an old sheet in the corner of her garden and there I lay pretending to be napping whilst mummy was cleaning the house, which was actually Sophie picking up the stray leaves from the garden and throwing them on the other side of the gate. Usually there would be a few of us playing, but that day for whatever reason it was just the two of us, and I vividly remember feeling pleased that Sophie, who was a couple of years older than me had singled me out to join her.
We had not been playing for long when suddenly I heard my dad’s voice booming through the estate shouting my name. I froze instantly knowing just by the tone of his voice that I was knee-deep in trouble. Standing up I beckoned to my dad over the short walls that enclosed our individual front gardens and he came striding towards us. My brain was doing somersaults trying to come up with an adequate excuse to prevent the beating that I knew was coming but my dad was on the war path. I found out years later that he had been waiting for me to return for over an hour and had also argued with my mum because he didn’t want us to play with Sophie.
In all fairness both of my parents had reasonable points. My dads logic was that Sophie was a bully with a vicious racist tongue and drug addict parents who every once in a while would come and wreak havoc on the estate. My parents had actually chased Sophie’s parents away more than once after catching them sitting outside the block getting their fix in full view of everyone including us kids. It was my dads opinion that Sophie wasn’t a very nice child and he didn’t want us mixing with her. My mum, well her argument was simple. Nice or mean, the fact remained that Sophie was still a child. The shortcomings of her parents were not Sophie’s fault nor responsibility and it did no harm to let us play with her. My mums heart was much like my own, emphatic to the extent that sometimes it is at the expense of ones own wellbeing. In any case, like I said, though they both had fair points their presentation as always was off, and instead of resolving their disagreement maturely, they argued.
My dad was unpredictable and frightening when angered and unfortunately since I had caused the argument between him and my mum, I ended up being the one to bare the brunt of his rage that day. Marching into Sophie’s garden he didn’t even give me a chance to talk before he grabbed me roughly and began to drag me back towards our house. I wasn’t a very big child, and could barely keep upright so to stop myself from falling over I grasped onto the metal rails that ran down the length of our block separating the walkway from the estate itself and held on tight. My dad angered further by my resistance tightened his grip and pulled me off of the rails before he half dragged and half slapped me all the way home.
After what seemed like a terrifyingly long time but would have only been less than two minutes, my dad pulled me through the front door and my mum took one look at me and screamed. The skin on my back was badly grazed and had actually been altogether scraped off in some places where I had been dragged along the pavement. I was crying uncontrollably, and my mum started screaming wildly at my dad before bundling me in the car and driving to social services.
It wasn’t until around a year later that social services would pop up again following my mother’s death and my dad’s immediate incarceration. I was nine years old and two social workers had travelled down from London to the place of my mums murder to escort us six children to a children’s home where we ended up living for the following couple of months.
One of those social workers was a man, a good man, with kind eyes and a big smile. He had a lot of time for us kids and his humanity and understanding in our time of need I will never forget. Our paths actually ended up crossing again years later, as a matter of fact if you have read my ‘Awkward Intro’ post and are familiar with the training I used to deliver to social work professionals, well it was during one of those workshops that we ended up meeting again. I know, I know, what are the chances of that?! I didn’t realise it was him until after the session had ended when he approached me with tears in his eyes and asked if I remembered him. I said I did though I genuinely couldn’t place where I knew his face from (it gets like that after years in the system and contact with hundreds of different professionals). As soon as he told me his name, I was instantly transported back in time. How strange that though he no longer worked for the same local authority, he had randomly decided to book himself on my course without knowing that it was I, the same Jaimee from more than a decade ago who he had briefly supported along with my siblings through the most traumatic period of our lives? It is truly amazing how life works eh?
To be continued….