Building a “new me”
At the root of most of the stories shared on this site, there is a deep struggle with self-esteem. As highlighted in a previous post, this often comes from experiencing rejection during childhood. Karen, Martin, Tex, Natasha, Zeb… all reflected on how childhood experiences have led them to build a new identity for themselves. In the first of a two-part insight blog, we examine these experiences and transitions.
Martin, describes how being abandoned by his father when he was 6 years old changed him.“He said he would come back for me, but he never did. Since then I would not respect authority, no one would tell me what to do anymore.” For a year in his early teens, Martin was sent to a boarding school. When he moved back with his family to a council estate known for gang violence, he felt the need to build an identity that gave him status and belonging: “I spoke differently, was well educated; I felt as an outsider. Because of peer pressure, wanting to be accepted by the others, I start knocking around with the wrong people.” The pressure to belong also prevented him from reaching out at a key moment where he could have gotten support to get away from his violent stepfather: “When I was cleaning my air weapon, I accidentally pulled the trigger and hit a friend of me dad. Then my step dad shot me in the knee with his rifle I tried to run away but he shot me again in the base of me spine… In the hospital, I lied about what happened. If you were to report anyone, you are then considered a pariah in the neighbourhood..”
Tex told us that one of his first memories, aged 5, was arriving back home and seeing his kitten flung over the balcony of his flat with a string tied around its neck. Looking up, he saw three older boys looking down at him. It turned out that they were his elder brothers, newly arrived from Jamaica, who had come to live with the family after six years of separation. This marked the start of sustained physical abuse from his brothers – “they literally tried to kill me.” At some point during adolescence, Tex says he “snapped” and vowed that no-one was going to take advantage of him like this ever again. He got involved with drugs as a teenager, becoming a dealer to his fellow students at school because it was “exciting” but also because it gave him status. His reputation began to grow locally for selling drugs but also for having a fearsome and violent temper, which would be frequently set off at the slightest provocation.
Natasha, who went to a predominantly white school, was bullied because of her ethnicity. “We were moving all the time. My mom was running away from violent boyfriends or debtors. I was brought up in a white area, my mum is white. It was racist there, we used to get bullied.” She reflected that her only way to cope with being bullied was to start acting like a bully herself.
What these stories tell us is that, when you’ve been deeply hurt and lack the support to cope with the pain, you will look for power in the areas of your life you have control over, even if it means hurting others or hurting yourself. Your status and your identity – how other people perceive you and how you perceive yourself – are key to your survival. As Kevin, who works for User Voice and has worked as a peer researcher on this project put it during one of our events: “The first thing services need to do is to support people to change the way they think about themselves.”
Services often react to crisis and are time limited. As such whilst they can treat the symptoms, they often can do little to help people break long-term unhealthy behaviour patterns like negative cycles of debt, mental health issues, offending and addiction. However, the services that people value most are those that are designed to drive people away from crisis and into stability. Like Hope North East, the Crisis Skylight centre is an example of that. Crisis Skylight is an education, training and employment centre for people who are homeless and vulnerably housed. It offers learning opportunities, from the more traditional CV writing courses all the way to yoga, puppetry and creative writing. You can feel the culture of celebration when you visit the centre. Its service is built on the recognition that fulfillment plays a key role in recovery, that everyone, no matter what they have been through, is capable of success. Instead of punishing people for their circumstances, it gives them a chance to build self-esteem, find a sense of purpose and define themselves.
In part 2 we will explore how services can support people to reinvent themselves positively when they are ready to change.
We will take a more in depth look at Lizz, as she illustrates some of the steps necessary to build a positive sense of identity. Here’s the first part of her story, talking about the past, and the events that led her to where she is today.