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Love & Neglect

Love & Neglect

By: Sarah Jones

Surviving her childhood took incredible courage and resourcefulness. Now she shares that story with you.

My mother, to my misfortune, had a sensational appetite not only for alcohol, but for violence. She directed this towards me and towards her many drunkard partners. She was wild, hurt and lost, in a world that hadn't been very kind to her. She had been sexually abused as child and would tell me of how her mother would batter her. She would recollect this solemnly, with no memory that she did the same to me.

I'd be left alone to rattle around in our Victorian home, without any food. She would return, often days later, with yet another man she had picked up in her stupor. I was the problem child. I couldn't sit still. Adults seemed to just shout at me and I would shout too. I wouldn't listen. Due to lack of input I was nonverbal and unable to talk or make sense to anyone. I had never learnt any manners. I spilt everything, dropped everything, bumped into everything and broke everything. I was malnourished, underweight and borderline feral. I would bite, kick, scream and swear whenever I didn't get what I wanted. I'd refuse to wash, having never been taught its necessity. I would flirt with adults, men, women and sometimes other female children. I would try to jump on them and even hump them, sexually, when no one was looking. I'd hump whatever I could and, to my dismay, my cat. I would show adults my private parts. Subsequently I was taken to a psychiatric assessment unit called the Tavistock Clinic. They concluded I had been sexually abused. However, due to my inability to talk, they were unable to identify who had abused me. My mother’s promiscuity didn't help narrow it down. According to the report, a child psychologist left me in a room on my own and, unknown to me, observed. I had been asked to play as I did at home. I started masturbating with several dolls’ heads. I also disclosed that a man had put a white-like “paint” up my jumper, which had gone up my nose. These first few years of life and victimisation led me to be taken into foster care, at the ripe age of four. I was placed with a family led by a stout matriarch called Mary. Quite fitting, given my Catholic heritage. And so my new life began and I struggled.

Inappropriately – by today’s standards – I had to share a bedroom with my teenage foster brother. He would say I had the attention span of a goldfish. Mary said I had ants in my pants. All I wanted to do was play, dance, tumble, jump, talk and explore. If I did manage to listen to anyone, I would soon forget. Catholic schools frown upon those who are not very obedient. I lived for playtime when I could escape my nightmare mind. I hated that boring blackboard, the monotonous drone of information. I would dream of my beautiful mother’s smile and everything that was beautiful about her. 

By age seven I had developed other skills, survival skills. These came in handy now. I was back in the care of my mother, or lack thereof. I became an accomplished liar, to teachers, social services and the police. They visited us regularly after her boyfriend started to smash things over my mother’s head or when he would get a knife and threaten her, then in drugged or drunken mania he sliced his face wide open. To escape I climbed tall trees, keeping bad things out of my mind, or danced to classical music on the radio in my room without a working light bulb. I would steal the milk from the posh neighbours next door. I was good at making excuses for my mother, to justify her leaving me without electricity and food. I didn’t want to be taken away from her again. I enjoyed finding my way to the top of buildings, especially blocks of flats. I learnt how to fake a smile and laugh until I couldn't breathe. I knew how to hide the dirty, black strip on the collar of my school shirt, at swimming class, by rolling the shirt into a ball, rather than hanging it on a hook. I learned to climb garden walls and walk on them, like a tight rope. It distracted me from realising I was hungry and too young to be unaccompanied.

I finally learned to read properly when I was ten years old. My home life became significantly more stable once placed into the care of my father, who sadly was a victim of a brain injury a few years prior. I did dance classes, swimming, trampolining, choir, rock climbing, ice-skating, netball, acting, running club and summer performance schools. In a handful of years I went from street urchin to being considered gifted and talented and put on a Government list of students most likely to go to Oxbridge. I excelled in English and drama. I had been offered a place at Bristol University to study both. I had been determined not to let my mother’s death affect me. She had been bludgeoned to death with an iron bar by her boyfriend when I was 16. He happened to have some relation to the Krays, to make it all feel that bit more absurd and surreal… Yeah, it certainly affected my writing, and who would have expected it not to? My mother had been murdered. I would read and could not take anything in. I felt dead inside. A few months later, at the trial, at the Old Bailey, I watched her boyfriend lie. "Some men came into the house, with sponge on their feet and plastic suits. That's why there was no trace of them. They came to steal her ring and accidentally killed her.” The ring wasn't worth anything. My mother’s life wasn’t worth anything to him. He was given life (11 years).

I took my first overdose a few months later. The hole in my stomach was ever growing, and sometimes I was convinced the hole had swallowed me up. The pain was raw and relentless. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my mother’s face. I kept on knocking back painkillers, one at a time, with utter disdain for myself. I thought of my mum’s battered body. I thought of him laughing over her as he bashed her brains in. I started acting recklessly, attending underground clubs. Here I met and started seeing a 22-year-old man twice my size. Eventually I succumbed to his relentless attempts to take my virginity. I realised then: this wasn’t the first time. Sex felt familiar in a way that made me sad inside. There was no gentle introduction or love from him; like everything in my life so far, it was hard and stark. He stuck a dildo up my arse on his second round. I was 16 years old and had no idea what I was doing, I felt numb. I broke up with him. He did not agree. He was aggressive, domineering, abusive, saying he would “burn me alive”, demanding I stay friends with him. He grabbed me, teeth bared, his lips brushing my cheek, his saliva splattering my face as he shouted and told me he had cut people's hands off. Not long after this I woke up with a bleeding sore arse and hardly any memory. I assume I was drug raped. Dazed and numb, I had to go to rehearsal. I was doing a play at the Embassy Theatre. I was the lead. I had hoped to throw myself into the production to take my mind off my mother. 

My beautiful mother, despite her wild ways, her heart was golden. She is the best teacher I ever had – to her dismay I’m sure. Yet her lessons, interpreted intuitively, were positive: this is not how to behave. Her neglect and violence drove me to such extremes that I had no choice but to become conscious, thoughtful and responsible. I have spent most of my employed life working with vulnerable people who have fallen in the gaping cracks permitted by our society. I am a free thinker. I loved my mother and I still do.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, childline.org.uk offers advice to both children and adults. 

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Want more from Sarah?

Go read her piece on coming out. Or surviving disability.