I met an old friend on the street last night. She looked great. She was dolled up to the nines. New clothes and immaculate make-up. She’d lost a bit of weight since I last saw her too. All of which would have been good news, if she hadn’t been climbing on board the One25 van at the time. Louise flagged us down towards the end of the shift. She was standing outside the 24-hour shop. It’s a good place to pick up punters. Reasonably safe, because it’s well-lit. Although that didn’t prevent one of our women from being assaulted and robbed here a few weeks ago. Louise and I hadn’t seen each other since Christmas. She’d been off the streets for two years then. Clean. She’d been doing so well. We first got to know each other in a Freedom Programme group. Her most recent abuser was in prison. I was taking the first hesitant steps towards accepting that I’d been abused.
I’d last seen Louise at the One25 children’s Christmas party. It was a mayhem of over-excited kids. Their proud mums were drinking tea and comparing notes on child-rearing while the children ran riot. Some of the mums looked astounded, as if they barely dared believe they’d come so far. Louise arrived late. Five-year-old Josh piled straight into the chaos round the conjurer. I was in charge of making crowns. Selina settled quietly next to me. She glued tiny pieces of sparkle onto her fairy crown with intense concentration. Each jewel hand picked and stuck on meticulously. Her eyes shone behind her pink-framed specs.
Louise’s support worker was with her. Louise was in bits. She hadn’t filled in a form correctly. Her benefits had stopped. She was on her own with two children and not a penny to her name. It was two weeks till Christmas. For her, for Selina and for Josh, the festive season had been sanctioned. Louise had simply been too busy with the demands of surviving from one day to the next to understand what was required of her.
The party wound down. Louise’s last words to me were if I can’t get money from anywhere else I’ll have no choice. I’ll have to go back to working. She didn’t mean stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s. Six months on and here she was sipping hot chocolate in the back of the One25 van. A self-fulfilled prophecy. She didn’t tell me how she got here. We both knew it would hurt too much. I cried when she went.
I’m getting soft in my old age. I’m also getting angry. We live in a world that leaves women like Louise out in the cold. She works the street to survive. To buy the drugs she needs to numb the pain that’s results from a lifetime of abuse. Bullied and despised. Robbed, raped and beaten on a regular basis. Separated from her children. Estranged from her family. Blamed, accused and held responsible for her own suffering. Even her abusers will likely tell you it was all her fault. The rest of us just shake our heads. Wag our fingers. Tell her to pull herself together. Get a proper job. We walk by on the other side, confident that what happened to Louise could never have happened to us. Safe in our delusions.
Of course the truth is it could have happened to any of us. And yes, that includes you men. It’s not just we women who sell our bodies to feed the need for numbness. We like to think the people at the margins are somehow ‘other’. In our heads, they’ve stepped over a boundary we’d never be stupid enough to cross. It makes us feel safe to think that way. But it’s a bloody lie. Every one of them is a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood woman or man. She came into the world exactly the same way I did. Maybe he was neglected as a child. Perhaps someone abused her to satisfy a perverse craving. One hundred percent of the women in intensive therapy with One25 were sexually abused as children. One hundred per cent. Every single one. Is it they who are less than human? Louise lives the consequences daily. Fear. Guilt. Shame. Loneliness and abandonment. Then we heap on poverty and accusation as well. Whatever happened to humanity? Empathy? Compassion?
For one-hundred-and-twenty-five days last year I gave up NOT being a writer. I did it in the hope of raising money for a cause I believe in with all my heart. One25 charity works with women like Louise, Alice and Emily and others I talk about in this blog. Steph, for example. Her leg’s so badly ulcerated now that the nurse thinks she may have to have it amputated. I’ve changed all their names here of course, and any details that might identify them, but they’re real women. Living real lives not so very far from where I’m sitting now. I’ve talked to them. Laughed with them. Cried with them. Hugged them. We’ve eaten lunch together. Made tea. Battled to thread a broken sewing machine. Every one of them is trapped in street sex work, or has been at some time in her life. The things that drive people to such extremes are beyond their control. It could be benefit sanctions. Mental health issues. Abusive parents and partners. Addiction. Poverty. Disability. Debt. One25 has been a lifesaver for so many women. Often literally.
There were days when I thought I was insane to take on the 125-day challenge that kick-started bluesinateacup. I don’t know if it changed anyone else’s life, but it changed mine beyond a doubt. I I spent hours of frustration, blocked in front of a blank screen in the middle of the night. I sat at my keyboard until two in the morning, typing words I could barely see. The triumph when I hit the ‘publish’ key was unbelievable. I muttered, ranted, revised, raged and edited. I wrote with tears rolling down my face more than once. I thought I’d never write again. Almost every day. My wardrobe was decimated. I stopped buying meat. I re-thought myself from the core. My awareness re-awakened. It was worth every bloody painful minute. I found out I can do it. I’m a writer to the core.
Thank you for coming along with me on this crazy journey. The original of this post marked the end of my sponsored challenge. It was published over a year ago, but it wasn’t the end of bluesinateacup. Instead, it was just the start of my adventure in writing. And it wasn’t the end of my support for One25. I literally walked across red hot coals for them a couple of years ago. I’d do it all again at the drop of a hat. Why? Because there, but for the grace of God, go I.