Please be aware this piece contains references to sexual abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicide attempts and addiction, which some people may find distressing.
For most of my life I’ve been on the radar of one support service or another. Starting with the care system and a host of child psychologists and social workers. Not one of them took enough interest in me to see past my behaviour and recognise me as a very damaged child.
To the professionals, that were meant to be caring for me I was ”truculent and disruptive”, “a recidivist” and they were “waiting for a tragedy to befall Colette”. These are quotes from my local authority care files. I was 14 years old at the time and being abused both in the family home and on the street. I was not just “trouble” and I needed someone to see that. Instead I was placed into secure residential care.
It took thirty years for me to meet the person I believed wanted to help me, and just two meetings to trust that person with my secrets, because I had to. I wanted to live, rather than exist.
By that point I had seen the removal of two daughters into local authority care and their subsequent adoptions and a third daughter being placed with my mother. Twenty years of homelessness, poor mental and physical health and addiction to heroin, crack cocaine and prescription drugs had taken its toll. I reached out for support in 2008 and was met by what I like to think of as an army of supportive women.
Throughout my addiction I’d only engaged with mainstream services out of desperation. I wanted to be invisible to society and for the most part I achieved that. Apart from the criminal justice system, racking up 52 criminal convictions, and the occasional visit to A&E after another failed suicide attempt.
What’s more telling are the occasions I didn’t present at mainstream services; after being raped, beaten, robbed, kidnapped. All of these things happened more than once while sex working on the streets of Manchester. I had a string of violent relationships with men, one incident saw me dropped from a third floor flat window landing on a concrete walkway, after a disagreement that I can’t recall. I just carried on regardless, becoming more and more traumatised as the years went by.
I didn’t know it back then but I’d started building trust with an organisation that would quietly support me for over twenty years. They didn’t ask me unnecessary questions or judge me in any way. They met my need for condoms, clean injecting equipment and basic health needs. Manchester Action on Street Health (MASH), were so much more than that. They cared, pretty rare for Manchester’s red light district and the women that worked there.
The van would come out on the street three nights a week, first it was an old noise abatement vehicle donated by the council before acquiring a truck and purpose built trailer. The trailer was equipped with a medical treatment room and a small sitting room where the women could get warm and feel safe for a while. It was hard to believe people were going out of their way for us.
I think it was my 30th birthday and, as usual, I was working on the beat to make money for my habit – no different from any other day really. A church group that brought out tea and sandwiches to the working girls had brought me a birthday cake, out onto the beat. We took it on the van and shared it, and drank tea out of polystyrene cups. It was the closest thing I’d had to a party since I was little, the memory still brings a tear to my eye.
2008 saw a family member charged with twelve counts of historical sexual abuse against me (I’d originally disclosed the abuse to a key worker at a children’s home I’d be placed in at the time of the offences but no action was taken). I’d also told my mum and she chose to ignore me.
No one had listened then. Things were going to be different this time?! It turns out my abuser walked away from court after a technicality saw the case thrown out, but that didn’t matter because I’d been heard and believed by some of people that mattered to me, and the Crown Prosecution Service. I’d also been assigned a care manager by Manchester Drug Services (MDS).
My MDS worker was with me every step of the way. In the early days she was the voice of reality; supporting me to successfully address my addiction and gain a degree of distance from continual crises. I was now in a large mixed hostel on the edge of the city centre, not the best environment to recover from trauma but I made the best of it and grew a lot in my time there. Around this time MASH opened its centre. That’s when my recovery really took off!
I had a few months’ clean time and was desperate to keep hold of it, only thing was: I didn’t know how. The centre was bright and welcoming. Women can use the bank of computers or get involved with the craft sessions run by volunteers or just relax, there’s never any pressure. The centre has its own sexual health nurse, complementary therapist and CBT therapist and some of the best support staff and volunteers in Manchester (my opinion anyway!). External organisation’s come in to the centre providing mental health support, housing advice, doctors and dentistry appointments. This means that women get their basic needs met when ordinarily they would have been invisible.
My relationship with my MASH key worker, Louise, is very special to me. She is the strongest, most passionate and shrewd woman I know. She has helped me recognise my worth and remove the labels that have kept me in the shadows for so long. Never has she told me what I should do, instead she’d give me enough information and confidence to make my own decisions, then support me to realise my goals. With her encouragement I went to residential rehab run by Cias in Bangor, North Wales. I went back to the core of my trauma and worked through waves of emotion I’d never allowed myself to feel before. It gave me answers to why I reacted the way I did throughout my addiction and most importantly new ways of doing things.
In 2014, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’d just gotten my first ever employment with The Men’s Room, a small charity working with young men in the criminal justice system. I’d volunteered with The Men’s Room for a couple of years since getting a degree of recovery myself and I got a lot from my work with the young men. I felt like I’d lost everything when I got my diagnosis.
MASH and The Men’s Room were my constants throughout my chemotherapy and recovery. It was mainly the small things that mattered to me the most during this time. Having people I trusted at the end of the phone was sometimes all I needed. Other times it was a human connection or practical solution that helped me stay in the community for a long time, rather than being admitted to hospital.
Last year I got my first job ever at the age of 47. I empower women to be seen and heard, around systems change in support services. I’ve been immensely lucky to have such an amazing support network on my recovery journey. A lot of the women I meet are not nearly as fortunate.
Colette is a former Women’s Voices GROW trainee at Inspiring Change Manchester and is currently working on a new project with the Greater Manchester Women’s Support Alliance.