Born in England, Kathleen was taken to live in Jamaica from the age of nine to 14. While there, she began hearing voices and attempted suicide three times. The first time she was 13 years old. “I tried to slit my wrists. Then I took an overdose of my mum’s pills and the third time I took a belt to try and hang myself with it,” she said.
Kathleen’s mother was a respected Christian outreach worker. She spent long periods away from home working in the community. “The way my mother dealt with my mental health affected me. I was talking to myself and rocking back and forth after the first suicide attempt, which she didn’t know about. The second time she found out I had taken an overdose of pills she punched me in the face rather than ask me what was wrong. I felt lost and forgotten. I’m the last of six, was moved to another country and my mother was looking after other people’s children, and not us. She was very old fashioned. You couldn’t tell her what you were feeling.”
When her parents separated, she moved back to the UK to live with her dad and siblings. She didn’t feel welcomed. Her dad didn’t give her money for school, so she found a Saturday job, working at a local McDonald’s. When her father then asked her to pay rent, she refused as she was only 14 years old.
After an argument with an older sibling, she was kicked out and made homeless on Christmas Day. Forced to sleep rough on a park bench for a few nights, she would occasionally sleep on the floor at a friend’s house and sneak into the family home to freshen up, while still working and going to school.
“I then got caught up with the wrong crowd. I hung around with a circle of young girls that became a gang. I was brought up as a Christian and was naive. Although I was going down the wrong path, somehow, I knew how to look after myself. I was going to work and studying, but things were still affecting me mentally.”
When Kathleen’s mother, who was still in Jamaica, found out she had left home, she demanded that her father bring her back. He tracked down at her friend’s house and took her back. The reunion was short-lived. “My dad kicked me out again.” A friend informed her of a local homeless charity where she turned up the next day with all her belongings in black bin bags.
Aged 16, she was placed in a hostel near her family home. “I lived there for a year and a half, and it affected me badly. I got arrested twice, but never got convicted. I had a boyfriend. I lived with him and his family some of the time.”
After they broke up she started smoking skunk weed and heard voices again, which triggered four more suicide attempts. The hostel referred her to a psychiatric unit, where she stayed for four days.
“It was difficult living in the hostel. I had heard voices before, but now I was smoking, they were coming through more clearly. They were telling me, you are not supposed to be on this earth; no one loves you; go on, do it. The hospital wanted to admit me, but I didn’t want to be there. The hostel manager got me out. She and I were worried about me being in there was a black person. She didn’t give up on me. She understood it wasn’t ‘me’. I told the hospital that I wouldn’t smoke anymore and six months later I was clean.”
While still in a vulnerable state, she met her daughter’s father in the hostel. She fell in love. All was great for the first year, then she discovered he was unfaithful. “I didn’t leave him as I felt he was looking after me. I now understand that he was manipulative and controlling. He made me the problem when I was trying to work on myself.”
When she was ready to leave him, she discovered she was pregnant and decided to stay. But after nine years, often filled with domestic violence, Kathleen found the courage to leave, with help from a lecturer at her university. “I didn’t have any counselling for the whole nine years I was with him. It was only when I was at university, when I had to repeat my first year after he attempted to kill me, that I was referred to counselling. I refused to report the attack at the time, but I reported it a year later, so it is on file.”
Kathleen is now on track to graduate. She lives independently with her daughter in a flat. “I am constantly reminded daily of where I came from, but also of how far I’ve come.”