A case study with... Jenny
When I was a child, in the cottage near Bristol, mum taught me the plants and trees in our garden. Some of them were easy: roses, honeysuckle, weeping willow. Others were harder: paeonia, choisya, pampas grass. Later, when mum was saying she wished I was dead, or curled up tight against the aga, I would hide in my choisya shrub den. In the spring it blossomed white and I drew pictures and made presents for her, but my efforts didn’t stop her taking all her valium at once. When I was seven dad found her unconscious in bed. It was the 1970s and no one discussed depression or suicide. So mum spent a couple of weeks in hospital before returning home. Not long after that I came back from school to find she had packed her things and driven out of our lives. We saw her very seldom after that.
After she left Dad came home smelling of drink. He was working all day, had to learn how to cook and look after my brother and me. My friends at school became my sisters, so when dad’s new job took us to Plymouth in ‘79 I was devastated. I felt like I’d been torn from the only constant thing in my life.
I left school at 16 with no belief in myself or my abilities to do anything, but I got a job at a riding stables up on Dartmoor. After a year the attraction of my old friends lured me back to Plymouth. I was 17 and moved in with a guy who was three years older than me. He was a painter, decorator and part time heroin dealer and I started working in a guest house. Yet when the pills, drinking and heroin use got the better of him he would beat me up. I forgot to eat, my weight dropped to 6 ½ stone, my teeth began crumbling and I wanted to die. When he smashed up my nose, broke my teeth, cracked my ribs and put me in hospital, I told my dad I’d been in a car accident. I think that’s what I told the hospital as well, but my boyfriend’s family must have realised because his father paid for private surgery. My broken nose and my teeth were replaced.
I left hospital, went straight back to him and the violence continued. By that stage I was in such a state it was as if I was in a dream. I was so beaten down, that when I did go out I no longer recognised people. In 1985 my dad moved up to London for work and I knew that if I stayed in that place I would either kill myself or he would kill me. One day I literally woke up, said I’m leaving you and going to stay with dad and put my belongings in a bin bag. The weird thing was he let me go.
A few years later a friend asked me to visit his family in Italy. The bond they had, the security of mother, father, brothers, nephews sitting at a table eating stirred something deep inside me and my two weeks turned into 8 months. I fell in love with his cousin, who was on methadone and incredibly generous. We lived near a bird sanctuary with mandarin groves by the sea and I walked on the beach with dogs. He accompanied me back to London and became a courier for the council, where he met people who brought heroin back into the scene. I began sniffing it and taking sips of his methadone.
I had always loved gardening and even though I was sniffing heroin and drinking methadone, I advertised in a shop. My reputation as a gardener spread by word of mouth. I even gained work from big companies such as the Wiggins Group and British and American Tobacco, designing a roof terrace and pond for a well known CEO in Barclay Square. He was really impressed. I realised I had a talent for knowing exactly how the right plants and flowers could bring life into a dull concrete space.
My boyfriend wanted to return to Italy and I went with him. It was a year before we came back to the UK. He returned to his old work, but I could not restart my gardening business. I did the few odd jobs, but my enthusiasm and ambition drained away. I became depressed and drank methadone, injecting heroin until I had problems finding veins. For much of the time I slept, immobilised by despair. Eventually I begged the doctor at the drug clinic to refer me to detox.
It was two weeks of hell. Methadone had seeped into my nervous system and the withdrawal was worse than I imagined. I was retching, vomiting, sweating, crawling along the floor, wracked with such severe pain that it terrified me. It was two years before I plucked up the courage to try detox again.
The second time I detoxed in an old psychiatric hospital, where I kissed a fellow patient and was thrown out. However, despite this, I was still able to keep my place at a rehab, where I lasted almost three months before I became involved with another patient and was asked to leave. I was determined to go straight out and score, but dad picked me up and drove me to mum’s in Cumbria.
Mum had drifted back into our lives during my adult years. I was furious with her for a long time, but gradually I saw that her childhood rejection of me was not personal. There was so little in my life, that I felt I’d rather have a mum than be without one. I’d spent time previously at her house and seeds of affection had grown between us. This time, I was so damaged, aching and exhausted that I could barely walk upstairs, but I stayed off everything. Six months later I returned to London, went straight to my boyfriend’s and took heroin.
Dad packed me off to a Catholic rehab in Spain, managed by nuns. It was like a boot camp, with a very religious, austere atmosphere. Once they realised I didn’t like mopping floors, they let me work in the garden. One day I was weeding, kneeling at the edge of a path, crying and talking randomly to God when I had a vision. I was in a secret inner garden, within the main area of grass and flowers. Three figures appeared, warm arms enfolded me and I had a powerful sense of my own worth. My presence amongst the plants was beautiful.
I arrived home to London, 11 months later, went back to my boyfriend, smoked hash, drank methadone and mainlined heroin. I knew then my recovery was impossible, I was destined to fail and could not beat this force dragging me back to the same old ground. The doctor asked me who controlled my life and I knew it was heroin. It had become my identity. Because I kept stopping and starting again I misjudged the doses and was passing out cold. My boyfriend took on the role of carer, checking I was alive, that I was still breathing. I was slipping in and out of oblivion, days and nights merged together. Sometimes it was hours before I regained consciousness. Yet in the fog of my existence, the thought floated into my head that one of these days I would not wake up. It was now or never. I was faced with a choice between living and dying. Although I had lost hope of escaping from heroin, it was as if some survival instinct decided to give me one last chance to live.
The substance misuse team said there would be no more funding as I had messed up so many times. Yet, by some twist of fate, I was assigned a worker who fought for me. Against all recommendations, she persisted in securing a 4 week detox back in the old psychiatric hospital. Even then I almost blew my final chance. I met the guy who is now my current partner, kissed him and we were both kicked out. My support worker refused to give up on me and battled for a place in residential rehab. That was when I went to Nelson Trust, to the women’s house.
I had been numb for many years, my emotions dulled into a heroin haze. Yet I knew if I was thrown out of this rehab it would be the end of the road. My peers in the women’s house were of different ages, walks of life, but I sensed a bond between us and gradually I started to feel safe. Even then, I found it hard to open up. Every day we would sit down and the group would explore soul searching experiences, but I had become so deadened that despite the security of the women’s house I was uncomfortable sharing my own story. I would talk in a detached manner, as if it was someone else who had lived my life and I was an observer on the sidelines looking in.
At the beginning I did not grasp much of what we were taught. The assignments made little sense to me and nothing seemed to click. Yet during my sessions with the counsellor I began recognizing patterns of behaviour and the way my diminished sense of self led me down destructive paths. Over time my thought processes shifted into understanding. I could see newer people going through the same initial difficulties, people ahead of me forging into different areas and I gained confidence to navigate my own path through the process. Even though my feelings were still hidden, I began to learn about honesty, being open, standing up for what was not right. I was able to confront my sense of shame and start the journey of believing in myself, growing into who I was.
I also experienced popularity. The girls called me frecks and I started to understand the strength of my own being, to know I could face life. At Christmas we were asked to be in a pantomime and I decided that I would not do it, that I’d be humiliated. Yet everyone encouraged me to take part. It was the tale of the big bad wolf and the three pigs and I stood up on stage, in front of everyone. People were laughing, there was camaraderie and I felt a rush of pride and joy in my achievement.
It was the first time I had really bonded with women, been nurtured in a female environment and I had something of a spiritual awakening, as if I could hand over things. We were supportive of each other and tried to understand and protect the weaker members. Some women were very forceful, others had left children, some had had even more attempts at recovering than me and one of the girls was a prostitute who rattled everyone. Yet after I learned their stories I grew to love them. We did woodwork, art, pottery, music and once went on a camping trip. I was clean, we were out in the open air, walking in the hills and life seemed to blossom into possibilities. I felt lightness in my spirit and feelings of hope stirring under what seemed like a mountain of frozen earth.
After six months in the women’s house I moved into ‘third stage’, renting a place with some of the girls. I attended college, learned pottery and biodynamics, which included gardening and growing. Even then I still felt numb for long periods of time and sometimes found it difficult to know how I should behave in the outside world, how to control my negative thoughts. In retrospect I decided to move out of third stage too early, into a flat with one of the girls. When I went to London for my dad’s 70th birthday party, I looked in on my old boyfriend, stayed with him and used heroin for two weeks.
Yet this time my friends from Nelson Trust kept phoning me up. They would not leave me alone. I tried to ignore them, but eventually they travelled up in person to London. I refused to leave the house. My real feelings seemed to be exploding into grief and I was unable to control what was coming out. I wept for the entire world I was leaving behind, for my drugs, my boyfriend, our dog. Yet they literally forced me into my van, packed up my things and drove me back to Stroud. I was slumped down in the seat the whole way, unable even to raise my head and look out of the window. The strength of that community rescued me. It was so close knit, the bonds we had built were so strong that there was something incredibly beautiful and special about it. If it had not been for them looking for me, if they had not found me, I do not know what would have happened. It broke my heart to leave my boyfriend’s house for the final time. I never went back there again.
I stayed in Stroud for 3 years, visiting Nelson Trust at intervals. I had found my soul mates there and the support on the outside sustained me. To this day it still gives me strength.
Later I moved back down to Cornwall with the man I was kicked out of detox with. He was also clean and we were both in recovery. Yet as we were thrown together, without our friendships and networks, struggling to address our emotions, I slipped back into a barren world and started on anti depressants. I had such a bad reaction to them that I self harmed, giving myself black eyes, ripping my hair out. I was literally suicidal. Yet somehow thinking about the support of my friends in Stroud, how far I had come, I knew suicide was not the answer. I found the inner strength to get myself a counsellor and stopped taking the medication.
I knew I had to do something else to stay sane, so I picked up my old tools from my gardening, drew a few leaflets and distributed them. I got a few little jobs and then more work trickled in. My partner began gardening with me and our reputation grew by word of mouth. We came off benefits, earned enough to support ourselves and our business developed and flourished.
We live on the moors now with our dog, who I love. Our business has grown so much we have more work than we can take on. I still keep in touch with my friends from Nelson Trust and I feel capable now, stronger, that I can survive into the future. Even if I was on my own I know I could live without heroin, that its power over me has been broken. I no longer have cravings, but also realise that I cannot be complacent. Somehow my life experience has helped me to understand my mother, her background, the rejection she suffered. Now we are friends and getting to know her has helped me see myself. I know that she loves me. She tells me often.
I have grown up emotionally too. I had to be separate from society for a time, to heal and build my internal strength, in a different landscape. Now I am less fragile and I want to give something back. Perhaps I could inspire other young people who are lost, as I was, looking for love and affection, for a place of self worth. We are thinking of an apprentice, or a volunteer, someone who can fall in love with gardens, see the seeds which germinate through winter months stir into life.
Spring is still my favourite time of year.
Story by Helen Brown - Unknown Stories. Photography by Carolyne Locher.
If you have been touched by this story and wish to support the Nelson Trust you can donate £5 via text by texting NELS30 £5 to 70070