‘Jeri’ reflects on the stigma she felt when identifying as a care experienced young person, and why speaking out changes attitudes.
Coming out as Care Experienced
Happily unpacking my suitcase for the first time, as I was unpacking it in my tiny little room at halls of residence in university and not into a supported carers home or a children’s home. No this was my own. I was free. I was finally on an even footing with my peers and no one could take the smile off my face! I made it. I was just the same as everyone else. The feelings of excitement, achievement and anxiety ran through me and consumed me to the point I didn’t realise I was different already, whilst my peers were being helped unpack and being kissed and hugged by parents, siblings, aunties, uncles and friends.
I was dropped off by a social worker and wished luck, I wasn’t kissed or hugged or helped to organise my things. I didn’t even realise this as I was caught up on how much of an achievement it was for me to even be attending university. I didn’t know what I was feeling but on reflection I was feeling proud of myself and I didn’t recognise this as I’d never felt proud of myself before. University started and I made friends. We spoke for hours over studies, politics, music and TV programmes. I often felt out of my depth and challenged by these chats but I gave it my all and joined in and shared laughter and tears and made lifelong friends along the way. The first semester passed in a blink of an eye, exams were sat and nerves were shattered.
And then my heart was broken because I was a care experienced person and I had got so caught up in studying, socialising and enjoying being an independent geeky teenager that I had forgotten this part of my heritage. In the week leading up to Christmas I watched my new found friends stuff months worth of dirty washing into a suitcase and buzz around full of excitement to be going home. I joined this excitement and waved them off saying “Merry Christmas see you soon!”
Then it hit me.
I didn’t have to pack a suitcase. Nobody was coming for me. I didn’t have a home. My heart was broken. I tried my best to get up and get on with it but with each day passing the porter would ask jokingly “Don’t you have a family? Aren’t you itching to go home for Christmas and eat real food instead of the convenience shite you lot eat?” I gave a wee laugh and got out of talking range with him as soon as possible. How could I possibly answer I don’t have a family and I didn’t realise this until now I couldn’t, I was embarrassed for myself and I didn’t want awkward sympathy? I retreated to my room and tried to be positive. I caught up on reading, watching TV shows, even tried to cook and I shaved my legs and desperately tried to fill my time until everyone got back and uni started up again and the world got back to normality.
This didn’t work for long.
I was consumed with sadness and loneliness and I remember trying to joke about it like I felt like the last turkey on the shelf on Christmas Eve that no one wants. The festivities passed and my friends came back. I was depressed and embarrassed that I’d sat alone for a month and didn’t have exciting stories to match theirs. I retreated into myself as I didn’t want them to know I had been in care, because I remember when in care I had a good friend who lived next door. She was the same age as me and when her mum found out I was from “the home” she wasn’t allowed to spend time with me anymore. I chewed myself up and spat myself out many times over this and decided to just come out with it to my friends. I had to; better than awkwardly shrugging and changing the subject when Christmas chats were being had. One day I blurted it out that I was in care! The shock on their faces made me feel bad about what I had just divulged, but one of my friends just said “AND WHAT?” This is what we had been using as patter when someone said something daft or irrelevant and there was no worthy response. This made me feel better and the conversation topic changed and it wasn’t really mentioned again until my friends began to get curious and started to ask me what it was like for me growing up. The pressure was lifted, I could openly talk about my experiences like any other person can and should. I had stigmatised myself because of previous stigma thrown at me from a young age.
It’s sad looking back and realising that I had self stigmatised and I hadn’t even realised. This right here is why attitudes need to change! Perhaps had I been able to speak out and not feel embarrassed or different then Christmas would have been different for me. Perhaps if there was discrimination and stigma thrown at care experienced people from the media and from those who don’t know any better I wouldn’t feel how I felt. This isn’t an isolated incident. Seven years have passed from this occasion and I still get awkward and embarrassed to tell people my story and where I came from. We need to eradicate this embarrassment in order to embrace it and own it and throw it out there and genuinely believe and say “AND WHAT?” when we throw the revelation out there.
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