Growing up early but feeling behind in life

February 28, 2024

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Kerrie Portman encounters many obstacles on her ‘ziggy’ journey to self-discovery

I often feel like I’m behind in life. When I first started university back in 2019, I was considered a mature student. Then, I had to drop out due to the Pandemic and became homeless, feeling like a failure. I then changed paths and went back to college, though was older than those graduating from university.

After college, I did a Level 4 Foundation Year, before my second attempt at an undergraduate degree just after turning 25. I often feel behind in life. I often feel like I’m too inexperienced to be 25. Or perhaps I’m too old to be 25. But either way, I don’t think I’m being 25 in quite the right way.

Part of feeling so behind is that, like most Looked After Children, I experienced intense adultification. This essentially refers to treating children and teenagers like adults. A slightly similar term is ‘emotional incest’, which is when a parent treats their child emotionally like a peer or partner, because the parent isn’t turning to other adults to meet these emotional needs.

Both of my parents did this, but especially my mother, whom I lived with longer. When we became homeless when I was 14, my mother would refer to “us” being unable to manage money, though I had no access to money.

Not having a family means that I constantly have to be the adult and have no safety net, therefore I constantly feel I have no room to make mistakes

This is a relatively small example but, when added up, I was never given the privilege of being a child or a teenager. Consequently, I feel like I’ve been an adult my whole life.

Not having a family means that I constantly have to be the adult and have no safety net, therefore I constantly feel I have no room to make mistakes. Whereas the media often laments that making mistakes is how you learn and promotes the daring risk takers, this is a privilege held by those with families willing and able to support them if they fail. This includes practical, financial and emotional support.

Trauma also ages people. I joke sometimes that I’ve had premature greyness since I was 11, but it also means I have to be familiar with areas like child abuse, homelessness policy and systematic oppression.

People who face systematic oppression are often forced to become an expert in the areas they’re asking for help in. That shouldn’t be the case, but unfortunately it is. I self-taught myself housing law and policy because my local authority neglected me when I was homeless.

I self-taught myself social care law and policy when I was repeatedly abused in Care. In a strange way, I find comfort in knowing the issues I suffer are systemic because at least they’re not personal. But I’d rather be ignorant to their existence.

I was once bullied by a bunch of 30-year-olds after I said I didn’t feel comfortable being near people who sexually assaulted me. As much as they should have known better, a part of me feels jealous of people who can be so ignorant to trauma because they’ve been privileged enough to not have to live with it.

I worry the shadows of the negative stereotypes people have of me will haunt me forever

I also find that trauma bookends different aspects of my life, which lacks familiar continuity. I was surprised to realise it was only two Christmases ago that I was evicted, to become homeless for the third time in my life. It feels like an age ago, and in many ways it is a different age to living and studying at the University of Cambridge.

The feeling of being behind in life has been getting to me more recently. Breaking through the Care ceiling feels as difficult as trying to break through a glass ceiling. I find myself picking shards out of my hair, washing blood off my skin and feeling exhausted.

I worry the shadows of the negative stereotypes people have of me will haunt me forever and I’m tired of trying to be anything other than who I am. Over the past few months, I’ve experienced further direct violations of my disability and human rights, and being forced to fight that instead of focusing on starting my studies has sparked significant depression.

People often tell me I’m coping amazingly “considering” but I think I’d like to exist without the “considering,” without the asterisk next to my accomplishments, because there won’t be an asterisk next to my degree or CV.

I think it’s normal to get depressed. I think it’s normal to get tired. I hope that I can use all the trauma and abuse, and the countless systematic failings I’ve experienced to be able to make a difference to these systems, or have some form of positive impact on the world. I hope my life won’t be a waste and I hope I won’t always feel like it is.

I was homeless and now I live in a college I like to describe as a “castle”

Sometimes I stop and look around, and think I could have never imagined the life I live now, in the good ways as well. I was recently reminded about a former best friend who introduced me to Party politics just after I became interested in homeless policy.

He gave me the language to articulate and expand my knowledge. Now politics is not only what I study, but shapes my whole life; from the books I read, what I write about, what I think about, what societies I join and what events I go to – even prom was a Labour prom.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have found my way to politics without this former friend, as I was already getting there through my interest in homelessness and the systemic issue of Care Leaver homelessness. But I also wonder whether I would be the same person if I hadn’t met him.

Life is weird and unpredictable. My parents didn’t bother enrolling me in consistent education and yet I made it to Cambridge. I was homeless and now I live in a college I like to describe as a “castle”.

I often feel I’m behind in life, but I think that’s okay. As I once learnt in a History of the Law paper, time is ‘ziggy’. Lives don’t move along a clean, linear path. And positive progress towards a singular inevitable is simply a comforting narrative we tell ourselves.

Everyone is different and that’s okay. And everyone has to live through difficult times.

The story continues…

Kerrie is an autistic care leaver, her love of writing originating from the desire to raise awareness of discriminatory practices in social care. This led to her main writing accomplishments, including two published articles in The Guardian and co-authoring a chapter of the book: ‘COVID-19 and Co-production in Health and Social Care Research, Policy, and Practice, Volume 2: Co-production Methods and Working Together at a Distance’. As Kerrie’s love of writing grew, it expanded to most topics and she has also guest-written articles for Ambitious About Autism, National Student Pride, iReader, Heroica, Wearewriteous and North Hertfordshire Pride.

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