Amy* decided to join the Feminism for Change course after hearing about it whilst on Knowledge for Change. She talks about the shifts in self-perception and esteem she has undergone, and the power of sharing experiences in a trusting environment with other women.

What circumstances led to drugs and alcohol becoming coping mechanisms for you? 

I had a lot of issues with my family. I was one of 7 siblings, and was just 9 years old when I lost my older sister. My mum was devastated and so was I. She had played a big role looking after all of us. Both my dad and my mum’s boyfriend lived with us – it was very dysfunctional – and they told me I needed to look after my mum now, as well as take care of my brothers and sisters. I was clear they all expected me to step into the role my older sister had played. My mum even started calling me by my sister’s name sometimes and it was really upsetting. I had all this grief but absolutely no one to talk to or to help me deal with it.

I started to drink early on. It helped calm and switch my mind off in the evenings. I was so busy all the time looking after everyone and my mind was constantly worrying and focused on others. Drinking was an escape, from all those thoughts and anxieties, but slowly I turned to other substances and began becoming dependent.

I got into an abusive relationship, which isn't a surprise given the co-dependency in my family. Things got worse when I lost my dad just 6 months after my own son was born. Again, I was expected to take care of my mum, the new baby, and the rest of my family, and my partner…I got hooked on prescription drugs and, eventually, heroin and crack. I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening or ask for help until eventually I had a mental breakdown. I was a ticking time bomb. Things escalated and I ended up overdosing and in hospital a bunch of times. I just couldn’t go on anymore - I was going to die if I didn’t stop using and drinking. I was only able to finally get help for myself when I didn’t have a choice.

What steps have you taken that have brought you to where you are today?

That was in August 2017. I’ve come a long way since then! I was in rehab and went through two ‘stages’ of a residential treatment programme. I’m now living in supported accommodation with a group of other women and am ready and excited to move back to Croydon so that I can be near to my children. I still can’t believe the change I have gone through when I look back at myself just a couple of years ago.

Today, you see me chatting away like this, and you would think I’m a happy, confident person, but I barely used to say anything! At the beginning of treatment I would sit in groups or therapy and just not talk. I wasn’t ready to open up for so long. At the beginning of the course I sat in the corner and didn't say anything. But at one point we had to do our life stories and that was the first time I had really shared anything with the people in a group like that. Slowly the layers have come away. I’m talking a lot more in therapy and I'm working with a sponsor in a twelve-step fellowship, as well as doing the Knowledge for Change course. It all helps. But honestly, I don't recognise myself sometimes, compared to how I was!

What were your feelings about the word “feminism”, before you started Feminism for Change?

I don’t know if I had a ‘reaction’ to the word when I first heard about the course from my keyworker, but my boys certainly did!  My eldest said straight away, “they’re gonna brainwash you mum!” He’s a teenager and quite a man’s man. My youngest seemed to understand that me doing this was about finding a voice and doing something for myself. They’re both good boys but I’m mindful of the influences they have around them. The course has been absolutely brilliant and I think every woman needs to do it. I’ve recommended it to a friend already who is coming on the next one.

 How have your relationships with your family - or with yourself - changed?

There’ve been times when my kids have had problems - at school, for example – and I was convinced that I was entirely to blame. But I can see now that’s not true, although it’s still hard battling such automatic thoughts - that everything that happens with my kids must be my fault.

I have to consciously work hard to go against my negative core beliefs. I try and catch negative thoughts and replace them with three positive ones. It’s very hard work and excruciatingly uncomfortable sometimes, challenging my old ways of thinking, but sometimes you have to “feel it to heal it” and be unafraid and willing to go there. Not everyone is.

I use affirmations and put them up all over my room, the fridge etc. One of my favourites is “I am a strong, powerful, confident, beautiful woman.” In fact...

I’m not ‘just’ a woman, or any other role. This is about seeing myself as a whole person. My identity is so much more than my past trauma, than my history as an “addict”, than the suffering or difficulties I have experienced.

 What barriers do you think women in particular have to face in overcoming addiction?

A lot of the time shame stops women coming into recovery or asking for help – it did for me. How could I possibly admit to anyone that I wasn’t coping, that I was using drugs when I have kids and a mum and siblings and a partner to look after, who are depending on me? It just wasn’t OK. I was very isolated. Women are very isolated. I had friends but there was so much politics and gossip, I didn’t have anyone in my life who I trusted, and that related back to my mother. What I’ve found with the feminism group is that, for the first time, I have felt real trust with a group of women. It’s taken me a long time.

Sharing in this group, and listening to the other women share their stories, has been so powerful. I’m learning more and more to speak up for myself because I can see other women who are doing it. Women need to be building each other up, not attacking one another – that’s what the patriarchy wants us to do.

 What other differences have you noticed since doing the course?

Recently, whilst still on the course, I experienced sexual harassment at the place where I volunteer. I have been able to speak and stand up for myself. I reported the incident, even though I was unsure and worried that perhaps it was my fault. The group helped me to see; No! That’s what women are conditioned to think and it’s wrong! I was there to volunteer - to be of use, to help people. That shouldn’t be taken as an ‘invitation’ of any kind, but the fact is, that’s how male entitlement operates in society. Before, there is no way I would have been able to speak up.

Another thing that’s helped is having my eyes opened to the “everyday” sexist behaviour and attitudes we all experience as women. 

I’ve noticed it even recently where I live in supported accommodation, where one male councilor joked about me setting up a “practice in a shed” when I mentioned my ambition to go into helping other women professionally. Other “jokes” about us women getting “back to the kitchen” get made too – I’m not sure if the other women I live with notice it like I do! This apparently ‘harmless’ stuff chips away at your self-image and we constantly learn to put up with it. I’m adamant these attitudes towards women will not getting passed on to my sons; that they understand it’s just not acceptable.

 What hopes do you have for the future?

I suffered a huge amount of mental, emotional and physical abuse in my relationship with the boys’ father. The psychological impact this has is the hardest and most deep-rooted thing to recover from. By the end I had been made to think I was totally crazy; everyone was telling me as much – him, his mum, his dad, my own family…There were a lot of damaged people around me that justified and enabled the abuse that was going on, and ensured that I couldn’t recognize it as wrong and stand up for myself.  I’m just so glad I’ve had the chance to break out of those relationships.

I can see that my mum didn’t have any female role models in her life; she didn’t have the awareness I now have. Sometimes I think “watch it, you’re getting a bit overconfident” but the truth is, I’ve worked really hard.

I’m so proud of my achievements: to be able to trust other women again after my relationship with my mum; to break the co-dependent parenting cycle; to be a role model to my kids - teach and encourage them to express their feelings; to be honest and open. I have enough self worth now to know I will never allow myself to be treated that way by a man again.

*some names have been changed to protect anonymity

To find out more about the feminism course, contact [email protected]