Speaking and Silence
Speaking and silence, or rather silence and not speaking, has been a big feature in my life. I didn’t speak properly until I was around seven, I was silent up until about 4, and then there were only three people who could understand the kind of speech I was capable of.
As an adult, as an activist, I’ve spent hours sat in meetings full of men, where there were maybe three other women. Listening to those men discuss endlessly, for hours and hours, why there were no women in the meetings. ‘We have to get more women to come to meetings, how can we get women to come to meetings?’ They never asked our opinion. Always talking about inclusion, without thinking that maybe the people they wanted to include were already doing something else.
There was a lot of not talking in my family as I grew up. We yelled, but we never talked about what was going on under the surface. I didn’t know that the things that bothered me were important. We just didn’t talk.
When I was about 14 my dad lost his job and basically spent the next two years sitting on the couch not speaking. Mum was out of the house 14 hours a day, she thought my dad was taking care of us kids, but really we were running riot. No one ever mentioned that dad was depressed. Maybe if there had been words for it, just to say he was depressed, maybe it would have helped.
I learned very quickly that if you slept with boys, especially if those boys were dealers, then you would always have weed. Other people would kind of look up to you and treat you better because you were with him. So I spent a most of my teenage years with various dealer boyfriends, I never thought too much about that or what the sex was for.
Other things were happening outside the family home. Implicit and explicit violence, things that shook me and changed me, but I never told anyone. I always wondered if I could have changed what happened if I had said something. Not talking was the way things were dealt with.
When I was old enough I got a job and left home. Most of my life I’ve lived in shared accommodation with people I don’t know. Helping to pay the rent basically. Sharing with people I didn’t have any connection with, for as long as the lease lasted or it was bearable.
I decided to train to to be a nurse and I was housed in the nurses hostel. That was where I had my first breakdown. I just woke up one morning and I couldn’t move. It was as if all of my years of silence had come to revisit me, that morning when I woke up I literally was not able to move or speak. Except my housing was at my place of work, the nurses housing was there right next to the hospital where I was working and training. If I wasn’t able to go to work, then I wasn’t housed.
I had to go back home to my mum and dads place to recover, it was unbearable.
Squatting gave me another option, even if I didn’t have a job or any money. Except squatting is a full time job. I didn’t feel I possessed most of the valued skills for it. With squatting you have to be able to cycle around for hours looking for empty buildings, I never felt confident about exactly what I was looking for. Or if I did find somewhere, I didn’t have the confidence to ask the others to come and look at it. You need to be good at climbing, often very high and squeezing through tiny windows. I’m big and I am REALLY scared of heights.
Once you are in there is all the work of knocking down walls, building stuff, changing locks. I was anxious, I didn’t know how, I was scared of drills. Electricity and plumbing, usually those things are being done by men in a hurry. They are too busy to show you how. Plus there is the idea that you are a woman, and maybe it’s a waste of time to teach you.
I did get pretty good at getting the Cite-tex off windows. I overcame my fear of drills and got ok at putting up insulation. Mostly I cleaned. I cleaned a lot, sometimes probably too much, but you know when something is clean, no one can tell you you have done that wrong.
With squatting you have to be a valuable member of the group. Because when the squat is about to be evicted, there are always those discussions about who is going to go to the next place. Who who do the other people want to live with? Being depressed and anxious doesn’t give you many Brownie Points.
In one of the squats where I lived, a few of us all used confide in an older man, we used to ‘Dad’. He would spend hours and hours patiently listening to our problems. We didn’t know that he was a corporate spy, sent to find out what the environmental movement was up to. He would photo copying and send everything I wrote in my diary to British Aerospace. British Aerospace have received A LOT of information about depression and anxiety.
All this is a bygone era, as the laws changed to make squatting next to impossible, but in the 90’s and 2000’s squatting was a major part of my life. Squatted social centres and community spaces meant there were places that were just open and you could just go and be there. Plus you could go there and be really WEIRD. You could be among the weirdest of the weird and you still wouldn’t be the weirdest person there.
I met a lot of people through social centres, hanging out, getting talking. It was through social centres that I met other mad women. I went to a social centre for a political meeting and met a couple of women there who were also mad. We ended up totally ignoring the meeting and just talking to each other. It was like the words poured out of us, we couldn’t stop talking! I had that for quite a while, my mad women’s group, we would meet up and just talk.
The Womble’s social centre up in Tufnell Park, The Dairy nearby, The Ramparts in Whitechapel, Elizabeth Fry House on Mare st, xxx down on Clapton road. All of those spaces, even the ones cracked for a night or a couple of weeks, they meant that if you wanted to organise an event or hold a meeting, there was a place to do it. No one could tell you what kind of event you could or couldn’t have. You might have to do a lot of cleaning, but the spaces were there and they were free.
Ordinary housing, places that weren’t social centres, but were squatted to live in, there used to be a lot of those. I was living in one of those squats with a group of others and my boyfriend. Everything was ok, until my boyfriend raped me. At that point I decided I’d had enough of being silent. I knew where that had got me in the past, like back in the nurses home where I couldn’t move or speak. I didn’t want that to happen again.
I told my friends and I told people who I thought needed to know. I said they could pass on the information if they wanted to, it was their decision. But on one condition, I asked them not to name me, or share information that could identify me.
That didn’t work out. I would walk into rooms and people would be having political meetings about it! People were naming me and discussing wether they thought it was really rape or not. Some people would be talking about what a good guy my ex was and how difficult this was for him.
People would approach me to give me their opinion, or to tell me about their experiences, or to talk to me about HIM. What was missing in all of this was any real ability to LISTEN.
I didn’t want to stop speaking but had to get away from all of that and I had no where to go. That was how I ended up in a homeless hostel.
The hostel was big, it housed up to 80 people, located on a busy main road, It was noisy. People were constantly coming and going, the atmosphere was very chaotic. It was a wet house, so drugs and alcohol were allowed. When I met new people in the hostel it was very common that how people introduced themselves would be to ask: ‘So what’s your poison?’.
I remember telling the support worker when I first came into the hostel that I would just keep my head down, keep to myself, and just get through my time in the hostel. He told me ‘No, that’s not how to do it. You need to learn how to socialise and make sure people know you.’
The level of homophobia in that hostel was off the scale. As a queer person I felt unable to say anything. I didn’t want to become the subject of all of that talked about violence. One night I was crying in my room and member of staff asked me what was wrong. I tried to explain about the homophobia, but as soon as I said the word ‘Queer’, she told me she would pray for me. I couldn’t get across to her that being queer wasn’t the problem.
Yet I never felt so middle class in my life as when I was in that hostel. The workers spoke to me differently than the other residents. They would say, ‘We are going to find you a place, we are going to get you housed.’ They liked me because I was polite and presented myself well.
Being housed, finally being permanently housed, it’s been years and the novelty still hasn’t worn off. To be able to make my own choices about being involved in groups or not. Not to have to deal with bullshit people or their gossip. I realised I wasn’t dependant on other people liking me anymore to be housed! What a relief!