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How do I survive care and prison? I was luckier than the sharp, funny kids I grew up with

my first time on the bottom came early. I was a baby when my mother fled with me and my brother to a refuge, to escape violence at home. This period of fear was short-lived, but it left an indelible impression. The chaos and trauma of these years manifested in my swaying limbs during desperate tantrums, during which my mother would hear every epithet I could think of as her entire bookcase fell down our stairs.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been told there’s something wrong with me, that I’m different, naughty, need help; and that chemicals would make me better, make me good. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is the medicalized term for my condition, which proved incompatible with mainstream schools, where pirouettes in math class like a drunken gymnast weren’t appreciated.

Academia and I went together like shards of glass on toast. My math teachers assumed I had dyscalculia, my English teachers assumed I had dyslexia. One teacher—let’s call him Mr. X—remarked that my understanding of grammar was “flabby to the extreme”. (Mr X, if you’re reading this, I started this sentence with a parenthesis, just for you – and now I’m not going to close it.

I thought getting kicked out of any mainstream school was my low point, but I kept falling. I was kicked out of my foster home and went to a children’s home, where I was first introduced to a police cell. Some kids had decided that we had to take our cupboards apart and toss them down the stairs because the staff, trying to lure us away from the television after curfew, had turned off the electricity.

Children’s homes in the 1990s felt more like preparing units for prison. Bad behavior meant being put “on base”: no TV, stereo, candy, or pocket money. But those threats did not last that night. The staff, feeling out of control, called 999. We were confused and locked up. But our mischief only escalated. I visited the cells a few more times and earned a criminal record before I was 16. It is no surprise that children in care are much more likely be criminalized than other children. But I had to fall even further.

I spent most of my early adulthood unemployed. I was homeless before I turned 21. The library gave me reprieve: I became self-diagnosed and eventually met real didacts when I entered university at the age of 23.

At last, I thought, I had escaped the turmoil of my past, but it caught up with me. I’d been living on my own since I was 17, but I had never learned—or learned—to take good care of myself.

In my three years in college, I’ve lost thousands of pounds, gained tens of pounds, and become a booze-soaked recluse. It ended with me graduating while living in an Emmaus community for the homeless.

I’ve thought long and hard about how I recovered from all this. If I’m honest, I don’t know. In a way it doesn’t matter. More importantly, I’m a walking, talking anomaly. How many people like me write for national newspapers, or writing books? We all have rock bottoms, but many people can cling to loved ones and resurface. Others fall too far to return undamaged. Nearly everyone I’ve lived with during the healthcare system has been in and out of jail, kicked out, off the map; some are dead.

We must judge a civilized society by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens – and the British state is a terrible parent. The children in her care are more likely to be criminalized and exploited than other children; teenage pregnancies occur at a faster rate, just like substance dependence and mental illness. When the children of the state turn 18, they are expected to take care of themselves completely. It should come as no surprise that so many, like me, end up destitute.

I could write about how picking up a pen and expressing myself gave me purpose – and it did. But in reality I was just lucky. And it shouldn’t be luck if a cared-for child makes it into our society. The children I grew up with were damaged by difficult lives, but they were sharp, resilient and funny. Who knows what they could have become if the government had taken its parental role seriously? If we want the reason why cared-for children can thrive to be more than coincidence, we’ll have to try harder—and worry more. Only then will more people with stories like mine bounce back from their lows.