As told to Katy Ward
Under buzzing fluorescent lights in the loos of a council estate library, I guzzle from a can of Foster’s before spitting the putrid yellow liquid on 1970s linoleum-effect flooring. This isn’t lager, but a stranger’s piss.
Whoever discarded the can in the front garden of a pre-fab home before I came across it on my daily scavenge for booze had peed in it — perhaps out of necessity, or perhaps hoping an alchie such as myself would make the mistake I did.
It’s 10am on a Tuesday morning and I’m hoping this will be the low-point of my week. It’s certainly the most humiliating thing that has happened to me since I’ve had no official residence for the past few months, and maybe the most humiliating thing that has happened during my 37 years of life.
When people walk by me, they see a desperate, rootless wino. They have no idea I have a degree from Oxford or I’ve worked in some of the world’s biggest banks and made vaguely flirtatious small talk with their CEOs while secretly wanting to kill myself. I’m glad they don’t know. I’m embarrassed about the opportunities I’ve thrown away. How did I get here? Depending on how kind I am to myself, the answer is: my love of booze and drugs (if I’m honest) or my relentless desire to please (if I’m letting myself off the hook).
Despite a fucked-up childhood involving an alcoholic parent who attempted suicide the night before my RE GCSE, I was bright (and precociously so). My teachers hinted this could be my vehicle through which to leave behind my working-class roots.
I dealt with imposter syndrome by fucking around and getting fucked
Dreaming spires were never what I wanted, but I applied because I enjoyed being at the centre of things and, when I was accepted, I liked the vicarious attention. People imagined I had a bright future… Until then, I’d been the awkward weirdo cool people avoided at parties. My family was so proud when I was accepted. I secretly knew it wasn’t right. I wasn’t the type to hobnob with leading academics, but I couldn’t let down my family. So began the habit of pretending to be someone else.
When I got to Oxford, things were as I’d feared. The course was fantastic if you deserved to be there. I didn’t. I was never the one to have flashes of inspiration during tutorials. My working-class background showed. People were too polite to mention it, but it showed. I dealt with imposter syndrome by fucking around and getting fucked. Plenty of the guys I met were awkward virgins. At 18, they worshipped any woman who’d sleep with them, now they’re Google or Facebook bigwigs who casually fuck their assistants. I also started drinking heavily and doing a lot of cocaine.
In a rare sensible moment, I visited the college psychological services. The psychologist told me people often don’t realise their future is written in their childhood. Life is like a film: at certain points, you can press fast forward and the inevitable happens. Did she know I’d be approaching middle age as a homeless alchie? I never went back so I didn’t get the chance for more insights. I knew I’d move to London and live some Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle as a graphic designer while having the dark brooding intellect to write a novel capturing the zeitgeist of my generation.
Throughout the years, I became increasingly disenchanted by the London dream. I was single and had no savings while my friends were hitting one milestone after another.
Eighteen months ago, I lost yet another job… probably because I was checked out at work. A guy I’d been dating from Leeds asked me to move back with him. I worried he didn’t know what a fucked-up mess I was. Would the drunken me be as charming on a Wednesday morning as a Saturday night? I accepted, nonetheless, because I didn’t have another option. Almost immediately, it was clear it was a mistake. He couldn’t handle the magnitude of my unhappiness and I don’t blame him. We bickered constantly and he didn’t trust me.
My boyfriend evicted me on Halloween after my drug use ruined the day. We’d really been looking forward to Halloween as a fresh start so decorated the whole house, but I secretly took cocaine. He began frantically tearing the decorations down — as if to say, he wanted rid of me too.
My first thought was to go to the council. I assumed I’d get emergency housing. The woman I spoke to was clearly doing her best, but beaten down by the relentless string of heart-breaking stories. She asked me if I had any children. No. Did I have a connection to Leeds? No. I moved here with a bloke who now loathes me. Would my ex-boyfriend physically block me from returning? Probably not. Apparently, this made me none-priority. This was when reality hit me. I had nowhere to go.
He expected sex and had no idea how desperate I was for somewhere to sleep
With hardly any money coming in, I became an expert in the art of ATM roulette. I’d memorise by heart which cashpoints would pay out even if I had a less-than-zero balance.
Hygiene is also one of the worst issues while sleeping rough. Without money, my period was especially tough. All women have done the toilet paper tampon. Without anywhere to sleep, I not only didn’t have tampons but found it hard to get my hands on loo roll to construct makeshift feminine hygiene products. Menstrual blood spilled on to my already dirty clothes and crusted over. I decided to look at it like those naughty strands you get at the top of a lovely bit of the merlot. But, I was still mortified to go into public places.
A few nights I stayed with a guy I’d previously had a fling with. He expected sex and had no idea how desperate I was for somewhere to sleep. Zoning out while he shagged me felt like less hassle than a debate about Universal Credit.
Council-run facilities were my sanctuary. If you don’t ask questions, the staff won’t bother you. But libraries tend to close at five and you can only linger so long in a shop without the security guard starting to follow you like you’re about to nick Kopparberg cider.
Most of my problems could have been solved, or at least helped, if I’d asked friends or family for help. I just kept remembering how impressed they were when I got my Oxford acceptance letter. I worried they’d get some kind of schadenfreude over how I’ve fucked up all the opportunities I’ve had.
One night, I had the inspiration to try hospital A&E departments. The staff are normally too harassed to notice the homeless person. The only time a nurse spoke to me was to offer me a glass of water and explain where the cordial was if I needed a drink. Most family members there at three am give off the impression they are experiencing the worst night of their lives. The trick is not to linger too long in one area. If I ever felt close to being discovered, I’d move to another floor or waiting room.
On the nights I slept in parks, I kept my laptop with me, but made sure I slept on top of it
Amazingly, I did get some freelance graphic design work during this time. The one thing I took when I walked out on my boyfriend was my laptop so I could use the internet if I snuck into libraries or shopping centres. I wonder if any of the editors who got snotty with me had any idea I was sleeping rough.
I started to wander through parks and search for discarded bottles or cans. It’s a gamble, though. There’s a chance of fresh alcohol, but you could get a mouthful of maggot-type flies. On the nights I slept in parks, I kept my laptop with me but made sure I slept on top of it. That way, anyone who wandered by wouldn’t suspect I had anything thing to steal — or, at least, this was my logic. The etiquette of sleeping rough was new to me.
Things are now looking up. A cousin who lives in the area found out about my situation and offered me her sofa and I’ve put myself on the council house waiting room. I’m still taking cocaine, but not as often.
I’m also looking for a full-time job, which is one of the reasons I wanted to remain anonymous. However PC employers want to be, I’m not sure how they would feel if they googled me and found this article.
I keep wondering how this all fits together. I can’t help but replay a game of I Have Never I played with my Oxford contemporaries at 18 in our first-year rooms. Have you ever had sex in the college gardens? Have you done whichever drug was cool circa 2002? I came last and confirmed my status as the dullest person.
Fast forward 15 years: what would I ask the coterie of successful professionals my friends became? Have you ever drank a stranger’s piss, would be my coup de grace. Have you ever slept with a man you had no interest in for somewhere to sleep? Pretty sure I’d win, but it’d be the most depressing victory ever for a 37-year-old.