We celebrate survival

Today has been hard, I’ve ignored calls from friends. Called back and cried. I’ve tried to make sense of my feelings and to remind myself that this too shall pass. I am currently sat on my bed with the world shut out by the curtains, accompanied only by the Cadbury Dairy Milk at my side.

Yesterday I submitted my dissertation, although I had never go to the stage of planning anything to mark the occasion,  lockdown and social restrictions subsequently made that impossible. Yesterday was something I have envisioned for three years. Within an hour of submitting work which took me to some very dark places over three years, I was in bed asleep. I felt so relieved to get it over with. I woke up this morning and felt sad, the analytical characteristics which have been ingrained into my thinking have stirred up some tough recognitions.  The only praise and recognition I received yesterday was from social media. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of you I really like, and most of you have really supported me over the years, which I think you all know, I appreciate and care deeply about. But what has struck me is the realisation that this space, for people with lived experience, is lonely. It’s lonely and it’s hard.

Over three years I have worked within a discipline that studies the very systems which create and sustain oppression. Systems which misattribute success and displace failure. Systems which encourage and accept our invisibility and voicelessness. I’ve worked hard over three years to not let anger indulge me and impact on my ability to advocate and work towards equality. The subtle anger has always been there, it is the underpinning concept of my endurance.  This anger and endurance belongs only to me. I don’t know what I was expecting yesterday, or today, or this weekend, to mark one of the biggest milestones in my life. But, it certainly wasn’t tears of sadness, feelings of isolation and the need to withdraw. But this is the reality of the lives of criminalised women who give up their anonymity in the pursuit of social justice.

I once wrote about being a kid, and going to another kids who, who had one of those big American style freezers which have an ice dispenser at the front. My dad was late picking me up and I was so embarrassed of my own house and knew I’d never be inviting that kid over to my house, after that night I just didn’t talk to her any more. We were different, we had different lives and I couldn’t make friends with people like that. Now, I wonder for those kids, who follow the footsteps of their families, and their peers into university, what they did to mark their educational milestones. I wonder who supported them, guided them and helped them. I wonder who was telling them they were proud of them. I wonder if those kids wrote their dissertations without speaking a word about it within their homes. I wonder if they submitted their work and then went home to bed without talking about it to their loved ones.

The stark reality of where I come from really hit me, when I considered the biggest endurance tests of my life so far. Prison and university. Ironically, my release from prison was marked by a welcome home cake, a big surprise family meal, flowers, cards and the like. So, despite my academic success and the utilisation of my lived experiences into a meaningful career. My personal life is still in a place where we celebrate releases from prison but have no ritual for actual achievement. What we do is celebrate survival. We celebrate survival because survival is all we have ever known. So, although I am feeling quite deflated, I need to mark this occasion. Reflection is so important, and while a part of me feels hurt that this milestone is somewhat neglected at home. I need to remember that we haven’t had any practice in this. People like me rarely get here. The odds are still stacked against us.

Perhaps I am lacking clarity in thought and in my writing, what am I saying here? Not for a minute should this be taken that I wish for a different response at home. Had I have not had my life experiences, I would never have even got here. Those gave and give me purpose, drive and ambition. I guess my point is, for the marginalised, our successes are not validated through academic achievement. Our successes are validated through the school of life. Through surviving trauma and just keeping on with it.

What does ‘resting’ and ‘celebrating’ mean for us, when our celebrations are of prison release dates and abstinence birthdays? Perhaps I succumbed to middle class thinking when fantasising about celebration of completing higher ed, only to be confronted with the harsh realities of my underclass position as the council estate, school excluded, naughty girl. The girl who survives and just keeps on, because that is all she has ever known.

Is there a point to this blog, not really. I just wanted to create something that captures this feeling, as best as I can in this moment.  I was thinking about the concept of celebrating, and then I thought about what I would be celebrating, when the conclusion of my work over three years ended with a recognition of structural and societal dominance over criminalised women’s lives. The inequalities, oppression and systemic violence which often leads us to prison in the first place. This is the shit that keeps us in places of prison release dates and abstinence birthdays as validation of our success. Maybe the celebratory discourse for me is harmful, and it led to me recognising why it hasn’t happened. We just keep on, keeping on. Surviving.

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