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Chloe-Louise’s blog

An estranged student shares her story about the struggles she’s faced.

Chloe-Louise's blogEstranged students are united by our tragic and premature independence. While many students find themselves in this position due to being orphaned or disowned, my own estrangement was a ‘choice’ and consequence of my upbringing and treatment, and how the rest of my family dealt with that.

University has always been my endgame. I had never once considered not aiming for that goal, but I often doubted if I would ever get there. University, for me, was to be the start of my life beginning to improve. I would be able to leave my abusive family home, where I had been trapped for the last 17 years.

Estrangement for myself began while I still lived with my parents, and although we were physically close, living together, the bond that others feel is ‘normal’ and natural was not there. Fuelled by their mental illness and alcohol addiction, our emotional attachment was damaged by age 9. There was never any support from them: not for the bullying I endured, the anxiety I faced, the depression I went through. I was simply a live-in carer. I was given their variety of ever-escalating wounds and hospital trips to fix. I adapted to thrive in these high-stake environments because it was all I ever knew. I realised I was the strongest person there and had to do what I could even if they wouldn’t return the favour.

Still, I was luckier than most. I had a bedroom with a door I could shut, I was made breakfast and dinner if my dad was feeling friendly and I was given £2 on a school day to buy an allday bus ticket. I saved this money (as well as birthday and Christmas money, or if my gran won at the bingo) to buy myself things later, usually things to try and build friendships. If money wasn’t hidden it was stolen to pay for drinks or debts.

When I was young and naïve, there were visits to and from my extended family. Invitations to things that made me feel connected to them. My mum and her sister used to swap as hosts each Christmas. My dad’s sisters would have us round for meet ups and dinners. This all stopped as my parents became more consumed by alcohol addiction. Eventually I too stopped spending Christmas or special holidays with them. And as the alcoholism got worse as years went on, so did their (and therefore my) disownment from the rest of my family.

My gran was the only person I fully trusted to be there for me, she was my first friend and the most important person in my young life. Any emotional stability I have, any strength, it came from her. As I awaited my 6th year results that would determine my future, I moved into my grans flat. It was only a temporary solution as she was elderly and living together wouldn’t work long-term, but it was a cathartic experience and helped with the next transition.

And then, at 4am one long night in 2014, I got into Strathclyde University to study Psychology! I immediately set in motion the request to move into student accommodation to escape my predicament. I had to go to a special meeting where I told them about my parental circumstances. I was given my pick of student accommodation, at full price. I picked a more expensive and newer accommodation because I was looking to experience life outside of poverty for the first time. I wanted a place that friends wouldn’t judge if I brought them over, and I regret that I felt this level of shame.

I was living entirely off SAAS financial support in student accommodation, and as my depression became very severe, I couldn’t get a job. My parents had stopped helping me financially when I was very young - I had learned that asking for money, even when it was for compulsory school activities, was shameful. It meant however that I was used to living on a small budget.

After rent, I had around £200 (usually less) left to live off per month. Looking back, I wish I had felt comfortable asking for help from the discretionary fund, but I was in denial over how bad things were as I fought for the happiness and financial security I longed for. I thought leaving my abusive environment would instantly improve things, but as I sat in my accommodation, the reality of how alone I was really set in. It created a vacuum that consumed me and I realised that wherever I lived, it wasn’t going to change anything. I was offered and accepted: counselling, invitations to study skills, and extensions for coursework, but my mental illness was too overwhelming, and I hid from university until I had to take a voluntary suspension.

While on suspension, I was given priority housing from my local council, which gave me a flat where I would otherwise be homeless or back in an abusive environment. They gave me a lot of my furniture as well as part of the welfare fund, but I wouldn’t have been entitled to any of it if I had still been a student. I was very lucky, and I lived in this flat for the next 3 years once I returned to university in 2015. Unfortunately, it was two minutes around the corner from my mum and dad. Thankfully it was also close to my friends and my gran. As I’m sure you can imagine, it was an emotionally confusing time.

In May of 2018 after my 3rd year, I decided to move back to Glasgow. I found a flat that myself and my friend loved and we moved in together. But excitement turned to dread when it came time to get the compulsory guarantor, I had no one. I was presented a dilemma – paying 6 months upfront or convincing my friend’s dad, who had never met me, to be a guarantor. In the end, I paid the 6 months to stop the overwhelming anxiety – money that I only had because of a recent bereavement. I know other students in my position would just not have access to this amount of funds, because if not for sad circumstances neither would I.

For the past 4 years in university, I have had a mentor to monitor my progress on a week by week basis, and other help such as extra time in exams from the disability service. This is all much-needed help that I’m grateful to have been given, but it was largely due to my mental illness. With mental illness and unstable estrangement, my degree has taken a large hit. I’ve missed deadlines, been exhausted for exams, been nearly getting kicked out. The only thing that has helped me is the support and special circumstances that I was entitled to because of my mental illness.

Over the years – and recently with the death of my mother - a hard thing that I’ve struggled to come to terms with is that I had no connection with my parents to mourn. No love to fall back on. A lot of estranged students feel abandonment and pain from losing the relationships they treasured, but for me there was always disconnection from a parental bond. I was told from a young age various stories and reasons why I wasn’t wanted or wasn’t bonded with. Eventually, all I was left with was a sadness for what I never had that created even more distance, even at times when seas were calmer between us.

As the years went on, my Gran’s decline was more evident too. The natural progression of time began to take hold on her mind in varying ways, until she both was and wasn’t the person who had been my best friend. She is now in a nursing home that I can’t simply walk to whenever I feel like seeing her, and she has no phone to pester me every day on how I am. When she does call or I do visit, she is no longer the person that was my world and it hurts to admit that.

Now as a final year student about to begin the rest of my life, I live in fear. What will my children say, when all the other kids talk of their grandparents and aunts and uncles, when all I have to offer is a few close friendships that I’ve hopefully still maintained. Will they resent me, resent my partner, because we are both excluded from family? Will I fail at university and end up living in the poverty I was trying to escape? Is my fate to be another mentally ill alcoholic?

These are some of the daily thoughts I am struggling to come to terms with as university ends. It’s an uncertainty that cannot be answered. But I am proud of myself because I persevered, and that I will graduate with good friends.

Recently, I got an offer to attend an event at parliament to discuss and raise awareness of estrangement by sitting on a panel with my peers. I volunteered because I wanted to use my stubborn voice to do some good – something I’ve always been passionate about. The day I was to go to parliament was a bad day with my mental health. I almost didn’t attend, but I’m so glad I did. The simple act of talking with others who understood the big and small things that come from estrangement energised me, and it lifted me out of the dark that night.

On more than a personal level though, it was eye opening to hear it discussed by government officials as something that was only now coming to their attention – while most of us on the panel had been estranged for up to 10 years. It highlighted how far we still need to come to fight for simple rights for estranged students like accommodation, guarantors.

While listening to one of my fellow panellists talk of his struggles to become an independent student to receive any SAAS, I was hit by the realisation that most estranged students had major problems with finance. Either they were left receiving a shortfall in money to cover their living costs, because the reality of the support offered did not match their parental means assessment now they were estranged, or gaining more debt as if they had chosen to be independent this young, to support themselves this young. It is a fact that estranged students who are classified as independent of their household, are entitled to a lesser percentage of bursary than students with parental support on their SAAS form. How is this fair?

Things need to improve for estranged students. I am no expert on what all needs to be done, but at the very least, we need to be acknowledged and widely known as a vulnerable group. Estranged students need to receive the help that similar groups, such as care-experienced students, receive – not to give us an advantage, but to make it even ground. Many of us were missed by the care services, but our family disadvantage is just as acute.

Even something as simple as discounted accommodation, or specific free accommodation for the very worst of us who are made homeless. When I called the advice hub about my guarantor situation, they thought the university had a policy in place where they could be a guarantor, but then learned that this had been taken away. Why? We still need you. To aide with this, I have founded a society within my university union – Estranged Students of Strathclyde. Along with the other two Strathclyde panellists, we are aiming to create a safe space for estranged students to meet, to talk and share tips.

Government and universities have the power to do something better for people like us, and the only way to truly do that is not to talk for us but to know us. We need to reduce the shame that estranged students can feel so that they feel comfortable in self-identifying in the open so that we can see real numbers of just how many are affected – I would gamble my degree it will be a lot. Supportive family relationships are far from guaranteed and our education system needs to reflect this. 

Chloe-Louise - 26 Jun 2019