I am sitting here feeling quite brave today, ready to share with you my darkest secrets in the hope that it may help someone, somewhere. Why “now” is the time, I have no idea, but I have been feeling it on my heart lately that publishing my story may be “for such a time as this”...
To the dear readers who are familiar with Ladies Like Us, you will already know part of my story, so too, those who may have pieced together parts here and there from other blog posts or interviews. But I wanted a place to tell you everything, ‘warts and all’. Someplace permanent, whereby those new to this blog, and those who have been friends for a while now can get to know me a little better. I think it’s important for you to know these things, because the mission of what I do here would have a missing piece of the puzzle otherwise, and it’s why, I think, some people who look upon my message negatively take such offence to it. They are missing a vital point!
We live in a world of people that love to hide the parts of themselves that are less than perfect, and we hold other people to such high standards that in today’s age it’s rare for us to expose ourselves so vulnerably, but today I’m going to do just that. I’m going to confess to you the darker elements of my past, so that you have a clearer idea of just how and why I grew into the woman I am today, and why I’m so passionate that women should have the confidence to live how they wish, especially when it’s considered so counter-cultural today.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way perfect, nor do I have it all together, but I’ve journeyed quite a way so far, and want to share how I have learned to look for love and light, rather than dwell in a dark place (in both heart, mind, and out in the real world).
I’m acutely aware that this will also be a bit of a love it/hate it post, as I know not all of you have the same spiritual beliefs as me. My intention is not to convert, or indoctrinate you, but merely to encourage you that life can be different, and that you can make a positive change if you want to, and be truly free! You can forgive, and be forgiven… I’ll go easy on the “Christianese”.
So here we go, are you ready?
I wasn’t raised a Christian, but I always felt God in my life…
...and perhaps what he wanted for me too. The 90s was a happy time for me, I grew up on the outskirts of London, and despite my parents having separated when I was four, my mother’s side of the family were very close. I didn’t see my Dad that often after my parents had split, probably because he had actually raised me as a step-child (a fact I didn’t learn until I was older), but the relationship between my parents was still friendly. They had me aged 19, got married young, and as you can imagine, they grew into different young adults, and then apart romantically.
Despite things being amicable with my parents, and my relationship with my Dad always having been a positive one, this shaped my later issues with abandonment and relationships with men, but more on that later…
My early childhood and family life on the whole, with my aunts, my grandparents, and extended family was lovely. We lived in London but it had a very “slow” feel, with lots of gardening, “escaping to nature”, sewing, home cooking, preserving, and many, many camping trips. Even “composting” was a thing in our home, before it became a thing. We also have a very (if not completely) Scandinavian influence in our family culture, with lots of pagan traditions, that while not worshipped in any sort of spiritual sense, are still observed and followed.
“Religion” just wasn’t a thing, and the only exposure I had to faith of any sort was at primary school. West London is very multicultural, and I grew up among a cacophony of culture. My school friends were Sikhs, Muslim, Jews, Christians, Mormons, Jehovahs, and a whole lot of kids who didn’t profess to have any faith at all - myself among them.
Yet, I couldn’t shake the curiosity and love for the songs I sang and stories I listened to in assembly every day - it wasn’t even a faith school! We celebrated every faith holiday there, but for some reason this Jesus character who was mentioned frequently really struck a chord with me. Being so young however, I just believed at the time that God was a man in the sky who loved me, I believed he was there, and would even “pray” at night, but thought nothing more of it. I didn’t have a proper relationship, guidance, or know anything about being a “Christian”, and while I wouldn’t say I would have been actively discouraged from talking about it at home, it just wasn’t something I felt comfortable expressing because of the indifference my family feel towards it, and I so desperately wanted to belong… Despite the love and acceptance, I aways felt like a bit of an outsider among them, I felt different.
An identity torn to smithereens
I realised why I felt so different at 11 years old when a big secret was suddenly revealed to me by someone in the family.
My Mum had gotten pregnant at the age of 19 to a man who was 10 years her senior, a man so kind, that upon hearing the news, upped and left to go back home to New Zealand where he still lives to this day. Too late in her pregnancy to ’do anything about it’, and wanting to keep me, she resolved to raise me alone, but mid-way through her pregnancy met a young chap, who, even though knowing she was pregnant with another man’s child, decided to commit himself anyway.
I was raised as his child, but after he and my Mum separated I pined very hard for a man who, unbeknown to me, wasn’t really my biological father. The family probably felt I was too young to know the truth, and the secret just grew and grew. With my Mum being so young and now a single mother, she relied heavily on my grandparents to take care of me while she went to work, so in a way, I felt like I had no parents. I had to be cared for, but I was a child who hadn’t been planned and deep down I felt that.
With no siblings or cousins, it was a bit of a lonely childhood by all accounts. I just wanted a constant home, with consistent and present people in it. I wanted more than anything to have some stability, to be wanted, and to create and enjoy life, not have it happen to me.
It’s funny, because from the moment I was told the truth about my father, it explained so much. It explained why I felt the way I did, why my Dad hardly saw me, why he found it so easy to emigrate to Australia and leave me behind. The truth you see, set me free! Our whole family had been held in a bondage of a white-lie, that while it could be considered kind, actually set me back.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a pity party, my parents and family are wonderful, they all did their best in raising me, and there is lots of love there - but a child’s circumstances growing up shapes them emotionally and carves their self-identity into them. Mine was “unwanted, and unworthy of love”.
Fast forward a few years, I was now in the first year of secondary school having experienced the Britpop and Spice Girl age, fully shaping me into that late 90s typical “girl power” pre-teen. What I took from Scary, Sporty, Ginger (my fav), Posh, and Baby was an excitement to control my destiny. It’s just that my plans weren’t career-focused ones, which was SO NOT COOL.
The first year of secondary school was a rocky one. I was always a bit of an “odd” child in that my upbringing and it’s slower simpler way of life likely stood out among the cooler street wise kids. I didn’t get on with girls my age really, as my interests have always (and still are) those that people usually settle into in middle age. I’d love visits to garden centres, often watching Gardeners’ World with my grandparents, I liked to stay home, and was always knee-deep in ponds catching frogs, or at the bottom end of the garden marvelling at what my Grandfather was growing. I loved to read, and was a bit of an introvert. A quiet, sensitive girl. Sure, I liked the usual trendy toys like my Skip-It, Saturday morning cartoons, and bands like Take That, but I wasn’t trying to be cool and shed my childhood too quickly.
I was the slightly nerdy one, with unkempt hair, dressed in ugly jumpers and leggings, always nursing a bird or hedgehog I’d found in trouble. I particularly loved making rooms with empty shoe boxes, with those little white “tables” you’d get with your pizza, and upending champagne cork cages and wrapping them with cling film to make a bin. Perhaps most people did this, but I was happy that I got to play house for slightly longer once I was considered too old for my play kitchen, favourite dollies, and Barbie’s Dream House - who, by the way, always hosted dinner parties, went on dates with Prince Eric, babysat Shelly, and did her housework. Mine didn’t “have a career”.
My love was always the pursuit of making a home and spending time in it. I did well at school too, without trying particularly hard, and all these things, these “wholesome” things make you a target - as I would find out in unexpected ways.
My first experience of bullying was with a girl who befriended me, then came to my house to hang out, and the very next day wanted to beat me up. At the time I couldn’t figure out why, but in hindsight I think it was because our home was lovely, and sadly, her’s was not. She also picked on me for “being a swot”. I was crushed, and I hated confrontation… so I crept into my shell and was quite unhappy.
After that unsettling year, Mum decided she wanted a new start for us, so we packed up our belongings, and left London for Cheltenham. We moved into a lovely house, and I started attending the large comprehensive school in Cheltenham, and this is when I had my first real encounter with God.
My Mum made a new friend who had a daughter a year older than me. This girl was also quite interested in doing well at school, and seemed quite happy in her skin for someone her age. I idolised her and she took me under her wing. One summer weekend when I was 13, I was invited to her house for a sleepover. I’ll never forget it, not because I learned to cook spaghetti bolognese for the first time, or because we tried to copy the dance moves to a brand new song “Baby one more time” by Britney Spears, but because the next morning… we went to Church!
Not just any Church, but a very loud happy-clappy, people on their knees in the aisles, speaking in tongues, Pentecostal Church.
It. Was. Mind blowing.
I distinctly remember the alter call. My feet going before my brain, feeling embarrassed, but going up anyway - My heart carried me. I distinctly remember having someone praying over me and asking them to pray for me to “keep being a Christian”, and then…
Nothing. We grew apart from these friends, and I never had the opportunity to go to Church again, so I squirrelled away the experience in my heart, confused about the way it had made me feel, and upset that something that seemed so nice wasn’t something I was allowed to have. Belonging and being part of a community or big family was for other people.
Sex, drugs, rock and roll, feminism, and me.
Teenage years made life a heck of a lot more interesting and distracted me from myself. We moved to a village just outside of Tewkesbury, my mother now in a romantic relationship with a man with a very nice house, a fancy lifestyle, and three teenage children (including some very influential twin girls a year older than me). Instant family! Or not.
Those years, were not pleasant. I’m so very thankful for the wonderful opportunities, the roof over my head, and the lessons that shaped me, but emotionally it was like living in a constant hurricane. My mother’s time was now taken up with raising four teenagers, two of which created a lot of drama and distraction for her, often leaving me to fend for myself because I was “doing ok”, and my new step-dad wasn’t interested in me at all. A house full of people that felt very lonely indeed. I was provided for in every way except emotionally.
Couple this with hormones, a desire to feel loved, and a penchant for blonde boys with floppy hair - and you get… teenage sex.
The attention and love I couldn’t find at home, was found in friends, and boys. My group of friends at secondary school were absolutely amazing, but my lack of understanding of myself and my focus on boys was just a bit messy. All teenage girls want to be fancied and have a boyfriend but I was desperate for male attention. I’d never had it, or if I did, it was negative, or never for long, but it didn’t matter, I wanted it, and I would try really hard to win approval. You can just imagine what I got up to.
This was the case right up until I met my husband. The amount of inappropriate relationships I had, was staggering. I had some “stable” relationships too, but I treated my boyfriends like crap because they would disappoint me. I had hardened myself, in the name of “feminism” to expect them to treat me like a princess but gave them very little in return. Sex and the City, and all the glossy magazines at the time taught me that men were stupid, and to be toyed with.
There was a complete lack of positive examples to look to for relationship advice, and a culture in the media that sold an idea that independence was the aim of the game, and “girl power at any cost” created a lot of unanswered questions inside me that I was too scared to confront. This new me that I had grown into didn’t feel like it aligned with what the younger me had wanted for her adult self at all.
I wanted to be wholesome and pure like Mandy Moore and get married young like Jessica Simpson, but I was acting Dirrty like Christina instead. Where did it all go wrong?
Nothing changed about my self-identity or behaviour as I got older, and soon I was working in an industry dominated with women who were vicious to one another. It all felt incredibly glamorous with the beauty, the fashion, the photoshoots, and came with a hectic lifestyle portrayed well in all the movies of the time, but it was a very empty and exhausting existence. You were only as good as your last idea, you got ahead if you were pretty, unless you were over 30 you were considered expendable, and were by default treated like dirt in exchanged for the “opportunity to work here, hundreds of girls are begging for your job”. The devil really did wear Prada, or at least, in my experience, powdered her nose often.
I took my made up face to parties, but the misery of it all lingered at the bottom of my latest handbag, and I couldn’t cut the label of shame off, despite how often I bought new clothes with money I didn’t have.
I trod all over people’s feelings in my stiletto shoes too. Self destruction won over self care, because it was easier to ignore the mess rather than trying to deal with it. I lied often to cover up my shameful behaviour.
I didn’t care about anyone, or myself. The emptiness and lack of direction and feeling like I was worthy of anything good happening to me was too loud to ignore for long. I desperately wanted to be loved, but I didn’t love myself. I was living a life that I hadn’t chosen, and felt too powerless to escape. I felt dirty, and unlovable and there was no way to fix it.
So I sought solace in alcohol, cigarettes, casual sex, and often times, the recreational use of cocaine.
I was a very long way from the young girl who liked wholesome things and dreamed of a family. I kept her sedated, and was really embarrassed by her. She had no place showing up in 2005! Her ideas were dumb and people never get the fairytale anyway.
Then I finally got my fairytale, but the nightmare didn’t end
I met my husband through work, and it was a passionate affair right from the off. We loved each other instantly, and I fell hard, but we fought like cat and dog! In hindsight we now look back and realise that we struggled to make relationships work because neither of us had positive examples growing up. Society at the time (and still now) teaches you how to go on dates and seize the day. It’s easy to run around and have fun, date, go on romantic getaways, send flowers, and go out for a fancy dinner - but when you come across the tough stuff is when you walk away “if it doesn’t serve you”. It’s easier to point fingers, lay blame, and try and fix your partner than look at what needs fixing in you.
We had a tumultuous first few years, but our love for one another kept us clinging on, and in 2012 we welcomed our son. My younger self would have been incredibly disappointed I had a baby out of wedlock, but older me was so desperate to finally have the love and acceptance of a family of her own, and she wanted it now. She wanted it to heal her inner pain. It didn’t fix me, in fact it made it harder.
I struggled adjusting to life as a new Mum, I struggled emotionally with my failure to breastfeed and the shame of that, and I struggled to live quietly at home after a decade of “nightlife” and abusing myself with cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. I even slipped up a few times… and our wedding that finally came 11 months later didn’t even fix my demons!
I had finally had my fairytale dream that I had clung onto for so long. A day that promised to change my life for the better, but I still felt like the villain of the story rather than the protagonist. I felt so low about myself I became a target for a bully once again…
I was bullied as an adult by a grown woman
Funnily enough, I met this girl on Instagram! She had moved to Cheltenham and didn’t know anyone, we were of a similar age and had both worked in the beauty industry, so I thought we’d have things in common. I befriended her, introduced her to my friends, and even invited her to my wedding.
As you do with most friends, you share secrets. I had told her about my past, and she shared that she had also had issues with substance abuse. Things were ok for a while, but I ignored some red flags.
Most of our conversations were of her bitching about some other women I didn’t even know, and while fully used to that in my work and social life - as is the culture - it never made me feel comfortable. The gossiping, and bile this girl spoke about others nudged something in my gut to distance myself from her, but as I hated confrontation I did it as gently as possible. The eventual “unfollowing” of her on Instragram obviously alerted her to the fact that I wanted to end our friendship, and rather than deal with it in a grown up way she went on a one woman mission to bring me down.
She wrote the most awful things on social media about me, sharing the fact that I had done drugs, attacking my character, and shaming me for the world to see.
It hurt, and it broke me, but mostly because it held a mirror up to my life and my behaviour!
It led to what I now know was probably an emotional breakdown, and I was very depressed. I no longer trusted women, I hated myself, I didn’t like my new life because the responsibility of it all meant I couldn’t self-medicate, and I refused to leave the house for weeks on end. With a toddler, this isn’t easy, but I was a shell of a woman and couldn’t face myself let alone the world.
Enter an angel, stage right…
My husband was understandably concerned, I hadn’t socialised for ages, and our poor boy was stuck at home with me every day. So he gently encouraged me to try taking him to a toddler group. This idea frightened the life out of me! Why on earth would I want to walk into a room full of women after what had happened to me? Why would I want to show my face out in the world? I didn’t deserve to be out there, to have any friends, to be liked.
It took several tries to convince me, but I managed to pluck up the courage to go to the nearest group I could find. On that day I made no eye contact with the other women, and I remember moving the toys that my son was interested in playing with to a far corner so that I could sit with him on the floor and avoid people. However, someone had other plans for how that day would turn out.
After a little while I could sense there was a woman walking towards us, my head was down and I did not want to talk, but as low as I was feeling, my Mum had instilled good manners in me so I looked up at this woman, and a bright golden light surrounded her entire body!
She had such a gentle smile, and as she walked towards me I just gawped at her, so confused as to what I was witnessing. It felt like a tidal wave of love, warmth and light had hit me at a million miles an hour, and I couldn’t make sense of it.
“Hello, I’m Elizabeth”.
I still cannot recall the conversation, if there was even much of one, but she invited me to her house for tea the next day. She was much older than me, and again I wondered why on earth she would be interested in spending any time with me, but I felt at ease enough to accept.
My nerves as I walked to her house the next day were so bad that I felt nauseous, even more so when I walked in to find her husband and her elderly Irish mother were also there, but I had accepted so couldn’t very well turn and run, but I desperately wanted to!
They asked about how we came to live in the area, by now over in Gloucester, and suddenly her mother loudly piped up in her thick Irish accent, looked me dead in the eye and said…
“Have you heard about my friend Jesus?”
I kid you not, it was about as cliché as you could get! Suddenly I realised I was being ambushed, but instead of wanting to turn and run like I had just a few minutes ago, I wanted to stay! Something deep inside me made me really want to stay. This was the moment I never knew I needed. Throughout all the low points through my teenage years and early twenties, I had forgotten how I had cried out to God as a child, I had forgotten to pray, and ask for help. I thought I was forgotten, I was alone, and nothing and no one cared and I’d feel this way forever.
“Well, ummm, yes, I’ve heard of him. I think I’ve always believed in God but I don’t know much about it”.
Elizabeth and her husband Alan offered to do a course called ‘Christianity Explored’ with me, but there was just one thing…
What on earth would my husband think?
How I became a Christian
Our lives of sex, drugs, rock and roll, debt, and depression weren’t serving us anymore and I knew we desperately needed a miracle.
I walked back home, pushing the pram with our sleeping boy tucked up safely inside, and went through so many different ways in which I could broach this scary subject with my husband when I got home. Having spent a lifetime desperately seeking approval from men, this one’s approval meant more than anything to me, and I didn’t want to turn him off, or have him shame me with this silly idea of looking into Christianity.
“You could never be a ‘Christian’. That’s what good people do”, I thought. “Why would someone like me, with my dirty past do something like that?”
I got home and told him that I’d had a nice time. I explained that Alan was an Elder at the church where the toddler group was held, and almost whispered that they’d offered to come round for a cup of tea one evening and to look at the Gospel with us.
Waiting with bated breath, expecting him to laugh at me, the response came as somewhat of a shock.
“Yes, I think that would be nice. However if we’re going to do this, I think we should really do this”.
My head was in a total spin! Did my husband, who had lived as fast and loose as I had, really just agree to have some barmy Bible bangers in our house? Life suddenly seemed strange, and I felt a bit different about it, almost hopeful, but I didn’t quite understand why.
The following Wednesday, Elizabeth and Alan arrived. I let them in and showed them to the kitchen table. My husband was settling the baby upstairs, and eventually came down to meet them. He placed a black leather bound book in front of him on the table as I poured the tea.
I managed to catch a glimpse of the writing on the spine, it was a Bible!
In all the years we had lived together I had never sighted this book once, and still to this day it is a mystery to me as to where he hid it for over half a decade.
As Alan went through the Gospel, the man I married quoted Scripture, and definitely knew his way around this surprise Bible. I learned that he had been baptised at the age of 12 and had attended a Baptist Church back in New Zealand. Why had this all been kept a secret from me?
My head in a daze, and trying to absorb what these three people were telling me about this Jesus character, I felt lightheaded. Everything inside me was going haywire, it was excitement, feeling a bit sick, fear, confusion, elation. Every emotion under the sun.
They told me how Jesus had died for me, how my sins could be forgiven, how I could start anew.
Anew? Afresh? A new start? This man who did the most wonderful things loves ME? Despite the fact that he knows WHAT I’ve done? He just wants to me to love and believe in him? He wants me to say I believe and that’s it? All things in the past washed away…
“I do! I do believe, I do, I really do!” Tears streaming down my face. My body shaking uncontrollably, a big smile plastered across my face like a Cheshire cat. My life had changed by just uttering a few words and taking a leap of faith.
“Congratulations Alena, you’re now a Christian. Welcome to the family”. Alan said sweetly.
The tears began really falling now. My heart felt softer, and my brain no longer hurt from confusion and living in fight-or-flight mode. My burden was finally lifted.
My husband also prayed with them, and like the prodigal son, returned to faith that night too.
A brand new beginning
The astonishing change that this one encounter has had on our lives every day since is almost too good to be true. While I own all the past mistakes I made, they no longer hang over me like a dark cloud of shame. In fact, God has asked me to use them for good and share my story so that I can witness to others how I have returned to myself and my dreams.
He gave me those dreams as a girl, to have a family, and be a good wife and mother, and despite veering off course, has shown me the way back to myself and has facilitated the life I dreamed of. He has given me beauty for ashes.
Excited by our brand new start, we decided to find a Church, and one Sunday we went to our local one that looked good for young families… I thought it looked strangely familiar as we walked up the driveway. Yes, it was that Church. The one I was taken to all those years ago and had my very first encounter with God! He had brought me home, like he had brought me back to myself finally.
I finally had a home, a place to belong, and a father - it’s in my identity as His daughter.
I was no longer jealous of the girls who had clean lives, who were happy in their self-identity, who loved themselves and could express love for others. I was finally her. It didn’t matter where I had been, what matters is the path I am walking now. No one can take that from me, no bully in real life, and certainly not those online.
I was Baptised in the Summer of 2015, and from that moment I felt called to share my story, and how Grace has changed my life immeasurably.
No longer a slave to my past, my shame or regrets, I am a new creation and I am thankful every single day that I was never forgotten. That I was loved back into loving myself, just by loving God. All that turmoil I lived through, has such a simple solution.
I hope you too get to experience this kind of love in your life.
Your faithful friend,
Gifts of Grace
My first book Ladies Like Us touches on this transformation, and goes deeper into how I changed my patterns of behaviour, lifestyle, and outlook. While it does mention my faith, it is meant for believers and non-believers alike.
This book was also instrumental in my early walk with faith as I recognised myself in the main character. Sometimes something as simple “storytelling” can change lives for the positive. May this post inspire you to share yours too. Walking in truth, shining light into darkness, and acknowledging that no one is perfect really sets people free. Giving yourself and others grace even more so.
I hope you have enjoyed my story and if it has blessed you in some way, would you kindly consider supporting the blog? I am incredibly grateful to the Patrons of The Darling Academy for their continued encouragement and kindness.
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