Christmas in Care by Kerrie Portman

*Trigger Warning: Mention of Abuse*

I was reading a Christmas book last December, where one of the main characters was, like me, struggling to get into the Christmas spirit. After finishing a chapter where the heroine is taken to buy a Christmas tree by a handsome man, I went to buy my own tree because I don’t need a man due to being a) a lesbian and b) a feminist. Along with the tree, I bought a deep red stocking, the top lined with soft white fur and adorned with an elegant ‘K’. After I bought my stocking, I filled it with presents for myself, the head of a chocolate reindeer and candy snowman peeping out. I carried my Christmas tree home alone and decorated it myself, trying to ignore that my landlord is evicting me the same week of Christmas because I’m a Care Leaver. I grew up in Care. It’s miserable and it’s especially miserable around the holidays that are known for families, presents and company. 

I remember one year, before I was taken into Care or Social Services were involved, when I was still young enough to believe in Santa. It was the first year after my grandmother passed away from cancer and my mum moved my sister and I in with our dad several months earlier, who we didn’t properly know. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with him, between my autism, selective mutism and his abuse. I felt the strain of pressure to spend time at home with my ‘family’ when I didn’t want to. My dad had a very particular view on how he wanted certain events to go, becoming heartstoppingly terrifying if someone didn’t play their part. It was as though he expected some events, like Christmases, to run like a play, as though what others saw was entirely separate from reality. A performance under a blinding spotlight with punishment for an unconvincing actor. Far from the excitement a kid should feel approaching Christmas, I felt dread at having to spend a day with my dad. That was the first Christmas Santa didn’t come. I didn’t mention it that morning, too frightened to do anything other than play the part of the youngest daughter. About halfway through the day, my dad pulled me just outside the front of the house and told me in a low menacing voice Santa hadn’t come because I was naughty. As a confused, devastated little girl I burst into tears that night, holding them in until the night so as to end the performance well. As a kid, I didn’t doubt my dad. It took me a long time to doubt him, so long in fact a part of me believed Santa was real into adulthood, questioning if people had only told me he wasn’t to spare my feelings. 

Christmases didn’t exactly improve while I was in Care. During one I was in a Children’s Home where the staff grew more abusive while the managing department was away. Then too, more so even, Christmas was a time of fear and loneliness. In the Children’s Home and Social Services, they liked to blame us, and tell us the heart-breaking situations we were in were our fault. The manager of the Children’s Home often told me it was my fault I was in Care because my mum didn’t love me enough. Social Services told me it was my fault I was sexually assaulted by a Support Worker they paid. Shortly before my last Christmas in Care, my Social Worker at the time broke my heart, and I spent that Christmas tearful – in a state of depression that never lifted.

As a Care Leaver, I didn’t get any Christmas presents most of my adult life. Last year, a friend posted me one, which made my holidays and I couldn’t stop smiling after receiving it. It was also the first Christmas I’d moved to somewhere I wanted to live, the first and only place that ever felt like home, that I’ve loved and been proud to live in. I wore matching Santa hats with my cat and I dedicated a fair amount of time that year to creating some Christmas traditions I wanted to make, including; decorating a gingerbread house, reading ‘A Christmas Carol’, going for a walk and laying flowers by the church’s graveyard for a Support Worker I’d known who’d passed away on Christmas. 

Last year, at twenty three, I tried to ignore that it was the week I was becoming homeless for the second time in a year. I bought and decorated a Christmas tree, hanging fairy lights to keep the darkness at bay. 

Being in Care, and a Care Leaver can be lonely. It can be hard at the best of times, but especially around celebrations. When I achieve something or it’s a holiday, my childhood social worker, essentially the woman who raised me, is still the first person I want to be with and I still cry without her. Christmas can be harder than personal celebrations because, not only is there my personal emotions, but I’m constantly reminded of the image of the ideals of Christmas, whether that be the capitalist ideal or the idea of family being the most important gift. Normally, I love the month of December – the decorations, twinkling lights, novelty Christmas jumpers and glowing atmosphere of generosity and hospitality – but have hidden and avoided the actual day. Last year was the first time I embraced the day and fitting my life into my own little Christmas. The lights on the Christmas tree twinkle, reflecting off the decorations, the glass penguins and jingling bells. 

I’ve been reading a lot of books this January. Most were text books, one was about a loveable dog and another was about complex people. I bought another tree. This tree I bought for the National Trust, to breath more life into the world. When the National Trust’s website asked me if it was for a celebration or occasion, I said it was, and selected ‘love’ from the drop down menu. I’m a Care Leaver. I grew up in Care. It’s miserable and I wish I hadn’t have been, but I also want to be better than those who abused me.

Follow Kerrie on Instagram @kerrieportman

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