Natalie’s Trauma Story: My Childhood Experiences

In my last blog post, I described my 2022 reunion with Natalie, a recovering heroin addict who first inspired me to start writing recovery stories back in the early 2000s. You can read the version of Natalie’s Recovery Story, I Didn’t Plan To Be An Addict, I initially wrote for this website back in 2013 here.

Natalie is now an inspiring senior practitioner in a treatment service and is over 20 years in recovery. In my last blog post, I said that I would describe Natalie’s childhood experiences that led to her becoming traumatised. This section is taken from my eBook Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol Addiction, which contains the latest version of Natalie’s Story.

‘I lived in a rural area with my Mum and Dad and brother and sister. I remember that my Dad would disappear to London for a week or two from time to time. When I was 11 years old, we moved to a city, although my Dad wasn’t there for the actual move. Within five days of the move, he was arrested for drug smuggling.

On the day of his arrest, a friend of mum’s came in a taxi to pick me up from my secondary school, at which I had just started. We then picked up my brother and sister from their primary school, and we all went to the friend’s place until my Mum collected us later. Mum explained that Dad had been arrested. Over the next few days, the story was carried by newspapers and TV. There was film of Dad arriving at court on the television news. Dad’s arrest had apparently been the result of a two-year undercover police operation.

Mum was clearly distressed by Dad’s arrest and by the financial plight we were now in due to our bank accounts being frozen. Moreover, the house was still in a poor state following the move—only half our furniture was there, and the floors were still not carpeted. Mum told us that we were not to talk on the phone to anybody, and when we came home from anywhere we had to ring the doorbell three times as a code.

I later found out that when Mum answered the doorbell on the day of the arrest, she found about 15 police officers in riot gear, many of them pointing guns at her. That experience traumatised her for a long period of time afterwards. We, along with Mum’s friends, continued to ring the doorbell three times every time we came back home for about the next eight years.

Mum went into an autopilot mode in order to ensure that the family ‘survived’. I guess that each of us went into our own world, trying to cope emotionally.

I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was having to go to a new school not knowing anyone, but feeling that everyone knew about what had happened to my family. Every single day, I was extremely anxious about someone finding out that I was the daughter of the ‘evil drug smuggler’ who was written about on the front page of newspapers. It was one of the biggest drug busts in the country at that time, and the papers kept saying that my Dad was the evil mastermind behind the whole operation. To me, my Dad wasn’t evil!

I got so anxious that I used to wake up and pray every morning that no one would mention my Dad or anything about prisons. The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life was to enter my classroom, walk to the back, and sit down at my desk, not knowing who knew what and whether anyone would say anything. As it turned out, nothing was ever said, but I wasn’t to know that then.

My anxiety didn’t lessen over the next two years. I experienced panic attacks when, for example, the teacher said, ‘We’re going to be discussing a case that happened some time ago…’ I started having palpitations, my face turned red, and I felt like I was going to pass out, thinking that someone would suggest my Dad’s case. Of course, I didn’t know then that I was experiencing a panic attack, but I know now. My day-to-day experience of going to school was all about fear.

I became paranoid when I made new friends and was asked over to their house. What might they ask me about my family? And I was very concerned that if any of my new friends found out about my ‘drug-smuggling’ Dad, they would stop coming over to my house. I had no one to talk to about what was happening to me. My brother and sister were at another school, and my Mum had too much on her plate. Everything was magnified in my brain at that age.

And that was just the school side of things. The other side of things involved me having to regularly visit my Dad in prison whilst he was on remand over a two-year period. And having to live through the trial; in fact, two trials. The first trial was abandoned just before completion, because it was said that someone tried to bribe a jury member. We had to wait over ten months for the second trial to commence. Of course, the trials were big news in the newspapers. And then there was the emotional toll of missing my Dad, and not knowing what was going on. To me, he was not the man being portrayed by the media.

Dad was in various prisons when he was on remand. I hated going to the prisons. I found it really boring with all the waiting around. It felt as if some of the prison officers were deliberately trying to make things difficult for us. On one occasion, we waited hours to see my Dad and were then told that he had been moved to another prison an hour earlier.

Looking back now, I realise that Mum was really worried that Dad would harm himself. He was traumatised; in fact, we were all traumatised by the process. My Mum tried to give Dad as much support as possible, which couldn’t have been easy given the scale of the burden she was carrying on her shoulders.

You can imagine the shock that I felt, as a 13-year girl, to hear that my Dad was sentenced to 22 years in prison. 22 years! I couldn’t believe it. It was like a lifetime to me. I would be 35 years old when he came out of prison. When I heard this news, something changed in me. I told myself you may as well just forget about him. I put the walls up and became very guarded.

Visiting was now reduced to once a month. Dad spent time in different prisons—Long Lartin was the best, Durham the worst. When he was in the latter, the four of us would get up early to catch a train to visit him. The trip took most of the day, as we had to keep changing trains. We would arrive in the evening and stay in a bed and breakfast. It always seemed to be cold in Durham.

On the following day, we would catch a bus or taxi to see Dad. There was then a break, during which time we went back into town, and then visited Dad again later. He was classed as a Category A (High Security), Exceptional Risk (E) prisoner, which meant he had to wear distinctive, brightly-coloured yellow and navy clothing—which really upset me—when being moved inside the prison. E-Prisoners were also handcuffed when moved around. Knowing that Dad was categorised in this way made me worry more about how he was being treated in general.

As Dad was an E-prisoner, we saw him in a private room, with one officer present. We were the last of the visitors to see a prisoner because of Dad’s status. I remember all the waiting we experienced, whilst the other visitors were seeing their loved one in the main meeting room. While we were waiting, we could hear the continual banging and locking of cell doors. Dad tried to arrange with the prison officers that his handcuffs were taken off before he entered the room and put on after he left. This didn’t always happen, so we were sometimes distressed to see him in this hand-cuffed state.

Mind you, we were grateful that we could see Dad away from the main visiting area. As we later found out, the main visiting areas in both Durham and Long Lartin were distressing and dysfunctional places to be, particularly for children. Some women were practically having sex with the person they were visiting, and overactive children were running around causing mayhem. We would ask Dad why a particular person was in prison, and although he was evasive, we discovered that the room contained men who had killed or raped someone.

I really didn’t like the prisons and the whole process of visiting my Dad. I worried about travelling on buses with families of murderers and rapists. With screaming babies. And dense smoke from cigarettes. The waiting at the prison gate and then in the prison. The searches by the prison officers. And I was bored. This was not the thing that a 13-year old girl wanted to be doing during her weekends. However, I’d feel guilty if I didn’t visit my Dad.’