Kirsty Strickland: When I was a teenager

CommonSpace columnist Kirsty Strickland explains how she overcame tough personal circumstances to become a rising Scottish political commentator

WHEN I was a teenager, I wanted to be prime minister. I was insistent. I’d talk about it at length to anybody that asked. 

The plan was, I was going to going to university, get a law degree and then somehow edge my way into public life. I was going to become an MP, a minister, and then, inevitably, prime minister one day. 

I didn’t see any barriers to this becoming a reality, in my youthful naivete. I stood for – and won - every student council election and would canvass my fellow pupils – hard. I made badges and would require that everybody wear them to show their support. 

Read more – CommonSpace Page 3: Kirsty Strickland (@kirstystricklan)

I made sure that floating voters – those who weren’t in my immediate social circle, weren’t forgotten about. The moshers, the goths, the smokers and the skaters all were subjected to my cheerful persuasion. I’d tell them why they had to vote for me, and they did. 

They relented so they could get back to their fags and stop the political weirdo - who took student elections far too seriously - from eating into their lunchbreak.

I got good grades at school, but I wasn’t a hard worker. I’d cut corners as much as possible, not apply myself and prefer to wing it rather than study. In truth, I was lazy. Subjects that came easily to me – English, modern studies and history – I succeeded in through my love of the topic, rather than any kind of work ethic. 

Those that I struggled with – maths, science, PE - I was sure weren’t worth my time anyway.

I should have known that my attitude of expecting greatness while not properly applying myself was never going to work out well. And it didn’t. 

When I was 16, I got into a relationship with a much older man. Suffice to say, he was more than a decade older than me, and what I thought was a relationship, was, with hindsight, anything but.

When I was 16, I got into a relationship with a much older man. This tale isn’t one with the purpose of retribution or malice at its heart – so I’m going to be careful not to give any identifying details. But suffice to say, he was more than a decade older than me, and what I thought was a relationship, was, with hindsight, anything but.

It’s important to note that I was a willing and active participant. I’m older now, and a very angry feminist, and I can say categorically – I wasn’t groomed or coerced. I loved him and wanted him, probably long before those feelings were reciprocated. That isn’t to say that I don’t now recognise how damaging and irresponsible his behaviour was. 

He was a proper, fully-grown adult – I was still at school and not much more than a child.

When it first started, I felt like I’d had all the air taken out of me, such was the force of the love and devotion I felt for him. It was all-consuming, intoxicating and maddening. My plans to become prime minister were tossed to the wayside. 

My exams and dreams of being the first in my family to go to university were forgotten about. He was my entire world and nothing else mattered apart from the time I spent with him, and the in-between time of planning when I’d next see him.

When it ended, as these unbalanced and toxic relationships always do, I was shattered. People talk about being "broken" – that’s the only word to adequately describe how I felt back then.

He said he loved me. I believed him at the time and to some extent still do now. Though, of course, I am now an adult myself, and question how he could have possibly ever really cared about me, when he saw me throwing my life away on the promise of a life with him.

I moved out of my family home when I was 17. I left school in the middle of sixth year and started working full time. My mum and dad tried to convince me not to, but I thought I knew better than them. 

At the time, I told myself I was being independent and responsible and mature – but in reality, I just wanted to live alone so I could see him more. Regardless of the consequences.

When it ended, as these unbalanced and toxic relationships always do, I was shattered. People talk about being "broken" – that’s the only word to adequately describe how I felt back then. I wasn’t whole anymore. Something inside me changed and I was never the ambitious, optimistic teenager I had been growing up. 

He wrote me a letter explaining why it had to end. I must have read that letter 1,000 times after he gave it to me, and sobbed and convulsed each time I did. 

My life spiralled out of control. I began to self-destruct, quite literally – and looking back at some of the choices I made during that time I sometimes wonder how I am still alive. 

I was still privately renting a flat I couldn’t afford – I think at the time I was being paid under £5 per hour. My life spiralled out of control. I began to self-destruct, quite literally – and looking back at some of the choices I made during that time I sometimes wonder how I am still alive. 

What followed was a period of immense instability and pain. I got into arrears with my rent, my council tax and everything else. Friends that had watched and warned me throughout my relationship with a much older man tried to support me, but I dismissed their advice and did everything I could to make them leave me alone.

I wasn’t a good person to be around: I was consumed with pity and grief and an inability to do anything that would improve my life and get it back on track. 

I’ll always remember this one day, when I was probably at my lowest point. I was sitting in my flat, it was freezing cold and dark because I had no money for the electric. My two best friends turned up at my door, and I refused to answer it.

They buzzed and buzzed and buzzed and shouted for me and rang my phone again and again, and I covered my ears, sitting on the floor, willing them to go away. When they finally did, I peered outside and saw that they had brought me bags of shopping.

I wasn’t a good person to be around: I was consumed with pity and grief and an inability to do anything that would improve my life and get it back on track. 

I was drinking too much. Cheap cider, mainly. Which only aided my depression and destructive choices. This went on for a number of years. Yet - in a moment of rare clarity - I decided to apply for college to get a HND in legal services.

This would enable me to get into the second year to study law at university. I barely attended, and a lot of the time when I did I turned up drunk or late. Miraculously, I still managed to pass, after a year of arsing about and wasting everybody’s time. I was offered places at two universities to study law. 

Looking back, I can’t believe how out of control my life was. It’s almost difficult for me to understand that that person was actually me. 

I didn’t attend the induction day, and when I phoned a month later begging for them to let me start, they – understandably – told me I’d have to wait until next year. What followed was a year of chaos, a series of unhealthy and dangerous relationships, homelessness and misery.

It wasn’t until I met my first proper boyfriend - the man who would later become the father to my amazing daughter - that the fog lifted and I started to heal. He was so gentle, and sincere and kind.

I’m an adult now, with a child of my own. My life is blessed and calm and ordered and stable. I cherish serenity now and am probably over-cautious, because of my wild years. 

He pieced me back together, bit by bit, and I felt like I could finally feel the sun on my face again.

Gradually, I started to feel like myself again, a person I hadn’t known properly my whole adulthood thus far. He encouraged me to start rebuilding my life and I felt able to, with his love and support. 

I didn’t have any notions of becoming prime minister, or even a politician. My turbulent younger years would keep the Sun in scandalous stories for months. But I did feel able to start to pursue the things I was passionate about.

I don’t blame the man I was involved with for the destructive nature of my late teenage years. It’s crazy looking back to realise how many opportunities, offers of help and support that I refused, and decisions I made that I could and should have taken differently. 

But that’s growing up. Which is why, despite not holding him responsible for everything that happened, I wish that he had made better decisions, too. 

If I had the sense and emotional maturity I do now, of course I would have done things differently. I learned a valuable lesson – albeit one I will work every day to make sure my daughter doesn’t have to. 

I’m an adult now, with a child of my own. My life is blessed and calm and ordered and stable. I cherish serenity now and am probably over-cautious, because of my wild years. 

Adults have the maturity to understand the implications of their actions, 16 years olds aren’t gifted with that same level of insight.

If I had the sense and emotional maturity I do now, of course I would have done things differently. I learned a valuable lesson – albeit one I will work every day to make sure my daughter doesn’t have to. 

I appreciate my home, the food in my fridge and the incredible people I know who offer me so many wonderful opportunities, to write, to speak and to mark my small place in the world. And my friends, who I hope I’ve made things up to over my years of calm, for sticking with me and never saying "we told you so".

I’ve never been scared of getting old. I love the feeling of knowing more, learning from mistakes and doing better. That’s the real joy of adulthood.

And a reason that, as adults, we need to remember that teenagers – however mature they seem – don’t know as much as us. They aren’t as emotionally strong as we are. And it’s up to us – as grown ups – to not mistake their apparent maturity for resilience, or to exploit it for our own ends.

Picture courtesy of Miguel Fraga

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