*Ramona’s life has been turbulent from a very young age. At 11 she was sectioned under the mental health act, but never given an official diagnosis. At 15, she moved in with her boyfriend and his family, but the relationship soon became abusive and his family were complicit.
“I lived with him for a year and a half,” Ramona says. “It was like I was a hostage. If I tried to run, his mum would lock the door. If I had bruises on my face, they’d cover them up with make-up. When the police came to the door after my social worker called them, his mother said I didn’t live there and made me hide in the closet. A lot of things happened that year which made me feel as though life wasn’t worth living.”
For a long time, her attempts at escape were futile – her boyfriend would always find her. She successfully broke free at 16, but her new reality wasn’t much better. “I got involved in county lines stuff,” she says – a term for when drug gangs from bigger cities expand operations into smaller towns, exploiting children and vulnerable people like Ramona in order to sell drugs.
“For me,” she continues, “it was all about protection. I didn’t see it like I was part of a gang; I was more like a contractor. I just needed someone big and dangerous to protect me from my ex. I’d deliver drugs, but I’d get paid so the protection was an extra.”
Ramona was arrested on several occasions due to her involvement with county lines, but after a particularly violent episode at 17, she was detained and subsequently placed in foster care. “It’s like you keep doing something and think you’re going to get a different result, but of course that’s not how it works,” she laments. “The good thing is that after I was arrested, I was sectioned again.”
Getting a diagnosis and the road to recovery
From there, Ramona was able to get a formal diagnosis for her mental health issues: “I have borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. These were the things that needed addressing when I’d been sectioned at 11, but instead were left to get worse. Getting a diagnosis was so helpful for me – I was given the appropriate medication which paved the way for my recovery.”
After being Ramona placed under the care of her local authority and provided with the appropriate medication, she was soon able to return to college. When she turned 18, she was moved to a Centrepoint hostel in central London, where she met her keyworker, Henry.
“Henry was there from the very start. I have monthly meetings with him and he’s been really helping me with my legal status in the country [Ramona originally from Romania, but has been living in Britain since she was a small child]. I can’t get British Citizenship because of my criminal record but he’s been advocating for me.”
Resilience and determination
As for her education, Ramona has been excelling in her Medical Science BTEC at college; with distinctions across the board, she says she’s aiming for nothing less than a First Class Honours at university.
“I’m going to do a Bachelors in Biological Science – biology is the love of my life! Then I’m going to do Graduate Entry Medicine. I’m not planning on leaving education for a while; I love knowledge and I love learning. I just want to soak it all up.”
And despite a rough start, Ramona knows exactly where she wants to go in life: “Eventually, I want to be a psychiatrist and work with people that have experienced trauma like I have,” she says. “But for me to get to that stage, I need to take care of myself first, so I’m working really hard on that. I need use my trauma in a positive way, use it to look after people, but I don’t want to add any of my own trauma to theirs.”
With so much to look forward to, Ramona can’t help but reflect on her past, and how she was let down by those around her: “It’s taken me a long time to get here where I am now. The person I was three years ago was really ill. When I was younger, everyone just used to say that I was faking it, and that I needed attention. That I was mocking those people that are really ill and need help. But it turns out that I really did need support.”
Luckily, along with help from her college and her Leaving Care team, she has been able to get the support she needs from Centrepoint. “Someone was always there when I needed to talk,” she remembers. “When I first arrived [at Centrepoint], my travel money was a bit messed up with social services – my letter wasn’t signed and my PA was away, so Centrepoint provided me with travel money.”
But Ramona acknowledges that the responsibility also laid with her to change her circumstances, which is never an easy conclusion to come to. “I realised I can’t be in the middle of wanting to live or die. I had to choose and I chose to live. With that came long-term solutions and long-term dreams. I want to make my mum and myself proud. I want to get to the point where I can say, ‘I came from here, but now I’m here’.
“I’m now doing intensive therapy as well as group therapy, and I haven’t looked back. I’m only looking forwards now.”
*names have been changed