I wanted to share my experience of becoming a Dharma practitioner. We like to hear how people ended up where they are. And where am I? Well, today, I am a novice nun, ordained for four years, happy, mostly virtuous and fairly peaceful. I’m still like a kid learning to ride a bike, I peddle for a bit then wobble, put my foot down and then peddle again, but I am definitely riding. It wasn’t always the case…
My first memory was holding onto my sister crying as we watched my parents roar at each other. My first memory was fear. My mum was many things, a cook, a nurse, a hippy, artist, Neil Diamond fan (bigtime!) but mostly when I describe her the first adjective I use is “alcoholic”. Her two sons from a previous marriage had already been taken off her because of her drinking, my sister and I were headed for the same fate. It was like her drinking was a character in this play of my life, it was a very solid and real part of her, to me, for a long time,it was why I grew up without my mum. She had suffered in the most horrific and unbelievable way as a young nurse when she was kidnapped by a group of men and beaten and raped for days. I think that probably killed her because after that she was broken, I mean, who wouldn’t be? She couldn’t cope with us after her marriage to my dad broke down and so she left us with her parents. The social services took us away and placed us in foster care. It was a cold place with no love and plenty of violence and fear but strangely the day the social worker came to ask us if we wanted to go and live with our dad I didn’t really care, I was complacent at best. My sister made the decision for us and we were to go and live with him.
My dad had met his second wife in hospital where he was being treated for mental health issues. Once he got out he wanted to have his family back so filed for custody of my sister and I. His mental health was another character, he lacked judgement and care, he was angry all the time and even to this day I never felt love from him, but my word did I try to drag it out of him in any way possible! His childhood was awful, spending the first nine years of his life alone in hospital with polio, his parents rarely visited him. He spent all his life trying to fill that void but due to his anger he just kept pushing it all away.
My parents were damaged, vulnerable people, but they were magnificent. They were both very intelligent people, both of them very musical and creative, dynamic and very strong characters. They both had an amazing sense of humour but what I got from them was a deep rooted philosophy, a questioning of life. My dad was a mason and warlock for a time, my mum was a transcendental hippy of the sixties. My dad supported me as a Christian when I was a child. I used to love my correspondence bible study, highlighting passages and memorising them.
I lived with my dad, his wife and my sister for a few years after leaving foster care. We took in lodgers to help pay the rent. One night an old man came into the room where my sister and I were sleeping and abused us. I wasn’t going to say anything, I think I thought it wasn’t a big deal but my sister did. The next day we went to the police station and I was examined by a man wearing gloves and a white gown, he did what that man the night before had done, only this time with permission, this time in bright lights, this time I was terrified.
It didn’t get much better for a long time. I experienced more abuse from another lodger, this time it went on for a few years, I didn’t tell anyone. As a child I was quite complacent, or maybe I was just happy to have some attention. It’s strange what you normalise. I think my sister suffered more from that man. He didn’t favour her, she was a fighter and when he’d lock her out so he could abuse me she’d protest. I think it was because of her it ended, if it was just me it might have gone on for a very long time but I think she saved me from it. She’s always spoken out about things while I was very passive and let things happen. We went to live with my aunty for a while. My first taste of a normal family. It didn’t last long. After we left there and went back to live with my dad a very long and dark winter came.
We lived with my dad in a huge old house, it looked exactly like The Addams family house. It was cold, it was haunted and my dad called it “The mausoleum”. I got to about fourteen before the shit really hit the fan. At that age I started hanging out with my sister’s friend who was “cool”. Very good looking and very interested in boys. I’d always loved male attention (no prizes for guessing why, #daddyissues) so, when she started hanging out with much older guys from a band I was in there. I went to hers one night because there was a guy there who I liked. We started kissing and the next minute he asked me to go upstairs with him. Compliant, I went with him. He started undressing me and in my mind I was saying, “Woah there, this isn’t what I want” outside I said nothing. I felt like a deer caught in headlights. I wanted to run but I had been well trained by now to be quiet and pliable. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for the next ten minutes. I remember looking up at a clock hoping he wouldn’t take too much longer. After it was over I went into the bathroom and clean the mess out of me. I was pregnant.
A few weeks later I started throwing up. My dad’s third wife at the time noticed and they made me take a test. My dad stood over me and shouted “What’s that?!” Like he did when the dogs shit in the back room and he would beat them with an iron bar. What happens when something so cataclysmic like that occurs is I freeze, mentally, emotionally, everything just shuts down. I didn’t know what to do. My step mum said if I aborted the baby she’d kick me out. My sister cried for its life. My aunty offered me a place to raise it and my dad told me I was just a child and I couldn’t raise another child. I felt such a relief. I didn’t have to go through with this, my dad said it was ok. But I still had to leave. I stayed with my nan and granddad, then another uncle and aunty took me in. They didn’t know I’d aborted the baby and were hoping to have a baby themselves so I was potentially a solution to that. After a few weeks they asked me to leave and I went back to the mausoleum.
A few months later I took what I thought was a massive dose of sleeping pills. It didn’t work and I was told when I woke up by my cousin that I was selfish for doing that. I was, but, it seemed like a way out of this pain and suffering. I stayed in hospital for a good while, the psychologist wouldn’t let me go home until there was some stability there. Eventually they let me out. I remember the first though I had when I got home, “I’m going to do it properly this time”, but I just ran away to my mum in Edinburgh instead.
At this point I hadn’t actually told anyone about the years of abuse I’d experienced. My mum knew, she kept asking me what was wrong, that something wasn’t right. I was so numb I had no idea what it was she wanted me to say so I just told her about everything. Her reaction was amazing. It really shook me. She screamed, she cried, she bellowed for her child. All I could do was be amazed that someone actually cared enough to react like that. No one ever had.
She took me to counselling, but it didn’t really help. I always felt it just churned over old ground never really giving any solutions, for me it made me feel worse without ever really resolving anything. Her love helped most of all. I went to school there. I didn’t fit in, I was a scouser and it made me a target for bullying, but I remember she made me a burger and chips when I went home for lunch one afternoon. It was amazing, no one had ever done anything like that for me before, really cherished me from their heart. She even bought me a shell suit in hideous pink from her catalogue. It was the first time I’d ever worn anything fashionable. I felt quite posh. My sister came up a few weeks later and we fough so much my mum started drinking heavily. She beat my sister up and I got us both out of the house and the police took us to a care home for the night. The next day we were back with my dad in Liverpool.
I stayed with him for another year but it was unbearable living there so I stayed with a friend until social services found me a shared house. I was free of my parental home. I met my first long term boyfriend and soon got pregnant. I had my first child at seventeen. He saved my life. I enjoyed motherhood, I was also volunteering at a women’s organisation doing outreach work with young women. Then I met a friend who really put me on my spiritual path. She was unlike anyone I’d known before. She was all exotic-like, she was from London. I followed her into an Indian religion called Sant Mat, which means “path of the saints”. It was my life for a good few years but I started smoking weed. That was really the beginning of a very long battle with drugs. Because I hated alcohol I abused drugs instead. By the time my second son arrived I had tried most of what was on offer. Weed, cocaine, LSD, mushrooms, speed, ecstasy. I became a huge pothead. I’d bake it, sprinkle it on toast with honey, make pasta-a-la-hash, muffins, etc. I loved what it did for my mind. It lifted me out of the mental numbness, it made me feel creative and inspired. I took a lot of ecstasy. Some nights I’d take as many as 7. I could feel again. I felt something other than pain. I felt something other than numbness, but it was only borrowed bliss.
In 2001, I started telling people I felt something huge was about to happen. That I could feel a huge wave of death coming. I wasn’t sure who it was but I knew it was big. I said a lot of very strange things to people. I had a very strong feeling like I was Mary Magdalene, that my life’s path was to find Jesus. I had become psychotic and manic. My sister and friend were really worried about me and took me to hospital. The thing about madness is, when you cross that line you have no fear. There have been times I was terrified I was going to lose it, my mind that is, but when you’re over the other side there is no fear. A week later the twin towers came down and it solidified in my mind that I had some oracle-like ability.
I was in and out of hospital a few times and extremely suicidal. I was seeing a lot of disturbing things, thinking a lot of dark thoughts. I couldn’t stop it, I had no control over my mind at all. Being in that hospital made me see just how little we know about mental health and how to help people with mental illness. Our solution is to mask it really. To turn the volume down on the lucidity and clarity of the mind and make it so dull you can’t think of anything, let alone what the demons are doing.
A little time later, my mind was still quite unwell but the psychosis had toned down a touch. My sister began lending my books, The Celestine Prophesy, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, another Buddhist book I had. One night she was at my cousin B’s house, she’d popped over to her cousin’s house but came back and said that whatever the reason she went would have to wait while he mediated. My sister’s attention was caught. She has this amazing quality of drawing people’s stories from them. If you don’t know their life story in five minutes you’re not doing your job, she’d say. So she went back over with our cousin and interrogated him. He invited her to the Buddhist Centre in Liverpool. She went for a few weeks and gushed about it. She was very joyful, I remember seeing her inner light turn on, she was glowing.
She invited me to the centre but I was really reluctant at first. Organised religion wasn’t my bag baby. I was a free child of the universe and didn’t want a label on my spirituality. I was also deeply devoted to Jesus too and didn’t want to cheat on him. But I went after a few more weeks of seeing her glow. The first class I ever went to was in Liverpool Kadampa Meditation Centre. I remember being taken aback by the monk teaching the class. He was outrageously beautiful, uncomfortably so and he had an enormous presence. I felt like a rat in First Class. I definitely did not belong here. I was gatecrashing some upper level spiritual party and I hadn’t brought any wine.
The first teaching I had was on non attachment and I sat through it thinking, “Yeah, I’ve heard this all before” [sorry Guru]. I’d read a lot about the mind of non attachment in my Sant Mat days and thought I knew it all. The next three teachings were about non attachment. My mind was still very unwell at this time, I remember standing outside the centre having a cigarette talking to my cousin’s cousin, who btw is a monk now, I told him about the stuff going on in my mind. He gave me some really helpful advice about not paying inappropriate attention to my mind and slowly, over time that technique has helped in many different areas.
One night after class I went into the gompa, the meditation room and sat in front of this
and I just wept. Sobbed. Begged him for help. I asked him to please stop my thoughts. I sincerely went for refuge to a perfect master that night without my knowing. The next fourteen years were him and me working with all of the shit that came before, not just in this life but countless previous lives. After wobbling about on my spiritual bike and not really being able to maintain a steady practice, and after my second husband left and became ordained, I took ordination myself. It really is like I’ve had two lives in one.
Since I became a nun I’ve experienced a balanced, peaceful, happy mind, growing all the time. Stabilising and becoming so much more joyful. Why? He’s the Wizard man! He’s something not of this world, appearing in it. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso saved me from my horrific life and not in any weird, culty, brainwashed by religion way because I needed something that was actually going to work, because the sex, drugs and bacon rolls never did. I know now the drugs were me trying to experience something extraordinary. I know others take DMT, ayahuasca, peyote etc. to try and open themselves up to deep spiritual experiences, and I’ve spoken with people who have taken them and from what I can tell it’s a garbled mess, it’s a trippy experience but nothing they can use in everyday life. Nothing like the peace I found in my Guru’s heart. He stopped the relentless thoughts, he stopped the harrowing visions, he stopped the depression, the feeling of being filthy, he stopped the psychosis and the pain.
I never thought enlightenment was something normal people do, it was something otherworldly. In the early days it was so daunting. I was surrounded by people who were from completely different walks of life. I was sitting and talking to people I would never have been able to relate to outside of Buddhism. It removed all of the barriers of status. That’s what I want my message to be about. Some stories in Buddhism are about kings and nobles who renounce everything and some, like Milarepa and me, are about clawing your way up from the bottom. I’d like to become just like Milarepa, he was an incredible practitioner who had extraordinary suffering in his life but he came through it, through the kindness of Marpa, his Spiritual Guide. And here I am through the kindness of mine.
If you made it down here thank you, I would love to hear your journey too. Love to you!