Rachel doesn’t think twice about the fact that her dad isn’t around until she starts school, and hears everyone else talking about their dads.
She wonders where her dad is, and whether he thinks about her sometimes.
Rachel has a vague memory of Robert, a man who lived with her mum for a while and who she called ‘dad’. She’s happy when he suddenly comes back. Mum is happy too. She and Robert had split up because he drank too much. Now she’s desperate to give Rachel a stable family and perhaps she thinks true love true will conquer all. That’s not what happens.
Mean and violent Rachel’s stepfather gets mean when he drinks. One evening he hits her and drags her up a long flight of stairs by the hair. After that she keeps away from him when he’s drunk. Except when he hits mum. Then she gets in between them, jumps up on a chair and screams at him to stop. But no one listens. Instead mum starts drinking too, so it’ll hurt less. When Rachel begs her to throw Robert out, she says: “I just need to try not to make him so angry.” Rachel doesn’t want to stay at home any longer. She hangs around town with her friends and when she’s 12, she starts drinking too.
Tired of life By the time Robert finally leaves the family, it’s too late. Rachel’s mum is drinking day and night. Most of the time she just stares blankly in front of her. She often threatens to take her own life. Rachel tries to comfort her. But in the end, she doesn’t want to carry on living either. She takes one of the bottles of wine her mum has hidden and mixes it with all the tablets she can find at home. Rachel survives, but is rushed to a hospital, where she is kept in isolation for three weeks. A social worker wants Rachel to move in with a foster family, but she refuses. Her mum wouldn’t be able to cope on her own. In the end, despite everything, Rachel is sent home to her mum. For a while she meets with a psychiatrist once a week. He doesn’t think things are going to work out well for her. “By the time you reach 16 you’ll either be dead, in prison or pregnant, or a combination of all those things,” he guesses.
Factory job Rachel drops out of school and takes a job at a factory to help pay for food and rent. At 14, she’s too young really, but she lies about her age. In the evenings she goes out to bars, drinks and takes drugs. Sometimes she meets her mum when she’s out. Her friends think it’s fun. Rachel doesn’t. She dreams of something better, like becoming a lawyer or a journalist. She gets the chance to work as a model for a teenage magazine, but the modelling agency says she’s too short for the best modelling jobs. They suggest she poses for ‘sexy’ images instead. It’s illegal to take those kinds of photos of a 14-year-old. Rachel uses make-up to look older.
Rachel runs away When Rachel is 17, she can’t take it at home anymore. Her mother has become violent and flies into constant rages. Rachel runs away to Germany with some girls she’s only known for a day. After three weeks her money runs out and her new mates have moved on. Rachel has tried getting restaurant jobs all over town, but she’s been turned down everywhere. She finds herself in an area where there are dodgy bars and sex clubs. A red neon sign flashes ‘Girls, girls, girls’. Rachel thinks: “I’m a girl”, and goes down some stairs into the murky building. A few minutes and yet another lie about her age later, and she can start straight away.
A nightmare At the club, Rachel’s job is to dance and sit on clients’ laps, drunken men who pull on her clothes. In the evenings she spends a long time in the shower, scrubbing herself until it feels like she’s going to lose a layer of skin. She often wonders how she ended up here. It’s like a nightmare that she can’t wake up from.
Falls in love Rachel meets a guy in Germany, JP. He has big beautiful eyes and she falls in love. JP seems nice at first, but he takes all the money she earns to buy drugs. If she doesn’t earn enough one evening, he beats her. Sometimes he regrets it later. “You just need to try a bit harder, bring in more money,” he explains. Rachel doesn’t think there’s anything odd about JP saying he loves her while at the same time he beats her and says horrible things. She’s used to that from home.
It’s not until JP almost kills her that Rachel seeks help at a church. She finally leaves him and the club, and starts working as a a nanny for an American family.
For a long time, Rachel wakes up at night in a cold sweat, petrified. She has nightmares and her whole body aches from everything JP has done to her. But the family she’s working for gives her lots of love and in the end she starts feeling better. Rachel decides to help others and gets more involved in church. When she gets the opportunity to travel to the US and work in New York, helping women who sell sex to move on to a better life, she jumps at the chance.
Text adapted from Rachel Lloyd’s book Girls like us