Over the years there have been only a few people I would have classed as best friends. People whom I counted on in my darkest moments. When I was at my lowest, and feeling more alone than ever, I met Leah. She was an incredible person who showed me how to find joy and belonging even in the worst possible circumstances. But within less than 12 months she was dead, and life was changed for ever.
We first met at Scarborough Survivors, the mental health crisis cafe I started attending in December 2018. I was 21, homeless and sofa-surfing, and I didn’t want to be alive any more. The cafe – open until 1am every morning – was my last option. It was a Saturday night, just before Christmas. Leah came in wearing a bright pink Adidas tracksuit and one of her many pairs of Nike Airs. Her thick Welsh accent echoed around the place, and as soon as she started talking, the atmosphere changed. I could tell from the off that humour was one of her coping mechanisms. It was hard to tell how old she was; I sensed some immaturity, but also a deep wisdom. I later learned that she was only 28, and the wisdom came from experiencing unimaginable trauma.
The first few times we met, we didn’t speak to each other. I spent the evenings sitting in the corner with my hood up, colouring to try to calm the constant anxiety I felt at the time. The thought of talking to someone new made me panic. However, as I started to get more comfortable at the cafe, I spoke to a few people. To begin with it was just Leah and another woman called Jo; she was quite a bit older than Leah, but they had the same sense of humour. The three of us quickly became close friends, and we regularly ended up in McDonald’s in the middle of the night. We became known as the three musketeers in Scarborough Survivors, and were usually up to some sort of mischief. Leah and I had a lot in common. Both of us had experienced abuse in our childhoods; she understood what it was like to wake up in the night reliving your trauma, which not many people do, and even fewer are willing to be open about it.
It was a spring day in 2019 when we were walking along Scarborough beach, and a guy who looked vaguely familiar walked past. Leah was talking to me, but I was in the middle of a flashback, and didn’t respond. I didn’t have to explain. She knew what was happening, probably from the look of terror on my face. After a while she asked if I was OK. We ended up talking about flashbacks, nightmares, and all that comes with them. I finally felt understood. Leah and I both grew up having to keep secrets, and neither of us could be honest about the way we felt until we met each other. We had both been forced to internalise our emotions; once we started to open up to each other, we connected.
She would get a distant look and a subtle frown, and I knew she was consumed by memories of the years of abuse she suffered when she was very young. Yet there were many days when her smile and wicked sense of humour would help everyone else. One evening at Scarborough Survivors, when a group of us were moaning about life, Leah came in and, seeing that we were all feeling down, attempted to lighten the mood by imitating a staff member’s accent. For about 20 minutes she repeated “the luck of the Irish” in a half-Irish, half-Welsh accent, which had us in fits.
Leah’s health had been deteriorating for a while, due to years of alcohol use, and she’d been having tests on her liver. Not long before she was taken to hospital with what we thought was a minor infection, we drove to Whitby. We went for a walk, bought ice-creams, and survived a gull attack, which left us in tears of laughter. The drive back to Scarborough was a journey I’ll never forget. We played One Direction’s first album at full volume, sharing the embarrassment of knowing every word. It was one of those few moments when we both seemed to forget who we were, and what was waiting for us when we got home.
Despite having very little, Leah was hugely generous. One night a young girl came into Scarborough Survivors; she had nowhere to sleep that night. She wasn’t from the area, so the usual services wouldn’t do anything to help. Leah used her last £100 to pay for two nights in a bed and breakfast, so the girl didn’t have to sleep on the streets. Leah couldn’t afford to eat until she got paid again – three days later.
After a short spell in emergency accommodation, I ended up staying in a supported lodgings placement, for young people experiencing homelessness. She lived in supported accommodation for people with “complex needs”, which is a ridiculous term to describe the reality of people coping with absolutely awful circumstances in a completely understandable way. She wasn’t allowed visitors, apart from healthcare professionals, so would sneak me into her flat on a Saturday afternoons. We spent most weekend evenings in Survivors, and she would cheat relentlessly at snakes and ladders, but no one cared. Everyone knew her as a lovable rogue, who was constantly getting into trouble with the police, usually when she was trying to protect other people. She would get into fights with men, many of whom were bigger than she was, when they threatened other women. A few times she took the blame for other people’s drugs or stolen goods so their bail wouldn’t be revoked. She taught me that no matter how terrible your situation, you can always help someone else.
Every few weeks we would spend the night in A&E. Leah would often get angry with herself, and try to give up drinking on her own, which can be dangerous and cause seizures. A few times she banged her head or didn’t come round straight away, which was incredibly scary. Even when she was in a lot of pain after having a seizure, she still managed to make the doctors laugh at 4am. Luckily, they saw the funny side of her flirting and stealing their stethoscopes.
In May 2019, I decided to report my childhood abuse to the police. Leah knew how scared I was, and gave me a small blue teddy bear to take with me. It felt as if she was the only person who understood how huge this was; no wonder – she’d had to do the same years earlier. She didn’t leave my side during the days after my interviews with the police, other than to get us food and more cigarettes. Knowing that she understood what I was going through was a huge comfort; she made me feel safe.
During that summer, we would spend days kicking a football around or sunbathing in the small garden opposite where she lived. I remember one day that I spent ages trying to perfect one particular trick with the football; when I finally succeeded, Leah was recording me. When I miss her, I play that video clip on a loop, and repeatedly listen to her saying, “You fucking did it” in her gorgeous Welsh accent.
A few weeks after that, she was taken into York hospital with an infection. We all thought it was relatively minor, and I went to see her a few times to take her a phone charger, spare clothes and chocolate. She had been due to start a two-week alcohol detox programme, which would have enabled her to get sober, safely. When she suddenly stopped replying to my texts, I became worried, but the staff at Scarborough Survivors reassured me that she had probably been taken straight to the detox programme from hospital, and wouldn’t be allowed to use her phone.
I overheard a conversation at the cafe a few days later, between two girls I’d never met. They’d seen on Facebook that Leah had been given 48 hours to live. I couldn’t breathe. It couldn’t be true; I’d only seen her a few days before, and she’d been doing well. I sent messages to her mum and brother to find out how she was. It was probably just gossip, right?
The rest of the night and the following day, my anxiety levels were through the roof. I headed back to my emergency accommodation placement and collapsed on to the bed. Why hadn’t I heard anything? I hadn’t slept much the night before, and at some point I dozed off. My phone pinged at 5.14pm with a message from Leah’s mum. The rumours were true. Leah had sepsis and pneumonia, and her liver had failed. She wouldn’t survive. I read the message countless times.
I got to the hospital as quickly as I could. Leah was unaware of how sick she was, and although she was in a lot of pain she was still cracking jokes and teasing the nurses – she even tried to chat one up.
The next day she was moved to intensive care. Despite all the tubes attached to her, she was sitting up and repeatedly asked: “Can you nick us a fag from the nurse?” She told me she needed my help to clean her flat once she was home. But the next day she deteriorated quickly, and only her immediate family were allowed to visit. She survived for three more weeks.
On 5 August, I was sitting in the shared kitchen at a hostel, watching TV, when I saw a post on Facebook from Leah’s mum. She was gone.
I was so angry at the world. I still am. I’m angry that we didn’t get to do all the things we had planned: the holiday in Croatia; teaching her to swim; the go-karting trip; that Sunday dinner we were supposed to be cooking together the day after she was taken into hospital. But I am also angry about how badly she had been let down. She had endured so much, but never received the help she needed. She was passed from one service to another after being told her needs were too complex or, “We’re not equipped to help you.” She’d heard it all. Mental health services, including the crisis team, wouldn’t help her because she was still addicted to alcohol, but how was she supposed to stop drinking when she couldn’t access the help she needed to deal with what was going on in her head?
For a long time, alcohol and drugs were also my escape. They allowed me to be someone else for a while and hide from the world. When Leah died, I knew I needed to stop. For a while I managed it. But I was living in a hostel, a super-chaotic place that could also be scary, and there was peer pressure from every angle. I hated knowing how disappointed Leah would have been if she’d known that I was still using, but I couldn’t deal with my own feelings; I needed to numb the pain.
Ultimately, it was her bravery that inspired me to start to fight my own demons. I began writing about my experiences, and I managed to get sober (and have been now for 558 days). I also started therapy, and am trying to channel my anger into helping other people in similar situations, while also trying to challenge the system. I got a job with the Centre for Homelessness Impact, as their lived experiences specialist. It allows me to ensure real stories and experiences are at the heart of research. Leah and I always joked that one day we’d change the world, and with that in the forefront of my mind during the first lockdown, I started writing a book in the hope that it might help someone else.
I spend most of my time now being creative; writing, blogs, features, poems and spoken word. The past year has tested me in whole new ways, going from staying in a hostel with 18 other young people and staff, to living completely alone in a flat, and then locked down. Luckily, writing and then my job kept me sane. It breaks my heart to see the homelessness figures climbing again now that the emergency Covid measures have stopped, especially among young people.
Everything I do now is for Leah. She was a fighter, and given half the chance she would still be doing everything in her power to help others. Every time I speak publicly about my experiences of homelessness or trauma, Leah is at the front of my mind. I know she wouldn’t want me to be silent.
Before losing Leah, I’d never experienced grief. Now I think of it like the hole in my knee of my wetsuit that has a little patch over it. Often I don’t know it’s there, but sometimes, when I swim in the middle of winter, I suddenly feel really cold. The icy water trickles in, a little bit at a time and I realise I’m freezing. But I keep going because Leah would want me to. I know she would be so proud of me.