Write a personal essay about one or more moments of uncertainty you have experienced.
Themes: social disadvantage, divorce, homelessness
Note: this is a personal essay, but it has a plot and great descriptive language. With some more plot development, it could be evolved into a short story. See a more strictly personal essay under the same title here.
I remember letting out many exasperated sighs that afternoon. The sun had beamed through the broken blinds and irritably, I had had to make numerous swats at my forehead to stop any perspiration making a descent down my face. My social worker, Linda, had come to check every ten minutes to see if I’d finally wrote something down. I’ll admit the pen had felt strange and foreign between my fingers. I’d been uncertain as to where to begin. I stared at the piece of paper for so long, I thought it would never get to fulfil its purpose and the page would remain blank forever. No marks, no smudges, no scars. I remember thinking, “for such a simple object you sure do have desirable qualities” and then the rush of panic I felt when I realised Linda’s footsteps were coming down that long corridor again.
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This had been their new tactic, another attempt to get me to ‘open up’. Like I was something to be decoded to reveal the hidden treasure that lay beneath. The hidden treasure of course being my story. The story of how I had reluctantly found myself homeless at the age of seventeen and battling for a cosy doorway to nestle in just off O’Connell Street. The story that despite being very personal to me was sadly not unique. A hundred others could also reveal to you what it’s like to experience a different side to our beloved capital. Because despite the stereotypical homeless person with colourful circumstances, the line between where you sleep, be it sleeping in a bed or on the street is much, much thinner than you think.
I grew up in middle class estate. I’m an only child, but my childhood had been far from lonely. My fondest memories include playing “tip the can” and soccer out on the green with all the other kids until the sun went down. This rosy world that had been built up around me started to fall slowly apart, brick by brick one unforgettable day when I returned home from school in first year. Mam and Dad were waiting for me in the kitchen, both at either end of the table. I noticed for the first time the strain on both their faces and how tense they were in their stance. “Mam? Dad?” What’s wrong?” I asked. There was no disguising the silence that had been there before I burst in the door. Naively at the time, I assumed something had happened our cat, Oliver. I never contemplated or would have guessed that they wanted a divorce. “DI-VORCE.” The two-syllable word sliced in half that silence, my innocence and the world that I had known.
My adolescent brain was suddenly filled with uncertainties. Who would I live with? Would we have to move house? Most importantly who would take care of Oliver? All was revealed in a short few days. Dad was moving out and would soon be moving to England for work. I hadn’t even considered him being unemployed before this. It had just meant he had more time to mess about with me in the evenings. But two years had gone by and no job prospects were on the horizon. In Mum’s eyes, he was on longer the man she had married. He was meant to be the breadwinner, the provider. Dad couldn’t believe he had married someone so superficial and shallow.
When he left, a new routine started to develop. Mum would go down to the local pub every Wednesday and Saturday night religiously, each time with more determination to ‘bag’ herself a new man. This started to become a nightly thing. She’d be gone before I’d come home in the evenings and would be too hungover in the mornings to put me out to school. Dad stopped sending money when he heard from our next door neighbour that Mam was spending it all on drink. I only realised then why I had been sent down to the bottle bank every month when I’d been younger. I had thought we were just doing our bit for the environment.
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We fell behind on all bills, most importantly the rent. I found myself doing more shifts at a late-night restaurant just so I wouldn’t have to look at our landlord’s pitiful face when I’d answer the door to him after another three-week delay. I became too tired to get up for school and instead focused on trying to get Mam out of bed and back to her old self. Or rather the conservative version of how she was before the divorce. It’s sad to say, but I can see now her priorities at the time had not lain with me. Numerous other drunks started to frequent the house. By the age of sixteen I realised that they were just layabouts with no futures, chasing after anyone who could buy them their next drink. Some were violent too and did not appreciate the fact that Mam had a pesky little kid to look after. One man, in particular, I’ll name him Jack, sent a shiver down my spine. He had an evil maliciously glint in his eye and I was petrified of what he’d do to me if I crossed him.
One specific morning, after another drinking bout, Jack's snores elevated through the house from the sitting room. He had obviously been so intoxicated he couldn’t make it upstairs. I cursed myself silently for leaving my purse in there the night before. I needed money from it for groceries and to pay the ESB bill. “I need to get to that money before he wakes up” I instinctively realised. Consumed equally with terror and determination, I damned the creaky stairs as I attempted to tiptoe down them. The sitting room door was slightly ajar, and I noted Jack’s right arm hanging over the couch, a bottle of whiskey in hand. I also spotted my purse on the mantelpiece, peeping out from behind the clock. Gently pushing the door further open, my heart pounded with so much fear as I crossed the room, I imagined it was keeping in rhythm with the clock, only more loudly and deafening. I had just grabbed my purse and turned around to attempt to cross the room safely again when Jack grunted and shifted in his sleep. I held my breath and didn’t dare move another muscle. A few seconds lapsed and I considered making a dash for the door when his eyes opened and he realised someone was standing watching him. Automatically he lifted his arm and flung the whiskey bottle in my direction. Subconsciously, I ducked out of the way before the glass shattered into a thousand little pieces against the wall behind me. His restless snores returned when he concluded that I had only been a figment of his imagination. Swiftly exiting the room and closing the door behind me, I had only wished that’s all he was; a figment of my imagination. My hands were still trembling as I tried to put my key into the front door. I couldn’t go on living like this.
So, one Thursday night in April last year, aware that the landlord would be around on Friday and that Jack seemed to be setting up a permanent base at our house, I took all my recent earnings from the restaurant, packed a bag and decided to abscond. Like a nomad, I sofa-surfed from house to house of friends, each time just as uncertain as to whether they’d accept me. While everyone wants to help you out, they don’t want you to sleep on their couch forever. Eventually I ran out of friends that I hadn’t asked and knew it was time for the streets. Charm can only get you so far when you want a shower or a cup of tea, and inevitably its hard to keep up that false façade of smiling and bearing it all, when really, deep down everything is not okay. I should not have had to leave my home. I should not have been made homeless at the age of seventeen by my own family. Despite all the dangers and risks associated with being homeless it still seemed safer and less hostile than living at home with Mam and whatever man occupied her attention.
Next time you walk down a busy street in Dublin or any big town in Ireland, take note of others in the predicament I found myself in. Try to imagine the cold, the hardship and the ignorance they must encounter every day. Probe a bit deeper than what’s on the surface and ask if they’re okay or would like to go for a cup of coffee. It could make all the difference and in my case. It did. Not everyone who sits with a sleeping bag wrapped around them and a cup held outwards are addicts. They are victims of their environments, their mistakes or in my case my parent’s downfall. And despite the work of all the charities and the promises of governments, the situation is getting worse.
Linda had promised me that writing about my experience would help the process of trying to develop the next part of my story. I hate to admit it, but she was right. I’m still uncertain as to how I feel about re-entering the education system to go back to do my Leaving Cert. I’m dipping my toes into unknown waters to make sure my story has some chance of reaching that happy-ever-after ending.
Based on a student's essay
This is a personal essay (I found it in an old foolscap a few years ago) from when I was in Leaving Cert. It’s not terribly original and the ending just kind of tails off pathetically but rather than fix it up I decided to leave it as I had written it at 17. It should give you a strong sense that there is a real difference between personal essays and short stories.
A Farewell to Adolescence
One of the scariest things about being in Leaving Cert. is realising that you are the oldest pupils in the school. In the first couple of days it gently hits you that the people who once intimidated you so much are all gone. Any intimidation that goes on now is probably your esteemed self complaining (loudly) in the presence of first years about how cheeky and wild they are. At this stage you usually find yourself commenting on the fact that your own year were NEVER that rude and boisterous, and you begin to despair for the youth of today. Where, oh where, did they ever go wrong?
It is about now you realise that you’re beginning to grow up. Talking about the ‘youth of today’ sets off alarm bells in your head because you’ve started to distance yourself from this section of society. You no longer include yourself in the category of ‘teenager’ or ‘adolescent’. Technically, you’ll be a teenager until the end of your nineteenth year, but being as mature and responsible as you are, you handily disregard this fact!
After the first couple of days in Leaving Cert, it not-so-gently whacks you full-in-the-face that other people have also started to regard you as a young adult. Teachers, parents, and adults in general expect you to think and act more responsibly, as befits your new position in society. THAT’s when you discover the role of young adult has as many drawbacks as advantages.
The first problem encountered is that of choosing a career! Of course, you’d always realised that EVENTUALLY you’d have to decide what to do with the rest of your life. But never in your wildest dreams or worst nightmares did you imagine just how difficult it would really be. The careers teacher bombards you with information about points, open days, college prospectus’, CAO-CAS forms, subject choices, apprentices and requirements. It vaguely registers somewhere in the back of your mind that you’ve heard all this before (perhaps in last years careers class???) but you weren’t really listening (at the time) because it was just kind of boring and irrelevant. Right now it’s about as far away from irrelevant as it can possibly be, and your head is in a whirl. Oh, to be back in first year when everything was simple and all anyone seemed to talk about was how wild and cheeky you were!
Added to this burden of deciding what to do with the rest of your life, is the workload of the average Leaving Certificate pupil. You seem to spend at least three hours every night doing homework alone. Wondering when you’ll get around to revising fourth year work is useless – you simply DON’T HAVE THE TIME! Every teacher seems to have some comment to make about how little work you’ve done, and how much you’ve left to cover. Being fulfilled, happy individuals, however, you don’t despair and it never even enters your head how hopeless everything is…
The last (and in my opinion the worst) part of saying farewell to adolescence is that of being responsible for your own destiny. Every teacher and parent in the country seems to adopt the policy of constantly telling you that how you do in the Leaving Certificate Examinations in June is entirely up to you! Teachers remind you daily that they’re not afraid of work and they’re doing the best they can for you. If you don’t pull up your socks and get down to work there’s nothing they can do about it. Their most commonly used phrase abound this time is “I can’t do the work for you!” You almost begin to believe the unspoken, follow-on-statement “I would if I could but I can’t”. Thus the weight of the world merrily thuds down onto your shoulders and this ‘growing-up’ process, this ‘farewell to adolescence’ seems less and less attractive every minute.
All is not doom and gloom however, and whilst the negative side of growing up is alive and well, there is also another, more desirable side blossoming satisfactorily, if you look at the other side of the coin. You begin to notice the extent to which your family life changes. Apart from a few sensitive areas, you’re pretty much a free agent. Your parents no longer freak out if you leave the house for more than half an hour. You don’t ask them any more if you can go out, they ask you if you are! It’s not childish teenage disco’s you’re going to either – it’s pubs and nightclubs. For the lucky minority who are already 18, it’s not even illegal! The smoker who started smoking in national school suddenly realises that he’s no longer breaking the law. You can even legally have sex!
A whole new world of possibility opens out before you, and somehow, life doesn’t seem so bleak anymore. You don’t get asked what age you are going into the cinema! Your mother doesn’t wait until you’ve gone to bed to watch the video she’s hired out – unless of course it’s an “adult” movie of the coloured kind that you don’t really want to watch anyway. And definitely not with your parents! Another advantage is the summer job which provides money, but more importantly, independence. I personally HATE having to ask my parents for money, and if I do, I have to tell them what it’s for. When you’ve got your own money, you can do what you like with it and are answerable to no-one.
All in all, growing up has both advantages and disadvantages. The process is both rewarding and painful, joyous and sad. Luckily this transition must only be experienced once in every lifetime because being “stuck in the middle” is quite an awkward confusing time. Overall my ‘farewell to adolescence’ will be a thankful one. I’ll be saying my goodbyes happily enough!