Life within a Children’s Therapeutic Community. By Shirlee Davies

The Double-Edged Sword Effect

My name is Shirlee, and I was fortunate enough to be at The Mulberry Bush School from 1976-81.

Being born into an extremely dysfunctional family, with a mother who was emotionally ill equipped to deal with two small children, and a narcissistic husband didn’t bode well. Unable to cope, my biological mother left the family unit when I was 1 and my brother was 2. My father remarried 2 years later adding 2 step siblings and a step mum to the mix, which, rather than stabilising the situation,  created a bigger dysfunctional dynamic.

My first few years were filled with neglect, both emotional and physical, social instability, food deprivation, and poverty. I was always hungry, quite often dirty, and my basic care needs were severely lacking.

Information from my nursery and early school life reveal stories of being seen rummaging through bins at school aged 5 looking for food, stealing other children’s lunches, and having no coat or suitable clothes in winter.

During these first few years, I was passed around various family members, fostered out to neighbours, and even strangers and generally lived a very nomadic life until I entered the Mulberry Bush aged 6.

On arrival at the School I felt unloved. I was afraid, very angry, and wary of everyone. Having had no stability up until then meant that I did not know what to expect, and therefore I  was in what I would call a ‘primal’ emotional state for quite a long time.

Over the 5 years that I resided there, I learnt to trust my peers. I learnt how to love, and be loved, and I learnt that it was not my fault. I was not the problem, the adult carers in my life were the issue, and I was a bi- product of their inability to parent properly not the cause.

This time at the Mulberry Bush was undoubtedly the happiest of my life as a child. During my time there we were a family, a stable kind caring family whose adults  took time to really understand and listen to each of us children. We lived in a beautiful middle class bubble, where we went to the cinema every weekend, saw West-End shows and experienced the best of middle class life.

Sadly, when we had to leave aged 11 it was like a huge bereavement. We left our whole community family, and at such a vulnerable age it was especially hard. At the time of leaving  I was unaware that I could go back and touch base with the school at anytime in my life, so I felt abandoned again. There was no after care for us in the 80’s, so I went back to my dysfunctional family,  where the nomadic unstable  life carried on.

At the Mulberry Bush I was given the best coping mechanisms and care possible, living a happy safe middle class existence. But upon leaving I was then plunged back into utter poverty and chaos, without any back up or support, at an age when I was hitting puberty and needed more than ever to have a safety net, and support to navigate the very big strange world that I found myself in.

Going from a stable microcosm to moving council houses every 2 years, experiencing food poverty,  and no real parental guidance was devastating for me.  Also, going into mainstream school with over 300 pupils was a huge overwhelming culture shock. The teachers didn’t have time to talk to me, or any experience on how to communicate on my level. They felt threatened by this child who would question them and their actions as I had been bought up to do at the Mulberry Bush. This alienated me even further, cutting me off from society as a whole, and leaving me feeling alone in a world that didn’t understand me or seem to care.

My fragile self- esteem plummeted, and a lot of the work that had been done with me at the School unravelled, as I was too young to cope with the level of understanding that I had from the therapies ( that would come many years later )  and I was to0 overwhelmed by mainstream life to implement strategies in my new environment, to help myself deal with everything.

Drifting through my teens and 20’s was very hard and very lonely.  Relying on my inner survival mode meant that I retreated from society, as it was easier to emotionally protect myself, and avoid disappointments.

I had my eldest daughter aged 20, and even though it wasn’t easy, I had an unbreakable bond with her. I was surprised at my enormous protective feelings for her, coming from my background. This is still my proudest achievement in my life.

I raised her basically alone with no family support, it was very isolating, but also, I believe it created the deep bond that we have rather than causing a gulf like I had with my parents.

So it’s not all bad, lol !

Now, I have just turned 50,  and am very proud to say that I have have a loving family which consists of 4 children between myself and my husband.

I am now a carer for my husband who has bi-polar disorder and also my ASD son. And I think because of my early life, (and a lot of hindsight) I have far more insight to their  emotional needs,  which enables me to support them to the best of my ability  like the Mulberry Bush supported me.  I am also fiercely loyal and loving to my chosen friends thanks to the teachings of the Mulberry Bush, which enabled me to trust people.

And although I still don’t feel like the stereotypical mum who reads stories and helps with homework, I do know that I have broken the perpetual cycle of abuse and neglect. I’m not a victim of my parents neglect but a success in spite of it. I  believe that this achievement validates the fantastic work of The Mulberry Bush School and its ethos.


The Double Edged Sword Effect; Short, Mid & Long term summary.

Short term.

I was given the care I so desperately needed from the Mulberry Bush, which helped me overcome so much trauma in my early life, and I will be forever grateful for it.

I strongly believe that without the intervention of the care system, and especially the Mulberry Bush, I would probably not be here now. The work and care at the Mulberry Bush is legendary, and without a shadow of a doubt it is life saving for children like me whose very early life experiences have been so extreme, that our only hope of a normal life is to be in a Therapeutic Community like the Mulberry Bush.


Mid- term

The cultural, financial, emotional divide was so huge that for a long time I felt that it was detrimental to me. After leaving the school the culture shock was so immense for me that it unravelled a lot of the hard work and therapy. I was left knowing that life shouldn’t be like this, there was a better life out there, but for me it was unreachable. Without any after care, I was left cut adrift with knowledge of a better quality of life but with no way to access it.

I couldn’t communicate with my peers as they didn’t understand me, leaving me feeling a deep loneliness that I still have to this day. I have a IQ of 146  but without guidance  I didn’t know how to harness it to better myself, leaving me feeling that a poverty stricken life was all there was for me, and reaching anywhere near the nice middle class calm stable life was unattainable.

For me, mid term post Mulberry Bush, felt like driving a Ferrari with no brakes, and no driving lessons.


Long term

It has proven invaluable to me and my family. Now I am much older, and have hindsight and maturity, I am able to implement the psychodynamic therapies in my everyday life. Also I am able to use what I was taught at the Mulberry Bush in a very positive way to help and support my children, friends and peers.


Last thoughts

I think that there needs to be a lot more after care and step back support for children like me when they leave therapeutic care. We simply can’t cope with the huge divide between the two worlds, especially in this day and age with the internet, social media, and the massive pressures put on children to fit in. It’s hard enough for “normal’’ children to navigate, let alone for children who come out of a Therapeutic Community.

I also feel that having the coping mechanisms and being able to implement them at such a young age are two different things. We cannot function on an adult level aged 11, even with the coping strategies we have learnt. We are just not mature enough to fully understand or have enough environmental control to put into practice the teachings.  We/they can use them all in the microcosm of the school, but back in the wide world there are too many variables to be able to focus enough to use them.

Which is why I think it’s crucial to have after care for all the children in a Therapeutic Community. Maybe a halfway house, where they can continue to have the support of the psychodynamic therapy teachings ( which they understand, and can relate too, meaning they will not be alienated by society at such a young age) and where they can continue elevating their self -esteem, and enhance their self -worth.

Whilst at the same time supporting them practically, by teaching life skills for when they leave care at 18, and supporting them educationally to achieve their true potential, so they are able to navigate life much easier in adulthood.


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