Inspiring Student Journeys in FE - Nicola O’Neill

Nicola O'Neill receiving her award certificate from City Lit fellow David Lammy, MP

Nicola O'Neill receiving her award certificate from City Lit fellow David Lammy, MP

FE college is an unsung source of inspiration for students of all ages and backgrounds, often bringing them back from the brink and transforming their lives. Here at London’s City Lit adult education college, we hear Nicola’s story

Nicola O’Neill went sober in December 2015. For 34 years she had been addicted to alcohol and dabbled in drugs. Sexually abused from the age of seven, she dropped out of school at 14 and could only start talking about her experiences in her late 20s by which time she had long been a confirmed alcoholic. 

Nicola was also so physically abused by her mother that her caregivers said ‘abuse’ for her was almost like a substitute for ‘love’ - she seemed to find partners who often ended up becoming abusive and violent. “And if I was not being abused, I would abuse myself,” she says, “whether it was drugs, alcohol or self-harm. It was a real vicious circle as I did not realise my problem was psychological.”

Alcohol stripped her of everything

But it was the alcohol that literally stripped her naked of everything including her two youngest children, put up for adoption in 2010 after a two-year legal battle, and then followed by the deaths of both her parents. The next five years were the worst time in Nicola’s life: “I didn’t know that rock bottom had a basement and that was where I was. Alcohol took everything apart from my house - and my life.” 

So what made her change? “One day I just walked into this treatment centre for drug and alcohol addicts just down the road from me and said I needed help. The lady there said: ‘You were here last week to which I replied: ‘No I wasn’t, I think you have me confused.’ But she insisted and it was only then I realised I’d gone there in a complete blackout - I didn’t even know I’d been there.”

Somehow this was a catalyst. Nicola was allocated a key worker and spent 10 days detoxing in the hospital. The timing could not have been better - she went in on December 23, 2015, and came out on January 1, 2016, neatly avoiding the huge temptations during the UK’s festive season and New Year. It kindled in her a religious faith which she believes has been a key factor in her recovery.

‘It was only then that I realised I had gone there in a complete blackout - I didn’t even know I’d been there’

The next three months were spent in rehab in the community. For six hours a day, five days a week, Nicola underwent a daily psychological programme that taught her how to face the issues she’d struggle with. “It gave me a foundation to start my recovery and I found the experience of giving up drinking was massively different to previous times I had tried and failed.”

‘I had no qualifications’

Next step was a peer monitoring course at a drug and alcohol service provider followed by a year working for them as a volunteer. Then came the course at City Lit. “I’d left school at 14 with no qualifications and needed to get some. One of the provider’s caseworkers recommended the adult education college, so I checked it out, emailed and signed up.”  

It was only then that Nicola began to comprehend the challenges ahead. “One of my biggest nightmares about starting college was not knowing how to use computers and yet the course was delivered via Google Classrooms!” She did not have home internet access and was on benefits so couldn’t afford a laptop anyway. 

At City Lit she opted to take a level 2 course in mental health - Understanding Working with Vulnerable People [who made up the group Nicola had been helping as a volunteer]. It complemented short counselling and other courses and workshops she had attended locally years before, 

A huge challenge was just making it to college

“It was one day a week but we had a big assignment every week of so many thousand words. You had deadlines and I had to keep booking places in the library to access computers.”

Another huge challenge was travel - and just making it to college. “I felt I was in a living nightmare, getting off that train at Holborn during rush hour. I almost gave up the course - I’d hardly ever used a train in my life.”

One of the toughest tests was having to socialise with 12-15 people on her course from all walks of life. I’d been used to spending 70% of my time literally on my own. I realised my social skills were far from normal and it was a real challenge learning how to behave towards different personalities. I had nearly always got angry and started shouting.”

‘Things got so bad, we went for mediation’

Things grew so bad with one student that they both had to go to a mediator, who got them to hear each others’ stories. “We looked at each other in amazement,” said Nicola. The other student had also lost her daughter when she was in addiction and had a very similar background. Now both friends, Nicola realised her colleague had problems and she was not alone in hers.

But life was changing for Nicola, no more so than when she started working with her tutor Natalie Treacher. She nominated Nicola and several other students for a new City Lit well-being award recognising the positive change in the whole person  - which Nicola won. “Winning it was something when I thought, ‘Wow they actually think I’m good enough’.

“Natalie was so patient - I’ve never seen a woman with so much patience because there was another student in the class with multiple behaviour disorders and yet Natalie’s love and passion for teaching shone out. She just met everyone’s individual and collective needs and was a big inspiration to me.”

‘Natalie taught me to accept compliments which I’d always found hard to do. I’d been so full of self-loathing’

“Natalie saw my growth as a person and the overwhelming challenges I had with the trains and learning how to behave towards others. She witnessed a lot in me. Some of her written comments on my assignments were lovely - ‘I can see you have worked very hard and really understood this’. Having constant affirmation from someone else was so great as it helped me restore some faith in myself. She taught me to accept compliments which I’d always found quite hard to do. I’d been so full of self-loathing.”

Nicola is starting another course next week - a diploma in health and social care and another stepping stone to the job she is aiming for when she comes off benefits and returns to work in 2020 - working one-to-one as a recovery practitioner in a drug and alcohol recovery service and seeing through people’s progress from start to finish. 

“Without that stability from City Lit and Natalie, I would not have had the confidence to trek on with all these courses. It’s been a massive platform.”

Next week: Nathalie Treacher talks about her work as a mental health lecturer

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