by Suzanne Butler
This blog explores the impact that poverty can have on the decisions you make in life, and how undertaking a Sociology degree was the beginning of a lifelong passion for researching poverty.
I spent much of my life pretending that I wasn’t poor. I grew up in Post-Thatcher Northeast Britain in a Post-Industrial mining community. My mam and dad separated when I was six years old, and my mother was left to look after 4 children alone while also experiencing what was probably PTSD from a very physically and emotionally abusive relationship. I think that it’s not an exaggeration to say that my childhood was very grim. Because my parents owned their own home and many people around us did, I was surrounded and emersed in the deeply ingrained belief that owning property made you somehow ‘better’ than everyone else. Our home was not a nice place to live. Because it wasn’t social housing and we had no money, I lived in a house that really should have been condemned. The culture had become very individualized by this point, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience the collective solidarity and acceptance that comes with a strong community of people who are ‘all in the same boat’. I was bullied a lot and any friends I made always had to be kept at arm’s length because I was ashamed of my life and who I was.
As a result, I spent my entire childhood hiding myself and striving to be something different. I was academically gifted and could’ve gone on to study, but because I was so sick of being poor, I went out to work. I strived and I climbed, and I think I had this unconscious belief that at some point I would ‘arrive’ somewhere good where I could be happy. There would come a point in time where I’d accumulated enough ‘things’ to be respected and move about the world like I thought everyone else got to automatically. This is because I never really felt that I deserved respect independent of what I could materially prove.
My life went on like this for a while but really it was like trying to swim against the tide in a river I never wanted to be in in the first place, but it took me a very long time to realise this. I reached my 30s and began to question, do I really want my life to be this? I started to realise that at some point in the (hopefully) distant future, I would die. Becoming a mother also had a significant impact on how I thought about my life and what example I wanted to set for my son. If I was unhappy this way, was I simply teaching my son how to be unhappy?
I flailed around for a while for something else to do and I landed on a foundation degree at the University of Sunderland. I originally began by studying law but through a series of happy accidents I ended up in a Sociology degree - and I fell in love. It opened up my eyes to the world and to myself in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined. I learned something fundamental about my reality; being poor was not my fault and it was not something to be ashamed of or to hide. I began to talk about it openly, I began to direct all of my energy towards it, and I realised that I could have a meaningful life by understanding my experiences and using that knowledge to do something about it.
What I also found though, was a very deep, unarticulated, and undirected anger. I was raging against some monolithic beast that pushed down, silenced, and eroded the self-worth of not just me but countless people around me. And what was worse, I knew that there are children who are living and breathing in the world right now that will go on to have their lives coloured and shaped by their experiences in similar ways.
I wanted to research this, I wanted to understand it, and I wanted to express it in a way that would make people stop and think - but not only stop and think - but to stop and feel! I wanted to touch people in a way that reached the very core of their humanity. As an undergraduate I found my voice with varying degrees of success. Sometimes having this intimate and intuitive understanding of what I was writing about made me feel bulletproof; like I could tackle the world in any way I wanted. This was a freedom that I never knew existed. Sometimes my anger got in the way, and I would completely miss the point of what I was supposed to be doing. I took this on the chin, learned from this and used this knowledge to make me better.
Now researching poverty related social issues and working towards social change is a big part of my academic and professional life and I really love it. I have a sense of legitimacy and freedom that has been hard won but is something I want to gift to other people like me while I can. I feel like I’ve discovered a rabbit hole that I can wander through for as long as I live, finding useful things and transforming them into something that other people can use to challenge their own experiences, and a system which was stacked up against them before they were born.
However, this has not always easy. Being emotionally connected to something means that by involving yourself in it, you have to experience emotions, and sometimes this is painful. Even writing this hasn’t been easy and there are parts I’ve deleted because they are just too close to home. If I could take one thing away from my experiences and pass it on as a piece of advice it would be this; find the thing that if you could explore it for the rest of your life, you would never get bored. Even if it’s hard, lean into it and let it be whatever its supposed to be. If you think there should be more of something - help make more of it, if you think there should be less of something - do something about it. Know that if there are things that make you feel less valuable as a human being, then there are probably others that have felt this too – and there will be more in the future. You only get one life, so make it mean something.
Our members would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Suzzanne on recently completing her MA at Newcastle and on securing an ESRC-funded Ph.D., where she will continue to research poverty. Congratulations Suzanne from everyone at Sociology NORTH, we are all so very proud of you, cheers.