The Lonely Reality Of Being Homeless At Christmas
But seven years ago, the 29-year-old actress learnt that even human kindness can't completely heal the all-encompassing loneliness that comes from being an 'outsider' over the holidays, with nowhere to call home.
Londoner Nell found herself homeless at Christmas for two years in a row, in 2013 and 2014. During this time, she was a patient in a psychiatric hospital, as a result of a childhood trauma.
A period of panic attacks, nightmares, little to no eating and drinking and general exhaustion while she was at drama school culminated in what she now identifies was a 'covert suicide attempt' and Nell was sent to hospital, checking into psychiatric care not long afterwards.
"I'm normally someone who enjoys a bit of solitude," she says. "But any time I have been alone on Christmas Day, and it hasn't been by choice, has made me feel sick with sadness.
"I was lucky always to have people who were willing to share their family's togetherness with me, but nothing makes you feel your loneliness like being so close to and yet so far from a season that is all about togetherness."
For Nell's first Christmas without a home, she travelled from place to place, spending Christmas Eve night with an elderly woman from her church, so she could go to Midnight Mass and the Christmas morning service.
She later joined an old friend's family home for lunch, seeing as they frequently invited extra guests, before ending the festive season in her brother's friend's home, where her mum and brother visited, before she spent the night alone.
"[That year] I spent Christmas in three different places," she recalls. "I was welcome in every one of them, but it just felt so wrong.
"I was a ghost, trespassing on other people's homes. I was nothing, but at the same time I was an enormous elephant in every room I went into."
Another Christmas came by, and Nell was still a patient at the hospital; at this point battling the state for housing and benefit support in order to get herself back on her feet.
"It definitely didn't feel like there was a way out. Not an achievable one," she reflects.
"Waiting for benefits and housing support to be refused repeatedly on incorrect grounds, or hearing that this or that application has "disappeared", really makes you feel like the world is just waiting for you to die. That's not a feeling you can shake off."
This time, when Nell was released for the holidays, she found somewhere to stay by house sitting for a friend ahead of the big day. Then, her church community came to her aid again, as a young family offered to take her in.
"The year I spent the whole [of Christmas] day with a young family, I spent a lot of the time playing with their two small children," she reminisces.
"I think they were grateful to me for entertaining the kids while they got on with the cooking and all that, but really I knew I was meeting a profound childhood need, enjoying feeling safe enough to let go and be silly in my environment.
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"It was a very strange feeling, the whole day, switching between being able to let go and find that huge joy, and that awareness kicking back in and sucking all the life out of you.
"The shame you feel realising you haven't got over that need as an adult.... It's exhausting."
To round off the season, Nell stayed with a new friend from hospital over the New Year.
Luckily, this was her last Christmas without a place to call her own, and shortly afterwards she managed got the resources she needed to start a new life.
But that isn't to say the holidays have been easy for her in the years that followed.
"I still find it quite stressful how everything shuts down over Christmas. The day itself without public transport terrifies me. The way everyone goes on leave at the same time, the way if you need something in mid-December it's unlikely anyone will get round to helping you until mid-January," she says.
"A few years ago the cooker in my housing association flat broke a couple of weeks before Christmas and I was told it couldn't get fixed before New Year unless I paid through the roof for a special service.
"The woman on the phone was very kind, and worried about me not having a cooker over Christmas. But I didn't care about not being able to put a turkey in the oven: the heating didn't work properly in that place, and without the cooker I was constantly so cold that I couldn't do anything but shiver.
"The quiet of Christmas is lovely when it's lovely, but it's so scary when it's not."
Nell is now happy with a new partner, and working on a play about her experiences of trauma, named NoMad. Plus, after five years without talking to her family, she's managed to form a new and strengthened friendship with her mother.
Nell says her experiences of homelessness over the holidays have undoubtedly affected how she views the festive period, to this day.
"I find it quite hard sometimes to know in what spirit to receive the commercial 'giving' side of Christmas, because while I was homeless and shortly after, someone close to me by blood used to get in touch twice a year, once around my birthday and once around Christmas, both times asking to see me so they could give me a present.
"I refuse presents from that person now. If you don't care all year that I'm homeless, I don't want you to get me luxury bath salts at Christmas.
"If it doesn't bother you all year that I can't afford to eat, your Guylian chocolates are no good to me at Christmas. When it's in the right spirit and a true reflection of the connection you have with that person it's lovely, but when it's a stamp it's nauseating."
Discussing the impact of having been without a home on the festive period, she concludes: "I think I'm less attached to the little things now. [Like] crackers, decorations and traditions that are sacred within a family.
"I'm certainly more anxious about all the practicalities of it [too]. But I'm learning in all sorts of areas of life to make my own traditions, my own happy memories - my own normal - with the people around whom I am rebuilding my life.
"My partner and I make it work for us, and I've had some wonderful Christmases the last few years."
Nell's play, NoMad, will be live-streamed from the Greenwich Theatre on 27th November at 7pm.
You can book tickets here.
Featured Image Credit: Chris Keenan
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