Content warning: this article contains references to sexual assault
The Harrods security guards clocked me instantly. I was barely 20-years-old, wearing a little two-piece tracksuit shorts set, and – at first – they tried to kick me out. But then I flashed them a black VIP card and was ushered in. I had £20,000 in cash in my bag and, although I feel embarrassed looking back, there was a thrill in being able to afford all these shoes and handbags. I lived in a gorgeous, furnished apartment, drove a car I didn’t have to pay for and, if I wanted something, I never had to wait for payday.
For five years I was dealing crack and heroin and making thousands of pounds a week. And, as a former grammar school girl, who liked getting her hair and nails done, I flew under the police radar for a long time. But, while the money and the status were addictive, I never truly felt safe or at peace. I knew, deep down, I had to get out.
Eventually, I managed to do just that, and now work as a support worker, working with girls in similar difficult situations to the ones I used to find myself in. As I can see how moments like that day in Harrods are used to keep girls, like myself, in this destructive industry. But we have to rewrite that narrative… as truthfully, the designer shopping sprees and popping bottles in the club is only a very, very small percentage of the time. The rest? It’s anything but…
People don’t just wake up one day and think ‘yeah, I’m going to deal crack.’ Through my work I see all the different ways that girls are manipulated into this business. For me, it was a combination of factors. When I was a teenager, I was brutally raped by a group of men, which sent me spiralling and wanting to escape. Nobody at my posh school ever sat me down to ask why my behaviour had changed, or to offer support. The police were useless too and nobody was ever reprimanded for the attack. Because I felt so unsafe after, aligning myself with a group of local men (who were dealers and who had a reputation) made sense. My boyfriend, Dajuan*, a dealer, offered me more protection than the police from my attackers; so really, was it a choice?
At first, with Dajuan, I’d only help to wrap the drugs in clingfilm, while chilling at home. But then, one night, the door to my flat was kicked down. It was a rival ‘gang’ looking for him. I hid under a bed with my son, trying to distract him with Pingu on an iPad, while they destroyed the house. My ex-boyfriend, my son’s father, found out and his family reported me to the social services. The police got involved and my son was taken into care, adding to my trauma, as he was – and is – the person I love more than anyone and anything in this world.
That was in 2011, and I just thought ‘fuck it, I’ve got nothing left.’ I wanted to make my own money, and escape. I’d seen Dajuan and his friends ‘going country’ and I asked if I could join them. In Top Boy, when they talk about ‘going country’ they mean going to Finchley, another part of the city to sell drugs, and characters deal on street corners. For me, ‘going country’ or ‘going OT’ meant physically driving out of London to a town that we knew had a lot of rehab facilities and trading there. Rehab equals addicts, which equals a customer base.
Being out on the road for weeks on end, not knowing what day of the week it was, felt like living in a parallel universe. It takes so much energy to focus on bagging up and shifting the drugs, making sure you’re safe, that the police aren’t tracking your moves, finding somewhere to sleep, that you barely have any other space in your brain to think about anything else. I liked that side of it. As 90% of the time, you’re doing gutter work and it’s not glamorous at all. Our fingers literally started burning away from packaging so much heroin, and we used to have to stay in the most disgusting crackhouses when we went country, where the men I worked with would hardly bother to shower. Deals always took place in a car, which could be especially scary, when an addict sticks a knife through the window and tells you they don’t want to pay. I was never interested in taking the drugs I sold, and always want to keep my wits about me, so rarely drink either.
I was usually the only woman of the group, making sure everyone had a toothbrush and had eaten enough. You’d never really see other women on the road, and if you did, they tended to be quite tomboy-ish and involved in the violence, whereas I never did that side of things, and always had that nurturing side for the boys and a different sort of relationship. I used to joke that my car was like a therapy room too, because sometimes the boys I rolled with would get in, after having to do something horrible or violent, and just break down. These big, seen-as-scary guys would just absolutely cry their eyes out. There's a lot of traumatised men out there in need of help, as well as young girls and women who’ve been sucked in, and when you're in an ultra male environment, like a gang selling drugs, you’re not given that space to break down or ask for a way out. But they could do that around me; I wasn’t their girlfriend, they didn’t need to impress me. I took that role seriously and I enjoyed being that person for them.
Everything changed when, after years of playing cat and mouse, I was arrested in 2016 while driving back to London from country. I was with three others I worked with, but took the rap for a small amount of weed that was in the car – getting myself a community sentence. The case worker I was assigned literally changed my life. She was a young woman who just spoke to me on a level, like a real person, and just said, “What are you doing with your life?” And told me there was a way out of the violence. A way to do something with greater purpose.
It wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight, but the authorities moved me away from the area I was living in. Away from the life I’d known, and gave me time to start over. I went back to do a couple of deals, as I needed the money (it’s hard to drop from £2,000 or more a week to very little), but knew they’d be my last. And have now been away completely from that line of work for around seven years. These days, I work with young girls involved in organised crime and domestic violence situations (there’s a lot of overlap) and educate the police on the signs to look out for.
'County lines' is where city-based crime groups establish markers in smaller, often rural, towns. The ‘line’ is the phone number that users call to buy their drugs. Often it’s young and vulnerable people who are exploited into transporting them out of the city, so that they can stay under the radar of the police. It’s why I wasn’t caught for a long time… There are so many false stereotypes as to what a drug dealer looks like.
When these stories hit the press, there’s often talk of ‘gangs’ but I never considered myself ‘being in a gang’ I just thought I was hanging out with my friends and we all happened to come from the same postcode. That’s the thing, it often happens so slowly.
Young kids can be befriended or given a pair of trainers or something by an older teen or man, and may then be told they ‘owe’ them something and being roped into a scheme. With girls and women, the majority of the time, they get involved with selling drugs or crime through a boyfriend or their child’s father. It then builds up into more and more illegal activities. Maybe an older brother, who’s known, will just ask them to ‘look after’ something for him for a while and it goes on from there. He gives you a couple of notes to say thank you. After that, you’re involved. You’ve tasted the money, you want more. Now, I think social media is a massive breeding ground for recruitment too; if someone’s trying to do that, they can look for the right ‘type’ of girl on Snapchat, you can see her posts and know she’s going down a bad path already and home in on her. Sadly, oftentimes there’s also a lot of violence within these relationships, in my work now I deal with a lot of partner rape cases.
There’s a lot of people flaunting certain lifestyles online too, which kids can’t escape from. TikToks of girls doing nice dinner dates, hotel stays, sitting in the passenger seat of a boujee car. Of course it’s a pull factor, everyone wants what the next person has. There’s a real epidemic of low self-confidence and too much social media. But that’s not how it happened with me, social media was still taking off so I can’t blame it on that; it’s hard to pinpoint specifically why I ended up in that line of work (and it is work, you have shift patterns, it’s a business), it was the culmination of a series of events and missed opportunities to steer me onto another path – and being repeatedly let down by the authorities.
Since leaving that old life behind, I’ve been diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and really struggle with being around or touching certain meats or raw foods. I think my brain somehow associates it with the open flesh wounds I used to see on the addicts we’d deal to, and it just turns my stomach. Spending so much time in trap houses has also left me with a real germ phobia, I often wear gloves to places like the supermarket. I guess even though I like to think I’m fine now, and people always say how bubbly I am or whatever, that I’m not totally recovered from the trauma I experienced. My son is now almost a teenager and although I write to him, send presents and get updates, we don’t have a relationship – but I’m hoping that will change one day. I’ve been in court consistently over the last four years fighting for him. I'm a proud mum at the end of the day. But there’s such big levels of shame that surround women who have had children taken away from them, which I think we need to address and be more compassionate about. It can leave people looking for any escape, be it taking drugs or selling them, to block the pain out. Nobody ever wants to lose their child.
I’ve since written a book about my story, Top Girl, with the help of a journalist named Robin Eveleigh, as I want to show other young girls that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – no matter how impossible it seems.
The life of a drug dealer sees highs that are so high, but lows that are even lower – and these days, normality is what gives me a buzz. But I can’t lie, while I love having a 9 to 5 job, and doing simple things like going for little walks by the river with my partner, I still think about my old life all the time. Constantly. Every time I see a drug deal going on in the car next to me or whatever – because I'm not totally away from that life, it's right there across the street and I have friends and family still in it. I know it would just take one phone call and I could be back into it.
The resolve you have to have to not do that is really quite intense. And some days it’s harder than others, particularly as money gets tighter and tighter. Because of the housing crisis, it’s harder than ever for people to have (and afford) a nice home, it’s having such a crippling impact. I've worked so hard professionally, but some days I still feel like I don't have anything to show for it, or like I've progressed. So many others in this country feel the same, so it’s easy to see why paid crime appeals.
But I grit my teeth, and think of trying to build that relationship back with my son and think about my freedom - which I have to remind myself are the most important things in life really. My work, supporting girls in similar difficult situations to the ones I used to find myself in, also keeps me going. Drug dealing isn’t glamorous. It’s not worth it. I lost friends in shootings, saw things nobody should ever see. Things I hope I can now save other girls from.
* Names have been changed
Top Girl by Danielle Marin is published by Mardle books and is out now.
If you've been impacted by any of the issues in this story, please consider reaching out to Women's Aid UK, Rape Crisis, The Survivors Trust or Refuge for support.
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