I was 15 and living in Scotland when I knew my family didn’t want me. They asked social work to take me away, but the request was refused. I was happy to remain at home, even though I knew I was unwanted. I loved school, I worked hard, my dream was to study marine biology so I could go out into the world and save animals. But when I turned 16, I was thrown on to the streets. I insisted I’d sleep on the pavement outside my school gates. Social work thought it was better for everyone if they found me a foster placement instead.
I cried every night, silently screaming into my pillow, soaking wet from tears. I promised God or the universe or whoever that I’d be a good girl if I could just have my family back. I pleaded. I begged. But a revelation began to form – maybe I wasn’t ever going home.
Life got worse when one night I was leaving my Saturday job stacking shelves. A car pulled up with three old men inside. They asked for directions to the loch and I explained the way. I trusted them because I was always taught to help my elders. They asked me to get in and show them where to go; that they would bring me right back. But they didn’t bring me back.
When they were finished with me they told me they would be back. I was scared, but everyone in my life was new and I couldn’t tell anyone. I wanted to die and spent more time thinking of killing myself than doing my homework. I was 16 years old. I had been told so much what a bad girl I was and that everything was my fault, so I thought this was my fault too. I ran away from foster care. I gave up my dreams of university and saving animals. Instead, I was sucked into the underworld.
At 17 I had no money, but could only get housing benefit if I went into a homeless unit. To the outside world we were trouble, but everyone in there had backgrounds of abuse and abandonment. We were all trying to do the best we could in a messed-up world, but we were too young to deal with the crappy hand we had been dealt. I learned to act tough to keep myself safe but inside I was scared all the time. I spent the next few years in an abyss of self-destruction, doing anything to escape my self-hatred and having no self-worth made that easy.
One day my key worker told me I’d always be in the gutter. I knew she was wrong. In that moment I realised no one could help me; only I could make things better. I put my past in a box and kept it a secret. I applied to college, bought a second-hand bike and for the next two years cycled to class each day, studying holistic therapies and stress management.
I got a job and joined a local cycling club. I was good at cycling and it wasn’t long before I was road racing all over the UK. The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome was built for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and I went along to try it out. I was talent-spotted and became a velodrome sprinter. I was preparing to qualify for the Commonwealth Games when I was knocked down by a car. It was unfortunate and I shed a few tears but I knew this setback wouldn’t keep me down.
I realised for the first time – home is not a destination. Home is where your loved ones are
I got back up and dusted myself off. Because I was born to a Scottish mother and Iranian father I went on to ride for the Iranian women’s team. It had taken a lot of hard work and dedication to get to this point, but I knew upon arrival that high-level sport was not conducive to my happiness. I took my bicycle, followed my heart and began cycling the world. As I pedalled I wondered if I would find a place I could call home.
I was cycling across my 10th country, Turkey, when a street dog crossed my path. She was limping and tried to follow me. I was cycling the world and street dogs were not my problem. But she was attacked by four other dogs and I watched in horror as she lay down and just accepted what was happening to her. In that moment, I had a flashback to being 16 years old in that car and I threw down my bicycle and saved her. She looked up at me with her big brown eyes and licked my hand. I named her Lucy.
I was sobbing. Not just for the dog for but me too. It became my mission to get her to safety and I attached a vegetable crate over the front wheel of my bicycle to carry her in. A trip to the vets showed Lucy had 31 shot gun pellets inside her, had suffered fractured bones and one of her paws was destroyed. Our bond grew, and it was the first time I experienced unconditional love. This love broke down the wall around my heart. I watched Lucy leaving her fears behind and acting only from love. I decided I wanted to copy Lucy because I realised, even though I had left my old life behind many years ago, I still operated from fear when it came to my relationships. My friends became my family. I realised for the first time – home is not a destination. Home is where your loved ones are. And for the first time I felt I belonged in the world.
To help the street animals of the world I have set up Lucy’s Legacy with the three main aims of assisting frontline rescue groups, reducing abuse and neglect through education and offering support for emergency rescue operations. I also want to help people who have been through similar turbulent pasts, especially those who have suffered abuse and homelessness.
So after all that, I did end up saving animals.
Me, My Bike and a Street Dog Called Lucy by Ishbel Holmes is out now (Bradt Travel Guides, £9.99)
Ishbel will begin cycling across the UK on a speaking tour, with Maria, a street dog she rescued in Brazil, from August 15