‘I set house on fire while mum was inside – but her diary saved me from prison’

Nikki Owen turned her life around after the reason for her problems was identified (Image: Tim Merry)

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Standing in the dock at the Old Bailey I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience listening to the judge as he charged me with arson, endangering life and intent to kill my mother.

It was 22 December 1978, and I was 18. I was taken to a small, dark cell with just a mattress at Holloway Prison, wearing a dress made from indestructible material so I couldn’t hang myself.

Twice a day I was fed through a hatch in the door because I was deemed “too dangerous” for the wardens to enter my cell. I stopped being Nicola Jane Owen and became “Prisoner DO2572”.

Today, this seems incredulous.

I’d had an idyllic childhood raised by Pam, a stay-at-home mum, and Ed, my accountant dad.

I was a child model and talented dancer, winning many competitions. My younger sister Sally was a gifted musician and my little brother Johnnie was sporty and ambitious. We all went to private school and had a lovely home in Bexley, Kent.

But when I hit puberty my moods dramatically blackened, and I began self-harming. Using my dad’s razor I cut off my eyelashes, eyebrows, shaved my head and slashed my face.

Nikki Owen with her mother Pam
(Image: Tim Merry)

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My weight ballooned from 8½st to 14st from bingeing on big mixing bowls filled to the brim with Rice Krispies, milk and loads of sugar. It was as if I hated myself and wanted to make myself as ugly as possible.

I threw things and smashed plates in volatile rages. When Mum tried to stop me once, I even chased her around the kitchen with a knife.

I drank weed killer and anything I thought could harm me – many times I ended up in an ambulance.

In total, I had my stomach pumped 27 times. My parents couldn’t understand what had triggered their gentle eldest daughter to suddenly appear violent and without self-control.

I remember looking in my bedroom mirror one time, with all my old dancing medals and child modelling photos around the frame, and I took off my clothes and stared at my reflection – looking back at me was a monster with evil eyes.

What none of us realised, was that these terrible episodes were linked to my periods.

Afterwards, I felt guilt and remorse and thought, “What the hell have I done?” I didn’t understand. My family tried to talk to me, but they were frightened of me. I was frightened of myself.

Nikki as a child with her family

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My parents were beside themselves and took me to a psychiatrist, but it did little good.

It came to a head when I was 17, and in a rare moment I had the house to myself. I went to my room and stripped naked. Then, with matches, I set fire to the curtains and lay on the bed. The room went up in flames within minutes and the windows exploded. Smoke filled the room.

I wasn’t scared, I just wanted to burn down the house. But from outside the door I could hear our little border collie puppy, Emma, whining. I couldn’t let her die. I flung open the door, scooped her up and ran downstairs just as the ceiling caved in.

The neighbours had rung the fire brigade and their hoses put the flames out, the water destroying our home even further.

I’ve no idea what my parents’ first reaction to the damage was, as I was taken to a prison cell overnight and put on suicide watch. The next day, at Bexley Magistrates Court, I was charged with arson and taken to Holloway Prison.

My parents managed to raise the bail and after two weeks I was taken to a mental institution and was heavily sedated. After a month or so I was allowed home, which had been made habitable again.

But when I was 18 I tried to burn the house down again – this time with Mum inside it. I didn’t care. My bedroom was still being fixed from last time, so instead I set the bedspread alight in the spare room, then hid in the local woods.

Luckily, Mum smelt the smoke from the kitchen and was able to put the fire out herself using buckets of water. She didn’t suffer any physical damage, but it broke her heart having to report me to the police. She had to protect my siblings.

So I found myself back in Holloway Prison, charged with intent to kill my mother, with no prospect of bail.

Using a glass bottle of moisturiser I’d somehow been allowed to take in with me, I tried to commit suicide smashing it against my hand. Luckily, I narrowly missed a main artery but needed emergency surgery.

Nikki, pictured with her daughter Rosie, never expected to have children

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A ‘danger to society’

I was on such strong tranquillisers to make me docile. Dad came and talked to me through a slit in the door – Mum was next to him, out of sight.

We both cried, he said, “Don’t worry, Nik, we’ll get you out of here.” Seeing the pain in his eyes was the very worst moment of my life.

I was held in solitary confinement for several months, being allowed out once a week so that I could write a letter home. In prison I was seen by eight psychiatrists, and their reports of me were all damning.

I was described as “incurably insane, a danger to society and a maniacal psychopath”. They recommended I serve a life sentence in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane.

Mum and Dad were taken aside and told, “You have two other children, focus on them, walk away from Nicola.” In one letter home, I wrote, “Mum, I know how hard it must be to come and visit me every day, only the best mum in the world would do that.”

She later told me she’d forgiven me for trying to hurt her, she was my mum and would always love me.

They found a different psychiatrist, demanding to know where in the brain this apparent “madness” came from. Using Mum’s diaries, they eventually linked my behaviour to my menstrual cycle.

They found a specialist in hormonal imbalances. A gynaecologist then diagnosed a severe lack of progesterone resulting in extreme premenstrual syndrome (PMS). She took me off the strong meds and started me on progesterone treatment.

Within three weeks, I was a different person – lighter, as if I’d been exorcised of my demons. My behaviour improved so much I was taken out of solitary confinement and given a job in the prison kitchen.

I made my parents a knitted clown as a gift. “Holly from Holloway” they called her. She gave me hope.

I was revisited by the same eight psychiatrists whose reports had written me off. They described my transformation as “nothing short of a miracle”.

As my trial approached, in December 1978, I was introduced to my barrister, Mr Addezio, who had agreed to use PMS as a mitigating factor in my defence.

Never before had PMS been used as a legal defence, and if the judge didn’t accept it I would face 12 to 15 years in prison. Amazingly, the judge ruled he was fully satisfied by my defence. My case made legal history – I was free.

Helping others

I realised that with all my experiences, I could help others who were at the brink. In 1999, I trained in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) but that was just the start of the journey.

I’m also a qualified hypnotherapist, a reiki master and I train in Emotional Freedom Techniques or “tapping” as it’s often known. I’ve written a book about breathwork, Legally High, and lockdown inspired me to launch my app, the Healing Hub.

At 60, I’ve now helped more than 2,500 desperate people change their lives for the better.

With all my hormone issues I didn’t expect to have children, so it was a miracle when my daughter Rosie arrived in 1994.

Before Dad died, in 2018, he said his proudest achievement was saving me. Mum is now 85, I see her daily, and we enjoy a wonderful relationship. My brother and sister are my best friends.

Everything happens for a reason and helping others heal, and get a second chance at life like I had, is what I was meant to be doing.”

Experience the emotional healing techniques that transformed Nikki’s life at the Healing Hub. Sign up
for her Free 10-Day Challenge at thehealinghub.uk or download the Healing Hub app from the Apple
App Store or Google Play.

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