Christina Rickardsson bent down and crawled inside. Her feet instinctively knew where to step safely and memories of her early life flooded back.
Standing up straight, she whacked her head on the ceiling.
‘“Damn, this cave has shrunk,” I called out,’ Christina tells New Idea, laughing. ‘And then I realised, I had just grown.’
The 35-year-old had travelled back to Brazil, where she lived with her mother until she was seven. But far from a nice suburban semi or even a small hut, the family home she remembers was a cave in the Brazilian jungle.
In a story resembling that of Mowgli’s from the Disney classic The Jungle Book, Christina and her mother, Petronilia, fled to the wilderness to escape an abusive family when Christina was 15 days old.
But rather than a fairytale, Christina remembers a dangerous life where every day was a struggle for survival.
‘We’d have died if we were bitten by a snake,’ Christina says. ‘And I remember that burning sensation of starving in my stomach. I’d put poisonous berries or rocks in my mouth to try and calm it.’
They hid from jaguars, slept as venomous caterpillars crawled over them, and lived on a diet of birds they killed and cooked on their homemade stove.
‘I don’t want to downplay the severity of our situation, but it was also a very happy time,’ Christina says. ‘Mum gave me so much love and attention. That period of my life made me who I am today.’
When she was five, she and her mother were chased from the cave by a group of men and, barefoot, they made their way to the streets of Sao Paulo.
It was there Christina made her first friend, Camile.
‘Mum wasn’t around much and we stuck together, sharing any food we found,’ Christina says. ‘Then one night the military police were gathering children up. I have always been fast and I got away. Camile wasn’t so fast.’
Seven-year-old Christina watched in horror as her friend was shot and killed in the street cleansing, which still goes on.
‘I saw how little our lives were worth,’ she says. ‘I was so lucky to get away.’
Soon after that she had an even closer experience of death.
‘I’d not eaten for days,’ Christina remembers. ‘We sniffed glue to take away the hunger pain. And then I found some [food]. Another boy who was older and bigger than me tried to steal it from me, but
I fought. I wasn’t thinking: “I’ll kill you.” My seven-year-old head was just focused on it being my food. I needed it.’
Horrifically, the encounter left the boy dead. Picking up a piece of glass bottle, Christina stabbed him and ran away with the food.
‘It’s something I will live with for the rest of my life,’ she says.
In the book she has written about her life, Never Stop Walking, she said it was important to be honest about the experience, whatever people thought of her.
‘I wanted to show the truth of what life on the streets does to you,’ she says. ‘If I had been anywhere else, this would never have happened.’
Eventually placed in an orphanage with her baby brother, Patrique, Christina was adopted by a Swedish couple when she was seven.
Unknown to her, her mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was never told. They never got to say goodbye. ‘I embraced my new life, my new house and family.
I knew I had to adapt like I had adapted before. I pressed away the person I was and didn’t show anyone. I was good at school and sport. I stuck with the popular kids. I smiled. But each year it got harder. I didn’t feel joy when I laughed. And one day I realised I couldn’t keep doing it. I had to be whole again.’
Christina was 32 when she contacted a journalist in Brazil who helped her find her mum, and in 2015 she and Patrique were reunited with her.
‘I was so afraid I wouldn’t recognise her,’ Christina says. ‘But there was no hesitation. We hugged. She wanted to know if I was happy. It was very emotional.’
Now spending time in both Sweden and Brazil, Christina is determined to help other kids growing up like she did. Her book has raised awareness and she has recently set up a new street kids charity, the Coelho Growth Foundation.
‘I see kids who have no hope and then we tell them we can help with their education. The light comes in their eyes when they think maybe, just maybe, they have a chance. It’s what I dream about every day,’ she says, smiling.
It’s also about repaying the invisible debt for the life she took. ‘I want to repay the damage I did,’ she explains.
‘I can’t do that for that boy, but I can do it for others.’
This article originally appeared on New Idea.